My Girls – Genre, Gender and Genius.

My Girl - my most favourite film of all time

Women... You can’t live with ’em. You can’t live without ’em.

Believe me, I know. I’ve got the t-shirt!

I even tried co-writing with a woman once. Big mistake! Saffina someone or other. God knows what happend to her.

But I was wondering the other day, during a moment of quiet procrastination not writing the next book, what was the single biggest influence on me as a writer.

My earliest literary memories are of being in infants’ school and writing one page travelogues in chunky wax crayon. I honestly cannot remember a time I didn’t want to be a writer. Famous scientist and famous explorer were up there too, sure, and five decades later those ambitions haven’t faded. Not for nothing am I writing this from one of the poorest countries on the planet, in beautiful West Africa.

But being a writer was the ambition. Still is!

And I’ve heard this new e-publishing thingy can take an unknown and turn them into a best-seller pretty much over night.

Yeah, if only… I mean, that’s why we write fiction, right? Because things like that never happen in the real world.

So where do these crazy dreams of becoming an author come from? Are some of us lucky enough to have gone to a school where they actually suggested writing could be a career?

Sadly, no.

For my part, I could already read and write before I started school, and this was a huge problem for a well-meaning staff totally incapable of thinking outside the box. I was shoved in the corner and told to behave myself while the others kids learned their ABC. So I wrote my little stories with the aforementioned chunky wax crayon, and learned to bring my own books into school to read.

My teachers were appalled. “You shouldn’t be reading that. It’s far too old for you. Stop wasting your time writing those silly stories and play in the sandbox with the others.”

Yeah, thanks guys.

It got worse as I grew up. The school’s careers adviser didn’t have a category for “writers”. Being a writer wasn’t a job. There was no skill involved. It was up there with famous footballer and pop-star as daft day dreams for dumb kids.

What’s that? You’re not dumb. You got an A* in English? Well in that case, try journalism. It’s the same thing.”

Home Sweet Home

So I did. But of course it’s not the same thing. And it set my writing career back many years.

But obviously somewhere along the line I found my way back to that land of eternal masochism and self-flagellation that is being a writer. Not just any old writer, either, but Mark Williams, writer.

Of course, every writer is different, and every writer brings their own life experiences and influences with them. It’s what makes them and their writing unique. Which brings us back to the question of  the single biggest influence.

For me, it was having a sister a year younger than myself.

You see, I was lucky enough to have been brought up on a farm by the sea. As childhoods go, this was idyllic. It was like something out of an Enid Blyton adventure story. Yes, even that one there in that picture.

Where I lived there actually was a light-house, and caves! And this was the 1960s and ’70s. Kids went off on their own in those days. Just like the Famous Five.

So for me, every day was a holiday, including most of the school term once I realised how easy it was to miss the school bus and go exploring instead.

But no matter where I went, I carried a book, a pen and paper. Still do. Leaving the house without a book is like leaving without your keys,  or wearing only one shoe. Okay, it’s a Kindle now, but you can guarantee within minutes of stepping out I’ll be obsessively checking my bag just to double-check the Kindle is there. And  a notepad and pen.

I was incredibly lucky in that my parents, though not big readers themselves, indulged me in my love of books. Books, comics, magazines – anything with words in. And I had gazillions of them. But there was never enough.

So I read my sister’s too.

Yes, a lot of my childhood reading was, inevitably, “boys’ stuff” – war stories, westerns, adventure, action, etc. And of course the boys’ boarding school classic like Billy Bunter and Jennings.

But a lot was girls’ stuff. First the girls’ comics, like Bunty (hands up who remembers The Four Marys?), then the girls’ books like Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers (Darrell Rivers, anyone?) and St Clare’s.

Mock all you like, Blyton-haters, but Enid was a writing genius.

The greatest children’s author of all time.

From there I moved on, if one can ever move on from Enid Blyton, to Angela Brazil and Elinor Brent-Dyer (who did not adore Jo Bettany at the Chalet School?).

I read Anne of Green Gables and Pollyanna, of course. I read The Secret Garden and The Little Princess.  I read Little Women and Alice and…

Yeah, it would be much easier to list what I didn’t read.

