Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Writing and Gender

The Turks Head in Barnard Castle - a typical market town pub. People in the States/Europe will no doubt think it very odd looking!
Today I've read a post in the Washington Post (sent as a link by a writer friend) in which the words of wisdom are these: if you write, then write under your initials and write about men, as that gains much more kudos than writing about women and their interests. click
There is an article in the British press on a similar vein here, though it does not go so far as to advise pretending to be male. It does bemoan the fact that insightful books on women's interests are deemed trivial - the very name "chick lit" being a giveaway, whereas men, if they write about similar interests from a male point of view, are reviewed, discussed and toasted as literary successes.
So for 2010, perhaps we ladies should try hiding our identities behind our initials, and see if it makes a difference!

Monday, 21 December 2009

Till the Day Go Down - first lines


Harry Wharton strolled across the cobbles of the square and smiled at the farm girls who eyed him speculatively across the market stalls. Flirtatious matrons offered tempting morsels of honeycomb along with bawdy suggestions and Harry, grinning at their good-humoured audacity, shook his head at them all and kept his eyes open for a local man who could tell him the secret ways through the Border. The quicker he got to Edinburgh, the sooner he could accomplish the business, return and claim his reward.
How hard could it be?
First, he must find a guide. Getting lost in the boggy, trackless wastes was not the way he wished to start his mission.
The minty green scent of recently pulled cabbages and peas fresh in the pod fought the more earthy smells of livestock penned since early morning. From somewhere close at hand drifted the mouth-watering aroma of hot eel pie. Harry’s nostrils flared, his stomach rumbled and he fumbled for the purse at his belt.
“But Mama, we need more ale. There’s little left. Buy a keg or two, do!”
The clear feminine voice wavered between wheedle and command and did not belong to a farm girl. Harry turned, uttered a soundless whistle and forgot about eel pie.
A black velvet bonnet tilted rakishly to one side of her head. High cheekbones, a neat nose and open brown eyes in a clear complexion. Wisps and strands of chestnut hair tangled about her ears, and as she turned he glimpsed a thick, lustrous brown plait between her shoulder blades. The square-necked green gown hugged her waist, flared over the curve of her hip and a frill of white showed at the tight cuff of her plain, practical sleeves. The long tasselled tabs of an embroidered girdle hung from her waist.
She radiated energy and purpose. Something shifted under Harry’s diaphragm, which was odd because he considered himself well used to ladies of quality. Less than three weeks ago he had flirted with court beauties on a daily basis, even bedded one or two during his service in the duke’s household.
“Please, Mama. Why do you hesitate?” Pleasant toned and with a fluency lacking in the rough accents around him, her voice held Harry’s attention as she turned to the servant beside her. “Joseph will take it to the cart, won’t you, Joseph?”
Joseph, a stalwart man in his fifties, hastily nodded agreement. The young woman swung back to her parent. Joseph kept his gaze on the cobbles and looked as if he struggled to maintain a respectful expression.
Harry smiled. She stood out among the ill-dressed crowds in the market square as if a shaft of sunshine followed her every movement and he was willing to bet that life would never be dull with that young lady around.
“Very well, dear.” The older woman sighed and gave up the struggle. “Two kegs, Joseph, if you please.”
Joseph bowed his head and turned away to make the transaction.
Dark lashes shadowed fine eyes. Harry traced the swooping line of her brows, so clear against her pale skin. An unexpected tightness in his throat caused him swallow hard and look away.
“Now, Mama, what about needles and yarn for those quilts we are to make this winter?”
He turned back in time to see the young woman gesture towards the stall at his side, which offered hanks of wool, yarns and silk threads in an array of colours. His first inclination was to move out of the away. Nay, he thought, stay. An hour’s banter before riding on to Edinburgh may prove an entertainment to beguile a boring day.
The familiar pleasure of the chase surged through his veins. He pretended to study the goods on offer, allowed a frown to cloud his brow and stared at the display in what he hoped was an artful show of great perplexity. A flash of green fabric swirled against his booted leg and his senses, already sharp, tightened another notch as the scent of roses reached him.
“Why, sir, do you hesitate over needles?” The soft gurgle of laughter at his elbow made him lift his head. Her smile was like quicksilver. “Mama and I could help you make a selection if you find it beyond you.”
“Alina! Hold your tongue!” The sharp words drew Harry’s gaze to the girl’s mother, who frowned at him.
