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Monday 21 November 2011

Fictional Heroes

by Helen

Ladies First...

The first female I fell for was the Little Grey Rabbit in Alison Uttley's charming books. I loved those stories! An early memory is coming out of the Children's Library in the High Street Walthamstow clutching one of those books to my chest, so thrilled because it was one I had not "read". I was about 3 1/2.
I didn't think much of Squirrel, I thought her a bit of a muffin, but Little Grey Rabbit was so kind and thoughtful and lovely. How she put up with Hare's antics I never understood.
There must have been lots of books and characters in between, but my next heroine I met on my 10th birthday (LOL I am writing this on my 57th Birthday!)

We had a party (it didn't go well, the table got knocked over and food fell on the floor, two friends had a squabble and I recall crying for most of the afternoon) One gift I was given looked boring. I could feel it was a book. Heavy hearted I opened the package. To my utter delight and surprise it was a pony book - a story about ponies. I was pony mad and so so wanted a pony of my own (out of the question - I had to wait until I was 16 before that dream was fulfilled)
So I met the next female to influence me on that disastrous birthday – Jill Crewe lead character in Ruby Fergusson’s Jill’s Gymkhana.

I devoured that book – and the next in the series, and the next. I still have it, one of my treasured possessions (and I still enjoy reading it!)
It wasn’t just that I could identify with Jill – and so easily pretend that I was her, and share her pony, Black Boy as if he was really mine. I learnt about ponies alongside Jill’s attempts to ride and her fumblings to tack up, muck out, care for her pony. I WAS Jill! And the Jill books opened the world of pony stories to me. Soon the Pullein-Thompson sister’s books followed, and Pat Smythe’s Three J’s – and Monica Edwards (ah The Summer of the Great Secret and Wish for A Pony – I still have those on my shelf too!) Elayne Mitchell’s Silver Brumby… What I discovered from these books was that the world of fiction could be so absorbing that it became real. A substitute for the disappointments of life. By the time I was 13 I was writing my own pony stories. So Jill Crewe (and Ruby Ferguson) started my writing career.

As I grew older, it was the male characters I began to relate to – but they’ll all get a mention next time…
The first historical character I became intrigued with was a girl who found a green bronze mirror – I was 14 when I read the Green Bronze Mirror by Lynne Ellison – who I now discover, was only 14 when she wrote it. The girl, Karen, finds a bronze mirror and goes back in time to the Roman period (I think Pompeii?) I vividly recall some scenes in the book though – and I’m delighted that I’ve tracked down a copy.

The next influential woman was Guinevere. I was already intrigued by the reality of King Arthur – reading and researching all I could to discover the “truth” about him (I’m not keen on the Medieval tales of knights, holy grails, Merlin, magic and Lancelot – hate him, I’m afraid!) I wanted to discover more about Arthur as a Romano-British war lord – and I read all I could, including fiction. Trouble was, I couldn’t find much fiction to satisfy me. Then I read Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Mists of Avalon. I’m not knocking the book – but boy did I hate her portrayal of Guinevere - what a spoilt brat of a wimp she was! At one point I threw the book across the room because I was so exasperated with her; “Pull yourself together woman – you are Queen of Britain!”

That was it. I couldn’t stand it any longer. I decided to write my own version, of how I thought Gwenhwyfar (as I call her) should behave.

The result was my first adult novel, The Kingmaking, so I suppose I should be grateful to a character I detested!

The Gentlemen. Rogues, warriors, ruffians and the 'phwor' factor!

To follow on from the female characters who have been of influence, here are some of the men who have meant much to my Book Bound life.

Various TV series drew my attention to make-believe characters. Programmes like Fireball XL5 and Stingray (well I was only young!) saw me glued to the Box. I used to dress up as Robin Hood aka Richard Greene’s Maid Marion, and for some reason I had a crush on several “cowboys”: The Virginian, Little Joe from Bonanza, Jim Crown from Cimarron Strip. Oliver Tobias as Arthur of the Britons became an early influence as did Steve in Follyfoot Farm – loved Tom Baker as Dr Who, and much later no one, ever, (so I told myself at the time) could have replaced Sean Bean as Sharpe. Didn’t we all feel that way? I enjoyed the books, but Bernard Cornwell’s written version, while superb books, was not the same as the man on the telly.
I wrote my own stories about my favourite characters, fancifully expanding the TV story-lines. I wonder if way-back-when aspiring writers wrote fan fiction? The Further Adventures of Heathcliff. What Oliver Twist did next? Another Ye Olde Knight’s Tale?

Fictional characters in books, as opposed to TV, have always had the greatest influence. As a young teenager I preferred the girl heroines, identifying with them, but as I matured the guys grabbed my attention. I worked as a library assistant for 13 years, 13 years too long as it turned out for I hated the job. The books were wonderful, the job? No.
So who were these men I met and flirted with between the pages? Winston Graham’s Ross Poldark; Paul Atreides from Frank Herbert’s Dune; Star Pilot Grainger of Brian Stableford’s The Hooded Swan. Aragorn/Strider – my heart skipped a beat for him (and this was the book – we won’t mention the movie!)

