A day in the life

The Qatar National Library writing group has been busy again!

This week, the course leader set us the task of writing a spoof of one of those “Day in the Life” columns which usually end up in Sunday newspapers. You know the sort of thing – celebrities treat us to a description of their breakfast smoothie, their work-out routines, their love of a chocolate which comes from a small Andean village and is made with beans which have passed through baboons…

Well here are the musings of an amateur but dedicated writer – and if you want to listen to it, go to: https://anchor.fm/fiona-forsyth

The first thing I do every morning as soon as I wake is to grab my special pen for writing down dreams and then I write down my dreams. I believe that, as a writer, my dreams are a kind of meta-life, and thus a veritable treasure trove of ideas.

Next I stand in front of the mirror and do my affirmations: “You are going to be published by Penguin. You will win the Booker prize. You will reveal to the world the true use of the semi-colon.” I find punctuation extraordinarily emotive. A well-placed exclamation mark can make me weep.

I feel that eating my “writer’s” breakfast is terribly important: I only eat meals which are described in the novels I am currently reading. It does limit me a little and I didn’t enjoy reading “Trainspotting” at all. But to get into the mind of a character one must know every detail, and for me character begins with breakfast.

After breakfast, the next stage of my preparation is to check Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook, where I am currently following 8451 of my favorite authors. They are so dedicated in their relentless pursuit of their goal (appearing human and approachable so that people will like them and buy their books). I am currently researching the purchase of a pet: I have noticed that many writers post pictures of animals, claiming to own them. I am a little apprehensive about this as I don’t know when I will manage to find the time to feed an animal, and killing one through neglect may not look good on Twitter. I make copious notes of course, in my special Social Media notebook from Paperchase.

I grab a slice of toast (Jane Austen’s heroines all eat toast, I have noticed) for lunch and then finish up my trawl of social media. It leaves me feeling energized, my mind full of pictures and ideas to be manipulated into my next poem or short story. This is the point at which I open my laptop and start to research the various writer’s tools available online. I am drawing up a list of the ones I’m going to try with my special list-making pencil, which is one of the sleek silver ones from Muji.

I usually go around to my mother’s for my supper, and we spend the meal with me telling her about my latest progress. She is a wonderful person, my mother, and when I was six years old she was my first inspiration: I had torn a page of my library book, and I watched in admiration as my mother told the librarian that the book was like that when we borrowed it. In this one act of imaginative realism lies my origin as a creator. It reminds me that life itself is our richest source of material.

I let her make me a cup of tea after supper because I know how much she loves listening to my ideas, then it is time to head home and watch the television – “Line of Duty” is currently my go-to for convoluted plot lines and humorous catchwords. But as always I am jotting down things in my special Television notebook: a writer’s life is never restful!

I go to bed with a mind full of wonderful energy (usually of a greenish-yellow colour), knowing that even while I sleep I am maturing as a writer.

I do find it slightly irritating that once a week I have to go to my writers’ group, but I know that it is vital to listen to the concerns of ordinary people once in a while. After all, my books will be read by people just like them!

Desert Tracks

New from the Qatar National Library’s creative writing group – the first episode of our podcast, “Desert Tracks”. In particular I recommend the story about the lift singer by Greig Parker – it is about 13 minutes in.

https://watch.cloudflarestream.com/4c3898a703799c4487cc68358909a2f6

Greig (find him at greigparker.com) is a talented writer who explores many different genres, and has just enjoyed success with his brilliant short story “Tabatha”, well worth a read at https://brightflash1000.com/2021/03/04/tabatha/

Cleopatra

What a great subject for research!

Having decided that I must include a meeting between the protagonist of the new novel and the infamous Queen of the Nile, I am really enjoying this. Cleopatra is so loaded with our preconceptions that peeling away the layers is proving fascinating – and what we really know about her is so little it is shocking. We have built her up into a monster.

50th anniversary DVD release of the movie Cleopatra, starring Elizabeth Taylor, 20th century Fox.
Coin depicting Cleopatra, issued by Mark Antony, 32 BCE
Photographer: Rodney StartMuseums Victoriahttps://collections.museumsvictoria.com.au/items/66460

Why have people decided that Cleopatra must be impossibly beautiful? From our sources we know that she had relationships with two men, had four children, could speak many languages and committed suicide. Nearly everything else is up for debate!

