Title: Skraelings
Author: Rachel and Sean Qitsualik-Tinsley
Publication date: 2014
Country/culture: Arctic/Inuit


For this year’s Book Diaries, in a departure from my usual focus, instead of being inspired in a random fashion, I’m looking for inspiration that I can take to my writing. (See My Creative Journal to find out why I’m doing this.)


SkraelingsWhat’s it about?

A nomadic Inuit hunter, Kannujaq, happens upon a camp of the Tuniit people, who are under attack from fierce, bearded warriors from over the sea. Kannujaq must discover the camp’s history in order to help the people defend themselves; but in doing so, he learns that the invaders’ motives might not be quite as they first appear.

What did I find out?

One of the book’s central characters is a young shaman boy, Siku, and I discovered a great deal about the different ways in which shamans lived and worked in that society. Because Siku is young, he is believed to have greater strength and be more connected to the Land (Nuna) than adult shamans; this makes him particularly special. We see him living alone, in relative privacy compared to the other camp members who inhabit large family dwellings; this is partly due to their fear and partly so that he has space to work his magic. As the story progesses, we discover that his mother is a shaman too.

I will be featuring shamans (of a sort) in my own novel, so this has been a fascinating study for me. The book has highlighted aspects of shamanism in this particular society, which I will compare with its practice in other cultures, and which I will take into consideration when planning my own characters. I am at the point in my writing where shamans are about to come to the fore, so this is very timely.

What do I now see differently?

The story of Skraelings is told by narrators who occasionally speak to us directly, commenting on the events taking place. Right at the start of the book, they highlight the differences between our world and that of Kannujaq: this is a story set in the old Arctic, over a thousand years ago, and they take pains to point out that things that seem perfectly normal to us would have felt very strange, if not incomprehensible, to Kannujaq.

Kannujaq, then, is presented to us as a strange, alien character – and yet we are clearly meant to see the world from his perspective as he encounters a people who are equally strange and alien to him. That we are able to identify with Kannujaq is down to the writers’ skill in describing his perspectives, thoughts and feelings; and by the end of the story, we even feel that we know the Tuniit and the invaders from over the sea. The strangers are no longer strange.

As my novel features characters who are also ‘strange’ (vampires, werewolves, ghosts etc), this is a particularly useful lesson to learn: I will need to ensure I focus on their humanity as much as (if not more than) what makes them different.

How will this inspire my writing?

In some way, everything I’ve written about above is either inspiration or learning for my writing: facts about shamanism; how to depict sympathetic strangers. But I had one more, completely separate, lightbulb moment. The book reminded me of an idea I had a few years ago for a (different) story, set in the frozen wastes and featuring a camp of people with their own peculiar customs. As with my novel, this story teeters on the boundary between medical science and fantasy, but whereas the novel falls definitively under the heading ‘fantasy’, I think this other story will remain deliberately vague. Or perhaps it’s sci-fi rather than fantasy?

I know that I’m also being deliberately vague in this description of it: that’s because it’s not fully formed. I started to develop it a bit more last year when I was attending a local playwriting group; so to some extent it has evolved in my head as a dramatic production. However, as I do want to write more short stories (see earlier posts!), this is a helpful reminder of one idea that it’s perhaps time to take out and dust down: in whatever format it chooses to emerge…

A musical interlude

I was initially tempted to assign People Are Strange by The Doors to this book, but then I remembered that I’d allocated it, retrospectively, to The Legend of Sleepy Hollow from year 1 (you’ll see this if you’ve bought the book: the music tracks are in an appendix). So I had to find something else.

Given the short space of time I’d allowed myself for this blog post, my subconscious hasn’t had its usual freedom to noodle around and make connections, so I’m not entirely happy with this choice – but it will do. The ‘Big Country’ in this song does at least give me a sense of the Arctic wastes and Kannujaq’s wanderings, even if the country in question is probably Scotland rather than Canada.

The House of the Spirits

The House of the Spirits
Title: The House of the Spirits
Author: Isabel Allende (translated by Magda Bogin)
Publication date: 1982
Country/culture: South America (Chile)


For this year’s Book Diaries, in a departure from my usual focus, instead of being inspired in a random fashion, I’m looking for inspiration that I can take to my writing. (See My Creative Journal to find out why I’m doing this.)

What’s it about?The House of the Spirits

The novel tells a tale spanning four generations of a family, focusing in particular on the women. Their intertwining personal narratives are set against the background of political upheavals in an unnamed South American country – events from years back are seen to have vital repercussions in the future – and we are led to muse on the cyclical nature of life, love and hate.