Flashman. Jeeves and Bertie Wooster made me laugh – still do. Who else is there? My editor’s own creation of Alexander in her debut novel Rogues and Rebels, set in Devon during the English Civil War; William Brown – Just William. Will Stanton from Susan Cooper’s Dark Is Rising, Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, young Sam in Karen Wright’s Winterne Series, but they are boys. Do they count?

Without any hesitation I can tell you the first character I fell hopelessly in love with though.
I was searching for novels about King Arthur in my local library (given up work by then to be a Mum) I was trying to write my own novel about Guinevere and I noticed a spine with a sword on it and a title which looked promising as Arthurian. Looked inside. Disappointment. It was about King John, still, it seemed interesting so I took it home.

What a read – what a man! No, not King John – Llewelyn ap Fawr in Sharon Penman’s Here Be Dragons. The novel completely captivated me because Llewelyn was so gloriously real. I laughed, cried, shouted and groaned my way through the scenes, desperately wanting to know what happened next but so not wanting the story to end. When it did I sat and cried because the experience had ended. I fought every battle, laughed every laugh and cried every tear with that man!

Despondency set in, how on earth could I ever write as well as Sharon? How could I write a character as vividly realistic? Create a character I and my readers would tumble head-over-heel’s in love with? Tentatively I started re-writing my Arthurian novel making Arthur the main character instead of Gwenhwyfar; I also sent a letter to Sharon thanking her for Llewellyn and inspiring me, another first, for I had never had the courage to write to an author before. (Believe me, most of us like hearing from our fans!) This was pre- e-mail and Internet, the old fashioned way of communicating. To my delight I received an answer and I then had the great pleasure of meeting Sharon herself when she was visiting England. She encouraged me, helped me, showed me where my writing was going wrong: I owe being a published author to Sharon. As a small way of saying ‘thank you’ in turn, I enjoy helping new writers get started.

Coming a close second to Llewelyn is Elizabeth Chadwick’s Greatest Knight – William Marshal. Boy is he a character to leap into a fictional bed with!
My own male characters are, naturally, my main loves and lovers. Arthur I knew intimately for more than ten years, for it took me that long to write what became The Kingmaking and half of Pendragon’s Banner. Finishing the trilogy was horrendous, Arthur had to die. I had to kill him off. I felt like I was ending a beautiful relationship; planning a murder. In the end I wrote the last chapter first then returned to the beginning, which brought Arthur ‘back to life’. Ah! The power of an author!

What was I to write next? I had to find a new man to indulge my imagination. I came across him in a dream.
I was already vaguely interested in the history surrounding the year 1066 and the Battle of Hastings, but to make that period my next novel? I did not think I had the courage or knowledge to write such an epic. I know it sounds a corny clich̩, but I dreamt what was to become the second chapter of Harold the King. Four men riding beside the River Lea, the younger three are arguing, one looks up and sees a flutter of a blue cloak, a girl running across the meadow on the far bank. He had kind eyes, a gentle voice РI awoke and knew instantly that I had seen Harold and the woman he was to love all his life, Edith Swanneck.

The river Lea exists, as does the meadow just outside the town of Waltham Abbey. I walk there often with my dog.
Harold remains a hero but my heart, my very soul, has been captured by one fictional character who, I think, will never be set aside. My pirate. Jesamiah Acorne.

I met him on a beach in Dorset, England, and it was love at first sight. Walking there on a rainy afternoon, planning out the plot of a pirate-based fantasy novel I sat on a rock wondering who the hero of the story was going to be. I looked up and saw him – quite clearly – standing at the sea’s edge twenty or thirty yards away. He had one hand on the butt of the pistol in his belt, the other resting on the hilt of his cutlass. He half turned, I saw the glint of a gold dangling from his ear, an acorn earring. He nodded, lifted his hand and touched his three corner hat.
“Hello Jesamiah Acorne,” I said.

I wonder, do these historical characters become so real in novels because their spirits linger? Is that why they remain “great” men? Do the ‘made up’ ones exist in another plain? A parallel universe, a world which we quaintly describe as 'Imagination'?

I don’t know the truth of it; all I know is Arthur and Harold became real to me and Jesamiah too. He exists, albeit in my head. I hear Jesamiah talking to me, hear him laugh and grumble; can often smell the aroma of rum, even though it is a glass of wine I have in my hand…

Do these charismatic rogues and heroes become real because the authors who create them believe they are real? Or are we all just a bunch of demented scribblers?

... and  the “others”. 
Non Human friends and characters.

This is the third of my favourite characters musings. I’ve done the Ladies and the Gents… so here are ‘The Others’.
Many fantasy books influenced me when I was younger - as indeed they do now I’m older, I might add. Fantasy characters fuelled my imagination to rocket-sized proportions and brightened a somewhat lonely childhood. I was shy, my eyesight was poor, I had no self esteem or self confidence and very few friends. Instead, I had my other friends – the ones who were always there, who never called you names, made fun or let you down. The World of Imagination was a better and brighter place and the characters who lived there were my best friends. Many of them still are. Is there an alternative world perhaps, where furry creatures walk and talk, where unicorns shimmer, dragons fly and those characters we invite into inhabiting our minds become oh so very real?