And of course I read Swallows & Amazons and The Borrowers and the Famous Five, and The Lion, The Witch

And all of these had strong female leads too. Nancy Blackett, Arrietty, George, and little Lucy…  These were the characters that made those stories what they are.

Just as, if we’re honest, JK Rowling would still be sitting in that Edinburgh cafe if it wasn’t for Hermione Granger.

But once I was old enough to start appreciating girls as girls this fascination with books never written for my gender just grew and grew.

True I cried along with Jo when her novel went up in flames in Little Women (Now come on – no writer ever read that scene and did not sob with her), but Beth was always my favourite.

The best bit of Jane Eyre was and will always be those early chapters depicting her cruel childhood. The death of Helen Burns never fails to move me, and always brings to mind Elizabeth Taylor at her best.

My point being it is the female characters, and particularly the young female characters, that carry these legendary stories.

Imagine To Kill A Mockingbird without Scout?

Imagine The Book Thief without Liesel?

Imagine…

Thanks to my early years reading everything I could lay my hands on, indifferent to gender or genre, I’m still able to read that widely today. And no question that influences my writing.

Girls… I certainly wouldn’t want to live without them.

And I certainly couldn’t write without them.

Which is why I’m giving the entire month of June over to the theme of girls here on MWi. Not just young girls, of course. Older girls. Teens and tweens. Young women. Older women. In fact, all things female.

Swallows and Amazons - which were you?

Yes, it’s Girls Just Wanna Have Fun month on MWi throughout June.

But don’t expect all pink and fluffy. I’ve got some great guests lined up, and yes there will be a chick lit author or two, but there’ll also be some serious debates, useful advice, inspirational stories and awesomely emotional posts, as well as some seriously fun stuff.

I warn you now you’ll need two boxes of tissues for Cheryl Shireman’s post! And that’s if you’re tough as old boots. If you’re a big softie like me then make that three boxes. And if you’re a macho male that doesn’t do emotion, read it somewhere alone.

But whatever you do, don’t miss it.

That’s Girls Just Wanna Have Fun month, coming to an MWi blog near you in June.

And while we’re waiting, how about you sharing some of your favourite “girlie” characters with the rest of us?

For me, no question, it’s Vada in My Girl. Played in the film by the incredible young actress Anna Clumsky, sadly now all grown up and adult.

What a tragedy! Why do kids have to grow up?

But how is it for you?

Has Hermione Granger taken the crown as literature’s most favourite young lady? Or is it Sarah Crewe or Nancy Drew? Lyra or Dorothy?

Or have you discovered a fantastic new girl character few of us know about? Or created one?

Share the love, as Kristen might say.

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    • gerrymccullough
    • May 21st, 2011

    Mark, I can relate to so much of what you say. You’ve already mentioned lots of my favourites – Jo in Little Women, and the other Jo in The Chalet School series. Nancy Blackett in Swallows and Amazons – Anne in Anne of Green Gables, etc. But I suppose in Swallows and Amazons I read from Titty’s point of view. Yes, yes, the name’s a joke now – but forget that. And also Dorothea in Winter Holiday -another imaginative, writing girl. And isn’t it funny how many of the best characters were writers? Like Harriet Vane in the Lord Peter Wimsey books, another real favourite of mine.
    I’d better stop now or I’ll be still remembering others all night.

    • Yeah, I don’t know if it’s because we’re writers ourselves that those characters resonate so much. Jo is always the most popular of the March girls, even with readers who would never think of writing themselves, but it’s “that scene” that I have to read / view through parted fingers every time.

      Gosh, had forgotten all about Dick and Dorthea! Guess it’s me shutting out that harsh winter landscape Ransome invokes, so in contrast to the rest of the series. Something the kids here could never relate to. For them, freezing is 25C…

      Living here in West Africa it’s a struggle to get the older books any more (or indeed any books at all!) so hoping they’ll all appear on Kindle soon, so I can share them with my daughter before she’s too old to appreciate the magic. “The Picts and the Martyrs” is released next week, so hopefully S&A will follow.

