Writing Dramatic, Intriguing Stories – April 2022 Meeting Competition Results, adjudicated by Matthew Harffy

Writer of action-packed historical fiction series, The Bernicia Chronicles, Matthew Harffy, in addition to letting our members in on some writing tips and secrets of series writing, he kindly agreed to adjudicate our competition.

The competition brief was:

An object uncovered in a dark alleyway turns out to be a bloody knife…
Write 300 words filled with drama and intrigue on the grisly discovery and/or aftermath.

The standard of writing was great in all the entries, making judging very difficult. It made me realise how incredibly hard it is to select winners in what is largely a subjective medium. After all, how one reacts to a piece of writing says as much, or even more, about the reader and their tastes, as about the writer and the quality of their work.

The selection of short pieces covered all kinds of genre, including horror, thriller, fantasy and science fiction. The pieces I have selected are all very different, but have a couple of things in common. Firstly, they all left me wanting to read more, to find out what happened next. The second thing they all have is perhaps the single most difficult achievement in writing: a distinct and assured voice, that puts the reader at ease and almost whispers, “Relax, I’ve got this”.

And the winners are

First Place: Howard Teece with The Sound of Music

Highly Commended:
Peter Duncan with The Sign
Sam Christie with Fever Dreams

First Place: The Sound of Music by Howard Teece

This piece stood out from the others because of its quirky style and its great use of dialogue. It reads almost like a screenplay, but manages to convey a lot of world-building into the wonderfully written conversation. In very few words, it creates a couple of moments of revelation and ends with a funny twist and a cliff-hanger. If this was the opening page of a novel, I’d read the whole thing.

Even in the dark of the tunnel, you could see the knife glinting at his feet. He picked it up. 

‘Is that…?’ I asked. 

‘Blood? There is a high certainty.’ 

‘What else do you know?’ 

‘You mean make of knife? Fingerprints? Type of blood? Whose blood?’ 

‘Yeah, that sort of thing.’ 

‘Do I have a lab jammed up my ass?’ 

‘Well, no, not exactly.’ I scratched the top of my head. ‘But.’ 

He gave me a stare, then turned his attention to the knife. He wiped a finger along it, collecting the blood. Then he held the finger to his nose, sniffed and sucked it clean. 

‘Deer. Fallow. Mature female. Three hours exposed to the air.’ 

‘Fresh?’ 

‘Three hours exposed. But yes, from a living animal, not a bottle.’ 

‘Where the hell do you get one of those? They’ve been extinct for over 100 years.’ 

‘This is not my problem,’ the android CSI said. 

‘No, that one’s on me.’ I walked back to my vehicle, trying to understand where someone could have got hold of an extinct animal, and why they’d have sliced into it. 

At the door to my transport, I turned to watch the mechanised tech examine the scene. The small light at the base of his neck glowed red to show recording was in progress. 

‘Hey, Robbo,’ I called. 

He turned toward me, and the light went out. 

‘I don’t need to see you test poop; we clear?’ 

‘It tastes like- ‘ 

‘Yeah. La la la. La la la.’ 

In the transport, I instructed the pilot to head back to base, then put a call through to my L1. 

‘And?’ 

‘It’s a doe. A deer. A female deer,’ I said, explaining what we’d found, knowing we had a problem.  

Guess who’s back in town. 

Highly Commended: The Sign by Peter Duncan

The sense of place is palpable in this piece. It feels like there is real meat on the bones of the characters and location, which is a feat in so few words. There is a real confidence in the archaic tone of the prose that makes the reader feel as if they are peeking into a moment of a longer story set in a richly-imagined world.

The bloodied knife was found lying in the shadows of God Forsook Alley by Jeremiah Dobson, night soil man. Later, some pondered whether different circumstances might have prevented the events that unfolded thereafter, and which had left the town in such a parlous state. What if the knife had been found by Watkin the beadle, or not discovered in an alley named God Forsook? What if it had actually lain beside a mortally injured body as by rights it should have?  

But fate had decreed that the certifiable fool Dobson should clap eyes on the lone blade, ‘dripping live with blood’ as he later testified, and carry it directly to the house of Reverend Doctor Wilfred Fairfax, who proclaimed to the astonished night soil man that the knife was a sign from our Creator Himself. 

‘Moreover,’ Doctor Fairfax declared to the assembled populace from the town hall steps the following noonday, ‘it is a sign long foreshadowed.’ He produced a leather-bound book and commenced reading. ‘In a Year of Our Lord close at hand,’ he intoned solemnly, ‘a bleeding knife will be found in the place God has foresaken, a portent of calamitous events such as will shake this wretched town to its very foundations.’ 

A clamour arose amongst the assembled. ‘What events? Tell us, Doctor Fairfax. What calamities?’ 

The Doctor descended the steps without another word, making all speed for his residence. In his library he replaced the volume of Dryden on the shelf at exactly the spot from which it had earlier been removed. The knife lay on his desk, blood- perhaps it really was blood- nicely congealed now. He wondered for a few moments how it had actually found its way to God Forsook. Then he turned his full attention to the careful planning of extortion. 

 

Highly Commended: Fever Dreams by Sam Christie

This piece has a fabulous, conversational style. It is immediate and relatable. While the prose is direct and clean, there are a couple of great metaphors used that elevate the writing.

Jane called them fever dreams. She always implied that I had them because of a guilty conscience. I mean I wouldn’t call myself a bad person, but there aren’t many people that don’t have the odd skeleton in the cupboard; so I suppose that could have been it.  

In truth I dreaded having one. I’d wake up in the morning panting and clawing at the covers, my mind circling like a plane waiting to land. I’d come down eventually after a few seconds, but I was in that holding pattern of horror for long enough to put my day out of whack.  

There was a plus side: I got the flood of relief knowing that I hadn’t hidden a body and that the police weren’t coming to get me. The details in the dream were abstract and surreal of course, but that dread, that sense that if the cops got on my scent then my life was over, drew out a mixture of guilt and a desire to reset back to a trouble free life.  

The nasty part of the dream was that I’d already done the deed. I couldn’t go back. Once you kill a person you can’t undo it and saying sorry is inadequate for obvious reasons. No, you kill a person and you have only one direction of travel. 

I usually had these dreams after a night out, my mind confused by boozing. This dream was no exception. I could remember nothing of the night. While I was brewing coffee and enjoying that solace after the storm there was a knock at the door. Loud. 

“Detective Sergeant Jones. We found a knife nearby in an alleyway. An acquaintance of yours is missing.” I looked to the left of the door and saw my coat covered in blood.    

Veronica Cossanteli

From Water Babies to The Wimpy Kid
The evolution of children’s books and the perils of adaptation: writing with ghosts at your shoulder

Veronica Cossanteli report:  8th March 2022 by Sarah Noon

Veronica is talking to us this evening about the evolution of children’s books and the joy and the pitfalls of adaptations. 

Veronica began writing in her teens “… as a distraction from homesickness.” when she was in boarding school.  She grew up with classics, with lots of Victorian classics on her shelf at home. She was in her forties when she “…finally got her act together,” and enrolled at writing school, joining SCWBI at the same time. SCWBI accepted one of Veronica’s manuscripts for their “Undiscovered Voices” anthology. She later met with Barry Cunningham from Chicken House as part of the Winchester Writers Conference (something she says she was very nervous about).  She presented him with her latest work for feedback, the meeting was successful, and Chicken House published her book!

Veronica Cossanteli

For those of us who are yet to familiarise ourselves with The Marvellous Land of Snergs, it is a children’s book written by E.A. Wyke-Smith in 1927.  The book inspired Tolkien to write The Hobbit (The Snergs were “prototype Hobbits”)and J.K. Rowling famously has a copy of it.

Veronica was approached by Chicken House, asking if she would be prepared to rewrite and adapt it. As exciting as the story is, Veronica says it was very much a book “… of its time.”  When Veronica first read the book, she says, she liked Wyke-Smith’s “… quirky sense of humour,” but there were areas of the book that needed reworking in order to update it for today’s young audiences.   This, however, was harder than she thought!  She sent the first draft to Chicken House who Veronica says sent it back with a resounding “could do better.” She soon realised that very much more than a “tweak” was required – it needed completely deconstructing and rewriting.

