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The Ebb Tide Beach: a meditation

This is a post about…something. Not sure what yet. But in my grandfather’s wise words, “How do I know what I think till I hear what I say?”

Let’s start with a haiku.

Years ago—I mean years, more than two decades now, I was reading a book of haiku from a British Museum exhibition, just trying to, I don’t know, see how they worked and what the form did. I read quite a few. They passed through my brain. And then I read this one:

On the ebb tide beach / everything I pick up / is alive.

I typed that from memory btw. I don’t need to look it up. Those lines…

I was talking with a poet friend the other day (the wonderful Natalie Shaw whose collection Dirty Martini was just published) about how sometimes you read a book or see a play and it hits you like a truck with a sense of something big, ungraspably big, right there but also just outside your reach. Jerusalem on stage with Mark Rylance, that was one. The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth we both agreed was another.

That haiku. That, for me. It’s huge. I don’t even know if I could articulate why it hit me so hard. Possibly you’re looking at it thinking, ‘…and?’ But those lines have been my talisman for a very long time, through the funerals of loved ones and in times of grief or bleakness, and at moments of wonder too. Because to me it says everything about time and timelessness and life and loss and solitude and presence, all wrapped up in a handful of syllables. (Yes it’s a translation, I can’t know the impact of the original. It’s by Fukuda Chiyo-ni, a Japanese woman of the Edo period who is considered one of the supreme masters of the haiku form.)

Park that a moment.

So I’m doing quite a lot of talky stuff at the moment because of my ~*~NEW BOOK COMING OUT~*~.  (The Secret Lives of Country Gentlemen, 7th March, since you ask.) I just did a panel discussion run by the wonderful Portal Bookshop in York for Queer History Month, with AL Lester and Lex Croucher, and two questions happened.

One was, Have you got any favourite research nuggets?

I can talk about this stuff for hours, and I probably did. I love the little details. Pretty much every book I write has something or other that I picked up as I read around the subject. (Russian jewels were smuggled out of the country post-Revolution hidden in chocolate, as a means by which the Bolsheviks avoided embargoes. The Victorians often kept hedgehogs in their kitchens to eat blackbeetles. Caddis fly larvae make themselves cases out of sand, shells, small rocks, etc, and will make them out of gold and jewels if that’s what you give them. Napoleon pushed for the domestic development of sugar beet to break the British stranglehold on sugar supply from plantations. The paint colour mummy brown was made from actual Egyptian mummies.) You might call it deeply plot relevant and fascinating social history, you might call it trivia, but I accrete it like, er, a caddis fly larva making a case, because God and the devil both dwell in the details. In the little bits and pieces that make history pop into the present, or briefly shift our perspective, or show a snapshot of a different life. In the atomic-sized parts that make a whole.

Another question, this time from an audience member: How do you create chemistry between characters?

That’s a large question with a million answers. Mine was specificity. For me, the chemistry comes when one person really sees another. Noticing how they look when they concentrate or when they’re miles away, the snag tooth or the scars on a hand, a turn of phrase, a coping strategy, an expertise in action, a moment of kindness or courage or vulnerability. (My husband does a kind of sideways-jawed yawn. When our daughter was a baby, she yawned exactly like that, such that 15 years on, I still see my baby yawn every time my husband does, and I love them both. Specificity.)

So I did the panel, and then I headed off to the theatre, running over the discussion in my head as I walked because I’m always convinced I said something unforgivably terrible or blurted out my credit card details. And I was thinking about those two questions and my closely related answers. Details. Specificity. How, if you’re looking, properly looking, like Howard Carter, you see wonderful things.

Terry Pratchett’s marvellous Carpe Jugulum, which has everything to say about religion and belief and living morally in a mostly amoral world, has a set of vampires who train themselves to be immune to the usual vampire-slaying devices, including becoming contemptuously familiar with a wide range of religious symbols. A slight shift of perspective means the vampires reach a horrified realisation:

“Everywhere I look, I see something holy!”

(and thus they’re doomed, because Pratchett knew what was what.)