Technically, Little Grey Rabbit should be here, not under the “Ladies” section, but she was an early heroine so she can stay where I originally put her. After her came various pony and dog books, Skipper by Judith Beresford was a favourite: I so wanted a white German Shepherd. Various bears were friends – Paddington and Winnie the Pooh, although Piglet was always the one I liked best in the stories. I adore honey and also love marmalade sandwiches. (must go make some in a minute)
Beatrix Potter was a frequent guest in my bedroom – Peter Rabbit, Mrs Tiggywinkle, Jemima Puddleduck. I found it fascinating, as an adult, to visit Hill Top in the Lake District where Ms Potter lived and painted some of the illustrations. Wonderful, wonderful place!

Then there were dragons.

Greensmoke by Ruth Manning.
Every time we went to the beach I was certain I would see a curl of green smoke drifting out from a cave and I was going to meet that benign dragon. Never did of course – although I started looking again when my daughter was little. I discovered Dick King Smith because of Kathy (The Hodgeheg, the Fox Busters, Harry’s Mad, Martin’s Mice…) and Jill Tomlinson’s The Owl Who Was Afraid of the Dark “Took a deep breath and fell off his branch….” Having a child is a great excuse to read children’s books.

I had a visit from a welfare worker once because Kathy was having difficulty at school with her reading (turned out she was dyslexic, but I had to discover that for myself, the school had no idea.) This wretched woman started lecturing me about how important it was to read to children in order to get them reading (toffee nosed cow that she was) She gave me a list of 30 books. “These are the sort of stories you should be reading to her.”

Until that moment she had barely allowed me to get a word in edgeways – which is what had made me so cross. I took the list, looked at it and asked to be excused for a moment. Came back a few minutes later with an armful of books. “I have all of them except one,” I announced. She sat with her mouth open for a minute, then took in that not only had I read all those books to my daughter, we had a shelf full of them and we read and re-read them, wallowing in their fun and beauty of language. OK so Kathy found it difficult to read – she knew every one of those stories by heart instead! I then showed the woman the door and told her to clear off.

I discovered more “grown up” dragons as an older teenager. Anne McCaffrey’s Dragons of Pern series were fabulous. Like most people who read Dragonflight and the other books in the series, I wanted my own dragon but had to make do with a cat.
Any unicorn books I devoured – I have pictured a cartoon movie here though, “The Last Unicorn” as I love it,
but book-wise the best was The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge. Every time I look at geraniums I think of tha book. Talking of horses - Black Beauty by Anna Sewell was an early treasure. I defy anyone to read it and not sob at the part where Ginger dies. What a fantastic, beautifully written and emotional book. A good book is one that you read again and again. I have no idea how many times I have sobbed over Black Beauty.

When I moved onto adult fantasy and the Science Fiction genre, I enjoyed The Ship Who Sang (also by Anne McCaffrey) which moved me to tears. I suppose, technically, Helva was human, as she was born with physical deformities. Her brain was placed inside a capsule and with advanced cybernetic enhancements she became the “brain” of a spaceship and with her human “brawn” took me on a flight of immense pleasure.

Another ship is a deep love of mine - The Rose, although she is really real, her fictional counterpart is Surprise in Partick O'Brian's books - and I base my own glorious Sea Witch on her.
Wizards were fascinating long before J.K.R. and Harry P. Ursula Le Guin’s Wizard of Earthsea had me hooked from page one – I especially took delight in the map of the islands.

I love maps in books (which is why I have them in my own!)
Another favourite map was that of Narnia. Reepicheep was the best character in the C.S.Lewis books I think – and I loved Puddleglum the Marshwiggle.
Once I moved from fantasy and science fiction into the world of the historical novel, the “Others” were delegated to the background for several years. That is not to say I stopped reading those genres, but I never made a deep rapport with any specific character. Until I came across a vampire with a difference.

Jazriel of the Legacy of the Dark Kind series – particularly, Blood Lament, was a Vampire that caught my heart – not so much for the story itself or the plot, but the character’s inner troubles shunted the emotions into overload.
Imagine being alive for several thousand years, never changing, forever stuck in the role you were created to play… and having to cope with a broken heart and a desire that would never come true? All Jazriel wanted was his freedom and to follow his heart, but was denied both. Stuck on the not so merry merry-go-round of life, with the ability to regenerate and cheat death leaving no option to go around and around. Imagine wanting to stop the world because you want to get off – but instead it just goes faster and faster. Even his desire to end it all by continuous self harm and an attempt at suicide by riding his precious Ducati into a brick wall, fails. The end of the series is another pass-me-the-Kleenex book.

With nearly all the books I have mentioned above, it is not necessarily the story or the writing that hooked me, but the transportation into the World of Imagination, and the intensity of feeling for the individual characters. That intimate link with time, place, and emotions.
Something I try my best to emulate in my writing.

The Real Surprise

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