Veronica explains that the original book had countless characters, but because they were not hers, it was hard to get inside their heads and understand their motivations and back stories. The two children in the book had quite a bleak backstory (although the other characters did not), but they came across as very unscathed in spite of this – demonstrating, she says, a big difference between “then and now” with children’s literature. Veronica clarifies that in the literature of the time, children were often controlled by the adults (Roald Dahl is the one credited with giving the child protagonist the independence and capability to fight their own adventures).  Children were written in a way described by Veronica as very two-dimensional. She explains that they were either very angelic, or incredibly naughty – often meeting a grisly end (she gives the example of Pinocchio who is hanged at the end of the original story). Modern children like a “protagonist with attitude.” 

Veronica talks about how she needed to update her characters (the original Flora would “bat her eyes at knights”).  A king became an ostrich-riding queen for balance (she says has no idea where ostrich comes from!). The Jester got turned into a frog because it annoyed her so much (she thinks that it was Wyke-Smith’s favourite character)! She considered making the narrative from the point of view of the Snergs, but Chicken House wanted to have the children at the centre of the story.  Chicken House were also set on keeping the title the same.

Many stories have been re-written over the years, so what were the specific challenges with this, relatively unknown story?  Veronica points out that if there are a lot of different versions of a story, then a writer has more freedom to adapt it – such as Grimms Fairy Tales. She talks about how many of these have been heavily sanitised – especially for an American market. This is very different than adapting the work of one author (and his relations!). 

On the subject of Wyke-Smith’s relations, Veronica says she received mostly positive feedback, although a few things she had to change (“beware of surviving relatives!” she says).   Chicken House contacted the family and investigated the legal position, but as the original book was out of copyright, this was a matter of courtesy rather than legality.

When asked if she would do something like this again, she reflects that it was a good creative exercise and has developed her as a writer. She says it has enabled her to identify mistakes she makes as a writer. She often asks herself what Wyke-Smith would have been critical of.  She considers it an honour to have been asked to do it but is aware of the huge responsibility that goes with it.

Veronica hopes that Mr Wyke-Smith and Tolkien would approve! 

Report by Sarah Noon

Amy Sparkes: Stand out from the Slush Pile

Amy Sparkes Report: 8th March 2022 by Sarah Noon

Amy is a novelist and journalist who has written over 20 children’s books, from picture books to middle grade chapter books. She also works closely with publishing companies. She began writing in 2009, with picture books. She went on to writing junior fiction and her most recent books are middle grade. “I am working my way up!” she says. In addition to this, she writes scripts and articles for magazines. She also has 6 children – 5 of whom she home schools! Despite all of this, she still has time to do author visits!  She is fortunate she says, that through her work, she is able to read many manuscripts – hundreds of stories every year.

Amy Sparkes

Amy considers that there are four things that are “… even more important than plot.” These are concept, character, voice and energy.

  1. Concept

Many stories that Amy reads, have ideas that have occurred many times before.  She gives the example of the Tooth Fairy.  Whilst there is no reason why this can’t be incorporated within a story, she feels that writers need to “step outside of the safe idea.”  She gives the analogy of a rainbow, and how a writer will often “go with the violet” – their first idea, when what writers should be doing is focusing on farthest (“red”).  Writers should be challenging themselves to move away from their first idea.  She suggests changing something within the original concept (for example, the setting or time period).  Amy is asked whether she thinks there are certain age groups where certain topics are predictable and whether new writers should we steer away from those. She suggests we consider what can be done to make the topic different. For example, if the story is about a lost dog, could it be on another planet?

2)  Character

Amy explains that she is always looking for characters who stand out because they’re not generic – not safe or predictable.  She gives the example of the “feisty female” or STEM female. She asks writers to consider these things:

  • Why are we going to remember this character?  
  • Why have the characters we read when we were young stayed with  us?
  • What was different or quirky about them?

She goes on to say that we should try to give characters something different or interesting.  This is vital, she says, because when someone has read one hundred stories that day, writers  need to consider what is going to make their character different? Is it the best version of itself it can be? She reminds us that we have to be honest with ourselves as writers and make sure we’ve pushed our ideas and characters as far as we can. Amy gives the example of a child protagonist frequently being twelve.  She suggests giving the character three adjectives and ensuring that at least one of those adjectives is clear in each page.

Amy also talks about distinct character voices.  Eric in The House of Magic for example only speaks two words of one syllable at a time (there is no way that his voice can be confused with any other character!).

3)  Voice

Voice is something that Amy is very passionate about (“It’s what makes you, you as a writer”).  She says the voice is what  “… makes me sit up in my chair.” Amy explains that having confidence in your voice is what “… makes your writing sparkle.”  If you’re writing something that you care about, then the voice will come through. She talks about “head” stories and “heart” stories.  The “heart” ones are the ones that you feel passionate about and have to share. These tend to be the ones when the writer’s voice is often stronger. Here, the writer will be more invested in the story and energised with regards to developing editing their work.

Sibling relationships is something that Amy is very interested in.  As a result, this is often a theme in her books.  The voice comes through clearly because she cares about the theme.  This is what she asks writers to consider when they are developing their ideas.  Amy is a firm believer in “dream time” – time away from paper and pen or computer.  Writers need that processing time and time to consider the point of our writing. What do we want to say? Why do we want to say it?  Amy believes that if we do this, these stories will “… be the ones that will sparkle and shine the most.”

4)  Energy

When sending work to an agent,  Amy admits that receiving the feedback “it’s a little bit quiet” is the things she dreads the most.  It means the work doesn’t have that energy behind it.  She says that one way of acquiring that energy is to go back to thinking about the voice and that connection again.  She explains that energy can be a “quiet” energy – it doesn’t have to be a “loud” energy.  She asks us to consider, what is the tone of the story? What are the key phrases? She gives the example of a bedtime story, which will be gentle, but needs to carry the reader along.  We  need to think about the words that are used and their rhythm etc. If it is a funny story, consider, is there a laugh on every page? Are the laughs getting bigger and louder every time? “You have to get readers feeling the sense of story and sense of progression.” She talks about keeping the pace going in order to build up to the end point or climax.

With older readers, she says, we are thinking about injecting each chapter with energy and to think about what makes our reader want to read on.  She urges us to look at how we start and finish each chapter and to consider a hook, or the middle of a scene.  She suggests “playing” with the reader, remining us that “kids love language.” Humour can encourage a child to read on.

Amy is asked how important it is to cram energy and voice into the synopses of a story.  Her reply is that “You have to feel like the life has been sucked out of the story!”  The first two or three chapters will enable the reader to feel the energy.  The cover letter will allow you to be much more you.

She is also asked to clarify the difference between energy and pace.  She answers that energy is about identifying what moments need more energy in relation to feelings and emotion – what do I want the reader to feel?  “Pace,”  she says “…is what keeps the reader coming along with you.”

Amy concludes her talk explaining that when she is writing, “… draft one is with my heart, draft two is with my head.” She says, the heart is the fun bit, and the head is more analytical – looking at energy and voice etc. She adds that this is where the reader has to be really honest with themselves.  She ends with some very clear advice for us all: “Always start with the heart!”

Report by Sarah Noon

Children’s Writing – March 2022 Meeting Competition Results, adjudicated by Amy Sparkes

Best-selling Children’s Author, and main Speaker for our March meeting, Amy Sparkes, generously gave her time further to our Society and agreed to adjudicate our children’s story writing competition.

The competition was open to entries of picture book, middle grade or young adult stories, so it was an opportunity for a wide range of entrants. The competition brief was to:

Write a children’s story in 500 words.
Theme: Ghosts
Genre: Any

And the winners are:

First Place – Damon L. Wakes with Small Possessions

Second Place – Valerie Powell with Real Ghosts Aren’t Scary

Third Place – Dominique Hackston with Just A Nightmare

Highly Commended – Darren Spink with This Story Consists of… MOSTLY GHOSTS

First Place: Small Possessions by Damon L. Wakes

An engaging read with a brilliant twist right at the end.