      Check out this incredible link to 200 cool girls’ characters in literature – http://jkrbooks.typepad.com/blog/2006/06/all_the_cool_gi.html. Really should have included it in the post.

  1. Another fantabulous post, Mark. You are one talented bookworm. Keep up the terrific work.

    • Tom, you can’t get away that easily. What childhood memories are to blame for Beyond Nostalgia?

  2. ser·en·dip·i·ty/ˌserənˈdipitē/
    Noun: The occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way:

    Having just responded to Tom it occured to me what a fine example of serendipity had just occurred.

    Both Gerry & Tom, above, are authors (Belfast Girls and Beyond Nostalgia respectively). They share the same publisher, although they live on different continents, and both commented here within minutes of one another although they live in different time zones five hours apart.

  3. The best modern heroine would be Veronica Mars–a film-noire Nancy Drew (sadly, her show lasted only three seasons). Runner-up, and a must-read for anyone who enjoys Pratchettian humor, is Agatha Heterodyne in Girl Genius. I didn’t read a lot of girl’s books growing up, but I did read all of Robert A. Heinlein’s stuff, and his science fiction featured strong women every bit the equals of their menfolk.

    • George, for those not in the know, is the creator of a wonderful teen female character Astra, in his book Wearing the Cape. That said, a smaller character in WTC steals the show. I commend Wearing The Cape to you all just for the character Artemis!

      BTW george, writing as Marion G Harmon, has a great review blog at http://marionharmon.wordpress.com/ where he takes great delight in recommending things that aren’t avalable on Kindle, knowing full well I’m reliant on Amazon UK for my pleasures.

      Heard of both Girl Genius and Veronica Mars, but sadly unlikely ever to see / read either…

      • Got you there–if you go to girlgeniusonline.com you’ll find the entire series from the beginning (the writer/artist put each page up as he finished it for his fans to read). All Veronica Mars episodes are available online as well.

  4. Mark, I am so with you on your childhood reading list!

    Without doubt my own favourite is Anne in Anne of Green Gables. She taught me about kindred spirits and the power of observation and the Lady of Shalott. But in equal place is Phillipa from The Lymond Saga by Dorothy Dunnett. My heavens, what a superwoman! And I am pretty fond of Jilly Cooper’s Taggie for being able to cook and cope with Rupert Campbell Black. Besides, she must be a kindred spirit because she has Jack Russell terriers.

    My own favourite recent creation is Lalita who will go up for public scrutiny later this year in A Thousand Glass Flowers and I’m currently nurturing a relationship with the opinionated and courageous Ysabel… who couldn’t like a woman who knows how to handle a Saracen bow?

    • Yeah, Anne of Green Gables was great. No question.

      Sadly I’ve not read Dorothy Dunnett due to sheer infamiliarity, and not read Jilly Cooper due to… Must admit, due to having chosen not too. Which is unusual for me.

      No-one can read, or even try, to read everything, but rare indeed for me to deliberately rule an author out without even trying them. maybe if she appears on Kindle at a sensible price that will change.

      Nurturing a relationship with characters is one of the joys of writing, of course, and Ysabel sounds great!

      I dip into your fiction on the blog now and again (apart from Gisborne, for reasons previously stated) but would prefer to read it all in one go. Loved The Stumpwork Robe. Haven’t had time for the second yet.

      Loved the Odelmark painting BTW. Art and architecture are sadly missing from my life just now. Which is not to say there is not fine art and architecture in Africa. Just not in the tiny bit where I live. And what there is is of course very different from Europe.

      In fact, I might copy and transfer some of the Glass Flowers tracts onto my Kindle for quiet moments of reflection. Thanks, Prue!

  5. Being the ‘girl’ that Mark can’t write without, I have to agree with him. What girl didn’t want to follow in George’s footsteps? Enid was big on female characters, look at The Faraway Tree series, Bessie, Fanny, Connie and then there was Mollie in The Wishing Chair.

    Being a girl, you always secretly cheer when the heroine comes out on top, beats the boys…

    Stop by the blog in a few days time for more on girl power!

    • Oi! Get off my blog!

