This is one of my favourite images. It is a copy of a stained glass window in a beautiful location in the Lake District. It is visually rewarding and special to me personally because I discovered it with my husband when we visited Blackwell some years ago together. I love the Arts and Crafts style, the colours and the subtle shape play. I love the curves and the suggestions of beauty beyond.
What makes it work? The repeated forms of birds frozen in flight? The flattened light textures or spaces for imagination? Perhaps it is a cunning simplicity. What is beyond changes: matching, adjusting, growing, dying. What is within remains. Echoes of ecclesia or delicate domesticity. A window of hope.
Unlike me, my husband has spent his life focused on the task in hand. I have been focused on the possible and the scenes beyond. I flit. I miss the beautiful window while staring outside at something blurred. I take interest in so many things that I have needed the guiding hand he has offered me to slow down and do One Thing At A Time.
It works, you know; Focus. I complement my husband by dreaming big and he loves me by showing me how to work on the detail. He has taught me to focus. To recognise beauty more. To enjoy the right pace and the reward of undisturbed work. Task by task, achieving great things together.
I focus on many tasks as a wife, mum and home-maker. I focus on many strands as a writer. I have learned which tasks are wise to layer (or multi-task), such as getting the washing on or a slow-cook recipe and which are best done in order, such as the sequence of putting clothes away or creating a meal plan.
My week now has a much better rhythm to it, in order to give time to many mundane but important routines and some exciting but less urgent matters and a great deal of thinking, researching, reading and writing work on the book. Focus. Each thing has its time and place. It makes a lot more sense of things, calms me and means greater efficiency.
I have some way to go still on this journey, but I am seeing the blessings of living by Grace. Learning to let go of my own agenda to focus on what matters – and then responding to that. In doing so, I discover a far better agenda and far greater rewards.
So where is the book up to?
Lots of work is happening and lots of connections are being made. I have a rough working plot and a number of elements of first draft, some of which show promise. I work on the book as often as I can, but it is something like creating a patchwork quilt and will need to be put together once I have all the pieces. I have a good idea of the colours and overall impact. I am preparing a number of elements which will be worked on carefully and may be stitched into the final product.
I am also working on different aspects of the book, depending on the time and resources and energy available to me. I have to focus on each one in turn, rather than flitting around on any given day. So one day I might be working on some dialogue between characters, developing them and discovering who they really are. Another day I am researching ancient eating habits or architecture. Another day I am working closely on Hebrew lemmas (words) and how connections between certain ideas can inform the story. I may be gardening and discover something I can use in the story. Or parenting. Or considering universal emotions, in a specific context. When I am tired I work on my characters. When I am busy I listen to the world around me. When I am full of ideas I compose words. When I am calm I read and research. Focus and focus and focus.
Those good people instant gratification monkeys over at Google have found a new way to delay fruitful work the world over by making it possible to find a place on a map and convert it into your own little Pac-Man game.
Here, for your further edification procrastination therefore is a beautiful part of Prague. You might observe the Staroměstské náměstí complete with monument to Jan Hus, stunning six-hundred year old astronomical clock, cafes, galleries and ecclesiastical architecture. I commend it to you. Watch out for Blinky, Pinky, Inky and Clyde however; these pixel-golems have no scruples in ruining your day as you try and negotiate the narrow streets and keep finding yourself back where you started without much of an idea how that happened.
What has this got to do with plot-chasing?
Well, to follow up my previous post and because there is an apparent market for updates in my work (read: accountability by any means necessary) I thought I’d let you in on a bit of what I’ve been doing. What I’ve been doing, that is, when I haven’t been assessing locales worldwide for hilarious Pac-Man routes. Is Pac-Man supposed to make you hungry? I do hope Google keep this fun going after 1st April.
Plotting is going more slowly than I had hoped. I had been working on a self-imposed discipline of a scene a day, given other demands on my time. Early drafts: all terrible but useful for working forward. And no, you may not see them. However, it was becoming apparent that I might actually need to decide what material may actually be suitable in the story. I’m not really a ‘Start at the very beginning’ kinda gal. But I do know a couple of my characters really well now and some of the plot elements and some twisty bits and a number of the names and I think I know where I want to end up, but some of it is still up for discussion and plays around in my head every night like a game on a loop. And all the while Blinky is following me like some lost stag party, Pinky keeps getting in my way at the pace of a guided tour group, Inky wants to sell me something I’m not convinced I really need and Clyde needs his mummy.