There was a presence in the house. When Eleanor left her little wooden rocking horse in the middle of the drawing room, she would find it in the cupboard. When she left her doll on the window seat, she would find it on the floor. Her mother told her that she should take better care of her possessions—if the rocking horse was broken, they could not simply go out and buy another—but it was not Eleanor who moved it, and it was not her mother either. 

In the daytime, she could hear footsteps and laughter; always out of sight. In the nighttime, she heard sobbing, always close by. The rocking horse and doll were moved up to the attic, and Eleanor followed them there. She spent her nights with one ear pressed to the floorboards, listening to the eerie noises below. 

At last, one night, Eleanor, found that simply hiding away and waiting was the scariest thing of all. She crept through the attic door and down the long, long staircase. She tiptoed back to her old room. She found it full of strange creatures with bulbous eyes, and curious figures sculpted of an eerie, flesh-coloured porcelain. But her attention did not dwell on these things, for in the corner of the room—huddled atop an unfamiliar bed—was a small form wreathed in blankets. 

The blankets shifted, and the face of a small girl—not like Eleanor—emerged. The eyes widened. Her skin grew white as she stared at her visitor. 

Eleanor simply stood there. Her skin was white already. 

“Why do you weep?” she asked at last, when it became apparent that the intruder in her house would not speak first. 

“Because I just moved here,” said the girl in the bed, “and now all my friends are a long way away.” 

“All my friends are far away too,” said Eleanor. “I’d like to move, but Daddy says we have unfinished business.” 

There was a long, sad silence. 

“Do you like Barbie?” asked the intruder, holding up a figure of porcelain flesh. 

Second Place: Real Ghosts Aren’t Scary by Valerie Powell

Heartwarming story with a nice twist and heartfelt message

I know all about ghosts. My sister used to tell me ghost stories and try to scare me. But I wasn’t scared. I knew she was making it all up. Because ghosts are nothing like the ones she described. 

The ghosts in Ellie’s stories were really creepy. They sneaked up on you when you least expected, always at night and usually in winter when it was dark and there was a storm raging. They made weird howling noises and could come in through thick walls and skeletal fingers could grab your neck. And they haunted old houses and dark lanes and lonely moors.   

Our gran lived in an old house down a dark lane across the moor and we used to go and stay with her sometimes. But there was nothing scary about Gran’s house. It was warm and cosy and she made scones and gingerbread, like a granny in a kid’s storybook. When we were in bed, my sister would make me listen to the creaks and groans that the house made when the wind was roaring round, and try to convince me it was a ghost. But of course, it wasn’t. 

And sometimes we would walk back to our house in the dark. It wasn’t far – just a few hundred metres – and we had our torches, but Ellie used to pretend every shadow was a ghost and every sound a weird banshee, coming to get us. I went along with it to please Ellie and those walks were fun. 

Gran went to chapel a lot and sometimes she took us with her. I didn’t really like chapel and I especially didn’t like the minister. He was scarier than any of Ellie’s ghosts, telling us we were all sinners and heading for eternal fire.  

I knew I did bad things sometimes – like hiding Ellie’s X-box when she refused to play with me, or interrupting her when she was texting her friends. But I didn’t think those things were real sinning, not like the sort the minister went on about. 

After Gran died, I was very sad. I missed her hugs – I liked Gran’s hugs long after I went off hugs from anyone else. Her house was empty for a bit and I used to go there to talk to her. Then it got knocked it down a big house was built instead. I felt really sad, worrying where Gran would go. 

Ellis stopped telling ghost stories after Gran died. Her stories had all been about bad ghosts, so I knew they weren’t real. Not like my ghost. My ghost is good, not scary at all. In fact, when I’m feeling scared – like when that bully from school tries to frighten me, my ghost makes me feel all strong and I tell him to back off – and it works! My ghost puts an arm round me when I’m feeling sad and tells me that everything’s okay. My ghost says it doesn’t matter about her house because she doesn’t need it anymore.  

 

Third Place: Just A Nightmare by Dominique Hackston

A gripping story in a gripping setting. It really drew you in.

 

Midnight finds Macy under the duvet with a torch and her favourite Famous Five book. Her cold feet inch up the bed until they steal the warmth from her thighs. Shivering, she switches off the torch, listens to make sure Rhea, the prefect, is asleep and pokes her head out. She gasps as frigid air hits her face.  

Stretching, she tucks up the corner of the curtain, then wrestles her dressing-gown from its hook and spreads it over her bed. She snuggles back under the covers, her slothful eyes staring at tiny crystals as they form around the corner of the pane. Funny, she thinks, as she drifts off, it shouldn’t freeze in May.  

Timmy, George, and Anne fill Macy’s dreams. They are huddled together while a storm whips around their tent. The howling wind morphs into Anne screaming. 

Suddenly Macy is awake. A skull-piercing shriek ricochets around the dormitory. She peers into the dark then grabs her torch. 

The beam passes from one girl to the next. A wave of dread prickles up Macy’s nape. Breath vapour hangs eerily over each pale face until the tiny spotlight hits Tash, who is sitting bolt upright; her two French plaits hanging down her back. 

In Macy’s shaking hand, the beam stutters onwards to Rhea’s bed. Matron’s there, she thinks, sighing with relief. Macy leans forward, her jaw drops, her eyebrows knit together. 

Tash turns, her now silent scream caught by her gaping mouth. She slithers out of bed, then charges up the dormitory. The torch goes flying as Tash dives headlong at Macy. 

‘Did you see?’ Tash whispers. 

Macy cannot answer. An image is searing itself into her every brain cell. 

Matron was not matron, but an old-fashioned nurse, who stood with Rhea floating at chest height. Rhea’s arms were stretched over her head as the nurse shackled her wrists to a gleaming ring that protruded from the wall. The same black wrought iron ring that Rhea hangs her dressing gown from.  

Macy hushes the sobbing Tash and takes a slow shuddering breath. Reaching up, she fumbles for the curtain and yanks it open. Moonlight floods in, shining its way down the length of the dormitory. Macy’s eyes follow the glow.  

She slumps with relief. ‘Just a nightmare,’ she says. ‘Just a nightmare.’ She cuddles and rocks the younger girl until they fall asleep. They wake to Rhea prodding them. 

‘Get dressed and stand facing the wall!’  Rhea shouts. ‘Inspection in five.’  

Within five minutes both girls are in their uniforms and standing at the end of the line. Despite her nose pointing to the wall; Macy watches Rhea out of the corner of her eye. Her skin tingles as her hairs stand on end. Rhea massages her wrists.  

Macy turns to check on Tash. She is white and wide-eyed, staring at the angry red welts that Rhea is trying to hide.  

Highly Commended: This Story Consists of… MOSTLY GHOSTS by Darren Spink

Brilliant scansion, tightly plotted and good fun.


Greenie the ghost has been learning to scare 

But scaring is harder when no-one is there 

So, Greenie creeps into a yard overgrown 

And finds little Ava, all tired and alone 

The window is open as Greenie comes creeping 

And tired little Ava has just started sleeping 

So, Greenie jumps in with a cry and a BOO 

But Ava sits calmly and says “Who are you?!” 

“I’m Greenie the ghost and I’ve come here to scare you!” 

“But Greenie” said Ava “I’m sleeping, how dare you! 

You’re not very spooky or scary or creepy, 

So, leave me alone as I’m grumpy and sleepy” 

But Greenie is cunning and jumps from the bed 

Then waits in the cupboard and calls his friend Red 

They jump out together and cry a loud BOO 

But ONE was not scary and neither was TWO! 

So, Greenie calls Pinky and Blackie and White 

As FIVE spooky ghosts give a scarier fright 

But Ava yawned “Greenie, you’ll have to give in.. 

I’ll never be scared and you’ll just never win” 

Greenie says “Right, I need TEN on my side.. 

We’ll each find a different location to hide… 

We’ll scream all together, the spookiest BOO 

And scared little Ava won’t know what to do!” 

But Ava once more wasn’t frightened or scared 

She stood on her bed and then promptly declared 

“Not even TWENTY would give me a fright 

So, take all your friends and get out of my sight!” 

And finally, Ava had quiet in bed 

But quiet can sometimes be scary instead 

The house became spooky, the yard overgrown 

And suddenly Ava was…. 

SCARED ON HER OWN! 

