Elin’s Story

The time has come I think, when I should say something about Elin’s Story, the novel I have been working on since 2008.

Elin
Elin adapted from a drawing in the collection of the British Library.
Late in 2007 I realised that my 50th birthday was looming over the horizon and that if I was going to do anything at all about my long-term dream of writing a work of fiction, I had better get started. I arranged to take a year off from the school where I was working and one quiet afternoon I assembled a list of all the book projects I had started or sketched over the previous 30-odd years. There were more than 20.

I realised I could either start a completely new project or pick one of the ideas in my list and see if I couldn’t take it through to a conclusion. After much hesitation I finally decided what I really wanted was to write an historical novel.

Elin’s Story is the working title and I haven’t yet come up with a better one, though I now have a concept of a series of volumes, the first one of which is called The Long Way to London. Elin’s is at bottom a remarkable, true story. I know that sounds like publicity blurb for half a hundred films and TV shows, but I think it’s justified.

My heroine, Elin Ulfsdotter, was born in Sweden, probably on the estate of her father just south of Söderköping. If you look in a modern road atlas the estate is called Fillingerum, but if you visit the area and look in older documents you’ll find the name Fyllingerum, and that’s the one I have chosen to use. She was born in 1549 or 1550 and in 1564 she took service as a maid of honour with Princess Cecilia, King Gustaf Vasa’s most troublesome daughter. The Princess was about 24, had recently married an impoverished German Margrave, and was tended by a small court that already included four maids of about her own age and a more mature Lady in Waiting.

Elin was 14 when she joined this court and within six months the Margrave, the Princess and all her attendants had left Sweden ostensibly on their way to visit the Margrave’s lands just south of Luxembourg. In fact they were on their way to England, to the court of Queen Elizabeth on whom Princess Cecilia had a kind of fan crush.

The long way to London took them by way of the Baltic, Finland, Poland, Prussia, the Netherlands and the English Channel. They arrived in September in 1565 making a bit of a sensation, and left again – all but one of them – the following April – literally (and I do mean literally) chased from the country by the Princess’s creditors. Left behind was the now 16-year-old Elin. She transferred her allegiance to Queen Elizabeth and in 1571, aged 21, married the Queen’s step-uncle William Parr, Marquess of Northampton. Their marriage lasted no more than five months. Her elderly bridegroom (he was more than old enough to be her father) expired and Helena, Marchioness Northampton – as she was now styled – moved back to court as a Lady in Waiting to the Queen.

Although most of my working life I have been teaching English, I trained as an historian. The period in which Elin’s Story is set is the third quarter of the 16th century, approximately 1550 to 1577. This is a period I studied, both at school and as a student at university, and as I’d taken an interest in it ever since, I thought I knew it. As I had already done some research, as I knew the outline of my story, I thought the writing would take about six months.

Ha!

Getting on for six years later the novel is still not finished. What went wrong?

Well, in a sense nothing went wrong I just discovered there was much more to the story than I first realised. In another sense you could say that my sensibilities as an historian got in the way of my sensibilities as a writer. Not only was there more to the story that I first realised, there were also many questions about characters, settings and events that I could not allow myself to just invent answers to. Not until I had first made as sure as I could that nobody knew the actual answer to a question was I able to let myself dream up a plausible solution.

On top of this I discovered that, for me, writing was not an easy process. It used to be. I can remember as a child entertaining myself with invented stories, spoken aloud to an empty room. That spontaneity is not something I’ve lost exactly, but I have had to dig quite deep to find it. And of course there are the practical matters of plotting, description, dialogue, pacing, rhythm… I have become an artist of the first line, the first paragraph, the first page. Or at least, I have written very many first lines, paragraphs, pages only to toss them away again.

I’ve started writing Elin’s Story five times. I mean I have five times re-envisioned the novel and written 40, 50 or 60 pages before grinding to a halt. What stops me is often the fear that what I am writing is not good enough. Not sufficiently interesting.

