With much of the country still snow-covered and shivering it was encouraging to see most of the groundhogs dragged out of their nests on 2nd February forecast an early spring, including a stuffed specimen prognosticating in Pennsylvania. Apart from the fact they are too savage to drag out of dens and sleep too late to be of assistance in forecasting spring, Ambrose Bierce's claim that hibernating bears emerging then are so thin they need two efforts to cast a shadow has never been confirmed so far as we know.
What we do know is the winter-weary look forward to seeing the last of the snow and in the meantime, this latest bone-chilling issue of Orphan Scrivener may make readers wish we had hibernated. Since we didn't, feel free to urn up the heat a bit and read on...
Then I explained the nature of Kendal mint cake.
It's been years since I ate any and it has occurred to me it's the sort of reference that could be used to unmask undercover agents. You know, like being able to sing more than the first verse of the British national anthem or the fashion in which they wield knife and fork. For it is not a cake in the sense of the much despised Yuletide fruitcake but rather a small chocolate bar sized smooth slab coloured white with a sparkly look to it and a strong mint taste.
It is not however a sweet we could afford to buy with our shilling pocket money because it was not sold in our part of Newcastle, if indeed anywhere in the city. To make up for the omission, the shelf positioned just inside the door of the corner grocery shop two streets away tempted passing urchins with other sweet delights at a manageable costs, sometimes as low as an old halfpenny at a time when twelve pennies made a shilling.
One of my favourites was, and indeed remains, anything compounded of licorice. Thus my choice might well be a licorice whip, several inches long and bootlace thin, or a catherine wheel formed of a wider strip wound around a flat coin of licorice, or perhaps a piece of licorice root, good to chew on and lasting longer than any other offerings made from that part of Glycyrrhiza glabra.
There were long-lasting gobstoppers that bulged out the cheek and magically changed colour the longer the purchaser resisted the temptation to crunch them and bull's eyes, a brown globular sweet somewhat like clear candy. Flying saucers were fun even though they didn't last long, being made of thin wafer enclosing sherbet. Being a licorice hound I preferred sherbet dips, cyclindrical containers of yellow powder equipped with a licorice stick to lick and dip out the contents. And then there were bright yellow lemon drops whose pucker power was so strong that even thinking about them brings back their powerful sourness, and aniseed balls, shiny and reddish-brown.
Later on, with improved economic fortunes, we could buy all manner of toffees. When in funds we sometimes purchased slab toffee in an oblong foil container accompanied by a small, light metal hammer used for smashing it into chunks and thereafter useful for similar domestic tasks.
Toffee cakes were popular at school. They were made in paper cup cake liners and sold by playground entrepreneurs. A bit of experimentation when mum was out revealed heating a quantity of sugar produced something approaching toffee but the evidence was hard to conceal because it was difficult getting hardened sugar-toffee off the pan.
We never tried recreating fruit gums, still a great favourite, and it's Rowntrees for me rather than Maynards', which have a chewier aspect somewhat similar to jelly babies rather than the harder fruit gums of their competitor.
And let's not forget Mars bars, which I hear are now sold fried in certain places, setting civilization back a few years. Turkish Delight, the rose-scented dark pink jelly (gelatin, not jam) confection covered in chocolate, was advertised as from the fabulous east. I wonder what John would have made of it? With his austere tastes he would probably find it as I do, almost too sweet to eat, a complaint that never applied so far as I am concerned to butterscotch, smooth and yellow brown, or dark chocolate.
Many of these sweet delights are available online at British import shops but it's not the same as going into a corner shop where the brown-coated proprietor would deft sliced cheese on the ghastly whirly thing also used to cut thin wafers from a ham or a few slices of bacon or corned beef while chatting away to his customers and miraculously never losing a finger. You could buy two ounces of loose tea or sugar or cheese when money got short towards the end of the work week but you couldn't buy Kendal mint cake or Turkish Delight at the long gone corner shop on Greenhow Place. It was not stocked and even had it appeared on the shelves of stock rising behind the counter it would have been just too expensive for a child clutching a shillings-worth of pocket money.
Unfortunately I've never cared for writing about writing. It is quite possibly because I have no idea what I'm doing at the keyboard -- I've just been winging it -- and thus have nothing useful to impart. But it strikes me that most of what authors say about their art is either self obvious or pure b.s..
To me, writing is not a mechanical process. Ideas are far more important than techniques. Everything you need to know about technique you can find in Strunk and White's Elements of Style, and you probably know most of what's in that little book already.
Picasso once famously remarked that when artists got together they talked about turpentine. But writing, unlike painting, is not a physical medium. Writers don't even have turpentine to discuss. Writers are dealing purely with communication, mind to mind by way of symbols which can be as insubstantial as pixels on a computer screen. Printers might debate inks but it has nothing to do with writing.
Writers can of course describe how they go about their own writing and their personal tastes but how helpful is that? After I read Elmore Leonard laying down his law that books could not ever begin with the weather I glanced at a dozen classic novels at random and noticed that half of them began with the weather.
What is important in writing, in my opinion, is the writer's idiosyncratic imagination. If you are employing someone else's ideas rather than your own ideas, you are not doing anything worthwhile and what are the chances that your original ideas can be conveyed by the techniques someone else uses to convey his or her quite different ideas?
Yes, copying ideas does seem to work so far as publication is concerned. Did so many writers really all decide, practically at once, to start writing about vampires? (Mary and I have joked that we are going to kill off Theodora and then continue the series as She Vampire of Byzantium!) But even there, I would argue, the successful writers are those who bring their own vision to the general concept.
True, if writing is mainly ideas then it can't be taught, because you can't teach anyone to have ideas. But most of us do have ideas and reading too much about writing and the publishing industry can prevent us from noticing that! I believe it is dangerous to pay too much attention to what other writers say about techniques and marketing. It is too easy to obscure one's own ideas -- or to lose track of them entirely -- in fretting over or trying to employ techniques and marketing schemes of others.
What is the basic appeal of writing? We all like to hear stories, don't we? It's a human trait. Even people who don't enjoy reading want to see stories via television or movies. We are also interested in those other people with whom we share the world, who are so much like us but not exactly, who see the world in their own way, and whose stories reflect that.
You can describe techniques, and how to get published, or how to please the critics or this group of readers or that group. There is so much to write about writing. But to me, the only advice that ultimately counts is this.
Tell your own story.
We mention this because the next issue of Orphan Scrivener will grace subscribers' in-boxes on April 15th -- a day on which many US residents are usually found hunched over their yellow legal tablets racing to finish last-minute calculations for their tax return forms both long and short. This year, due to a federal holiday intervening, the IRS has pushed the evil day back to 18th April, so whereas we'll take it as read even the most genteel may feel compelled to utter a curse or two as the due date approaches, if we hear any ripe language on the 15th we'll try not to assume it's directed at the editors of Orphan Scrivener.
See you then!
Mary R and Eric
who invite you to visit their home page, hanging out on the virtual washing line that is the web at http://home.earthlink.net/~maywrite/ There you'll discover the usual suspects, including more personal essays, lists of author freebies and mystery-related newsletters, Doom Cat (an interactive game written by Eric), and our growing pages of links to free e-texts of classic and Golden Age mysteries, ghost stories, and tales of the supernatural. There's also an Orphan Scrivener archive, so don't say you weren't warned! Intrepid subscribers may also wish to pop over to Eric's blog at http://www.journalscape.com/ericmayer/