      The Magic Faraway Tree was of course simply the best ever children’s fantasy series.

      Narnia was good, but Silkie and Moonface better!

      As for The Land of Far Beyond… Wow!

      People who criticise Enid Blyton have obviously never read Enid Blyton.

      I’ve never got into Tolkein, but maybe that’s because I read Blyton first. Compared to Blyton’s young-reader fantasies (check out The Book Of Brownies for elfin characters at their very best!) JRR just doesn’t compare…

  6. George :
    Got you there–if you go to girlgeniusonline.com you’ll find the entire series from the beginning (the writer/artist put each page up as he finished it for his fans to read). All Veronica Mars episodes are available online as well.

    In fact I now know what I’m going to review next-GG.

  7. Despite the sub-sub-genre I write in (‘girls kicking arse’, for those taking notes), I didn’t have so many heroines growing up, at least not in fiction. Of course I read Enid Blyton and, yes, The Faraway Tree books were amazing and I cried when I finished reading the last one just because there were no more of them to read, and I did have some contact with a few good female characters, but not so much as leads. Tamora Pierce was around at that time, but nobody thought to point me towards her books, and so it was only last year that I discovered her at all. Somehow, through no fault of my own, I managed to neatly dodge around any and all strong female leads–except for one. Although I was lightly ridiculed for doing so, I read the Pippy Longstocking books again and again, I remember borrowing them from the school library, hiding them between Hardy Boys and Wilbur Smith books (which I also read but didn’t enjoy nearly as much).

    My prevailing memories of female characters from my childhood come from cartoons. This was the late eighties, the era of the Token Female Character, where girls were allowed to play with the boys but never allowed to get dirty or beaten up or be wrong or lose or, in fact, to have any kind of fun at all. And they STILL got kidnapped a lot. Even back then I felt something was wrong, and when I was old enough I realised what it was; this was still more imbalance, this was going too far the other way.

    So I suppose, in part at least, what I write now is a rebellion against that sort of nonsense. Of course ‘kicking arse’ is always the goal, so to speak, but it’s so much more satisfying when a character has had to slog through miles of hurt and pain to get to that arse-kicking moment. One of my favourite movies of all time is Die Hard, and a big part of what I love about it is how beaten up and battered and dirty and exhausted and hurting John McClane is by the end of it. So imagine that, except with a girl, and you’ve got the basic structure of quite a few of my books, especially more recent efforts like The Undying Apathy Of Imogen Shroud.

    • Blimey, Ben, that’s almost a blog in itself!

      Not sure about Die Hard… There’s a difference between KA and killing people. Okay to watch once, but definitely not a favourite for me. In fact all my fave fils ahve great child actors and great child characters.

      Cartoon girls… Now there’s a blog for the future!

      Pebbles, of course. Penelope Pitstop! Better stop there.

      Just bought Imogen Shroud a day or so back. Looking forward to reading that next week, time permitting.

      • I’m so dense, it took me almost a minute to figure out what KA stood for. Actually I agree about killing, Miya Black in particular explicitly never kills, and I enjoy exploring the consequences of this. I don’t mind when protags kill in fiction, but when it’s treated casually or as a joke I start getting uncomfortable. Any character death, even when the character doesn’t get a name, is something to take seriously and consider carefully.

  8. seems you hit the lot…with the exception of one: my favorite, Trixie Beldan (den?) she was ME, by God, right down to the brother problem. My mom bought me all 13 books in the series 9there are way more now, I think) and she wrote in the opening blank pages of each one of them. Now, it’s my Mom I think of when I think of those books and not Trixie or myself as a tomboy. sigh. memories

    • OMG! Another classic series I omitted! Gonna have to blog on this again soon.

      I loved Trixie and Honey, but was never sure about Di and her obsession with purple. And those violet eyes. Was she modelled on Elizabeth Taylor maybe?

      I understand there are nearly forty in the series now, although I only read the first eight or nine.

      They’re not out as ebooks yet, but maybe one day all these classics will be available, and hopefully with a full range of colour covers from the originals to the most recent illustrations.