I decided to research how to plot, and discovered that Someone Who Knows suggests that I need to map it all out very tightly. And Someone Else Who Also Knows says otherwise and that I need to start with my characters and see where they take me. I’ve been listening to my characters very closely, but I don’t think they know as much as they ought to because they keep doing silly things and I suspect I need to Take Charge a little more and the characters aren’t going to like it. However, the main reason the plot is going slowly is because I have to plot in parallel, and I’ve been putting that off.
My book is telling two things at once (to my knowledge; perhaps more to anyone who ever gets to read it). There is the surface plot, which ought to abide by regular modern rules of plottage. And there is a secondary pattern, informed by ancient rhetoric devices pertinent to the setting. It makes sense in my head and in what I want to achieve. However, squaring these two ‘plots’ off means being prepared to step out of my two-dimensional Pac-World and view the story from a lot of different angles to get the best measure of How To Go About This Best. Like Sudoku in 3D. Or finding your way around Real Prague, by memory.
Alongside these plot questions, I am still working through questions of detail which may impact so closely on the writing style and voice(s) of my narrator that all I have written thus far may need serious editing at the very least. This is fine, but an early answer to this one may save a lot of time later.
And I have much more research to do as I progress. I am dealing with a time in history which is rich and fascinating, in a place very different from what I know best, but I am a stickler for anachronisms. I want to know that I did my utmost to get the details right. Some of my early scenes may only be practice runs as I am learning how to put things together and I take various creative liberties. Notes on what is based on something We Know as opposed to something I Thought Sounded Right need to be updated as I go, at least for my own sanity. Despite a Master’s in this period I feel I know very little and have been working on revising my ancient language skills, visiting museums, looking up various details online and turning thoughts over and over. One character has a condition I know little about and a friend has lent me a lot of books I need to go through.
It sounds as if I have done a lot. If only that were true. I have not written enough, but I want to improve that, ideally by having a map of what must be achieved and a fair idea of what I can and cannot actually manage. I cannot eliminate everything that absorbs my time as a mum, so progress is slow. Blinky and Pinky and the rest need feeding, transporting, attention. In every direction plot points of the story need processing, moving around, gobbling up ……
… I want to travel every road, however travelled it may be. I think some of my characters want to as well. However, I can only do one road at a time. The process is rather iterative and once I have it sussed out I will be able to write a book about How Not To Do It.
Ah, the blog. I have not forgotten you. I have been pursuing Exciting Other Things. I have missed you though, so I will post an update.
The first Exciting Other Thing is my health. Having made great progress mentally and because the timing is well-suited, I am now working on my physical health. I won’t bore you with details and numbers, but I am excited because we are making a number of small but significant changes to our diet as a family and I am already seeing results.
For starters this sort of thing is not allowed. Neither is it allowed for pudding.
I’m being kind to myself and not overly dogmatic. The occasional chocolate at the weekend is fine. No snacking between tasks however, unless it is at least very healthy and preferably dull. And no customary late night nibbles, which had a lot to answer for. We’ve surprised ourselves by enjoying making and eating new recipes with strange ingredients like low-fat natural yogurt, roasted vegetables, pine nuts and oats. Not all together of course: Change 4 Life have some lovely ideas. I’m tracking my alcohol intake with a phone app and getting more exercise because my body is asking for it. There is an excitement in getting relegated jeans back into circulation, and exhilaration in getting the circulation going on foot or on the bike. I can work harder for longer and am getting lighter.
I believe that the results I’m seeing so far are because I am valuing myself more and because I am being driven spiritually rather than emotionally to improve my health. Listening to my body in parallel to listening to God. A verse which has meant a lot to me in the past few weeks is 2 Timothy 1:7: For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline.
So now I have the self-discipline not to make a dog’s dinner of dinner.
