Last night it was a great pleasure to attend another Words Of live lit event organised and run by author Jenefer Heap, and held Upstairs at Merchants, in Warwick. There was a varied and thoroughly entertaining line-up of local authors sharing their work to an appreciative audience. The evening was entitled Once Upon A Word and was an eclectic mix of short stories, poems, monologues, renditions of all sorts on the theme of (you’re ahead of me on this one, I can tell) fairy stories and all that implies. We had Cinders (of course) The Pied Piper, nymphs, sprites, knights in armour, a wonderful re-telling of a traditional Indian tale – we even had the Young Poet Laureate for Warwick, Annabelle Peet join us! It was while I was researching fairy tales that I sank deeper in the internet quicksand of ‘ooh that’s interesting!’ and ‘well I never knew that!’ and by the time my coffee had gone cold I had written a piece of creative non-fiction, rather than a short story.

And here it is. It’s called


Come closer and I will tell you a tale. A tale of love, of power and secrets.

Long ago, when Warwick was a small town on the banks of the river Avon, in a time when the Vikings looked covetously toward our shores, and a long, long time before you and I, there lived a warrior queen called Aethelflaed and a river sprite called Dite.

Aethelflaed was The eldest daughter of Alfred The Great and born into a turbulent world of power, wealth and war. At sixteen she married Ethelred of Mercia but their union bore only one child, a daughter, in 888. Aethelflaed named the baby Aelfwynn and no sooner was she born, than Aethelflaed returned to war – because Aethelflaed preferred the battlefield to babies.

Now, the river sprite, Dite, lived a very different life deep in the shadowy waters of the river Avon. It was said that she was over 500 years old. Others proclaimed her to be a bewitched spirit, cast into the river by the Romans and left to drown when they retreated south across Europe. But whatever the truth about Dite, all agreed: to see her was portentous; for her to speak, then no good could ever come of it.

In 899, when Aelfwynn was eleven, King Alfred died and Aethelflaed’s brother Edward became king of the Angles and Saxons. The war against the ferocious Vikings continued and Aethelflaed felt that soon they would be in Warwick itself. She moved Aelfwynn to the safety of a fortified castle protected by the wealth and privilege that being niece to the King bestowed. But Aethelflaed still worried: her daughter was approaching marriageable age and it was imperative she find a suitable husband for her as soon as possible.

One morning, Aethelflaed took a solitary walk down to the river Avon, deep in thought.

Hidden at the waters edge, Dite silently watched. She studied Aethelflaed’s young face, her sumptuous clothes and her well-made shoes. This, she considered, was a wealthy woman. Perchance this was Aethelflaed, the warrior woman of whom everyone spoke.

“Good day, mistress,” said the Sprite.
Startled, Aethelflaeda stepped back from the water’s edge.
“Good day,” she replied cautiously.
“You look sad mistress,” said Dite. “What ails you?”
“The time has come for me to consider a husband for my daughter, but I know not where to look.”
“A difficult decision, mistress,” said Dite. “But better early than too late.”
“Too late?” said Aethelflaed nervously
“Worry not, Mistress,” soothed Dite.
When she spoke, Dite’s voice was small and soft, as though the wind was sucking it gently from her lungs and blowing it away in a sigh.
“Who does your daughter love?” the Sprite asked.
“No-one. My daughter loves no-one. She is but a child, but she will marry whom I choose,” Aethelflaed replied.
“You control many things mistress, but not all things,” said Dite. “Remember that and all will be well. But forget it at your peril. You do not choose love, it chooses you,” she said, then dipped back into the water and disappeared.

Dite’s words bothered Aethelflaed greatly; the Sprite had sown a seed of doubt and over time it began to grow. Slowly at first, but as Aelfwynn blossomed into a young woman Aethelflaed’s distrust of her daughter began to sour their friendship, gnawing like a rat at their bond. By the time Aelfwynn was fifteen her mother’s anxiety had fermented into an obsessive suspicion. Aethelflaed forbade Aelfwynn to speak to anyone unless chaperoned, permitted her only to socialise with the ladies of the court. Aethelflaed’s quest to find a husband for her daughter gave her sleepless nights and Aelfwynn became isolated and lonely. And yet… a determined and bright young woman, she soon learned to be resourceful.

“I came to your chambers last night,” her mother said one morning, “but could not find you there.”
“I was afeared I was sickening so took a walk down the river – it is so cool there. I feel much better now,” replied Aelfwynn. Aethelflaed looked at her daughter’s pallor. Was it sickness that made her so pale, or was it lies?

As battles with the Vikings continued Aethelflaed and Ethelred spent much time away from their daughter employing spies to watch her in their absence. But Aelfwynn was shrewd: she used her time wisely making friends, becoming an interpreter and diplomat, and successfully side-stepping all attempts to marry her off, finding one excuse after another. Aelfwynn still remained unmarried at 23, when her father died.