      Hmmm. Speaking of covers…

  9. I can totally relate to this post, Mark! I was never encouraged to write at school, even though I head my head buried in a notepad, scribbling away every chance I got. When it came time to careers advice what I got was, “writing’s not a proper job! What, write novels?” Stern look over the rim of the teachers glasses…”No.” Shake of her head…”What about cookery?”

    Pah! So it took me a long time to actually get there as a writer. When I left school I got a “proper job” and abandoned my thoughts of being an author. But you can’t keep the writer within for too long! Now it’s out there and there’s no looking back!

    *stands up* My name is Sibel Hodge and I am a WRITER! Woo hoo! Take that, teacher!

    Enid Blyton made me a tom boy! It’s true! I loved all her characters, but the girls were capable and sassy. Cool chicks! 🙂

    I’m looking forward to doing my guest post for the Girls Just Wanna Have Fun month!

    • Looking forward to receiving it and stealing all the best bits for my own blog!

      Really surprised how many people adore Enid Blyton.

      When people ask me my favouriter writer and I say, without hesitation or embarrassment EB, they normally start putting some distance between us. Then they realise I’m deadly serious and we start talking about her. Next thing you know they’re revelling in nostalgic memories, but only after they’ve checked to see if anbody else is listening.

      Enid Blyton fans, stand up and be counted!

        • Anuradha
        • July 2nd, 2011

        Hello Mark.

        Thrilled to read your blogs. I am from India and grew up on a diet of Enid Blyton. My mom was a major fan. I loved Darrell and Alicia and dont care Bobby. went on to Nancy Drew and later starved throught most of my adulthood searching for adventurous heroines. Being a woman, I like to read about other women having fun, adventures and kicking backsides :).LM Alcott is fine but I want someting more energetic and KA. I am now comforting myself with PJ Tracy but was soooo happy to see these blogs. I shall try and get all the titles that I have seen in these blogs..Thanks a TON people

  10. I loved Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh. One of the things that fascinated me about the book was that Harriet was always walking around and taking notes about people. I started doing the same thing myself – to somewhat disastrous results (http://cherylshireman.com/598/censorship-and-the-young-writer/). I think Harriet the Spy inspired me to observe the world and write down my own thoughts, although it would be many years before I thought of it as “writing”.
    And Mark – I want to read your book about growing up in a place by the sea with caves and a lighthouse! THAT would be a great book! 🙂

    • I just loved the film! Michaela T. was a perfect choice for Harriet.

      Can’t wait till all these books come out on Kindle so I can share them with my daughter, and the kids here for whom the lives these characters lead will be totally alien.

      • I just bought Harriet the Spy, The Long Secret, and Sport on Kindle (after reading this blog!). 🙂

  11. My earliest forays into reading strong female characters were children’s picture books. Most specifically the girls from “Something Queer is Going On: A Mystery”. I loved that book. Read it until it fell apart!

    Then I graduated to Nancy Drew. Natural progression, I suppose.

    But the one woman who really inspired me more than any other (literarily speaking, that is), was Agatha Christie. She rocked my socks. Still does. Strangely I didn’t end up writing mysteries, but more than any other writer, she made me want to WRITE. And to be awesome at it.

    Well, now I write. But I can only dream of being half as awesome as Agatha Christie. 🙂

    • Shea, you have the advantage! Have never ever heard of “Something queer is going on”. Tell me more!

      Nancy Drew I read but could never get excited by. Didn’t stop me reading them, mind.

      As for Agatha… I love Miss Marple but simply cannot abide Poirot!

      Loved the Margaret Rutherford Miss Marple films and only realised much later how unlike the books they were.

      Gonna have to buy The 4:50 From Paddongtom for my Kindle now!

      • Something Queer Is Going On is actually the first in a series of books written by Elizabeth Levy http://amzn.to/jw0DMa AWAY back when “queer” simply meant “strange”. 🙂 Brilliant book!

        Gwen and Jill and their basset hound Fletcher when poking around solving mysteries. In the first book Fletcher gets kidnapped and the girls very cleverly trap the kidnapper! I loved those books SO much. I wanted to BE Gwen because that girl could kick some backside! lol

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