The second Exciting Other Thing is my husband’s new job. Having been at British Telecom for his entire working life and having moved last August to Cambridge, my very clever man landed himself a new job with the leading provider of application-intelligent networking I/O software and hardware that accelerate, monitor and secure network data… the pioneer in high-performance, low-latency 10/40GbE server networking solutions. Yep, I pasted that in. Despite being one quarter engineer I still haven’t worked out what he is going to be doing. But he will be able to cycle there and be home more at the right times and move on with his career and all these are very good things. Also he has wisely decided on a few weeks between jobs to be with the family, which is superb and exciting and warrants getting our passports updated. Even more cause for celebration.
The third Exciting Other Thing is my library. Since we moved I have spent parts of each week preparing my writing space. It is the size and shape of a long garage and needed to fulfil various purposes. Deals on Ebay and Gumtree have lined the walls with second hand pine bookcases, a stripped pine desk and a recycled whiteboard for plotting and organising. There are strategically arranged maps and children’s art and memories around and everything has a home. It is a haven and my own little library-office. Although work on it is ongoing it is functioning and practical. This week I got two old but comfortable office chairs for a pound and, having shared my workspace all winter, I have finally evicted my guinea pig roomies. It is much quieter and less sneezy now. Far from being a distraction, creating a place I can work in properly is getting real results.
Which all leads to the fourth exciting thing. Actual Writing.
I love writing. I love the relief it brings when words play fair. To me, there is nothing so gratifying as wrangling a complex thought into submission. There is a delicious moment of proposing order. Of saying to the chaos ‘be still‘.
If it weren’t for my time of illness punching all productivity out of me I would not have taken my passion seriously at all. Our choices on many levels took much evaluating. Assessing what I was doing – and by what authority – unlocked something special for me. I had always respected words and enjoyed playing with ideas and the power of texts. I was aware that the hunt was rarely successful without much hard work and I pondered what it might mean to commit time to something which did not promise to deliver. I do have a teaching qualification; in the future it may be necessary to fall back on it, but I am not passionate about maths teaching. I am passionate about communicating well and passionate about the subjects I want to communicate and the power of story.
There is a steep learning curve ahead and everything that has led us to this point adds to the richness of the journey. To learn to tell truths in a story, by way of a thousand lies. To wrestle with structure and awful early drafts. To find, within a character and a plot, timeless truths which may heal, challenge and delight.
I am practising allowing my thoughts to explode creatively again, now that I have finally learned how to keep them focused. Oh yes, there is still so much more for me to learn about writing fiction. Reading great literature is proving rewarding, but recognising great art is daunting too. I am not competing with anyone and I am not actually desperate for publication. I just want to pursue a passion which will not leave me alone. The conviction that accompanies the task is as intoxicating as the relief when words appear in the right order.
With order, discipline. Perhaps it would be good to get in the habit of blogging on a regular basis as part of my new discipline. A weekly round up on a fixed day. Or a series on things I am researching. Or on the process of writing, parenting and life in general. Comments on this are welcome. I cannot promise long blog posts weekly, but I am interested to know if others would like to hear more frequently from me.
Some writers like to do it by the seat of their pants. This is an acceptable and way of producing a book, especially if you are giving yourself a whole November to get a first draft. But it is not my way. I am a plotter. I like to know what is going to happen three nexts away in my story – forwards, backwards and sideways. I get excited by detail and confused by chaos. I create well within limits and I like my limits.
I have been surprised in my own life how much I have had to resort to Pantsing though.
I so wanted life to take a neat trajectory.
Instead, God allowed me to use years in ways which were not neat. He chose to allow me blessing at times I did not choose.
He removed people from me. And added new ones in.
He did not allow me to write my own life plot. Crazy; instead I have found more joy in living by the seat of my pants, by grace, one wriggle at a time. Am I grateful for that? The jury is still at odds. On my light days I imagine I would have been good at plotting my own story. I concede I probably would have been aimless and partial to digress on my more truthful days. Digression is a large part of my being and tethering it creatively gives me the tension I need for living well.
The book I am working on draws on my study, observations and life experiences so deeply that I fear I actually will need to live quite a bit larger, but this is where Pantsing comes in really helpfully. I can Plot as much as I like, but the work is organic and disorganised. I flit between researching character, history, theories, conjecturing, imagining and storyline and there is little plan to How I Plot. I find my method for Plotting is actually Pants.
Is there a problem with that? I don’t think so. The process is iterative. What I learn along the way informs how I do what I do next. Drafts are essential.