She covered her eyes and hid under the sheet 

With only the sound of her little heart beat 

And then with a whimper, she wearily cried 

“I wish I had someone to lay by my side” 

But what happened next was to Ava’s surprise 

As Greenie came back after hearing her cries 

“Maybe” thought Greenie “I won’t cry out BOO, 

To be a good friend is now what I should do” 

They lifted the covers and snuggled up tight 

And Greenie helped Ava sleep all through the night. 

Well, not every ghost can be scary and creepy 

A ghost can be friendly and help when you’re sleepy 

So, just when the quiet can scare you the most 

Imagine a snuggle with Greenie the ghost. 

James Chew – Senior Writer at Fairbetter Games

Report by Sarah Noon

James Chew: Talk:  A Brief Introduction to Writing Interactive Fiction

James works for Fairbetter Games, a small company which was based in London pre-pandemic.  The company specialises in games set in a “shared universe” of an alternative gothic London Victorian underworld. Their first game was Fallen London – a game based on texts and static image, where the player navigates around the landscape.  The company has since branched out with several other games based on text-based stories, where the player makes choices in order to make their way around the world in which the game is set. Fairbetter Games also creates visual novels which James describes as “… quite text heavy and quite dialogue based.”

James Chew

So, what does James do? Well, surprisingly, very little coding is involved, despite what we may assume – although there is a requirement to know some coding and programming that the company uses, enabling the writer to keep track of all the narrative elements in the game, such as quests and dialogue. Descriptions of props etc are often written by hand, and require “… evocative, punchy prose to make those items seem attractive.”

One of the main roles in games writing, is the narrative designer.  This involves the writing of large cinematic scenes (James gives the example of Call of Duty) as well as considering what order a player may find clues in mystery games, and what the effects of this order might be. One of the most important things when writing for gaming is to remember that the writer is writing for the player and to consider “What is the writer experiencing at any given moment?”

James goes on to explain some terms which are specific to games writing (verbs, gameplay, variables etc) as well as what a game actually is – genres include RPG, simulation, strategy, indie, platformer and shooter games.  There is a massive arc of commercialism within the game industry, from what are known as the AAA games (Call of Duty, Assassin’s Creed etc – large commercial games) to the other end of the spectrum, which feature indie games such as the ones that James works on. However, they all have things in common, such as entertainment as their primary goal.  But the games are also aiming to get an emotional response from the player in order to keep them immersed and engaged. James explains that “…all games are designed with the player in mind from the outset.”  It’s all about offering an experience outside of normal life.

There are different types of protagonists in games: a defined protagonist, invisible protagonist, co-authored protagonist, player-defined protagonist. The type of protagonist has a direct effect on the game in terms of how they react and the roles the player is assigned.

The art of writing a good game, James explains, relies on the consideration of what the writer wants to make, who the player is and what that player can do.  A game will be tested many times in order to ensure that a one-hour gaming session, for example, provides the player with many options in order to remain engaged.

One example of a narrative-rich genre is role-play. This genre gives the player an opportunity to create a character. Some games allow more choice than others. There is an element of choice and consequence in these types of games. This should lead to the gamer replaying the game numerous times, as they discover things led by the choices they make.  Another example of narrative-rich gaming is immersive fiction – having its origins in Dungeons and Dragons, and books where the reader skips to different pages according to the reader’s preferred options. These types of games mean that James’ job gives him a lot of narrative freedom and his work involves a lot of “pure writing” as opposed to programming.

Like many other writers, James says that he feels it is important to be able to draw upon one’s own experiences, and for those interested in game writing, he believes that it is important to have experience outside of gaming in order to achieve that (James’ background is Medieval studies – and a knowledge of history has certainly helped with world-building).

James ends his talk with a couple of points to remember:

  • Your player is your audience
  • Consequences are friends

James’ talk provided a fascinating insight into the world of game writing and its connections and similarities with more traditional forms of writing and I for one, will certainly be looking at games with a deeper appreciation of the storytellers behind them.

Report by Sarah Noon

Denise Baden – Special Guest

Denise is Professor of Sustainable Practice at the University of Southampton. By her own admission she “… uses the university as a platform to be a bit of an activist on climate change.”  She is a researcher, a writer of musical theatre, screenplays and a novel as well as academic writings.

Denise Baden

She begins by talking about how people understandably shy away from the topics of climate change and other green issues, due to their depressing and bleak message.  In literature, she feels as if these subjects are often “dystopian and doom-laden.”  She also adds that characters in films and literature that represent green causes are often “…really annoying.” With this in mind, in 2018 Denise set up a series of writing competitions “Green Stories,” the aim of which is to promote green solutions.  Since then, it has snowballed.  People have offered their services to judge and get involved in other ways. There have now been 13 competitions, including plays, flash fiction and short stories. These have included a variety of topics challenging the idea of consumption and fast fashion etc. She talks about the idea of including positive role models in stories;  the teenage girl who goes to a fashion-swap rather than clothes-shopping, characters who eat in green restaurants etc.

Denise discusses how many young people have high anxiety about climate change but often feel powerless to do anything. However, she says, we all need to take responsibility.  Characters need to reflect that – as opposed to characters in things such as Sex and the City and Emily in Paris, where eco-issues are simply not part of their world.  Her novel, Habitat Man, which Denise describes as her “lockdown project” was written with the aim of offering solutions and exploring what we can all do on a day-to-day basis, rather than a large-scale adventure to a rainforest or Antarctica. She says, “If you can’t find the book you want you have to write it yourself.”

Her starting point was to write four short stories with a green theme.  Two had a catastrophic ending and two were solution focused. These stories were circulated to a couple of hundred people for feedback.  She found that the solution-focused stories were more inspiring for the readers, encouraging them to be more positive and proactive.  The dystopian-type stories tended to be met with feelings of disempowerment and hopelessness. She explains that whilst people who like a dystopian story may enjoy the more bleak and hopeless narratives, these are unlikely to appeal to the masses – and Denise’s aim was to reach as many people as possible.

Denise’s role as a lecturer of Business Ethics as well as her other academic positions means that she is well equipped to write about green issues in a variety of forms. Writing for a cause is a very specific skill, about which Denise has frequently delivered presentations.  She explains that readers do not want to be preached at or told what to do.  It requires, she says, “a certain level of skill.” And of course, it is imperative that the writer knows what they are talking about. She gives the example of a character in her book using organic cotton, but researching and discovering that organic cotton  uses twice as much water as cotton (several swimming-pools-worth of water in fact, for a pair of jeans and a t-shirt).  “Double check your facts!” she says.

Habitat Man, as a novel, was conceived when Denise was contacted by a green garden agency, Southampton Transition Network, offering their services advising people on how to make their gardens more environmentally friendly.   A gardener came to visit Denise and during their discussion, admitted that whilst he felt driven to fight climate change, he felt limited as to what he could do as he was just one man.  Initially, Denise felt there was a great tv series in this – one man visiting people’s gardens in order to tackle climate change, but she thought she would write a book first, believing that she was unlikely to get a tv deal!

What was initially going to be a book of short stories developed with the introduction of a dead body which needed burying using green methods.  Denise says, “Before I knew it, I had a proper story arc.”  She describes her book as giving her “… an opportunity to smuggle in lots of green ideas.”

At this point, Denise plays us an extract from the book…

Denise ends her fascinating talk with some final advice for effectively writing for a cause:

  • Show, not tell (make sure the story is not too preachy)
  • Use humour
  • Less is more
  • A court case is a good way of showing both sides (and is also very dramatic!)

Denise’s final comment is to remind us that the reader wants fiction and a good story above all else – something that we all need reminding of from time to time!

Report by Sarah Noon

Green Stories – February 2022 Meeting Competition Results, adjudicated by Denise Baden

For our February meeting competition, Author, creator of Green Stories Writing Competitions and Professor of Sustainable Business at the University of Southampton, Denise Baden kindly agreed to adjudicate.

Targeted to put green thinking caps on, considering both problems and solutions, the competition brief was to:

Write a story showing a green solution e.g. someone enjoying a low carbon activity/product/innovation or helping nature in some way. Things to consider:

•             what might a green/sustainable society might look like?

