Author Archives: Sophie

For the Love of Owls

owls,. Little owlFirst you should know: I love owls. When I was at college, I lived for a time in a cottage opposite a field. We had a visiting Little Owl. I first encountered it when I came home at dusk to find Something sitting on the stone wall that surrounded our garden. I thought a child had dropped a stuffed toy and I reached to retrieve it. Until it OPENED ITS EYES.

It was a Little Owl. And they are really small, as you see. 1.5 bricks tall, max. But the message was direct, unmistakeable and compelling: DON’T EVEN THINK ABOUT IT.

I’ve been a huge fan of owls ever since.

A Holiday of Owls

Arctic Hare, photographed by Andrew Thompson

I’ve just returned from a trip to Finland, where they take their owls seriously. Travelling with my Companion, the Birdwatcher, on an amazingly rewarding trip organised by Bird Holidays I saw some spectacular creatures, including a truly magical Arctic Hare, scampering across a road and into a snow-dotted field..

But it was the owls that got me there in the first place and the very first bird I saw was…. well, let me set the scene.

Owls: Scene One

It is morning. Overcast, but not raining. Our local guide – whom I shall call Aragorn for the purposes of this blog, since he was certainly a Strider – stops our convoy of two people-carriers and helps us scramble over a ditch and into the forest. It is shadowed, but not dark. A bit like a cathedral, come to think of it.

We move softly, speaking in muted tones. Everyone except me is a proper accredited bird-watcher. I do my best to emulate them and not bump into the trees.

We stop. Everyone raises their binoculars. Intent on something.

So do I.  I can see… trees. Pine trees. Birch trees. Bushes. Not a single bird.

Behind me the Birdwatcher says, low, “Got it?”

Gulp. No.

First Owl Encounter

He gives me co-ordinates: middle tree, scar on the right of the trunk? I nod. OK, then up a bit, to the right a bit, see the big branch at 45 degrees, go up along that and…  I see a sort of deeper shadow half way up the tree. Tangled branches? Twigs? Leaves? But what’s that semi-circular something sticking up in the middle of it?

Great Grey Owl photographed by Andrew Thompson

And there she is. A great grey owl, on her nest.

Now I’ve got the binoculars on her I adjust the focus – and step back in shock. For she is BIG.

“Look at her in the scope,” says the kindly UK leader.  I do. And she is wonderful.

In the scope you lose all sense of size. Instead I have the strangest feeling that our eyes are actually meeting.

I study her face – for owls have real faces, unlike most birds. That circular visage, with its pale back-to-back commas emphasising the eyes, makes her look like a Trojan warrior, wearing an armoured nose guard. But she is SO not human.

The whorls of feathers are like rings in a tree which tell you how old it is. I keep wanting to call her plumage foliage. This feels like a very ancient creature.

And then the eyes! Calm but alert. Confident. Golden.

“She knows we’re here all right,” someone says, whispering. Out of respect? I think so, at least in part. I feel suddenly very humble. And privileged. Very, very privileged.

I remember what the gardener, who lived next door to  our Little Owl cottage, used to say. If you look into an owl’s eyes, you should bow to him. So I do. It feels the right thing to do.

Owl Fact One

One of the great pleasures of this holiday is our companions. They know so much, yet they are kind and encouraging – and an education. When I tell one of them about Gardener Bob’s instruction to bow to an owl, she nods approvingly. “A photographer lost an eye to an owl, didn’t he?” says someone. “Yes. The great Eric Hosking,” she replies.

Barn owl taken with a flash bulb 1936. Eyke Suffolk by Eric Hosking

Great indeed. The man photographed birds in black and white from the twenties onwards, carving out a career in a genre he virtually invented. The results are spectacular, as this glorious gallery demonstrates.

There is now a charity in his name which offers bursaries to support natural history and ornithological research through the medium of photography and allied arts.

Anthropmorphising Owls

Watching owls is special for so many reasons. But I think a great element in the wonder of it is that they come one at a time. They don’t flock, like crows or goldfinches. They’re dignified solitaries. Or murderous, like the Little Owl. Or permanently irritated Professor Brainstawms.

Of course, it’s not an individual reaction – their facial “expression” is in the DNA. But sometimes they cheer me up just to look at them and imagine what they’re thinking.

Tengmalm’s Owl by Andrew Thompson

Like this delightful Tengmalm’s owl surprised by visitors – at a proper distance, of course, under Aragorn’s meticulous direction. But their hearing is acute and, when we tiptoed up, she heard us.