What did I find out?

I’d been aware of the genre ‘magical realism’ for some time, but had never really seriously appreciated the difference between it and ‘straight’ fantasy. In all honesty I think I’d completely misunderstood it, assuming it to encompass any story set in the real world that has a fantasy element. By this definition, something like Harry Potter would be magical realism – but I’ve now learned that this isn’t the case.

Magical realism is at play when the magical elements of a story are accepted as a natural part of the world as experienced by all the characters in the novel. So Harry Potter doesn’t fit the bill, as the magical world of Hogwarts and the Ministry of Magic is secret: hidden from Muggles and known only to those select few who are inducted into it. This is in contrast to The House of the Spirits, where Clara’s clairvoyant abilities are presented merely as one of her character traits, rather than a strange mystery to be solved. An oddity, perhaps, but no more than that.

I really should have got to grips with this terminology a year ago, when I was reading Kafka’s Metamorphosis, which also falls under the heading of magical realism: man turns into beetle; family are more concerned that he’s not pulling his weight around the house than how he turned into a beetle in the first place. Better late than never, I guess.

My own novel may or may not turn out to fall into the category of magical realism – I haven’t quite finalised the world building, and am currently unsure how ‘unusual’ magic will turn out to be in the human side of my world. Something else to add to the creative to-do list!

What do I now see differently?

I’ll admit that, although I enjoyed this novel, I found it a little harder going than Lagoon, my first book of the year. I suspect that this may be down to the nature of the storytelling, in that the tale spans several generations of a family, and so the usual ‘what happens next?!’ plot hooks didn’t function in quite the same way. There are frequent hints that events will have repercussions down the line, but it could be 100 pages before we discover what form that resolution will actually take.

This meant that I experienced a lot of what might be termed ‘delayed gratification’: letting events wash over me rather than champing at the bit to get to the next page (or even chapter) to find out how they play out. However, I was relieved to find that this didn’t stop me from absorbing myself in the story; I merely had to take it at a slower pace and appreciate all the seemingly unconnected details presented to me in the interim, knowing that they were building up to a much greater picture than I could see at the time.

I suspect that my own work won’t follow this model; I want to tell a much faster paced story (indeed my main fear is that it will end up being too short). However, it is hugely helpful to be introduced to different styles of writing, if only so that I can become clearer on my own tastes and more defined in my plans.

How will this inspire my writing?

The four women from the different generations of the Del Valle and Trueba families all possess names that have the same (or a similar) meaning: Nívea, Clara, Blanca and Alba. This had the effect of giving them a special connection, and reminded me of several characters I will be developing, to some extent in my first novel, but mostly in my second.

The characters in question are witches, and it’s common for witches to congregate in groups of three (not four, admittedly – but then Nívea doesn’t play as large a role in the book as the others). Specifically, the individuals in such a group would traditionally mirror the three ‘faces’ of the Triple Goddess: maiden, mother and crone. The relationship between the women in The House of the Spirits (daughter, mother and grandmother) reminded me of this connection – and I’ve now realised that (a) I need to do a lot more research around the Goddess, to see how far I want to incorporate this aspect of witchery into my work, and (b) I need to give serious thought to the naming of my characters. In magic, knowing the true name of a thing (or person) gives you a measure of power over them, and as magic will feature strongly in my books, this is something I can’t afford to ignore.

At the moment the three witches aren’t planned to appear until book 2, so I may have some time to read up about this – but I still need to have my world building in place before the events of book 1 kick off, so perhaps I need to get going sooner rather than later!

A musical interlude

I’m not sure that the musicality of this track quite conveys the vibe of the novel, but the lyrics (throughout the song, not just in the title) seemed perfect, so I’m running with it. It’s the Police: Spirits in the Material World.

Mary Poppins

Mary Poppins

Title: Mary Poppins24-book challenge
Author: PL Travers
Publication date: 1934
Genre: Children’s fiction; fantasy

Mary PoppinsWhat’s it about?

Mr and Mrs Banks are looking for a new nanny for their children, when Mary Poppins flies into their world (literally, on the East Wind) and takes the position. The children Jane and Michael soon realise that Mary Poppins is not their normal kind of nanny.

Over the course of the book, Mary Poppins takes Jane and Michael on many adventures, and shows them a world of magical possibilities that they had never dreamed of. Each chapter features a new exploit and introduces a new set of strange and eccentric characters.

She is not sweet and saccharine, however; she seems to have almost a disregard for their happiness if not their welfare. It is impossible to guess what she is truly thinking at any time, and at the end of the book she flies away on the West Wind, just as she promised.

The book is the first in a series of eight, so we have not seen the last of Mary Poppins.

Read more information on Goodreads.

Where did I get hold of the book?

I searched my local library catalogues but couldn’t see any copies in a library near me, so I downloaded this one to my Kindle app. It cost me 99p.

What did I learn from it?

The main thing I learned from this book was how different it is to the film/musical version. I was prepared for this, as I’d seen the movie Saving Mr Banks, which looks at the back story of PL Travers dealing with Walt Disney in his attempts to produce the film, and I’d become aware that the character of Mary Poppins in the book is very different to how it is depicted in the film. But it was quite an eye-opener to read the book in its entirety and realise that this isn’t the only difference.

For a start, and perhaps not unexpectedly, there are changes to the Banks household. There are four Banks children (baby twins in addition to Jane and Michael); Mrs Banks is not a suffragette; and there is a third member of staff, essentially a gardener, to accompany Ellen and the cook.

There are also many more stories in the book’s 12 chapters than are featured in the film; in fact, with the exception of the first and last chapters, dealing with Mary Poppins’ arrival and departure, only three chapters tell stories that are familiar from the film version:

  • the trip into the cartoon world with Bert (which, in the book, Mary Poppins enjoys on her own; the children do not accompany them);
  • the visit to the uncle who levitates when he laughs;
  • the observation of the Bird Woman.

It’s also worth noting that the latter contains no mention of a run on the bank.

The book feels much more like a collection of miniature tales, bookended by Mary Poppins’ arrival and departure, whereas the film – again, not surprisingly – offers a more holistic narrative with plot and character development. However, given that the book is only the first in a series, this is perhaps an unfair comparison to make. I guess I need to read the others to see how it all pans out… Maybe the Banks family will have their epiphany after all.

How did it make me see the world differently?

As with any fantasy book, it reminded me that there is something magical to be found in every aspect of our daily existence. In this particular book, I found that the wealth of ‘what ifs’ in the different adventures could be used as lead-ins for pondering questions about the nature of the world around us.

For instance…

  • Do the stars really come from gold paper that a strange woman steals from our closet and pastes up in the sky? If not, where do they come from?
  • What happens in a zoo at night? Do the animals communicate with each other in a way they can’t do when the humans are there?
  • Do dogs have a class system? A pecking order? Is there anything to prevent one type of dog befriending another dog?

The book works as both a joyous series of escapades, undertaken for the pure fun of it, and as a treasure trove of imaginings for sparking further ideas. In this latter sense it is, perhaps, the perfect embodiment of the spirit of this book challenge, where the quest is to find inspiration in the unexpected and even the ordinary; to encourage further thought, questioning, and – hopefully – action.

What changes will I make to my life as a result of it?

The biggest change for me was inspired not by the book itself so much as the difference in interpretation between the book and the film version. This is the story told in Saving Mr Banks, where Travers tries to ensure that the character she created is portrayed in a way that is true to her original intentions. The film deals with the give-and-take that accompanies any adaptation of a story from one medium to another.

This rang many bells with me, as at the time of reading Mary Poppins, I had just emerged from a read through of our Pride and Prejudice stage adaptation, where I’d received feedback on my half (Act II) from my co-author and the Artistic Director. They felt that Elizabeth spoke too often in monologue, which she hadn’t been in the habit of doing in Act I, and they suggested I cut down on this in order to make the character more consistent.

While I do generally bow to their greater experience in this area, I felt quite strongly that there were reasons why Elizabeth needed to ‘talk to herself’ in Act II, which hadn’t applied in Act I; not least the fact that she now has more secrets to keep and does not feel she can confide in people quite so freely as she did before. And so I kept faith in my understanding of this character: although I did eventually cut a few lines, I left many of the others in place – and explained to my colleagues exactly why I had done so.

From the story of PL Travers and Mary Poppins I have learned to hold true to my notions of artistic integrity, and to believe in myself. I will still listen to input from others – but I will not necessarily let that hold sway over what my own gut is telling me.

Over to you…

Has this post inspired you to read the book for yourself?

If you’ve read it, do you agree with what I’ve said? Did you have insights that I’ve not mentioned?

Please share in the comments below!