He bowed to them both, and kept his head down for several respectful moments. Alina. Alina. Harry savoured the name and decided he liked it.
“The gentleman obviously needs assistance, Mama.”
“The stall owner is present, daughter, and will offer all the assistance he needs.”
At the snapped rejoinder, Harry stood straight and tall once more, and noticed Alina tilted her head to meet his gaze. Her smile took his breath away.
“I, er…I thought to take a small gift home for my sister, but…”
Jesu! He could not frame the simplest sentence, and her laughing brown eyes mocked his efforts. He shook his head, defeated. “I know nothing of needles.”
“See, Mama.” The young woman half-turned to her annoyed parent. “He does need our help. I thought he might.” The sun sparkled on the vagabond curls tangled like gold wires about her ears.
Harry rallied his scattered wits. What was the matter with him? He cleared his throat to give himself time to think.
But she was too swift for him. “You still look puzzled, sir. They are only needles and pins, not something the Good Lord has dropped from the sky.”
Ye Gods! She spoke as if he were a simpleton. The skin of Harry’s face prickled and burned. It was years since he had blushed at something a woman said to him. He inhaled through his nose, ignored her and turned his attention to the older woman. “I would be most grateful for your help, ma’am. I must admit pins and spindles have not figured overmuch in my education.”
The mother had been a beauty in her time. The square-necked black velvet gown did nothing to lighten the sallow hue of her complexion and the severe gable hood, still popular among those who once supported Queen Catherine, did nothing to brighten her countenance. Still, Harry saw a likeness to her daughter in the eloquent brown eyes and the line of her jaw even though the good woman’s expression remained stern.
She turned a quelling glance on Alina, as if warning her daughter to remain silent. “I suggest, sir, a package of needles such as—” she indicated a small silk-wrapped bundle with a gloved hand—“would be welcome to most young ladies.”
Harry offered a second casual yet elegant bow. “Thank you, ma’am. I appreciate your advice.”
She inclined her head. A jewel at her throat caught the light and the gauzy stuff of the hood hid her neck as she turned to the stallholder.
“Use a ribbon, Mary, since it is to be a gift.” She cast a calculating eye over Harry’s dark woollen doublet and rakish cap. “I am sure the young man has coin enough.”
Harry bristled under her sharp scrutiny. His brows lifted, and a retort sprang to his lips, but he caught sight of Alina’s commiserating smile behind her mother’s shoulder and forgot what he had been about to say.
The stallholder, who had remained silent throughout the exchange, beamed and bobbed a small curtsy.
Alina’s mother continued to regard Harry with condescension, and then glanced towards the stallholder once more. “We shall return to make our selection later, Mary.” She directed a regal nod to Harry. “Good day, young man.”
She shepherded her daughter away. It was obvious she intended to return when he was out of the way. Harry gritted his teeth, offered his most elegant bow and watched them go. He received a swift glance over her shoulder from the younger lady before the crowd took her away.
He turned to the stallholder. “Who was that?”
Shrewd blue eyes regarded him. “Fancy ye chances, lad? That was the lady of Aydon Hall. Margery Carnaby and her daughter Alina. They’re a-carin’ for Sir Reynold, him that’s ill and like to die soon.”
“Aydon? Just north of here?”
“Aye. Right by the Ay Burn. Ye’ll be a stranger to these parts yourself, sir?”
Harry saw no need to deny it. “Travelling north to Edinburgh.”
“Oh, aye. And ye’d be from Lonnun, then, sir?”
Harry practised his famous smile. There was no harm in letting everyone think he was from the south. In fact, it was to his advantage. “How’d ye guess?”
The woman relaxed, as they all did when he concentrated on them. The heavy wool shawl draping her shoulders moved as she shrugged. “Ye don’t sound as if ye come from these parts. Ye sound more like gentry. I thought o’ Lonnun, that’s all.”
“It is quieter hereabouts than London.”
Mary handed him a neatly wrapped package and named her price. He counted out coins into her palm, aware she eyed him up and down. “Quiet, d’ye think, lad? It’s but a hundred miles to Edinburgh, and ye’ll travel some o’ the most dangerous land in the country to get there.”
Harry’s hands stopped moving, and his gaze rose from the coins to the woman’s rosy, thread-veined face and dark curls.
“Dangerous for everyone, or just for me?”
Mary choked back a laugh. “There’s outlaws and broken men up in’t hills, my bonny lad, and they’ll shake loose the Border whenever they take a fancy to dee it. They’ll not stop to ask ye name, never mind ye destination, before they slit ye throat and ride off wi’ ye purse.” She looked him up and down. “They’ll no’ forget ye sword nor ye dagger, either, nor that bonny jewel in your cap. Nekkid as a babe ye’ll be, when those limmers leave ye.”
He resumed counting out coins into her plump hand. “I’d best take care how I ride then,” he said. “For ride I will.”
Her blue eyes twinkled. “Luck be wi’ye, sir.”