•             how might we get to a green/sustainable society?

•             smuggle green solutions/role models into a story.

And the winners are:

First Place – Sam Christie with The Incessant Interventions of Man

Second Place – Maggie Farran with The Reluctant Wedding Guest

Third Place – Diana Batten with The Magic Oven

Highly Commended – John K Miles with Oblivious

First Place: The Incessant Interventions of Man by Sam Christie

I loved the simplicity of this. A pet hate is enjoying a peaceful moment in the garden and then a strimmer starts up, drowning out the birdsong and hum of the bees. Even when walking in the hills and mountains, there always seems to be someone polluting the air with noise from a power tool. Nature likes to be left alone, so this spoke to me. A little more on the poetic beauty and calming effect of peace and nature sounds would further highlight the contrast.  

And the sun crept from behind the clouds, smiling and warming the backs of all the creatures; hardened and aching from the long winter months. The trees sighed in vapour, climbing from the highest branches. The birds tentatively chirped, then emboldened by the sound of others began to sing in choirs. Bees and wasps rode the rising air to dip into newly awakening flowers. A stillness hung in the burgeoning heat.

And then the men, for it is mostly men, middle aged and of comfortable build, jerked the starter cords on their various machines: the mowers, the strimmers, the chainsaws and hedge cutters. Great fires were built, forcing the worms from the moist earth, sending billowing smoke skywards and blackening the foliage.

And just like that the summer began.

Second Place: The Reluctant Wedding Guest by Maggie Farran

A perfect little gem, well-written and with one point to make – buying second hand clothes – and made clearly and well. I liked that the ease and benefits of shopping in charity shops was the focus, rather than alarming statistics of environmental impacts of fashion.

In January, Eve had looked at all the clothes spilling out of her wardrobe and made a resolution to stop buying any new clothes for one year. Her sister, Wendy had sprung the wedding invitation on her. 
‘It’s going to be a low-key affair, Eve, you don’t have to worry about buying a new outfit.’  

The trouble was that Eve really didn’t have anything remotely suitable. Her wardrobe mainly consisted of jeans and T-shirts. 

She cycled into Romsey, as it was likely to have charity shops stocked with up market cast offs. She tried Oxfam first and chose two promising looking dresses to try on. The first one was made of bright yellow silk. It fitted well but she decided she looked too much like a banana in it. The second one was a simple navy linen dress with big red buttons down the front. She stared into the mirror and couldn’t quite believe that it was her. She looked stylish but fun. She handed over ten pounds.  

Next, she went to the Cancer Research shop right next-door to the fish and chip shop. She found a red leather bag which matched the buttons on the dress. It had a long strap and lots of pockets. She looked at the shoes. They were all small sizes. She looked down at her size sevens and shrugged. She paid five pounds for the bag.  

She was starving but promised herself a portion of chips when she had found the shoes. 
She crossed her fingers as she crept into Age Concern. There in the corner she spied some red patent Doc Martens. They looked huge. She felt just like Cinderella as she tried them on. They fitted perfectly. She would go to the ball, but first she had an appointment at the chippy. 

Third Place: The Magic Oven by Diana Batten

This one is in my top three because it clearly shows examples of greener behaviours and also highlights the issue of modern goods not being made to last. I felt for the mum though, having had my own baking efforts ruthlessly criticised by my ungrateful sons!  

Mum likes watching ‘Bake Off’.  She isn’t very good at cooking though.  Her cakes are either burnt or raw in the middle.  When she made my birthday cake it went all wrong so she had to get one from the shop.  She blames the oven but Dad says she can’t cook. 

Yesterday was a bad day.  When I got up Dad  was shouting.  The kettle had broken so he couldn’t  make his coffee.  He is always in a bad mood if he doesn’t have coffee.  Then because he was angry Mum forgot to make my packed lunch properly. 

 It is ‘Green Week’ at school.  We have to think about the planet, even with things like our packed lunch.  Miss Williams checked our lunches to see whether we had done anything to stop climate change.  Bethany had brought an apple from her garden.  Josh’s sandwiches were wrapped in some funny wax stuff and Mia had a bamboo drinks bottle.  Mum had forgotten about the planet and put cling film on my sandwich and given me a packet of crisps and a cheese string. 

That night we had  fish and chips as Mum said  the stupid cooker had stopped working.  Nanny and Grandad don’t seem to break things.  Nanny is very old, she must be almost dead, but she has never broken her oven or burnt a cake.  She should go on Bake Off.    

We have got a new oven.  It looks just like Nanny’s but when Mum saw it she burst into tears and said it was old and horrible.  Dad said that it was built to last not like the modern rubbish and it was criminal to scrap it . 

Mum has made her first cake which isn’t burnt or raw.  The oven must be magic, just like Nanny’s. 

Highly Commended: Oblivious by John K Miles

I loved this. Mindless complicity is such an issue and this story illustrated it perfectly. I was a little worried about the comment on not having children. If we all lived within our planetary means, population wouldn’t be the issue it is. Also without children, our population will become top heavy with no young folk to look after the older people. I also worry that being green can become associated with a sense that the world would be better off without us – not good for our mental health!  Can I have four in my top three?  


The bubble bath looked luxurious; steaming hot and full to the brim. 
‘What’s the point in having a global meeting about saving the planet, then deciding not to save the planet?’ said Hugo, shouting through the ensuite door. Janet didn’t answer. The last few days had been like groundhog day; stuck together in Covid isolation, as the global conference on climate change drew to a close.  

Hugo dunked his bloated body into the sumptuous bath for approximately four minutes, before pulling the plug. 
‘Bloody politicians,’ he said,  standing up, red as a broiled lobster. He then set about meticulously brushing his teeth, with the tap running throughout.  

Janet took a deep breath. 
‘Aren’t you going to get dressed?’ 

‘When I’ve cooled down a bit love. It’s so damn hot in here.’ 
Well at least that was something they agreed on, she thought. Not that it stopped stop him leaving the heating on 24/7.  
‘Gawd, it looks cold outside,’ he said, pulling on a gaudy yellow T-shirt and matching shorts, before following Janet down three flights of draughty stairs to breakfast. 
‘Full fry up love,’ he said, clicking on the telly. 

Janet bit her tongue and lit all five burners on the range cooker. It was impossible to cook a Full English to Hugo’s specification on less. 
She sighed. 

‘YOU NEED TO DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT!’ said Hugo, screaming at the TV. ‘THE PLANET’S DYING!’ 
Meanwhile, the hobs burned and the food sizzled.  

Twenty minutes later it was ready and Hugo wolfed it down, looking out of the frosted window at his beloved gas guzzling Aston Martin parked in the drive. 
‘Can’t wait to drive that baby again,’ he said. 
‘Hugo?’ said Janet. 
‘What?’ said Hugo, looking back towards the TV. 
‘I’ve been thinking about ways to save the planet.’  

‘And?’ 
‘I’ve decided not to have children. And furthermore, I’d like a divorce.’ 

Reports from 11th January 2022

Report by Sarah Noon

Louisa Scarr’s talk ‘Beginning a Life of Crime’

Louisa Scarr (also known as Louisa De Lange and Sam Holland) has written a series of detective books featuring DS Robin Butler and DC Freya West.  She has been a writer for six years and explains that she has now developed a way of writing which works for her. Before she shared this with us, however, she told us a little about herself:

Louisa gained a degree in Psychology from University of Southampton in 2000.  She says she did this because she “wanted to know what made people tick but needed to do a ‘proper job. ’” A ‘proper job’ for Louisa meant one that required “a suit, heels and a badge.”  So, she joined Siemens as a recruitment officer (“hiring and firing”) – a job enabling her to wear all those things.  She always enjoyed writing  and even worked in a library for a while, but ended up working in the headquarters of B&Q “hiring and firing again.”  However, she was later given a role within B&Q which involved writing for them.  She quit in 2016 and became a freelance writer, finishing the book she was working on.

After lots of hard work, Louisa was eventually picked up by Orion. Her first novel, The Dream Wife, is speculative fiction  – crime with a science fiction twist.  It was a two-book deal, which lead to Ask Me No Questions.  At this point, she says, her agent pointed out that what she was actually writing was a police procedural, about a police officer – DS Kate Monroe.  She then went on to write Nowhere to be Found which she describes as “the easiest and quickest book I’ve ever written.”  Following this, she left Orion and joined Canelo.