Now Aethelflaed heard Dite’s words more than ever: Better too early than too late.
“I will not marry him!” Aelfwynn protested when her mother suggested a man who had sworn a never-ending hatred of the Vikings. The two women had been arguing for hours.
“I will marry for love, Mother, not to prolong this hated war! Will this bloodshed never end? I will marry for love, not hate!” Aelfwynn declared, “and you will not stop me!”

The tension between the two women spread through the court, spilling out onto the streets of Warwick where the townsfolk gossiped and chattered. Was Aethelflaed losing her touch? Suitors were presented one after the other. Time was of the essence and Aethelflaed’s pride was at stake: she would make her daughter bend to her will.

On June the 12th, 918, however, Aethelflaed unexpectedly died. Aelfwynn became ruler of Mercia.

But…you know…things don’t always work out the way we want them to, do they? Within three months of Aethelflaed’s untimely death, King Edward removed Aelfwynn from power and banished her to Wessex. She disappeared from the history books never to be heard of again and Edward seized control of Mercia. Tracing what clues they can find, Historians wonder if Aelfwynn, with her newly acquired freedom, had defied convention and married without permission. Perhaps a love she had kept secret for many years had instantly become a secret marriage – a marriage that enraged the King because her husband was the enemy: a Viking.

Was Aelfwynn put in a nunnery to live out her days as no more than a prisoner? If so, was she with child by then – a child with the mixed bloodline of a Viking warrior and an Anglo-Saxon princess? Whatever became of her we shall never know – her history has been denied the chance to speak. Perhaps Aelfwynn’s ancestors walk amongst us now.

Maybe a young man, on visiting Warwick four hundred years or more after these events found himself resting on the banks of the Avon, and maybe he found himself in conversation with a river Sprite who urged him to right this wrong. May be the river sprite encouraged him to write about star-crossed lovers and their warring nations. That also, we shall never know. But it’s a nice thought.

Have you been to Warwick recently? Walked the streets where Aethelflaed and Aelfwynn once walked? Picnicced perhaps, on the banks of the Avon?

Look deep into the bulrushes, pay close attention to the ripples in the water… you never know what you may see… because Sprites, I hear, love to tell a story or two…


The Texture of Loss

A moving, tender short story from author Katharine d’Souza. Eloquence in every line. Read and you will see why I had to reblog.

The Pygmy Giant

by Katharine D’Souza

No longer able to climb the stairs, he unfolded the blanket and laid it across the sofa. The same blanket they’d spread on lawns, on beaches. On which they’d cast crumbs, spilt drinks, cuddled – a blanket which softened their summer life.

He tucked the frayed edge beneath the sagged cushions, tight as arthritic hands could manage.

In autumns, the rough weave had cosied around knees left chill by the car’s ineffectual heater. Now, worn thin – like himself, he thought – it provided bare comfort. The comfort of memories.

He lay on his side, and angled his head so the photo filled his vision. Gaudy tinted and grainy, the best of days: the 1960s, and her. The blanket, fresh then, as they’d been, shielded her legs from sharp dune grasses. Wide enough to hold her handbag, their picnic, his kicked-off shoes, her, her, her.

All legs…

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Props and Prompts

Fancy your chances in a short story competition? Here are eight ideas to help you find your inspiration.

Unsplash – a generously free-to-use website, showcasing some amazing photos taken by some superb photographers. They upload their work and as I say, generously put it out there for anyone to use free of charge. All they ask is that you give them a mention. How big-hearted is that?

Read winning short stories. See if you can work out why they are winners. Do you agree with the judges? If yes, as a writing exercise, write part-two of a winning story – just for your own benefit and practice. If no, re-write the story how you think it should read and then compare the two.

Let the sounds do the talking. Listen to some on-line recordings of the sea (YouTube) or thunder and rain (YouTube), or fishes having a chat. Maybe the gentle mechanical turnings of a windmill (YouTube again). Immerse yourself in sound and see where it takes you.

Picture prompts are always a good one – see number 1 above – but this time try an art gallery, museum or art shop – all of which are free. One of the best forms of art and expression has to be graffiti. There is one particular piece of urban art local to me which always makes me smile when I pass it – across a derelict For Sale sign advertising an abandoned plot of land, some enterprising young person has spray painted the word TWAT in silver paint. I love a good four letter word, and this particular piece of art always brings a smile to my face because a) it’s written in silver. Who has a random can of silver paint hanging around?! b) the use of language is short and to the point – but who Expressive.JPGare they talking to? Are they calling the billboard a twat?!  c) why bother in the first place when they could just as easily have scaled the fence onto the abandoned land and got up to all sorts of mischief instead. But they didn’t – they chose to write a word, which is better than an exaggerated cartoon version of the oft-use phallus young males are wont to draw. The fact that they didn’t should be applauded. I think it could only have made me smile more if they’d written the word Bum instead.