Also real life is essential and real life brings boxes that need unpacking, bottoms that need wiping and tears that need crying. I don’t believe any of that is wasted. If I am allowed, I may even be able to draw on the richness and mess of real life to write a more valuable book. You cannot plot everything.
I have decided not to join in the fun of National Novel Writing Month this November. It’s not that I don’t want the support and accountability of NaNoWriMos (locally or further afield), but that a huge amount of what I am going to be writing needs to be researched. In depth. In various languages. In school hours.
So this month I have set myself a different target. Instead of word count I intend to have a Novel Planning Month. For the coming 30 days I will prepare and plan the overall structure, various important structure and plot elements and characters. I have a lot of reading to do and I want to have some comprehensive notes at the end of it all. I have to do research in anthropology, geography, ancient Near Eastern history and literary styles among other things. I have to record a long list of things that have been slow-cooking in my head for over a year. I have finally unpacked my books and have been accumulating a number of bookcases, so that my writing space resembles a library. I also expect to get myself in a good daily and weekly routine so that the real task of writing becomes easier when I work on that. I have applied to join a reading group connected with the University which will be directly useful in my research and a local Christian writers’ group.
On this night of extortion, sugar and acceptably bad make-up, I learnt a lesson about light and direction.
It wasn’t the beautiful weather and blazing colours we were blessed with today, although I did realise that beautiful days can happen any day of the year.
It wasn’t the joy of welcoming friends to visit from Ipswich, although I did learn that family extends beyond blood, especially with shared memories, plans and hopes.
It wasn’t the wonderful inter-church village light party full of excited children, glow-sticks, truth, goodies and baddies, although I learnt that a room full of children with torches is surprisingly magical.
It wasn’t the next village’s inter-church light stations, where free hot drinks and bags of sweets were being given with a smile to passing pedestrians, although I learnt that you can drive around and they still give you the goodies.
It was a simple thing: solar powered studs. Little lights positioned along the cycle paths as I drove back from the next village to our house. LED cats’ eyes. In the dark, the studs marked out the winding path very clearly in two rows. In fact, the cycle path was far clearer than the road. Rows of little lights leading the way home.
I want to say something that doesn’t sound like a trite modern-day parable about light and direction, so I will make this personal. Those lights, which I had driven past every day when taking Lily to school, I had never noticed before. They actually light the way through the darkest sections of the route between the villages. They are strangely beautiful in their silent witness. But the beauty wasn’t evident until it went dark, and every light in the line served a purpose, a tiny beacon. Teamwork. Truth. Direction. It was a real wow moment for me, like observing the stars in the sky for the first time.
We all have a choice to shine a light or to live in darkness. We are not working alone. We have others around us who we work with to raise the children in our community well. We have inspirational role models. We have hope. We all have purpose.
I have been reluctant to talk much about our move in the late summer since it happened, for one simple reason. It has been – and remains – an amazing success. Of course we miss our friends, our church family and my parents enormously. But the satisfaction of having pursued that path – which only became illuminated when I was living in the dark – is beautiful. There were beacons calling us here. There were guiding stud-lights drawing us nearer. The experience of moving is never easy, but for us it has been a relief of knowing we are where we belong. I feared that saying that in public would hurt feelings and confuse some. We never ran away. We ran toward the light. We were supported by faithful friends praying and encouraging us. We have been blessed over and over again in our decision to come here. The children are thriving in new schools. We have a lovely long list of new friends. The churches are vibrant. The village is beautiful. The house is inspiring. My husband is being chased by recruiters. I am planning details of my writing. Already we feel like we have lived here for years.
There will be dark days. But there will be beacons of light and hope in those days, which reveal themselves because the road is dark. The journey of depression has light at the end if you look for it. And for the sake of others on that painful lonely journey, those of us who have travelled the dark roads must shine our lights, tell of hope and truth, work as a team to love others and mark the path of purpose and community.
This is the third and final part of my Grandad’s memoirs on his experiences landing in Normandy 70 years ago. See Part One and Part Two first.
Pleased and Blest
A few days later we had passed through the village and took up a new position adjacent to the River Odon. Our function there was to repair a slight amount of damage to a small road bridge, and to stay on hand if it was further damaged, including building a replacement bridge if necessary. On the morning of our arrival the OC decided he wanted a reconnaissance patrol sent out across the river to try to detect the position and activities of the enemy.