I started writing a novel that begins in the present before slipping back 450 years in a complex timeshift.

I started writing a novel that starts with a long descriptive passage of dawn breaking over the River Thames one morning in 1576.

I started writing a novel of flashbacks that got so complex and involved even I lost track of where I was in the story.

I started writing an epistolary novel in cod Shakespearean English. Forsooth.

Elin
Elin adapted from a drawing in the collection of the British Library.
In my upbeat moments I tell myself that this is a learning process, that each of the versions of the story I’ve written brings me closer to the real story. Sometimes I believe it. In my less cheerful moments I berate myself for wasting my time. After each abandonment the story lies fallow, but something always comes along to wake it back to life. It’s often a conversation, and it often involves some poor individual who asks me about the story. And I launch into an account and my enthusiasm rekindles. Dammit, it is a good story!

The latest version has the story told partly through the eyes of Elin herself, partly through another character who also really existed. George North was the author of the first description in English of Sweden and one of Princess Cecilia’s English teachers. I haven’t hit the 50 page dead zone yet, but I have my fingers crossed – and because I live in Sweden my thumbs held too – that this time I will break the barrier and push on to the very end.

Watch this space!


This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

What is your earliest memory?

Most people have childhood memories from when they were about five or six years old. For some, though, their first seven, eight, even nine years can be a blank, while others remember things from much earlier. Supposedly, no memories at all means you had a placid and contented childhood since we only remember things that are exciting or frightening. (This doesn’t really account for suppressed memories of childhood trauma though, so how reliable is it as a theory? OK, let’s not go down that path!)

Dad at 36
My father in 1958, the year I was born. Taken from a negative my mother found in her papers after he died. Note the shape of the packet of cigarettes – his death – in the pocket over his heart.
Then comes the difficulty of dating. Mostly we don’t remember years and dates, so dating a memory comes down to family chronology: “It must have happened before we moved… after we got the dog… when mum was working…” And so on.

My earliest memory is of standing with my father to watch oil tankers – long lorries with cylindrical loads – driving onto a ship. The tankers are green and yellow and the side of the ship has opened and the tankers are driving aboard. There is a wide band of sand between me and the action. The sand is yellow but dull somehow, not yellow in the same way as the tankers are yellow. And there is a thin, dark blue line, which is the sea, and above it is a blue sky that goes up to the edge of sight.

Just to my left is my father. Though I do not see him, cannot picture him, I am sure who it is and he is holding my hand.

This memory must come from when we lived in Qatar, before my sister was born, so I can be no older than about two and a half. Say the latter months of 1960. My father was a transport engineer working for British Petroleum (company livery: yellow and green) and my mother and I lived with him in Qatar for about a year until mum, heavily pregnant with my sister, took me and flew home to give birth in the same hospital where I’d been born. We never returned.

When I came to search for a memory, an image to put into my fifty word poem about my father, this is the memory that came, and I married it with another I have, the last I have of him.

Dad (1960 & 1995)

Holding hands: a beginning, an end.

My two-year-small hand in his.
Sunned sand, a primary sea,

green and
yellow tankers driving aboard a
white ship.

My beginning.

Then his end, thirty-five years later.

Dying in a hospital bed.
Not a man for holding hands, he reached for mine.
For comfort.

This is the first poem from a remembered moment in my work in progress, Fifty-Fiftyish (working title). Fifty poems each of fifty words based on memories of incidents, people, feelings, dreams, stories and nightmares from fifty years of my life. I started it when I was fifty, now I’m pushing fifty-six, but I’m more than half way through. You never know, I might have it done in time for my sixtieth!

What is your earliest memory?

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

What’s in a name?