The opening lines of Till the Day Go Down, available now from bookshops and online.

Saturday, 19 December 2009

Cold weather


Still waiting for more snow. Now it is supposed to come from the north. I hope this fella and his pals will be taken into a stable at night.
Because the charges for gas are so high these days, everyone in the UK is using it gently for central heating. Shops are selling blankets with arms, and sleep suits, with feet built-in, for adults.
It serves to remind us all how our historical characters survived life in stone castles and miserable hovels in the countryside, with inadequate food and clothing. Times when a young person might be used as a bedwarmer, when old people sat in the inglenook to stay warm. I can remember coal fires, which scorched your face and shins while your back froze in the draft from the door. Going from the heated living room into the unheated hall and kitchen to make a cup of tea was a shivery shock to the system. If you'd forgotten to bring in coal for the fire, then going outside to get more from the coalhouse was a heroes's task - and usually fell to Father. Funny how most of the really nasty tasks still get left to men - ! Waking up to ice on the inside of windows and arctic bathrooms....but at least we had glass in the windows. I suppose communal living in ancient days was one way of keeping warm in winter. Makes me feel glad for the things we have today - thermal underwear and fleeces, heavy jackets and gloves, weatherproof boots and an easy place to get food as often as we need it without the men going out hunting for it. We've a lot to be thankful for in these days of easy living.
But I wish my laptop would stop trying to second guess the word I'm about to use because it is coming up with some odd choices. If I hadn't read this post back, I'd have left the word scorned in place instead of scorched.

Friday, 18 December 2009

Snow and Meals

Snow arrived in the Tyne valley yesterday,
so we took a trip to our favourite farm shop in case we couldn't get there in the next few days. I took the pics up there on the lane leading along the ridge to the shop, and it looked very pretty, but it was cold.

We've had a little more snow over- night but nothing to write home about. Over the last decade the north east, ie Yorkshire, Durham and Northumberland, has escaped most of the worst weather thrown at the UK. Way down south in Kent and Hampshire they've had it much worse. The winds seem to come from the west much more than they used to, and so the Pennines shelter us. This time, the wind is coming from the east, across the North Sea, and we're sitting targets - but again, the wind is veering south, so Kent is inches deep and we have ony a scattering.

A question arose on one of my groups this morning about meals in the UK and what they are called. A tricky question. There will be regional variants from the north of Scotland to the tip of Lands End, and class and culture comes into it, too.

Most of us start the day with breakfast, unless we belong to the generation that eats on the run these days, eating sandwiches on public transport and clutching plastic coffee mugs wherever we go. Then there'll be a break for elevenses, somewhere between 1o and 11am. A mug of tea and a butty for workmen, a cup of coffee and a bun or biscuit for the housewife and the office worker, perhaps. Then some of us stop again at 12 or 1 for lunch, and some of us stop for dinner. That's a bit of a class thing. The posh have lunch and the plebs have dinner midday, as they did in medieval days. Around 3pm there's another break, tea or coffee or chocolate - and there are so many varieties of coffee these days - I still don't know (or care) what they are.

