The creepiest (and best) creative writing exercise for character-development

Writers are constantly asking: “how can I write believable, compelling characters?”, “how can I write realistic characters?”, “how can I write characters with depth?”
The answer is, it takes practice: and here’s one way to do that.

Characters are strange things. As writers, we like to think we’re in full control of our characters, that we decide who they are and what they do in a given situation. We like to think that we’re masters of their destiny. But this is a writing exercise that’ll make you think a little differently about the imaginary people we use to populate our stories, that’ll help you get to grips with their particular traits and foibles, and could just freak you out a little along the way.

Continue reading “The creepiest (and best) creative writing exercise for character-development”


Hell in a handcart: The secrets behind Hieronymous Bosch’s The Haywain

After a recent trip to Lille, where I saw some of the creepiest and strangely wonderful art I’ve ever seen, I was stuck on the Eurostar for an hour and a half with no book to read. What I did have was an enormous 3210 x 2065 scan of the masterpiece painting by Hieronymous Bosch, The Haywain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Jheronimus (Hieronymous) Bosch
Jheronimus (Hieronymous) Bosch (c. 1450 – 9 August 1516)

I thought I could kill ten minutes or so looking over this wonderfully rich piece of medieval symbolic painting – but an hour and a half later, I pulled into London King’s Cross, and I was still looking at Bosch’s painting.

This artwork is so complex it has the richness of text. It brought me right back to poring over the Where’s Wally series as a kid: spotting concealed storylines, visual gags, hidden connections between elements.

Continue reading “Hell in a handcart: The secrets behind Hieronymous Bosch’s The Haywain”

Beauty, horror, and why I never want to meet Jan Fabre

I was recently in Lille for work, and swung by the Palais des Beaux-Arts to escape the particularly biting cold that descended on the city this January. I’m glad I did, because the temporary exhibition I found in there quite frankly blew me away.

The museum has a full-gallery exhibition dedicated to Belgian artist Jan Fabre, who painstakingly created 21 massive allegorical works entirely out of the iridescent wing cases of the jewel beetle. Continue reading “Beauty, horror, and why I never want to meet Jan Fabre”

Drawing a blank: In search of the Tate Modern’s blank canvases

It’s hard nowadays to mention the words “modern” and “art” without someone laughing through their nose. I’ve heard all kinds of dismissals of abstract modern art, from “I wouldn’t hang that on my wall” to “a child could do that,” but my all-time favourite has to be something a friend said to me the other day: “half of them are just blank canvases!”

Really? Blank canvases? I’m no art expert, but I knew this couldn’t be true. Was it possible that more than one artist has made the same quasi-philosophical point, each smugly hanging blank canvases in modern art galleries like a group of Halloween party-goers all turning up as a pumpkin? Continue reading “Drawing a blank: In search of the Tate Modern’s blank canvases”

Destinies of rust – Gordon Bottomley and the early days of eco-poetry

I came across this while archiving: an epigram to an unpublished work of the late Russell Hoban. It’s beautiful, and makes me want to read more of Bottomley’s work.

O, you are busied in the night,

Preparing destinies of rust;

Iron misused must turn to blight,

And dwindle to a tetter’d crust. 

It’s part of the poem “To Iron-Founders and Others”, an amazingly early piece of eco-poetry. I think it deserves posting in full. 

Can we also bring back the word tetter’d? Please? Continue reading “Destinies of rust – Gordon Bottomley and the early days of eco-poetry”

Defying translation – a Review of Sudeep Sen’s Aria/Anika

Sudeep Sen’s luminous collection Aria/Anika brings together poets from across the Eastern hemisphere, translated from multifarious languages with craft and imagination.

Sen’s record as a poet and translator is formidable: his poems have achieved international acclaim, he has edited several major anthologies, and his list of honours and scholarships is as long as the praise and endorsements that splash the cover and inner pages of the book.

In his latest work, his award-winning collection of translations Aria is counterpointed by Anika, a compilation of his own poems, which themselves have been translated into more than twenty-five languages.

The poems of Aria are usefully divided and subdivided by region and language, then by poet. This approach results in headings such as “South Asian Poetry (Bengali, Bangladesh, India)”, which brings together poets as diverse in age, language and style as titan and Nobel-laureate Rabindranath Tagore, modern bards like Ashok Vajpeyi and the elegant Bangladeshi romantic Fazal Shahabuddin. Continue reading “Defying translation – a Review of Sudeep Sen’s Aria/Anika”

Thrown into Nature by Milen Ruskov – Joyfull News out of Bulgaria

A page from Nicolas Monardes' 1577 treatise "Of the Tobaco and His Great Vertues"
A page from Nicolas Monardes’ 1577 book Of the Tobaco and His Great Vertues

Irony can’t be measured by any kind of machine. If it could, I imagine it would be a device a little like a Geiger-counter, with a dial, and a screen, and a sensor held by a technician in a hazard suit.

That machine, if it existed, would be clicking like hell throughout Milen Ruskov’s recent novel Thrown into Nature.

In the opening scene, the Spanish Doctor Nicolas Monardes uses the miraculous healing power of tobacco to bring a man, Lazarus-like, back from the dead. The good doctor achieves this by repeatedly blowing the tobacco smoke directly into the subject’s lungs, while his assistant ‘pulpates’ his stomach. Eventually the man wrenches himself gaspingly from the floor, miraculously alive.

It’s confirmed: the new wonder substance sweeping Europe can even bring people back from the dead. Continue reading “Thrown into Nature by Milen Ruskov – Joyfull News out of Bulgaria”