Viggo Mortensen
Viggo Mortensen
I was watching an episode of NCIS, the American criminal series that revolves around the US Naval Criminal Investigation Service, and they were talking about an enemy agent called Viggo. “Ah,” someone says on hearing the name. “A Russian.” And indeed it turns out this character is a Russian. I suppose for an American the name Viggo may sound Slavic, but if you happen to know Viggo is an ancient Norse name and that it’s still used in parts of Scandinavia, then it’s sudden identification as Russian is mystifying. It also destroys any suspension of disbelief you may have built up in respect of the story you’re following. Certainly I was unable to watch the offending NCIS episode to the end. (Or at least, the misuse of the name is the only thing I can remember about it.)

This would be simply a silly story if it weren’t for the fact that only a week or so after hearing Viggo attributed as a matter of course to a Russian, I was proofreading the beginning of a thriller by another wannabe writer and blow me down if I didn’t find another Russian baddie called Viggo.

What is it about Viggo that is getting English writers to ascribe it to evil Slavs?

The only answer I can find is that the film actor Viggo Mortensen played the role of a Russian Mafioso in David Cronenberg’s film Eastern Promises.

I’m going to guess that Eastern Promises made such a big impression on certain English-speaking thriller writers that they linked Viggo Mortensen with his character in the film (who was actually called Nikolai) and without any further research decided: Damn it, Viggo must be a Russian mobster!

It doesn’t actually take a great deal of effort to discover that Viggo Mortensen himself is half-Danish, half-American, but these are – perhaps – details too fine to trouble certain creative brains.

And yet they should be.

Choosing the right name is one of the key elements in building up a fictional character. When you name a character, that name is your label on the character. It’s the quick reference tag you’re going to use to conjure up in your reader’s mind as well as your own a picture of the character whenever you refer to him or her. It’s the handle your reader will grasp to follow the character through your story.

If you make the mistake of giving the character an improbable name (without having a likely reason why they got it), then you are setting your character up to trip your readers into disbelief. Not all readers, of course, but why would you spoil your writing for more readers than you can help?

ABBA Angetha Fältskog
ABBA Angetha Fältskog
Actually, if you are writing a story set in the present and in a society in which you feel at home, then any name you think works probably does. The problems come when you move out of your comfort zone. To give you another Scandi-flavoured example. Many, many English writers if invited to name a Swedish female character will plump for “Agnetha” or “Ingrid”. A wild guess: the first is down to Agnetha Fältskog, the blonde one from Abba, the second to Ingrid Bergman. But as any Swede knows, Agnetha is a rather unusual Swedish woman’s name. According to Statistics Sweden just 609 women in the whole population use it as their first name. The more common spelling, Agneta, is only used as a first name by about 18,000 (though another 16,000 have it as a second name). As for Ingrid, well, that’s a good deal more popular: just under 50,000 women have it as their first name.

Even so, how likely is it that a modern young Swedish beauty would be called Ingrid? (All Swedish women in books by hetero-Anglo male writers are always young and beautiful by the way. It’s axiomatic.) Of all the Ingrids in Sweden today, at least 47,500 were born before 1960. In the last 16 years only just over 1000 little girls have been named Ingrid, but few of them are older than about 8. It’s not impossible that a nubile Swedish beauty of today could be called Ingrid; it’s just… unlikely.

The most common Swedish naming practice is to give new-born babies a name from an earlier generation than their parents. Ingrid was popular in the 20s and 30s (and possibly earlier), and now its popularity is climbing again. Obviously this isn’t always true, but it’s common enough for it to be obvious in school class lists – and I’ve seen my share of those – and it’s born out in the naming statistics kept by Statistics Sweden.

So what should you call your Swedish beauty?

Ingrid Bergman
Ingrid Bergman
Well, the most popular girls names in the 1990s were Emma, Sara, Elin, Amanda and Hanna. And there we meet another problem. If you’re not writing a book set in Sweden and for a Swedish audience, I guess you want a name that has an exotic quality about it. It’s Swedish, it ought to sound Swedish – but (with the possible exception of Elin) all of these might be British or American girls. Things don’t get better with the next most popular five: Johanna, Julia, Emelie, Josefin, Anna.