The evening meal is where the fun starts. Personal preference dictates when you eat: 5.3o or 6pm for workers coming home, 7pm or later if you want to have friends round or go out for meal, or whatever variation suits the individual these days. I don't know how it works out for those down south, who commute such vast distances into and out of London (to my mind, 9 miles was far enough to go to work every day.) They must get home so much later. What you call the meal depends on so many things - the working class/lower middle class child might once have called it tea, as in teatime. As they grew and moved up the social scale they learned to call the meal dinner. Their parents, and those who claim to be working class even though they pull down large salaries, might still call the same meal tea.

What used to be called high tea has kind of died a death now, overtaken by the way everyone munches out of paperbags at any hour of the day. In my childhood, high tea was a cooked meal, but not a full dinner. Melted cheese on toast, perhaps, or baked beans on toast, a poached egg - yes, on toast! On Sunday afternoons in the sixties, it was still possible to go out for a drive and stop at a nice hotel or cafe for afternoon tea, which would be neat, delicate sandwiches with a savory filling, then a selection of scones, jam, cake and an endless pot of tea, all served in good china by a waitress neatly dressed in black dress and white apron, with her hair neatly tucked away under a cap or neat little starched linen band thingy that looked like a tiara. I can't think of a word for it, but I can visualise it perfectly.

Then, if you survived eating through the day, there would always be supper around 10pm. A cup of tea, and whatever you fancied. My dad loved a raw onion with bread and butter. I used to eat it as well, while mother looked on in horror. My brother often had a bowl of cornflakes.
Life was more active then. We walked off all those calories!
So, for an author wanting to write about meal in the UK, you'd need to check your region, then find out the words peculiar to that place, bearing in mind that class/culture thing, and the time period too.

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Show, don't Tell

I value my one and only critique group and the information that flows between members. Recently I discovered that though I thought a hand raised, palm out, was universal body language for stop, go no further, it seems it is not so. I have seen footage of wildlife conservationists using it to stop grizzly bears coming closer in both Alaska and Russia, but now I know it that among humans, it does not always convey the signal I thought it did.

Here in the UK, and I think in Europe in general though I can't be certain, a palm pressed against one's own chest or bosom would indicate one's own fear or trepidation. Be still my beating heart, as they say. Now I am in doubt about that, too.

There are so many myths that spread around the Internet about writing styles and techniques, and the most prevalent among them is the succinct instruction Show, don't Tell. I'm sure you've all been told this at some point.
I must confess I grow tired of trying to describe emotions (otherwise known as Showing) which are so common as to be universally understood when words such as frightened or surprised are employed. We have the words because we all know the body language for fear, fright and so on. So why keep on re-explaining it to a reader who also, unless they are an idiot, know the signs as well?
Sometimes it may be appropriate to show the display of facial /bodily emotions, but not always. There must be more interesting things to write about than raised brows and wide eyes!

Nevertheless, I value the crits that come my way. I welcome them and always consider what the writer has to say before I decide to stick with what I have, or use the suggestion. Sometimers (quite often, actually) a comment spurs me on to scrap what I had and do something new. The re-write is always an improvement. Yet without those critiques, I wouldn't have considereed making the change, so thank you one and all - my critique partners - I salute you.
The Market Cross (aka The Butter Market) in Barnard Castle was built in the late 1700s to shelter ladies who came to town to sell their produce and proves something of an obstacle to current day traffic. Sitting in the tea room looking out, I thought a similar vehicle was about to crash through the window and take me for a ride.
(Needless to say, it didn't.)

Monday, 14 December 2009

Barnard Castle once again


I found the pics I thought I had lost!

When I recharged the camera battery, they simply reappeared, so here are my pics of Barnard Castle, famously one of Richard III's homes for the ten years or so 1474-1485. The walls enclose a large area, and loom over a sharp drop to the River Tees on the south side. We didn't go in as it was cold, windy and I wasn't up to staying long enough to justify the £4 entrance fee, but on another day - hopefully a warm, sunny day, it will be on my list of places to visit.
It is curious that the whole town goes by the name of the Castle, and it is certainly a town that repays walking about in it, for there are lots of old houses and buildings, and intriguing side streets to follow.
I'll add more pics over the next week or so.