My platoon commander, Lt Bob Martin at the age of 40 was the oldest officer in the company, and for some reason seemed to want to prove himself by volunteering personally or on behalf of his platoon for anything which was a bit dodgy. So it was that a corporal who I disliked greatly was detailed to lead this patrol. He reacted by producing an attack of hay fever, which if genuine would certainly have precluded him for the job, which had to be carried out with stealth and in complete silence. A substitute had to be found, and guess who drew the short straw!
So, having smudged our faces, put on our woolly hats and plimsolls, tied down the shackles of our rifle slings with string and synchronised our watches, off we went to spy out the land. We did not come across anything of great significance, although we did hear activity and some movement of vehicles and equipment, but it would not have been worth the risk of exposure to have ventured closer. So we returned at the appointed time and place and I duly reported.
Once again our quarters for the night were slit trenches in an orchard, this time adjacent to the bridge. Fortunately some excellent slit trenches had been left for us by the Canadians. They even had a partial sawn log roof across the centre portion. But there was little enough room for two men, with one hunched up at each end. The next day we were instructed to dig more slit trenches on the bank across the river. This was easier said than done. At the spot where I was digging I struck rock at about 12 inches, and there was no hope of getting deeper, except perhaps with a couple of gun-cotton primers! I gave up at lunch time, deposited my small kit in the shallow hole, returned to the bridge site and consumed a cooked lunch. It was a Thursday, 7th July. What happened next is something I will always remember.
We were standing on the bridge, myself and two other NCO’s, Jimmy and Bill. Suddenly we heard the noise of mortar bombs coming in our direction, and these were not the ordinary single mortar bombs, but the dreaded ‘Nebelwerfers’, from multi-barrelled projectors, whose bombs were fitted with a brilliantly conceived siren causing them to wail as they flew through the air, with a terrifying effect.
These Nebelwerfers came in three sizes, and could deliver bombs weighing 75lbs, 248lbs and 277lbs respectively. I didn’t wait to see which size had been selected for us but as the hedge between the road and the orchard where we had spent the night had conveniently been cut back close to the embankment I took a running jump and cleared it, forgetting the 2m drop on the other side! The bomb blast caught me in mid-air and I landed in a crumpled heap on the lower slope of the embankment. My left leg was very painfully bent, inwards from the knee, at a right angle! I was unable to move, so as soon as the firing had stopped I called out for help. Cpl Jimmy was first on the scene, soon to be joined by some men from my section, two of whom we sent off to get a stretcher. I sent another man to fetch my small-kit from the partially dug slit trench where I had left it. He quickly returned, holding the mangled remains of my mess tin, all that was left of my small-kit. It seems that one of the mortar bombs had scored a direct hit on my little excavation.
Then a second salvo was on its way to us. I ordered my Sappers to get back under cover, but Jimmy refused to leave me, and I was not in a position to pull rank on him anyway. As the bombs started to land around us Jimmy crouched over me on all fours, a noble and brave action to try to protect me from further injury.
The firing stopped again, and it was only much later that I learned that the other Cpl, Bill, had been killed when a large fragment of one of that second salvo had decapitated him. He was the guy who had been married just ten weeks earlier, on the same day as me.
The lads arrived back with a stretcher, and together with Jimmy and my platoon officer, Bob Martin, they carried me shoulder high to a first aid post a couple of hundred yards away. There an MO and a couple of orderlies had set up a tent to cope with anything at the front line. When they had removed my gaiter and boot he ran his scissors the length of my trouser leg to reveal a knee that was beginning to swell like a football. They applied a wooden splint behind the knee, and waited for an ambulance to pass me further back up the line. I had to say good-bye and thanks to my comrades from 553, and they left me.