Where are the Fridas, the Ingas, the Björks, the Gretas? Well, they’re in the statistics, but they’re simply not that usual. Inga is the most common, but most Ingas are in their eighties.

What lesson to take from this? This is Sweden. Every country, every community even, is likely to have its own naming quirks. If you must name a character with a foreign name, do try the name out on someone who knows the community well to avoid making a mistake. And if you have a name you’re wedded too – if the girl has got to be called Agnetha – then come up with a reason. (Her mother was an Abba groupie. She hates/loves her given name because it made her stand out as a child.) And there, you see, what might be a flaw gets turned into a bit of extra back-story to bulk your character out.

There’s lots more to say about choosing names for characters so I expect I’ll come back to this topic again. For now though, I think that’s enough. Thanks for reading.

The illustrations are clipped from copyright free photos on Wikipedia. Statistics are with thanks to Statistics Sweden (SCB).

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

At the Quill goes #Blogg52

#blogg52

I suspect this blog entry will be read by more people than usual, most of them new to me and probably native Swedish speakers, so I shall try to keep it short and sweet.

At the Quill was conceived as my blog about writing, reading and self-publishing, and started with high hopes last summer (2013), but for various reasons has been languishing throughout the winter. I’ve been wanting to breath new life into it and the opportunity just came along to participate in a blog challenge I think I might be able to meet.

#Blogg52 is the challenge. It’s being is being co-ordinated and curated by two Swedish authors, Susan Casserfelt and Anna Hellqvist, so most of the participants are likely to be writing in Swedish. I think it very generous of them to have included me in the roll call as I don’t write in Swedish. However I do plan to commit myself to the requirements of the challenge:

  • to publish at least one entry every Wednesday for the next year
  • to announce the publication on Twitter using #blogg52
  • to announce the publication on Facebook in the #blogg52 Facebook group
  • to read other people’s entries – if not everybody’s then at least one person’s every week – and offer comment and encouragement

The latter, I may try to give on the relevant website in Swedish (with my standing apology for my own poor command of that language). And of course if anyone feels like commenting on any of my pieces, Swedish is perfectly OK. I can read it, other #Blogg52 participants will be able to read it. Anglophone visitors will get a frisson of Nordic Noir and if they want a rough translation there’s always Google. (More on my feelings about of the Google translation engine, no doubt, in coming weeks.)

Another thing that may happen is that I use someone else’s blog entry as a jumping off point for one of my own. For example, at the time of writing the latest entry on Susan’s website is “Hur hittar författaren på namnen?” (How do writer’s find names?) I think names are important and I think some writers don’t give them the attention they deserve, so right there is a potential entry. The latest on Anna’s website is “Att börja en början och att avsluta på ett bra sätt” in which she writes about the difficulties in finding good beginnings and satisfactory endings for books. Another excellent topic.

Susan and Anna write that their objective with #Blogg52 – for themselves – is to build up a bank of their own texts which they will be able to collect into book form and publish. This isn’t a requirement for everybody who takes part, but seems like a good motivator. For myself, my plan is to try to write entries of between 600 and 800 words and not to ramble on too much.

What are my chances of completing the challenge?

Up until not very long ago I would have said they were remote. I have a bad track record of starting things and not finishing them. But I have managed for more than a year now to publish a daily photograph from Gothenburg on my photo blog so I’m hopeful that I’ll be able to do this too.

Apart from the photo blog, which may – or may not – lead to me publishing a photo book, I have a couple of other book projects in hand which I’ll be writing about. One is my historical novel, Elin’s Story, the other is a book of poetry with the working title 5050-ish. These are the two private projects that are uppermost in my mind, but I’m also currently writing teaching material for two employers and translating texts for various customers through my firm JNELS. I anticipate that all of these will feed into my blogging here over the next year.