Friday, 11 December 2009

Grey days

I've been doing a lot of reading lately.
Among the many historical reprints to hit the bookshop shelves in the last couple of years was a book by Margaret Irwin, first published in 1941 under the title The Gay Galliard. The new version is, as you might guess, on the shelves as simply The Galliard. It brings home very sharply the way novels have changed in the last couple of decades. The story of Mary Queen of Scots and Bothwell, told from Bothwell's point of view, and almost non-fictional in its approach. Lots of author asides, info dumps and the last chapter begins: "He never saw her again. That is why this story ends here..." and then goes on to tell the rest of their individual stories in two pages. The book is also a victim of computer technology in that certain words have been mysteriously changed, sometimes amusingly: modern becomes modem, avid becomes arid.
A Week in December is my first Sebastian Faulks, and I enjoyed the many sub-plots, including the hedgefund manager who single-handedly causes the banking crisis we're all suffering, the would-be terrorist, and the quick peek Faulks gives me into alternative computer worlds and best of all, RTranter, the bitter literary critic who longs for his own work to gain recognition. Well worth a read.
The pic is Corbridge peering down at the Tyne which is running a mite high after all the rain we've had lately. This afternoon we're going to have quick trip across to our nearest Borders bookshop to see if there is anything to buy for Christmas presents. All stock is for sale at half price, barring the three for the priceof two deals, so they say.

Thursday, 10 December 2009

Jeffrey Archer and Medieval Mondays


Elizabeth Chadwick's blog is one I dip into every now and again and always enjoy. There are several, I find, and now she has added another, called medieval-Monday. Should be worth keeping an eye on, and the subject fits nicely with this pic of Prudhoe Castle gateway in winter colours. Usually most of it is hidden by foliage.
Many people are muttering about Jeffery Archer's latest success. In case you haven't heard, it is reported in the press that he has been offered £18m to produce 5 books over 5 years. They are to be something in the style of The Forsyth Saga and tell the story of a humble man's rise to fame and fortune.
His publisher MacMillan says there is no substance in the figure quoted, but did not offer to divulge the correct figure.
Archer, who is 69, says he writes for eight hours a day, and well he might. Since he came from humble origins himself, he seems the ideal man to write this story for he has certainly made fortunes, lost them, and made them again. A stint in prison for perjury didn't stop him; he wrote a book (his 14th, I think) about his experiences there, and often tops the bestseller lists.
I suspect it is men who like his books, but that isn't surprising. He tells a good story in plain English, and people like it. They certainly buy his books. If only I could be so lucky! perhaps if I'd started twenty or even thirty years ago....but hey, I was focussed on other things then. I have no one to blame but myself for not starting sooner.

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Christmas, anyone?

Shopping seems to be the order of the
day at the moment. The Christmas
frenzy where people go into debt in order to have "a good Christmas."
I think I must have some Scrooge genes in me, because I've never liked the retail side of the festival. Home made decorations will do for me, a wreath I've made myself to hang on the door with a big red bow or two
for cheeriness. (Yes, I actually bought the bows!)
I think people have lost sight of the real Christmas. Like being able to see Prudhoe Castle more clearly in winter because the trees have shed their leaves, we need to go back and look again at what it is about. It is not about buying the biggest most expensive presents, nor draping the house in coloured lights.
The government and tv talks incessantly about how we can save energy, and what happens? Nothing. We compete, it seems, to see who can display the most lights. Strings of Christmas lights are slung across towns and switched on by celebrities, shop windows display their wares long after the shops have closed. Floodlit Cathedrals and castles light up the night sky. Do we need such things? Are they necessary? Will we one day rue the day we wasted all this energy? I think we might. And if we don't, then our children and grandchildren might.
There, I've had my say. Enjoy your Christmas, and take a moment to consider the real meaning of the celebration.

Monday, 7 December 2009

Bad Sex Awards


Alison Flood in the Guardian comments on the Bad Sex Awards. Does anyone else find it odd that most of the short list are male writers? It seems especially odd when male writers are usually the ones put forward for the prestigous literary awards, and critics write about them in such glowing terms while the poor female romance writers are largely ignored.

Perhaps if we started writing love scenes with dildoes, masks and shamans in the same sentence, our work might be taken more seriously? Or is it that we have to ignore the emotions as we write, and concentrate only on the step-by-step action?