Louisa describes herself as “a fast writer”.  She says she can write an 80,000 a book in about three months.  She wanted a publisher that was able to work with her at this fast pace. With Canelo, she explains, she has a deal where she has a book out every six months. 

Louisa Scarr

With the aid of several photographs, Louisa goes onto explain her (now finely tuned) process.  She starts with a whiteboard in her office. Here, she writes down initial thoughts, chapters, plots etc. The second stage is done with index cards (the various POVs) and post-it notes (the clues and evidence) laid out across a wall (she originally did this on the floor but “it didn’t work because of the dog!”). Consequently, this has now evolved into rows of post-it notes across her wall.  She talks about the importance of chapter beginnings and ends to hook the reader and maintain interest. Spreadsheets are used to record details of recurring characters – their features, facts about their lives etc, in order that continuity is maintained.

When writing a police procedural, research and knowledge of the inner workings of the organisations and departments involved have to be portrayed accurately, and as Louisa explains she “has never been in the police force.”  Her experience, she says, “is based on Broadchurch and The Bill.”  However, she has built up a team of experts around her to whom she can go for for advice, clarifications and guidance.  She gives us some examples:  A police officer she met on the school run and his wife (a 999 Control Officer) have been invaluable. Her stepbrother is a consultant anaesthetist who has given her lots of advice when she is describing injuries.

Her sister-in-law is a pharmacist who is able to advise when her stories involve drugs and medication. Her friend is a CSI – specifically a  blood spatter expert.  Other friends include a meteorologist, and her stepsister-in-law is a paramedic.  Louisa’s writing leans towards her experts and she goes on to tell us just how much she values them.

In addition to her group of experts, Louisa’s personal library consists of serial killer books, forensic books, Blackstone’s police manuals and legal books. She also uses Google Scholar to access relevant journals.

Louisa’s commitment to authenticity has seen her wear a crime scene suit (she was given one so she could feel what it is like to wear one) and has even been on a ride-along!

Louisa’s books also maintain their accuracy by the fact that she sets her stories in places that she knows.  She shows us some pictures of scenes and settings she has used.  Many are in Southampton, including the Common, Winnall, B&Q headquarters and Portswood.  She has also used Reading. She has a friend that lives in a village in Devon and used this as home for one of her characters.  She is therefore able to visit the locations, photograph them and describe them accurately.

With regards to her characters, she tells us that she sees them in her head “cinematically” and bases her characters on famous actors and then watches their work via film and TV.

There are a variety of highs and lows when working as a writer.  Louisa lists the highs – the first proof, seeing your publication  in a bookshop for the first time, positive reviews.  She says that there are not many lows.  One of them, though, is dealing with bad reviews (we are introduced to a scathing review by “Marion”).  She says, “you have to be ready for that.”  She cites structural edits  as another low, describing the tackling of these as “the hardest few weeks”.

The final thing Louisa shares with us, is regarding the creation of her upcoming book The Echo Man.  One of the first things she wrote, it was rejected in her early days due to its strong language and violence but will now be sold in about 10 countries.  She has written the book under the gender-neutral pseudonym Sam Holland in order to appeal to a larger demographic.

Louisa ends her talk with a game … about serial killers!  She shows several images of serial killers, and we have to write down who they were.  Interestingly, nobody knows all of them, but one or two have achieved enough notoriety that most of the audience can identifiy them.

An intriguing look into Louisa’s methods and processes – we eagerly await her next book! 

Jan Carr – Special Guest

Jan Carr is a children’s writer from Southampton. Writing older middle-grade stories, she is best known for her novel The Wonder Girls.  Set in London in 1936, the Wonder Girls are a group of girls hiding from the paramilitary Blackshirts.  Her latest book, The Wonder Girls Resist is set in Southampton in 1937 against the backdrop of immigration stemming from the Spanish Civil War. Like its predecessor The Wonder Girls Resist has a political stance, exploring a time when the country was on the brink of war.

Jan Carr

Jan tells us that at school she struggled to read but “loved a good story”.  As a mum, she felt she couldn’t tell a good bedtime story to her children and was envious of those parents who seemed to be able to make up stories on the the spot. She therefore believed that she didn’t have a good imagination.  However, over time she has discovered that the key which enables her to create stories, is simply to “sit at a keyboard and write”.

She confides that her first drafts are a mess, “a bit like throwing clay at chicken wire,” but she says that at least this gives her something to work with. Jan is an independent author,  giving her a higher degree of freedom within her writing.  Whilst her difficulty in getting a publisher initially made her feel “like a failure”, she explains that she is now happy to be an independent writer, with the control that provides her with. 

Jan goes on to talk about her book, Spare, which is also an audiobook.  Many people auditioned to narrate her book.  When she found the person who “had the right voice” for her book, she sold a quilt in order to raise the funds (£450 for narrator to read a 7- hour book). She says she really enjoyed the collaboration within the project – giving her confidence because someone else was committed to reading her book.

She has had previous success with competitions, winning and being shortlisted for prizes.  The first book she wrote created some interest with publishers.  However, Jan was told that the book was good – just not not right for the particular publisher.  This though, gave Jan the confidence to publish independently. She used a credit card in order to get the books published and printed.  She then made herself available to Southampton primary schools, visiting the children, doing workshops with them and selling signed copies of her books.

By the time Covid hit, The Wonder Girls Resist was ready to promote, but as lockdowns loomed, Jan was limited as to how she could do this.  However, she launched a Kickstarter campaign in order to get 1000 copies of her new book printed as well as more copies of her first book.  Kickstart funding, she says, is an emotionally draining time and a little risky.   Nevertheless, in just over a month she had the funding she needed. Now that life is adapting to Covid, Jan is able to school visits again – via her Kickstart sponsorship pages. She gets pupils writing and participating in drama activities. She also includes some craft activities (she explains that she was a teacher in a former life!).

Jan is currently writing the third Wonder Girls book – set in 1938, but she is being secretive about its storyline! We are looking forward to reading The Wonder Girls Resist very soon!

Reports by Sarah Noon

Crime Thriller – January Meeting 2022 Competition Results, Adjudication by Louisa Scarr

Louisa Scarr, author of the Butler and West crime thriller series, and speaker for our January meeting further donated her time to us over the Christmas period to adjudicate our December competition.

An opportunity to let our writers’ dark sides run riot, the brief this month was to:

Write a short piece from the point of view of the person committing the crime. What are they thinking and what might they have done? (300 words)

And the winners are:

First Place – Sam Knight with The Storm

Second Place – Martin J. White with Cadaver

Third Place – Natalie Morant with Desperate Measures

First Place: The Storm by Sam Knight

The author’s original writing style really stood out for me, almost poetic as it conjures up the feeling of the rain and the murder scene. I really liked the imagery – the juxtaposition of the innocent yellow duck sitting on the blood. And I could feel the emotion – the repercussions from the murder.

It had been a long time coming, this storm, sweeping in from the Atlantic. Bringing an end to eight summers of foreshore play, pine scented love, dreams cradled in midnight whispers. 

 At five minutes past one precisely, by the kitchen clock, silver blades, jagged edges, stab the wounded earth, again and again. And again. My own savage thoughts keep tearing my head apart. Black thunder muffles tap dancers hailing from Ireland, drum rolling conservatory glass. Roofs turn a darker shade of red. 

tipper tapper, 

tipper tapper,  

tipper tapper tip tap. 

God. How quickly everything had changed.  

I close my eyes and feel the deafening darkness invade the space in my secret world. Sudden silence. I stand up at the window and watch the wind pick up its skirt and race away across the rooftops. Wish I could escape like that.  

The last tipper tapper disappears. 

And then it came. I knew it would. One final climactic clap of thunder. No time to lose. I dash to the worktop and grab the meat knife. A drunk Sebastian is lying in the warm water, eyes closed. Three lightning strikes. That’s all it took. Never knew I had such strength. 