Looking at this quotation from Plutarch’s Life of Antony written a century after Cleopatra was alive, I am struck by how very different are modern interpretations of Egypt’s last Pharoah:

“For her beauty, as we are told, was in itself not altogether incomparable, nor such as to strike those who saw her; but converse with her had an irresistible charm, and her presence, combined with the persuasiveness of her discourse and the character which was somehow diffused about her behaviour towards others, had something stimulating about it. There was sweetness also in the tones of her voice; and her tongue, like an instrument of many strings, she could readily turn to whatever language she pleased…”

Plutarch, Life of Antony (XXVII.2-3)

Plutarch’s Parallel Lives (1916) translated by B. Perrin (Loeb Classical Library

PAD – the poetry challenge

So – my online writers’ group does a challenge every February , and I haven’t managed it once in four years. BUT – I have produced some poems.

Today’s prompt was, appropriately enough “Apathetic”, surprisingly easy. Second Lifers, why not sign up to the challenge in Milk Wood?

Apathetic

Life streams away from me.

I don’t know what this existing is,

but nothing works, so

I watch it happening elsewhere.

Such motion, stretching of minds.

I marvel at the skin on other people,

rippling as they run.

Other people.

Publication day!

It’s a long time between setting everything in place and the actual publication and I have a strange feeling of time on my hands! I’m not sure why as I’ve been working on The Third Daughter for some time. So I wave off The Emperor’s Servant and hope that somewhere it finds a reader who enjoys it…

It’s been a good year for the roses…

A short story, nothing to do with ancient Rome, but free, so who’s complaining?

(Warning: I’ve just had this rejected for being too violent….)

Once he was dead, she almost didn’t want to bury him: but she had planned very thoroughly and was pleased with the way it had gone, although, of course, there were things she had not foreseen. The garden shovel, for example: she had planned on two strokes, the first to knock him out and the second to make sure, but she had been a little too enthusiastic. The shovel had stuck in his head, and she had had to struggle for a long few seconds to pull it free. Should she brace herself with one foot against his shoulder? She had laughed at the thought of the picture that would have presented to anyone passing by. Fortunately, the shovel had suddenly popped free with the strangest sound – a squelching noise brought short by a crack as the metal caught the edge of a piece of skull. Already he was much more interesting than he had been when alive.

The plan had always been to put him in the freezer at first while she dug the trench, and she was very proud of the makeshift pulley system that she had rigged up in the utility room to lift his body and gently push it into the icy chest. She had been emptying the freezer over the last two months to make room, for she did not want to waste any food by throwing it away, and even she could not stomach the thought of eating food that had been with him in the freezer. She lowered the lid and suddenly the house seemed light and empty and more cheerful than she could remember.

Next, she mopped up the blood – just about the amount of blood she had expected – and double bagged every scrap of newspaper and kitchen roll. She had made sure to buy those industrial strength garden rubbish bags, because although the bins were emptied first thing in the morning, she did not want to risk attracting flies until the bag had been safely dumped in the nearest landfill. After trudging down the track with the rubbish, she filled the black bin at the side of a silent and empty road: back in the house, she mopped the floor thoroughly, tipped the dirty water down the drain with a bottle of bleach for good measure, and made a well-deserved cup of tea.

Over the next few days, she dug a deep trench in the back garden, right in the middle of his lawn. She didn’t feel the need to go six feet down, but managed a decent depth, enough for his body and the rose bushes she had ordered from the garden centre. She knew that the ground would gradually settle over time as he decayed, but not too much surely and if it became noticeable, she would just have to think of something – maybe if she patiently laid down more layers of earth week by week that would do the trick. It would be interesting to see, she thought cheerfully.

When the time came to move him, she checked that her washing-line pulley was still knotted firmly to the loft ladder mechanism, and that the wheelbarrow was carefully placed right next to the freezer. She was expecting to get on with this briskly and efficiently, merely the next task in a long list of tasks, and was totally unprepared for the sight of his frozen body, every crease and hair delicately outlined in tiny frills of ice. For the first time ever she found him beautiful, and she hung over the freezer, blurring his outlines with her foggy breath. But after a while, she sternly told herself to make a start on this, the most physically demanding part of the process. She had to be careful: she wasn’t sure that she actually believed that he would smash into thousands of little pieces if she was careless and let him drop, but she didn’t want to find out. He lay awkwardly across the wheelbarrow, of course, and she carefully tied him to the handles: all she had to do was get him down two shallow steps outside the back door and then she was on the lawn, which was easy. The night was as still as she had ever known it, with a smudge of orange down the valley the only sign of human habitation.