And doesn’t she just look like a woman who’s come down two flights of stairs to answer the door to Jehovah’s Witnesses? Bless her!

Owl Fact Two

Owls will always hear us coming, though we approach softly as foot can fall. It’s because of those not human faces, I’m told.

“They’re like a great radar dish,” a birdwatcher explained. “They pick up the noise that voles make underground.”

And then go into that inhuman rotation of the head – some can turn as much as 270 degrees! – so they can lock onto their prey.

 

Owl Encounters

The pleasure of an owl encounter is that it is unpredictable. They might be there. Or not. They might come, especially if Aragorn is playing their call. Or not. They might sit in a tree half a mile away and sneer at you. Or soar away the moment they detect your presence. Or worse.

Hawk Owl photograph by Andrew Thompson

On one day Aragorn took us up a hillside path to where he thought, if I recall correctly, a hawk owl might be seen. He told us to wait for him. “I will go first. They can be aggressive.” And he strode off into the trees, a heroic advance party of one.

Eventually my Companion Birdwatcher said thoughtfully, “It would be ironic if those turned out to be his last words.” The others nodded.

I had the feeling that they all thought it wouldn’t be a bad way to go.

Aragorn survived – but the owls were not in the giving vein that morning.

Hawk Owl

We had several goes at finding a hawk owl and, in the end, one found us. It was waiting for us when we came out of a forest lodge after a candlelit lunch.

And it is extraordinary. There’s the long tail, the glorious plumage as if someone has tipped petals of may blossom over it, and then there’s it false face.

Yes, truly, a false face on the back of its head. And it’s a pretty damn creepy one, too, like an Etruscan helmet with eye slits that you can’t see into. It made me recoil, when I saw it in the scope. So I think it must give even a flying enemy a pretty clear warning.

But what I remember is the owl itself, silhouetted against a winter-white sky, watching us watch it through our binoculars and scopes and the naked eye.

And I felt how difficult it is to understand another species. This must be what it will be like when the human species meets its first extra terrestrial.

Ready to write that Dr Who episode now, then!
Sophie Weston Author

Sophie       

with huge thanks to Andrew Thompson for permission to use his lovely photographs of our Finnish trip. Dear Reader, please credit him, if you wish to use any of them yourself.

Also much appreciation to bird holidays.co.uk for a wonderful trip and especially to Andy and Aragorn for allowing me scope time to digest the amazing sights. There were far more birds than this – and I haven’t covered even half the owls we saw. It was magic. Thank you! 

Opera for Writers

OK, this blog is truly personal. I very much wanted to write it. I don’t know whether my experience will be of help – or even interest – to other writers. I hope it may. But no guarantees.

There’s something a bit magical, a bit otherworldly about opera. Lots of my nearest and dearest hate it. If you do too, you’ll be in excellent company.

Why I’m Thinking About This Now

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Audiobook Bertie Wooster

Recently, a reader of this blog, noticing that I turn into a drivelling fan girl whenever P G Wodehouse crops up, invited me to review a new audiobook edition of Right Ho, Jeeves.

Hugely flattered, I returned a resounding “Gimme.”  Only rather more gracefully phrased. At least, I hope so.

And then the doubts set in. Had I implied I was qualified in any way to do this? I had never read/heard/listened to an audiobook. That’s ANY audiobook. The odd 15 minutes with Book at Bedtime on Radio 4 was the limit of my literary listening.

But this was a whole book. What if I didn’t care for the experience? AAAARGH!

When To Read an Audiobook

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In Praise of Books with Friends

Books with friends. Right ho, JeevesThis week I want to praise books with friends in them.

I confess, this is pure sentiment on my part. I’ve had an emotional time in which I have been hugely grateful for my friends. They sustain me. This week I’ve been on a writing retreat with several of them, and they were stars. When asked, they gave me constructive suggestions. If necessary, they took the piss out of me. We laughed lots.

And they all held out a hand when I needed that, too.

So I started thinking about friends in books. It is not a genre that bookshops recognise. But it’s a quality that always enhances a book and often endears it to the reader.