I cross the hall into the shower room. Hot water cascades over bruised arms, pinched nipples, between ivory thighs shown no regard for their beauty. Night after night after night. Standing in a cloud of steam I feel blood run down my thigh. I turn off the shower, but it will not stop dripping. 

tip, tap,  

tip, tap, 

tip, tap. 

Naked, I stumble into the bathroom. Sebastian is still lying there, but this time his eyes are wide open, a contorted grin looking up at me, a yellow duck floating onn blood. 

Bastard, I scream. You f-ing bastard. 

Now back into the kitchen. Cold water drips from the tap, pastelling the bloodstained towel.  

tip, tap, 

tip, tap, 

tip, tap… 

Stop. Stop. My head is bursting. Everything is too loud.  


Second Place: Cadaver House by Martin J. White

There are some wonderful descriptions in this story – the ghostly mist and the cat committing genocide. I like the concept of the story and the turn at the end. It left me asking questions and looking for more.

 

This would be the last time.  

            I had delivered the goods three times, and every time he was displeased.  

            ‘It has to be fresh!’ He complained. 

A slice of the moon offers a pale glow in the dark hours, and a ghostly mist strokes the damp ground like the long fingers of an old hag. I watch the cats’ eyes moving amongst the gravestones committing genocide on the resident rodents from behind a leprous yew tree.  

The two men I had been watching finally put their shovels over their shoulders and walk away from the freshly dug soil. I wait for the sound of the churchyard gate to close, and I move forward with my shovel and horse.  

It must be fresh; it must be male; it must be this and must that! Damn that Doctor! 

My hands bleed with every pass of the shovel, for this had been a task I commit regularly, and yet the bastard hasn’t paid me. This cadaver will be warm; I will demand double my price.  

Eventually, my shovel hits the hard coffin lid, the usual stench of rotten flesh being devoured by parasites is absent; this is exciting; tonight, I will drink like a king.  

Attaching rope around the handles of the coffin and to the saddle of my mare, I move her forward. The coffin easily comes out of the earth, sliding along the damp grass.  

Something is wrong? Why is the coffin so light? Please no, don’t let it be a child’s remains. My evening of rum and whores evaporites, and I decide to prize open the casket. 

Empty? Why would they bury an empty— 

I spin in time to see the shovel come towards my head, and I see my fate in the crazed, freakish face of the Doctor.  

Third Place: Desperate Measures by Natalie Morant

 The reveal that the killer is thirteen is nicely done here; it subverts our expectations and brings us something original away from a common ‘battered-wife’ theme.

I watched as Adam’s face screwed up in fury at a message on his phone and he hurled the whisky glass at the wall. Its poisoned contents dribbled to the floor. I’d failed again and he had been saved by his temper. I straightened from the keyhole and crept back to bed. 

I couldn’t afford another botched attempt. At some point Adam – I preferred to call him that – would guess what I was doing. Next time, the last time, I would use a more direct approach. The result would be death for him, or, almost certainly, death for me. 

Every evening while I cleared away the pans and plates from the dinner I’d cooked, Adam would fall asleep in front of the tv. If I made too much noise, he would wake up and shout at me. Then would come the invisible punches. I called them invisible because he would make sure, even though he was half drunk, that the bruises would be hidden under clothes. He did have self-control when he wanted to use it. 

That night, I padded carefully around the kitchen in my socked feet, like I always did. But instead of putting the sharp knives in the dishwasher, I picked up the longest and before I had time to lose courage, I walked up behind the armchair he was slumped in, reached over the top and plunged the knife into his chest. To be honest I was surprised how easy it was. His eyes opened for a second as the blood flowed out of him and that was it. At last, I’d done it.  

Now I live in a locked room, but I feel more free than I can remember. Do I have nightmares? No. Killing Adam was the best thing I’ve ever done. So far. After all, at thirteen years old I’ve got my whole life ahead of me. 

HWS Report: Dr Cheryl Butler and Rowan Suart -14th December 2021

Report by Sarah Noon

What a great way to end the year!  Our meeting on 16th December 2021 was all about celebrating Jane Austen, on what would have been her birthday (she was born on 16th December 1775).

The first part of the evening (after a very successful book fair) was a talk given by Dr Cheryl Butler, entitled “Jane Austen and Southampton Spa.”  A little-known fact about Southampton is that it was a Spa Town between 1750 and 1940.  During this time Austen visited Southampton, in fact living there on three separate occasions. 

Dr Butler has a keen interest in discovering how Southampton inspired Austen and finding evidence of this within her novels.  Her first port of call was Northanger Abbey.  Originally titled “Susan”, Austen wrote this gothic novel after a stay at Southampton Spa.  Dr Butler tells us that whilst the manuscript was at the publishers, Austen asked for it back, wanting to further work on it following her time in Southampton Spa (in the novel, Southampton’s Dolphin Hotel and other landmarks are mentioned).

Dr Butler discusses how the description of the gothic Northanger Abbey itself is heavily influenced by nearby Netley Abbey.  There were many cultural references to Netley Abbey at this time including paintings from Constable and Turner as well as poems and music inspired by the ruins. In 1806, when the Gothic movement was at its height, Austen moved back to Southampton, living opposite Southampton Castle – another Gothic building.  Dr Butler explains that it is around this time that “Susan” is rewritten by Austen and renamed Northanger Abbey.

Dr Butler’s talk gave us a fascinating insight into Jane Austen’s links to Hampshire and Southampton in particular, and her research culminates in her book “Jane Austen & Southampton Spa.”

The second part of the evening was an intimate and captivating performance given by actress Rowan Suart entitled “Austen Sisters” in which Rowan performed letters written between Jane Austen and her younger sister, Cassandra.  The recital also featured extracts from Austen’s early writings (“Juvenilia”) as well as poems and excerpts from her novels (in particular, Persuasion). 

Suart began by explaining that Austen had six brothers in addition to her sister, and that she had a particularly close bond with Cassandra.  As a result, Suart explains, Austen knew about sisterhood, and this is frequently reflected in her novels where she constantly explores this relationship – perhaps none more so than the Bennett sisters in Pride and Prejudice.

Rowan’s commanding performance enabled the audience to make an emotional connection to Austen, further understanding the person behind the novels – someone about whom we know relatively little with regards to her personal life.

Epistolary Gossip – December 2021 Competition Results, Adjudication by Dr Cheryl Butler

Dr Cheryl Butler, playwright, author and historian, and speaker at our Christmas 2021 meeting, kindly agreed to be the adjudicator for our December Competition.

This month’s competition was one for those creative letter writers among us. The brief this month was:

Write a letter to a close relative with gossip about your mutual acquaintance. (300 words)

And the winners are:

First Place – John Quinn with Barking Up the Wrong Tree

Second Place – Martin J. White with Carfax House

Third Place – Graham Steed with Marooned

Highly Commended – Rob Stuart for Where’s George?

Highly Commended – Sam Christie for The Bengal Tiger

Cheryl’s opening adjudication comments:

The inspiration for the competition came from the theme for this evenings event, the writer Jane Austen is of course a novelist with an international reputation but she was also a an inveterate letter writer. Her letters are full of gossip about friends, neighbours and persons of interest, but also contain little creative vignettes often about her nearest and dearest. She also had a waspish wit, and if you are going to be insulted then being insulted by Jane Austen – in a recent Who Do You Think You Are programme, I was the local expert brought in to see if Joe Sugg was related to Jane Austen – for the programme sadly not – but we spent a happy hour laughing at the insults Miss Austen levelled at Joe’s 4 times great aunt. 

These were the topics and flourishes I was looking for in this competition. 

First Place: Barking Up the Wrong Tree by John Quinn

I loved the idea of the scandal (illegitimate children something of a feature in Austen novels, along with unsuitable partners) did not guess the twist until the PS so that is what just tipped the final decision in this writer’s favour – but it was very close between the top three  …

Anna,

I’ve fantastic news – take it as read that my family are as boringly healthy and predictable as ever, then we can skip the mundane and get straight to ‘the sandwich filling, not the boring bread,’ as Daddy used to say.

Lily is pregnant! You’re the first, other than the medic’s and Hubby Harry, to know. I’m not even sure Lily has realised the significance yet…

And this time we know who the father is! Well, there’s a bit of a tale to tell, for goodness sake. It was AI, artificial – no, not intelligence – insemination. The donor was chosen out of a catalogue – whatever next – beautiful, brainy and a boxer; what more could you ask for in a stud?