The website of your local theatre/arts centre. Have a look to see who’s coming to town and that may jolt the creative juices into flowing for you. I’m not in any way suggesting you plagiarise characters from shows or anything like that, but for example, there may be a singer song-writer-stand-up comedian playing sometime and she or he may spark the idea for a character – someone you may not have considered before.

Three unrelated props. A key, a stone and a bag of flour. Write them together somehow. Borrow from your friends and neighbours – this way the items will be unfamiliar to you. Likewise three inexpensive things from a charity shop; and old book, a toy, a vase. You can take them all back when you’ve finished.

Visit your local tip and take a couple of photos of stuff being thrown away. I once saw an entire, perfectly recyclable and sellable oak dresser being chucked away. I also saw a woman chuck her car keys away along with the rubbish that was in her hand. Funnily enough the council tip guy had a very long pole with a hook on one end for rescuing such inadvertent deposits. Comedy gold Mrs, comedy gold.

Best prop and prompt ever: cup of coffee, large cake, seat by the window. You know what comes next.

the Apostle Annetta

Couldn’t let this pass without sharing. An online creative writing course from Don’t Confuse the Narrator. Have a read – it might be just what you’re looking for…

don't confuse the narrator

I’ve just published a new creative writing course on the Udemy platform: Inspirations for Creative Writing provides a range of practical activities, ideas and prompts for poets and other writers. The course has around 90 minutes of video classes, with a range of activities and examples to download. It’s the fifth course I’ve published on the site and I’m proud that The Essential Poet’s Toolbox for Readers & Writers, which has been online for a couple of years, is a bestseller.

One of the things that the Udemy platform does for instructors is provide automatic captioning for the videos; but although this is a useful service, it isn’t by any means a perfect system.

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Competition Time

Still not in Back to Work mode? Spend a few hours with these little opportunities and see what you come up with. Think of them as the hors d’oeuvres to the main meal of your story writing.

And thank you Unsplash photographers for the free use of the pic

Free To Enter – the Telegraph Online ‘Just Back’ Travel Writing Competition. If you are just back from somewhere slightly more interesting than a bus stop, then the Telegraph Online would like the exciting details in up to 500 words. You can read previous winners on the website. A ‘voyage’ across the Mersey is one of them – proving that you don’t have to write about anywhere exotic to scoop the prize.

Picutre Courtesy of Unsplash.jpg
Picture courtesy of Unsplash

Closing: Monthly. Prize: £200 in your choice of currency.
 Email your entry, of no more than 500 words (with the text in the body of the email), to

Free To Enter
– The Val Wood Prize

2018: Women’s Writes competition,  now open for submissions. This annual freebie from the website of author Valerie Wood is open to anyone over the age of 16 regardless of gender.  This year the contest is celebrating 100 years since married women won the right to vote.  Stories should therefore have a strong female protagonist.  Other than that you are free to write about anything you wish.  Story length 1,500 words Closing: 15.9.18 (5pm). Prizes: £100, £50, £25, £25. 
Details here

Free To Enter – Harvill Secker and Bloody Scotland have joined forces to launch a competition to find a debut crime writer from a BAME (Black Asian Minority Ethnic) background. The winner will have their book published, under the Harvill Secker imprint, in a publishing deal with an advance of £5,000. The winner will also receive perks alongside their publishing contract, including a panel appearance at the Bloody Scotland Festival in 2019 (this year’s dates are 21st-23rd September) and a series of three one-to-one mentoring sessions with Abir Mukherjee.
Closes 9th of September 2018. Details here

Hour of Writes Competition. To enter this new weekly peer-reviewed contest from Manchester, submit a piece of writing of any type you choose running to no more than 2,000 words. There is a different theme every week. Closing: 11pm every Friday. Prize: £50 (usually the minimum – prize increases if more entries are received).
 Entry Fee £3. Details here

Dark Tales Short Story Competition. For horror and speculative fiction – the sort that leaves you afraid to turn out the lights in case something other than a fly is hiding under the bed. Like a Spider, for example. No matter how small. All those legs. And far too many eyes…Anyway… your entry must be limited to 5,000 words. Closing: Monthly. Prize: £100 and publication. Entry Fee £4. Details here

Flash 500 Competition. Write an entire story in just 500 words. Easy peasy. (And you would have practiced with your Telegraph entry, right?) Now in its ninth year, this quarterly open-themed competition has the remaining 2018 closing dates of 30th September and 31st December 2018.
Entry Fee £5 per story or £8 for two. The results will be announced within six weeks of each closing date and the three winning entries each quarter will be published on their website. Details here