The next stop for me was a casualty clearing station set up in an empty house, still very much within range of the battle, and we could hear shell-fire, some distant, some close. One of the casualties was a soldier suffering from severe battle fatigue, who became hysterical at every loud explosion. Eventually, after at least a couple of hours an ambulance was available to move us on. There was only room for one more stretcher case in the back, so I was asked by the MO if I could sit on a chair and in the absence of the orderly whose presence was needed by the driver, to restrain the shell-shock patient if he became alarmed by explosions on the way. This proved to be necessary when we drove along Banana Ridge where I had seen the Sherman tank knocked out. Once again the Germans seemed to have that area in there sights. I cannot remember whether or not we made another stop before reaching Bayeux, where at the south-west outskirts of the town the RAMC had set up the only hospital available within the area cleared of the enemy. This was a MASH-type of hospital entirely under canvas, including canvas flooring. It must have been about midnight when we arrived. All casualties were seen quickly by an MO, I think we were given a hot drink and then laid out on our stretchers on the floor, almost shoulder to shoulder and told to get to sleep.
I don’t think I managed any sleep that night. My knee was continuing to swell and the bandage became too tight. One of the nursing sisters kindly loosened the bandage for me. But the main problem was that it happened to be the night of the 900 bomber raid on Caen, and as they crossed the coast the Germans put a a tremendous barrage of anti-aircraft fire, and I lay there waiting for jagged chunks of red-hot shrapnel to come through the canvas roof. From my experience of the Blitz in London I knew these were usually a little larger than one’s middle finger, very jagged and very hot. The saddest thing about that raid was, as we learned later, the Germans had by then almost evacuated from the centre of Caen, and the main people to suffer from that enormous air-raid were the French civilians.
The next morning at 6am the MO was round again, and after taking a quick look at my knee told me to my astonishment, ‘We’ll send you home today’.
After a good breakfast, which included some excellent French white crusty bread, we were moved outside to make room for the next lot, and to lie in the sunshine to await the arrival of the hospital ship. It was a long wait, and the sun was very hot. Eventually the ship arrived, and we were taken the short way down to the little port of Port-en-Bessin, transferred to launches which conveyed us to the hospital ship a mile or so off shore.
This ship turned out to be one of the former Northern Ireland ferries, the ‘Duke of Lancaster’ with the passenger lounges converted to hospital wards, and cot beds screwed down to the floor. I was put into one of these and instructed by the orderly to get some sleep. I had been deprived of most of my sleep for at least three weeks, but in spite of the luxury of clean sheets and a pillow I could not fall asleep. The orderly came round again, and asked me if I had any pain. I most certainly had, so he went away and came back with a hypodermic needle, and administered a large dose of morphine. Oh my word, I could get hooked on that stuff! Within next to no time I was free of pain, and drifting away into a state of euphoria and sound sleep.
I woke up, still very drowsy, as the ship was being unloaded under arc-lights at Southampton, ignoring the black-out regulations. Then we were transferred to a hospital train, a converted Royal Mail sorting train for a fairly short journey to Haslemere, Surrey. It was dawn on the Saturday morning as we were off-loaded at Haslemere and handed over to the RCAMC, who drove us at high speed up into the surrounding woods to the 22nd Canadian General Hospital, a 1600 bed fully equipped hospital, all in large wooden huts scattered around the site. Once again a quick look over by the MO, and tucked up into a real bed with white sheets and pillows, but still filthy and unwashed. But after another injection of euphoria I couldn’t care less, and I slept.
It was the hymn-singing that woke me up. At first I wasn’t sure where I was or when it was. But soon I realised it was Sunday morning, and the morning service was on the radio. The hymn being sung was an old Isaac Watts hymn, ‘How pleased and blest was I’. I had been asleep for more than 24 hours. Soon an orderly came round, handing out Christian tracts as it happened. After introducing myself as a fellow Christian I asked him to procure for me some ablution kit so that I could wash and shave at last and begin to feel like a civilised human being again. After I had done that, he brought me some writing materials so that I could write to Pat.
As I lay there, reflecting on the past few weeks, it came home to me that I was a survivor, and was unlikely to have any further part in Operation Overlord. I felt grateful to God for having brought me through it almost unscathed, at the same time I felt glad and proud to have been involved in this tremendous event. We felt even at the time that we were making history.
A week later a train load of us were sent up to Wakefield, where I spent the next eleven weeks in Pinderfields Hospital. My treatment there included manipulation of the knee under anaesthetic, followed by two weeks in traction in a Thomas’s splint. I was discharged and posted to the RE Depot at Halifax at the end of September.
You must be logged in to post a comment.