Given that AI gets rid of all that mucky, rather sordid side of procreating, there must be a downside, right? Well, there is – the scan has shown there isn’t going to be one little one, but three!!! Hubby Harry is worried (of course he bloody well is, when isn’t he?) that we won’t have enough room. I had to tell him straight, ‘She’s family, for God’s sake! What are we going to do, kick her out onto the street?’ He can be so lame at times.

Anyway, Lily is practically glowing: shiny hair, eating like a horse and sleeping for Britain. We’re going on long walks every day, either across the heather and around the golf course or, for a change, we jump into the Discovery, park up in the woods and have a proper ramble. As she gets bigger, we may have to be a little less ambitious, a walk around the green may have to suffice.

We’re now making plans – I wanted a birthing pool, but Lily prefers showers to baths, so that’s out of the question, but it’s definitely going to be a home birth.

Elle X ,

P.S. You’ve got first pick of the litter, if you’re still after a puppy?


Second Place: Carfax House by Martin J. White

A dark entry, pushing the upper boundaries of Middle Grade and turning the spirit of Christmas on its given the theme for my presentation, I had to applaud this nod to the Gothic, plus a hint of Netherfield Hall – so not quite Pride & Prejudice and Zombies  – but as Jane Austen was a huge fan of gothic novels which feature in her books and letters, a worthy entry 

Marigold Smythe 
River View House
Purfleet
East London

       Monday, November 7th, 1897 

       My dearest Anne, 

      I hope this letter finds you well and the children in good health? 

     Following up on my previous correspondence, I must enlighten you on the strangest of occurrences. As you may recall, I was delighted by the news that a distinguished Romanian businessman had purchased the neighbouring property Carfax House.  

As you know, this property is in disrepair and a blight on the neighbourhood. I trusted a new owner would invest in the property and resurrect it to its former glory. I anticipated conversing with the new owner, a well-travelled gentleman, intelligent and sophisticated.  

It has been a month since his arrival, and I am yet to cast my eyes upon him. My husband informs me, he has seen the gentleman leaving the house after nightfall, and what hour he returns remains a mystery. The house continues to be in a state of ill repair, and to make the matter worse, it appears he owns a pack of dogs that howl in the early hours and wake me from my slumber— 

Tuesday, November 8th, 1897 

I have endeavoured to learn this gentleman’s name and have discovered he is, in fact, a Count! This afternoon I posted a note through his door inviting him for supper this evening. I must say there was something off about the house. The dogs I mentioned before are nowhere to be seen, and there is foul odour radiating from the place that reminded me of that bloody iron smell in a butcher’s shop. It is nightfall here, and I must ready myself in case our guest arrives. The cook has made the most scrumptious garlic roasted poussin. I hope this will be satisfactory; I have no idea what Romain gentlemen eat? 

Our guest has arrived. I will write more about the encounter shortly; I am incredibly excited to finally meet this Transylvanian Count— 

Third Place: Marooned by Graham Steed

 I liked the family dynamic is this letter, again in Austen’s novels and in her real life there was constant speculation on who was going to inherit what, and the worthiness of participants of that inheritance. Often the Austen family were disappointed in their hopes, and then there is the showing up of the writer –reminded me of Emma getting caught out on Box Hill.

Hi Sis,  

There’s something strange going on with Sally. I don’t mean she’s seen the Light or run off with the milkman. Poor thing. Is it really five years since her Harry passed? Actually, I don’t think the word ‘poor’ really applies because I hear she has come into some money. I saw it on her Facebook page – well, she hinted anyway, and what’s more, hinted at inheritance! 

Yes, yes, you’ll call me an internet nosey parker. But, I’m curious. Sally is our step-sister and I thought that after Harry passed, she had no other family but us, and Father has made it clear that you, me, and her all benefit equally from his Will.  

Anyway, she’d replied to a Facebook friend: ‘Haven’t decided what to with the money yetSo unexpected! Perhaps a cruise?’ 

See! My Bill’s always saying, ‘Stop trunking, Liz,’ but that’s when I’m peering through the nets. And if sisters can’t gossip together, who can? But this is different. Bill and I promised we’d go on a cruise when Father passed, but he’s still too blinking healthy! 

Then, to add insult to injury, another post: I’m going to plant a tree for Edward. I’m so grateful. An uncle I never knew I had!’ 

Who the blazes is Uncle Edward? And Sally is going to benefit from Father’s Will as well? Cheek, I say. Sally’s had her pay out, but we’re still waiting! 

It’s keeping me awake at night and I’m back on the Andrews Liver salts and whenever I see an advert on the tele for cruises, I feel so achingly sad that I weep for warm Atlantic air, sea as blue as a mackerel skin, the comforting churn of engines – weep, because I’m still marooned in Bognor Regis!!! 

*    *    * 

Heavens… Sally’s sent me a post: Going to book a cruise, Sis. I want to repay the many kindnesses you’ve shown me, so I’m offering to pay for you to join me…  

Highly Commended: Where’s George? by Rob Stuart

Again, another gothic theme in this letter, this time with more of a Sweeney Todd motif. It had that Austen flight of fancy – though hers was related to imagining love affairs between improbable partners rather than novel ways of disposal.  

Dear Harriet,

Funny you should ask about George and Mary. I bumped into her the other day at the Food Bank where I volunteer two days a week. She was dropping off a great bundle of fresh sausages. You remember, her son gave her that sausage maker for Christmas. Alan, that is. Not Peter. He’s moved to Kazakhstan. Something about a problem with the tax people.

I haven’t seen him for ages. George, that is, not Peter. Mind you, he doesn’t come out much. Just stays at home and lets her run around after him. Between you and me and the bedpost, I think he’s usually three sheets to the wind by lunchtime. Never does a tap. Makes her run around after him, wait on him hand and foot.

She seems to be doing up the garden, digging up part of the lawn. I suppose she laying down a patio. He won’t help her, lazy bugger. My friend Joyce saw her in B&Q the other day, in the tool section. She was buying an axe. Funny thing is, there are no trees or bushes in her garden. Maybe she’ll plant some to go with the new patio.

She gave me a couple of pounds (in old money!) of her sausages which I cooked for our tea. I must say, she made a really good job of them. Henry ate four of them straight off and you know what he’s like with his food. She said she was off to drop some off at the care home, too. What is she like? An angel, that’s what. Bless.

Will I be seeing you over Christmas? I might have some of her bangers left!

Love

Jenny

Highly Commended: The Bengal Tiger by Sam Christie

This one made me think of Christmas, and of receiving gifts not quite the one on your Christmas list – Giles was brave, if potentially foolhardy in addressing his concerns, in Austen novels ungrateful sons, or those perceived as ungrateful, often find themselves cut out of the will of offended parents.

Dear Father, 

I write on a delicate matter. It is connected to the Bengal tiger skin (and partial head) that you entrusted to my care. I do recognise that it is something of a family heirloom, however this is 2021 and not 1946 and change is in the air. 

I would also point out that I did not shoot it and that I do not really approve of its demise. Now I do understand that Great Uncle Reggie saved you and your sister’s lives by his actions, which I still cannot fully believe since his hands didn’t stop shaking until after ‘tiffin’, but due to his choice of firearm, the skin itself has never been particularly pleasing. I find it hangs lazily and due to the quantity of holes looks a little like a furry colander with stripes. 

Generally, and as far as I understand such matters, it is customary to use a rifle in big game circles; but Reggie used a Bren Gun. As usual our family managed a first, but I feel this may be a first we might be tempted to forget.  

Of course the thing looks ridiculous in my bedsit and only the other day I managed to scare off a wonderful girl I had been courting as she also happened to be a vegetarian and a rather keen environmentalist. The thing looms. 

Mr Xi assures me that there will be little to no paperwork and has arranged to meet me under the A56 flyover near Little Sodbury tomorrow. Father, it is you that lives in the Cotswolds; I am a writer on Universal Credit. Mr Xi has offered me £10,000 and that is therefore that. 

I am relentlessly your son, 

Giles