Hazel McHaffie

Portugal

When children vanish …

It’s hard to imagine anything more devastating than a child being abducted, not knowing where they are, if they are even alive. Didn’t we all shudder in our beds when Madeleine McCann vanished while on holiday in Portugal back in 2007? Imagining … Fearing … Would you ever stop searching every face, every place?

But … imagine finding out that your kidnapped child has been systematically abused, tortured, degraded … Doesn’t bear thinking about, does it? I could only approach this topic from the safe distance of a writer’s analytical perspective. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have the courage to let myself creep inside the head of such a parent in order to write from their point of view, so I’m intrigued by authors who do dare such a thing.

SB Caves is one such.

In his debut publication, I know Where She Is, Francine Cooper’s daughter Autumn has been missing for ten years. Francine has been bombarded with crank calls and cruel bogus contacts, and has eventually moved house to escape, putting herself beyond the reach of all except her ex-husband and work colleagues. Or so she hoped. Then, out of the blue, she gets an anonymous note containing just five words ‘scrawled in jagged chicken scratch’: I KNOW WHERE SHE IS. She’s ready to dismiss it as yet another cruel hoax by a twisted mind, a sick creep who gets a thrill out of torturing vulnerable people. But then a young girl appears, encrusted in dirt, stinking, claiming to have sent it, and knowing things that only Autumn would know – a favourite lullaby, family names, a photo.

If you thought entering the world of Francine’s grief would be harrowing, you might well baulk at the prospect of hearing the full horror of what this ragamuffin child has to tell her. Behind the expansive opulence of wildly expensive mansions and gated communities and celebrity adulation, the truth is laden with such depths of human depravity it’s nauseating to read, never mind consider possible.

Without delivering spoilers, it’s fair to say this shocking tale falls somewhere between the reality of Jimmy Savile‘s reign of terror and the dystopian horrors of the Republic of Gilead in The Handmaid’s Tale And the ending leaves so many questions unanswered. Definitely not a book for the faint-hearted or insomniacs. And not a scenario I’ll be including in any of my own books, I’m quite sure of that.

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Discombobulated thinking

Coimbra University LibraryIt was enough of a shock coming from 28 degrees in Portugal last week (and yes, the sky really was this blue) to snow on the Pentlands here this week (currently in the minuses).

First snow on the Pentland HillsThen, as if the Brexit vote wasn’t bad enough back in June, this week the unthinkable, the unbelievable, has happened on the other side of the Atlantic. A staggeringly unqualified, openly racist, xenophobic, mysogynist has been chosen as the next president – yes, chosen! – to lead the world’s most powerful nation. I felt so despairing yesterday morning when I woke to this news I had to tramp the streets and divert my attention to doing something practical to help the aged and lonely and disadvantaged amongst us. No mood for writing anything more exacting than the annual Christmas story for the grandchildren.

So nothing erudite today. I’ll just share with you something I came across during the week. As you know, I’m still considering writing a thriller this time around, so my attention was instantly caught by Doug Johnstone’s five tips for writing an unputdownable novel.

In essence they are:

  1. Start the novel in the thick of the action with your central character. No preamble, no prologue.
  2. Cut all the extraneous detail to make the language crisp and sparse. No gentle musing or scene setting.
  3. Give the reader breathing space, a moment of respite from the fast action, to give the story emotional punch. Allow the characters to reflect on their experiences occasionally, but keep it brief.
  4. Vary sentence length. Mix staccato statements with longer poetic flowing passages.
  5. Use dialogue but sparingly. Arrive as late as possible to the conversation and leave as early as you decently can.

Hmmm. Interesting, and slightly different from other advice I’ve read. Sounds good, though, and lots of food for thought in my case. As soon as I’ve recovered my equilibrium I’ll be testing out the wisdom of these tips.

In the meantime, let’s just pray for the American people and world peace, huh?

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Obrigada Portugal!

This past week was intended as a complete break away in sunny Portugal (high 20s every day!), but somehow the subject of books kept cropping up. Wry smiles each time. I’m just back this afternoon (to 8 degrees!) so a few illustrations must suffice.

In Lisbon, large banners advertise a Story Centre in the main Commercial Square. Story Centre? Yes!! It’s my first day there, antennae are instantly quivering. But this is actually an exhibition of the history of the city, not the story-telling mecca I was imagining.

Lisbon Story Centre

A beautiful bust of the French playwright Molière put me back on track, however.

Moliere bust

And this, together with many amazing ancient illuminated manuscripts in the fabulous Gulbenkian Founder’s Collection elsewhere in the capital, gave due reverence to the written word. (This one was under glass so apologies for the quality of the photograph.)

Illuminated manuscript

I was amused by the initiative of some bright person in the lovely little town of Óbidos, who’s created a breathtakingly precarious tower of shelves using open wooden crates, edges overlapping by mere centimeters, and combining hundreds of books for sale with stalls loaded with fresh fruit and vegetables.

Obidos bookshop

Perhaps unsurprisingly Harry Potter kept cropping up. After all JK Rowling was married to a Portuguese man and taught English there years ago before she became famous. The Hogwarts book store in Oporto is a huge draw for many pilgrims, recreating as it does, features from the stories.

Hogwarts bookshop

And enormous placards broadcast recent publications. Somehow one expects the author’s name to be translated too!

Harry Potter advertising

Nor are books limited to bookshops. Converted churches are adapted in enterprising ways – this one with concentric circles of bookshelves.

Converted church to bookshop

Fences and wooden structures are used to advertise books. All ingenious and attractive ways of capturing the attention of readers.

Advertisements for books

Then there’s the ancient collection of books in the famous baroque library at Coimbra University. People whisper and tiptoe about these sacred portals, and cameras are definitely a no-no. (Check the link if you want a glimpse of the magnificence.) No Dewey decimal system here! Dear me, certainly not! The huge number of tomes are stored according to colour of binding and size, with large books on bottom shelves, smaller ones at the top. And there’s no grubby thumbing by the masses. Students must wait while staff climb ladders three storeys high to select the volume of their choice, and must then wear white gloves to handle the precious publications. A magical place to visit by appointment.

Nor is storytelling confined to the written word. The main station in Oporto tells the complete history of transport through the ages from donkeys to trains in ceramic tiles.

Oporto station

And my children’s-fairytale brain went into overdrive in Sintra with its plethora of palaces scattered over the steep slopes, including a fantastical one perched on top of a mountain which would make a fabulous – if unbelievable – setting for the film of a book.

Pene palace

A brilliant break away and so warming to see books featuring so prominently.

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