To her surprise, all she had to do was to tip the wheelbarrow gently and he fell neatly straight into the trench, almost as if he had climbed down and carefully laid himself down along the bottom.  She had been prepared for awkwardness, of having to spend time manoeuvring an unwieldy deadweight, but perhaps she was being unfair on his body, expecting it to be as useless and irritating as he had been in life. She felt no qualms at all as she tipped earth over him. She was merely getting the trench ready for the roses.

On the next morning she drove ten miles to the garden centre and picked up the five rose bushes, along with a bag of manure which the man said she should put in the bottom of the hole before planting the roses. She didn’t say that she thought that the plants would have quite sufficient nutrients, and the thought of spreading a layer of manure on top of him amused her. She measured the depth of the trench with her eyes and again felt a ridiculous pride in her achievement – it was perfect, about two feet deep, so neat, and set right in the middle of the lawn. She couldn’t wait to see the finished rose-bed, the first time he had ever given her flowers.

As spring turned into summer, she waited and imagined what was happening under her feet, as his body decomposed, skin splitting and changing colour, swelling then collapsing as its gases seeped effortlessly into the soil. Maggots and worms burrowed away and turned him into food for her roses, until all that was left were the rags of his clothes and his brown bones. Maybe one day these would be dug up, but not while this rose bed bloomed so magnificently. She was tempted to plant more, but as she said to herself, no other roses would look so good in comparison.

Unless she decided to get married again…

The Emperor’s Servant

About a week into September, I remembered that I had booked a line-edit from the marvellous Helen Baggott (http://www.helenbaggott.co.uk/). Cue the end of all the research for the as-yet-formless third novel and a scurry of activity as I realised that I couldn’t send off the already-revised and polished manuscript without ONE LAST READ. Mistake (though I did find two typos). Another week, and I finally sent off the manuscript, not in the format asked and with an accompanying email which would have put off anyone thinking of following me on social media.

Letting go of the novel is painful and scary because the list of things that could go wrong seems endless – and is topped by the horror of your editor returning a proof-read and corrected manuscript along with a polite note which makes it clear that she thinks the whole thing is pants.

And yet – would I have done all this if I hadn’t felt that I had something to create that was worth the effort? Of course not. The ancient world is a passion and I have to proclaim its genius and intricacy and sheer difference from the world I inhabit. I did it as a teacher and I don’t think the motivation has changed since I started writing. Two things are important: history really matters, and, in the words of Terry Pratchett, “Writing is the most fun you can have by yourself.”

The House of Augustus and the two Professors

Augustus’ house on the Palatine Hill, at the heart of Rome, makes a couple of appearances in The Emperor’s Servant so I read T.P.Wiseman’s The House of Augustus the moment I saw that it was published. Now I’m having to go back and rewrite my descriptions of the house, the approach, the Temple of Apollo… Prof Wiseman is enthusiastically championing the theory that we have had that part of the Palatine wrong all along: buildings are being turned around 180 degrees and the House itself isn’t anywhere near where I put it… That isn’t to say that everyone agrees of course, but he writes so entertainingly as well as with such authority. Thoroughly recommended!

The House of Augustus | Princeton University Press

Find it on Amazon: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B07SVZKP2M/ref=dp-kindle-redirect?_encoding=UTF8&btkr=1

Prof Wiseman also taught J.K Rowling at Exeter university, and there has been speculation that he bears a resemblance to a certain Albus Dumbledore… Sadly, he has denied this in a letter to The Guardian:

So JK Rowling “is rumoured to have based Dumbledore on the splendidly bearded Peter Wiseman, Exeter’s classics professor emeritus” (Stoics, cynics and the meaning of life, G2, October 1). If only! I’m afraid the rumour is no more than a journalist’s invention. My beard makes no pretensions to splendour – and it was black (Snape’s colouring, not Dumbledore’s) when JKR was a student at Exeter in 1983-85.
Peter Wiseman
Exeter

David Wishart

Currently doing my research for the next novel by re-reading a series I’ve always loved – David Wishart’s Marcus Corvinus books, beginning with “Ovid”. This series features one of the best wise-cracking heroes, the young aristocrat Marcus Valerius Messalla Corvinus – yes, four names, he really is that posh!

Find the books on Amazon:

And David Wishart’s website is here: