Hazel McHaffie

knitting

Metaphors and parallels and flying needles

Wow! One in the eye for the sniffy literary snobs who look down their noses at crime fiction and psychological thrillers, eh?! In the main BBC news just yesterday morning, it was reported that such novels are more popular than any other genre for the first time. Why? Apparently TV dramatic adaptations have had a major influence, but some commentators say that crime stories ‘humanise’ stressful situations, the kind of issues that trouble people in today’s perplexing and turbulent climate. They’re looking for ‘truth, justice and redemption’, and books help to provide all three. Hopefully my own current novel will contribute to this reservoir of wisdom and understanding.

The novel itself? Well, it’s positively galloping along, and I think it’s the stronger for not preoccupying every waking moment – a deliberate strategy. I’m balancing the writing with various other activities, and I want to use this blog to tell you about just one of these pursuits because it’s not only a great stress-reducer, but it’s also curiously similar to the thriller-writing process.

Almost twenty years ago I had to go to the Shetland Islands to carry out interviews with bereaved parents as part of a major research study I was undertaking. In my free time I had the amazing experience of visiting a building that housed a huge array of exquisite fair isle garments made by a group of local knitters using natural wools and dyes from the islands. Fabulous. It was like an Aladdin’s Cave to a lifelong knitter like me. I was so impressed by their work that I commissioned a couple of articles to be made to my specific requirements. They remain prized possessions, and as good as the day they were purchased.

In a moment of ambitious zeal, I also bought a couple of books of patterns and the Shetland wool to make two garments myself. One I made soon after that trip. It took me months and months to complete!

The other one I’ve just started this week; using fifteen soft colours (with glorious evocative names like bracken and sphagnum and osprey and crowberry and mauve mist), in 2ply 100% Shetland wool.

Shetland knitting is different from any other kind. You knit in a complete circle, continuously, always working from the right side, to ensure tension is perfectly even and you can check the complicated patterns as you go. This creates a tube, which you then cut up through (half way between eight stitches which form a special edge called the steek) to make the holes which allow you to add sleeves, neckbands, button borders, etc. It’s nerve wracking putting scissors to the finished work that you’ve slaved over for months, let me tell you! I had nightmares the first time, fully expecting my entire garment to unravel instantly.

So why am I telling you this? Because creating this cardigan is remarkably like the process of writing my thriller. First I needed a pattern for the finished product, carefully worked out and charted – in the case of the jacket, 70 lines long, divided into five different bands; for the novel, something like 60 sections long, divided into chapters, three different points of view.

On the outside what you see is the smooth finish, the clear pattern, logical and lovely to behold. The colours/narrative threads must complement each other, be perfectly balanced, light and shade, working harmoniously together to form a single whole entity. The finished product must be satisfying and pleasing to the senses.

But behind the scenes are the workings; all the threads must be kept taut and separate, no tangling, no confusion, no nasty knots or uneven breaks. Invisible to other people but the hallmarks of a sound piece of work.

No one else will ever know the hours and hours of painstaking work that went into the making of the final product, the anxious moments, the corrections, the endless checking. Both cardigan and book will hopefully look professional and effortless, desirable commodities.

And joy of joys I’ve been able to let my brain work on the two stories I’m currently writing while my fingers worked on the knitting. Efficient or what? The ideas and pattern for Killing me Gently are entirely my own; I’m grateful to the multi-talented Alice Starmore for the inspiration behind my Shetland cardigan.

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The joy – and therapy – of reading

Sitting on the bus … walking along the street … in coffee shops … at the meal table … in hospital … during conversations … watching TV … wherever, eyes seem to be glued … no, not to a rivetting book, to a small screen. Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, websites, Snapchat, Messenger, whatever, seem to demand constant checking. It’s become a national obsession; a veritable addiction.

We’ve all heard about the risks to mental as well as physical health, but it’s also been officially acknowledged that online lives are interfering with reading for pleasure. Even amongst serious writers! How sad. Because reading is known to broaden the mind, add to knowledge, improve mental health, increase empathy, aid relaxation and sleep. There’s nothing quite like immersing yourself in a well-written story.

Which all led me to think about solutions to this kind of addiction … and thence to the discovery of various ventures started up to give people the right conditions to remedy this malady. I was familiar with retreats and opportunities for writers, but not those for readers. Try Googling the words reading retreat, and you’ll see there are a number, but a couple of illustrations will suffice today.

One is called Reading Retreat, a bespoke service that arranges short breaks for busy people who’d like to escape from all the distractions of modern living and read in peace. It was the brainchild of a literary consultant from Cambridgeshire, Cressida Downing by name, who recognised that ‘social media damages your attention span, 100 per cent‘ with its constant clamour for attention and pressure not to miss anything. With deluxe catering laid on (mmmh-mhmmmmm!) and assorted creature comforts (oh joy!), this service is described as a literary pampering delight. (Sounds good to me.)

Another venture offers the solemnity, grandeur and peace of the great monasteries of old. (Ahaaaaa.) It’s The Life House, a three bedroom property in a quiet Welsh valley, which comes complete with a library of books on self-knowledge, relationships and emotional intelligence. (Yesss!) A weekend visit there is the equivalent of visiting a religious sanctum to regain personal peace and ponder the meaning of life, but without the bleak cell or meagre rations. (Bring it on.)

Well, I haven’t personally sampled any of these facilities, but my recent lengthy recuperation after surgery has given me the same kind of benefits … without the expense, or the need to travel, or any worries about fitting in with other people! Safely ensconced on a sofa, embedded in cushions, feet elevated at the required angle, a personal chef at my beck and call, I’ve been consuming books at a hitherto unheard of rate. Thinking. Reflecting. Making notes. And loving it. Hour upon uninterrupted hour, fully immersed in books of my own choosing – a veritable library awaiting me in an adjoining room.

And peace. No more-pressing demands on my time. So, no need to retrace my steps to check up on forgotten names or plot lines. No skimming. No dipping in and out. Just settling down to read right through from beginning to end, and losing myself in the whole experience. Brilliant therapy. And I’ve learned so much for my own writing in the process.

What’s not to like?

 

 

I must confess I’m one of those annoying people who gets fidgety doing only one thing at a time, so since childhood I’ve always knitted and read simultaneously. Squirrelled away in a room on my own these past weeks there’s been no one to be irritated by the clicking needles, or hurt by my complete absorption in a fictional world. So I also have a stack of garments finished for various good causes.

Sheer indulgence. And firsthand evidence of the value of reading. I wouldn’t wish cancer on anyone but there’s been a definite silver lining to my experience so far.

 

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