Blessed Bertie Wooster is not just a silly ass, but a chap who touches your heartstrings for exactly that reason. He sets out his stall in Right Ho, Jeeves. “Gussie and I, as I say, had rather lost touch, but all the same I was exercised about the poor fish, as I am about all my pals, close or distant, who find themselves treading upon Life’s banana skins.Ah yes. A chap one can rely on. Definitely hero material. I knew there had to be a reason why I’ve always loved him so much. Continue reading

Romantic Novel Awards 2019

This Monday saw the party for this year’s UK Romantic Novel Awards. It was fun, warm-hearted and full of interesting ideas from inspiring people. Made me feel quite sentimental — indeed, cautiously hopeful for the human race.

The Awards are in their 59th year — which makes them older than the Booker, the Costa and even the renowned RITA awards by the Romance Writers of America. Continue reading

Electronic Benefit and Compulsive Micro-editing

boring micro-editing Confession time: I have a problem with compulsive micro-editing;  and I don’t normally believe in electronic benefits.

I am a quintessentially late adopter. Even when I have been pushed through the airtight seal into the orbiting 21st century, I’m not one who expects to find anything much good coming from the new technology at my command.

Mainly, of course, because it’s NOT at my command. It goes its own way. Sometimes it’s too fast for me and whizzes onto the next page, next program. And freezes. Or it’s too slow, so that I lose confidence and try to go back. And it freezes.

This is true of laptops, desktops, tablets, E-readers. The whole boiling. I hate ’em.

Except…

Except that they make my writing life just a little bit, well, easier.

Conviction Tiffler Addicted to Micro-editing

Micro-editing, the enemy of the finished bookYou see, I’m a conviction tiffler.

If, like Autocorrect, you don’t recognise the term, I borrowed it from a woman who was once my editor. What she actually said was — in a public restaurant, quite loudly —  “If you don’t stop tiffling with that sodding book, I shall come round with chloroform and forceps and remove it surgically.” Continue reading

Characters In the Shadows

Characters in Shadow - people at airport, in silhouette

As a story-teller, my process begins with a character. It is then my job to bring them out into the light of day.

Sometimes I know him or her well.

Sometimes I’ve just eavesdropped on a conversation or a thought. The whole person is still deep in shadows, waiting to reveal who he really is.Characters in the Shadows + napoleon

Stage Two is when I start to think about the What Ifs.

Sometimes this will be background and setting stuff –  like what if my hero stumbles across Napoleon? Or the Hadron collider? Or an international conspiracy?

But usually it’s more personal. Characters in novels are awkward sods.

What if my character insists on making a different choice from what I expect? Continue reading

Twelfth Night

Twelfth Night party by PhizI am posting this on Twelfth Night. Well, at least, what my family have always called Twelfth Night. That’s the 6th January. It is a family birthday in our house, so it kind of sticks in the memory.

Only — maybe Twelfth Night is 5th January. The Anglican Church think that’s the right date.

SO WHEN is Twelfth Night?

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Rosie M Banks Interview

Rosie M Banks, mysteryRosie M Banks is a mysterious figure. In theory she is a writer of fiction (romantic) created by another writer of fiction (humorous). She is not even a major character in any of his novels. But she inhabits PGW’s world as solidly as Bertie or Lord Emsworth, albeit at considerably further distance from the reader.

Last week, I looked at her first appearance along with many other romantic novelists who figure in Wodehouse World. Though she stands head and shoulders above the others.

This week, as a Christmas treat – mainly for myself, I admit – I thought I would ask this towering figure of our genre to speak for herself.

Hello from Rosie M Banks

Rosie M Banks romanticRMB  How very kind of you, Sophie. Libertà Books is one of my favourite websites. I’m very honoured to be asked.

SW [you get the feeling she has been interviewed many times before. Many, many times] Our pleasure, Ms Banks. First question, if I may: did you always want to be a romantic novelist? Continue reading

PGW and the Romantic Novelist

Just over a week ago I asked an expert why     P G Wodehouse seemed so out of sympathy with the romantic novelist. Did he know one?

romantic novelist Barbara Cartland

This is where I should probably admit that I have a sneaky image of a young Barbara Cartland pursuing him. Well, PGW was a big name when he visited London in the 20s and she was a newbie author and playwright.

If they did meet,  I would put good money on him evaporating sharpish. He had perfected the technique. His family called it the Wodehouse Glide. But nobody I’ve come across has offered any evidence of Wodehouse encountering a romantic novelist in real life.

The expert said, quite rightly, that PGW was pretty brisk on the subject of all sorts of pretentiousness. And, anyway, PGW handed out as many knocks to male poets as he did to female novelists. Continue reading