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Mother Tongue

April 2nd, 2021

First, thanks to Hilary for last week’s post. You have to agree that having a deeper than normal understanding of what goes on in the human psyche is a great advantage if you’re writing a character-driven novel or story. It must certainly help when it comes to making your people’s motives realistic.

I think that someone should make this point to the BBC and the vast majority of its scriptwriters. In the past few months I don’t think I’ve ever watched more series where the characters and plots are so unrealistic and unbelievable. I know we talk about new mothers having ‘baby brain’ but I think a lot of the people writing for TV have got ‘pandemic brain’ – in other words, a captive audience so they don’t need to try as hard. Shame on them!

But it’s not all doom and gloom. I’m currently re-reading a favourite of mine – Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson.  The contents are fascinating – how our wonderful English language developed and continues to do so. But I also love the way he writes. It could be a scholarly, dully subject – but it’s never allowed to be that in his hands. He’s a master at showing what you can do with the pace and structure of sentences.  Just look at the following:

In normal conversation we speak at a rate of about 300 syllables a minute. To do this we force air up through the larynx – or supralaryngeal vocal tract, to be technical about it – and, by variously pursing our lips and flapping our tongue around in our mouth rather in the manner of a freshly landed fish, we shape each passing puff of air into a series of loosely differentiated plosives, fricatives, gutturals, and other minor atmospheric disturbances. These emerge as a more or less continuous blur of sound. People don’t talk like this, theytalklikethis.

I know we often advise against writing sentences that are too long and convoluted, but in the hands of a master – and with immaculate punctuation – they are a joy. The one here has 63 words! But note how he manipulates the pace by topping and tailing it with much shorter, punchy sentences.

As this post appears our 2021 Short Story Competition will just have closed and we’ll be able to start the enjoyable work of going through all the entries. Thank you to everyone who sent in a story or stories and we’ll try to get the shortlist online before too long.

In the meantime, here’s a  competition that you might want to consider while we’re getting ready to launch our next one.

I chose the Sophie Coe Prize in Food History  because I love food  – reading about it, cooking it, eating it and, believe it or not, shopping for it. When I go anywhere new on holiday I love to see their open-air markets, and  have a peek into the local supermarkets, whether it’s a tiny town in Costa Rica, a huge department store in Tokyo or a seaside village in Portugal.

They say: ‘The Prize is awarded each year to an engaging, original piece of writing that delivers new research and/or new insights into any aspect of food history. We welcome entries of up to 10,000 words on any relevant topic. The Prize is £1,500 for the winning essay, article or book chapter. Authors may submit one entry only each, and they must be delivered to us by this year’s closing date of Friday 23 April 2021.’

With so many of us having  to be creative in the kitchen during lockdown, this might be a good year to think about entering.

And talking about lockdown, I’m looking forward to going for a long walk with my son and his wife and the grandkids this weekend – the first time for a long while! So, whatever you’re doing I wish you a happy and healthy Easter break.





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About The Author: Diana Nadin

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