Short and sweet was my goal for this entry. Well, I’m now pushing towards the 700 word mark (and right there is another potential blog entry – how Swedes don’t tend to think in terms of words but prefer pages to describe the length of long texts). As for how sweet this is, you decide. But now I’ll bring this to an end.

Till next time, cheerio!

#blogg52

Here be Dragons

DragonThere is a scene in The Player of Games, a science fiction novel by Iain M Banks, in which the protagonist Jernau Gergeh, while swimming backstroke, is dictating into a microphone that is tracking his movements up and down a swimming pool. I have to confess that even I found that unlikely, but what an exciting idea!

My ideal has me leaning back in my armchair, eyes closed, feet up and arms relaxed, speaking my novel into the air while somewhere across the room a computer records my voice and puts my words into accurate text. Alternatively I see myself walking in the countryside, pausing by inspiring scenery and dictating descriptions that, far away a computer in my home turns into immortal poetry.

Every few years over the last 15 or so I have invested in the latest example of voice recognition software in the hope that now my dream will come true. It hasn’t – yet – but hope springs eternal in the human breast.

I can’t remember who made the first software I tried out, but I know I had a stint with IBM’s ViaVoice and now I’m working with Dragon NaturallySpeaking from a company called Nuance.

I’ve been using Dragon fairly regularly for the last couple of years, and I wrote a blog entry on the subject for my main website a year ago which began in the same way as this, but I’ve been meaning to update it since the upgraded version of the software came out. I’m now using version DNS 12.5 with a Bluetooth microphone, and it is possible for me at last to get up from my chair walk across the room and dictate while on the move. (And you can’t see me, but that’s exactly what I’m doing at the moment.)

I use Dragon principally for translating. That is to say I look at the Swedish text I have to work with, I reformulate it in my mind and then I dictate the translated version into a Word document. This works rather well.

I’ve also used the programme to transcribed texts. This is a bit more complicated – I have to have the sound input through an earphone in my one ear while the microphone hangs off the other ear. But if I’ve once got it set up right it’s quite efficient.

And of course I’m using the Dragon software also to write blog entries. Not all by any means, but some.

What I still can’t do is use it to dictate and create fiction.

The instructions I have tell me that I should speak in full sentences and as naturally as possible so that Dragon can identify correctly what I’m trying to say. But I can’t dictate like that when I’m writing a story. I dictate as I think: I say something, I change my mind, I repeat myself, I hesitate, I pause for thought, I go back and change words, phrases, punctuation. And Dragon doesn’t usually appreciate me doing this.

All the errors the software generates seem to be multiplied when I speak in my authorial style. Pronouns are misrepresented and punctuation marks are sometimes written out in full (often incorrectly, so “full stop” is printed as “Well, stop!”). Hesitation noises get transcribed as random conjunctions or prepositions, and sometimes words I’m dictating are interpreted as commands. If I’m not looking at the screen when that happens – on one of my peregrinations around the room – I come back to discover that the computer is merrily searching for something bizarre on the Internet. (And just there, when I said “commands”, the software cheerfully opened the “My Commands Editor” input box!)

On the plus side, a very positive feature of using dictation software – once you’ve got the damn thing to accept that you want to dictate in British rather than American English – is that it spells everything correctly. Of course this has its down side too. It means you don’t always spot the homophones that Dragon has chosen to use instead of the word you were actually thinking of. (To/two/too seems to be a particular problem, but even “our” for “are” or “year” for “ear” – to mention too two – damn it – that have happened while I’ve been working on this.) And it still gets some grammar wrong (writing for example “use” for “used” when I can’t see why it should make the mistake, given that the word is used in context). But generally speaking I’m quite satisfied with it.

To be sure, I’m still a long way from my ideal, but I’ve come round to understanding that I can’t really blame Dragon for that. No matter how many authors I read of who could – who can – dictate reams of text without hesitation (Winston Churchill, Dan Brown) I’ve come to recognise that dictating creatively just isn’t my forte.