We see holiness—wonderful things—everywhere, if we only look. Because life is everywhere, although time passes, and babies age, and people and things and ways go and are forgotten. No, not ‘though’. Because the tide is always going out. If we were vampires, if we had all the time in the world, it wouldn’t matter, but in the fleeting, floating world, we need to appreciate the moments, the details, as they fly. That was what Edo period haiku was about: catching the moment in transient, tiny, specific observations that nevertheless resonate through time like bells. Carpe Jugulum means ‘go for the throat’ but it’s also a riff on carpe diem for a good reason. Its confused priest doesn’t find his answers in theology, but by doing the right thing, right now. By seeing holiness everywhere, because God (for your personal and quite possibly non-religious value of god) is in the details.

I don’t know if all this means anything to you who are reading this. I’m still working on it myself. But I do know this much, and I know it matters in daily life as much as when I’m writing history or chemistry:

On the ebb tide beach / everything I pick up / is alive.

14 replies
  1. Christie Meierz
    Christie Meierz says:

    Ruminating on your ruminations —

    Mummy brown is made with actual mummies. Now there’s a thought that gives me the shivers. Our forebears were remarkably disrespectful of mummies, but I had no idea of that bit there. I don’t know where I picked up my horror of treating human remains with anything less but the greatest respect. It just seems to be a very _human_ thing to display that respect. It seems to me that it sets us apart from the vast majority of the animal kingdom of which we are a rather arrogant and self-involved part.

    “doing the right thing, right now” — I’m not a particularly religious person, but I’m married to a clergyman, so I give these things a great deal of thought now and then. I’d long since come to the conclusion that that phrase encapsulates the teaching of every major religion on our spinning little planet, and that a great many people just sort of… _ignore_ that part. But writers write characters struggling to do the right thing, and the more those characters struggle, the more compelling they are. The more human they are.

    Not going anywhere with this, but hey, I’m in a philosophical mood this morning. So here’s me, waving from across the pond. Good morning!

    • Jennifer Bowen
      Jennifer Bowen says:

      I agree wholeheartedly! I purchase nonfiction books for a public library, and I can’t help wishing KJ would create a writing/publishing advice book from her blog posts; I think it would be far more interesting and helpful than most of the writing books I buy. (I also re-read every one of her books at least once a year, so I agree with that point too!)

  2. Russell wodell
    Russell wodell says:

    One of my favourite haikus apparently won a Britishnewspaper competition:

    Silly old Japanese
    They think they’re writing poetry
    But they’re not

  3. Rebecca
    Rebecca says:

    These thoughts reminded me a lot of what it felt like reading Piranesi (Susanna Clarke) — an attention and love of detail, of things existing, of things existing (not just because they are useful, but just because they are). A delight and warmth to things in the world, big and small! Paying attention is a form of love, and we practice it with other people and with ourselves and with the world around us. How lovely!

  4. Katy
    Katy says:

    I also like details. In song lyrics, for instance, I am a sucker for the concise and the specific – place names, lists, driving directions, what’s on the radio. I love how intensely, inexplicably powerful some tiny details can be. As a random example, the line “In your car, the windows are wide open,” in the John Prine song “Summer’s End” feels like someone just hollowed out my stomach, and I can’t explain why that image should have so much power for me, except that it feels real.

    What you say about the chemistry of one character seeing another is one of the things I admire most in your writing – how easily you present characters with a range of body types and appearances as attractive, not by explaining they’re attractive à la “X had Y body type, which was exactly what Z liked,” but just through the concentrated attention with which the MCs notice one another. I particularly like the opening scene of A Seditious Affair, with Silas cataloguing every detail of Dominic’s body accurately and with love, so that we see a stressed middle-aged man who spends too much time at a desk, but we also see why Silas finds him beautiful.

    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      That really matters to me. It’s the specificity of an individual that makes them an individual and special. Or to put it another way, anyone can notice a great bum, but it means something different when someone’s attention snags on a wonky tooth or similar little feature.

  5. QueerDude
    QueerDude says:

    I just discovered your books and I’m smitten, but mostly rely on audiobooks for accessibility reasons. I was wondering if there’s any way you’ll make the magpie series and your other new titles available as audiobooks or digital audiobooks to US libraries? Amazon prohibits it currently 🙁

    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      I don’t control that, unfortunately. I license audio rights to audio publishers, rather than trying to do them myself (way out of my skill set), so the publisher decides the distribution. Anything I control is made accessible to libraries.


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