Sometimes writing a love scene is easy, sometimes it isn't. Sometimes it seems easy, but on reading it back months later, the toes start to curl and you wish you hadn't been quite so well, detailed.
Publishers, particularly American, demand it and say their readers expect it. So far in the work I'm currently writing I've avoided it, and I think I shall go on avoiding it. Just can't force myself to bring shamans and dildoes into the mix...
doesn't seem to suit Tudor Scotland, somehow.
On reading this back, I think perhaps I shouldn't use the term Tudor Scotland, but Stewart Scotland doesn't quite cut it. And come to think of it, I'm writing about the effect of Henry VIII's policies on Scotland, so it kind of fits.
Lower pic shows the inner courtyard of Aydon Castle.

Saturday, 5 December 2009

It's on Amazon!

The cover pic from my book is up on Amazon at last. Here are the links -
It does take a while to get the information up there, and it seems an age to a waiting author!

As for the ravine - the pics I have are of the uphill walk through the woods to the Castle. This is the safe (and very pleasant) bit, with the Ay burn (now called the Cor Burn) off to the right. Here the slope angles down and then drops the last forty feet straight down into the burn. If you look ahead, you'll maybe imagine the path turns uphill to the left, and the sunlight shows the open space where the ravine opens up in front of the castle.
The second pic shows the slope to my left, above me as I stand on the path taking the previous picture.
I don't think I have any pics of the the bit in front of the castle, but I'll check. Maybe this gives you a better idea - link
The guidebook says the land in front of the castle is less extensive than it was due to a landslip, and believe me it is is steep - I am not going to wander to the edge and peer over just in case....

Thursday, 3 December 2009

About Aydon

Aydon Castle, not far from Corbridge, features in my new book Till the Day Go Down released this month, so I thought I'd show you a couple of pics to whet your appetite.
Built early in the 13th century as a farmhouse, it swiftly gained permission to crenellate when the Scots started roaming over the Border with less than friendly intentions. This shot was taken in the outer courtyard looking towards the entrance to the inner courtyard and the house. The defensive wall runs along two sides of the inner courtyard, and in the book the boys Lance and Cuddy watch their father from the wall walk, or allure, as he prepared to go off on a Hot Trod. Alina hung onto Cuddy's shirt tails in case he tumbled over the edge.
The second pic is at the other side of the house, the southern side that looks out over the infamous ravine with which Alina's father threatened Harry Wharton.
Aydon is still very much as it was. Few alterations have been made, and families lived and used it as a working farmhouse until the 1960's. If you like a good walk, you can wander up through the woods from Corbridge to Aydon, amble around the place and imagine life as it was all those years ago.
That what started me off with this particular story.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

English, but for how much longer?

TV news reporters in the UK have developed
a habit of sprinkling their reports with phrases like steppingup to the plate, and asking for ballpark figures. I'm told these are sporting terms, but since I don't know which sports the phrases come from, and certainly don't play them, I have very little idea what they mean. I suspect the former means rising to the challenge, but the latter means less than nothing to me. Sue Barker looked me straight in the eye from a tennis court the other day and bade me Go figure! I'm still wondering what she wanted me to do.
More and more I hear the dreaded off of used, and it won't be long before gotten is ringing in our ears. Already we have the flip side, downtown, and train station. We use cutlery in the UK, not silverware and we don't build our towns in blocks. A sucker, to me, is something that sticks, and not as Obama used it the other day, a turkey. We have waiters, not servers.
I groan at the tv in despair. We have a beautiful language that is capable of expressing so many shades and nuances of meaning, and it is very different to the language spoken by our American friends.
When I'm in America, reading an American novel or watching American tv, I enjoy the differences in language. Their language suits their lifestyle and their philosophy of life.
But in the UK, in my own home, I want to hear British English. The BBC is one of the prime influences on the people of this country and should uphold the fine traditions of our language. If we want the UK's children to grown up speaking good English, then we should make sure they hear it every day via our tv screens.
Speak to your news reporters, please, BBC.

Sunday, 29 November 2009

Barnard Castle and Richard III

Barnard Castle. Friday. Lovely drive down to Teesdale into the market town, then a short walk and a scone and coffee in Penny's Tearoom opposite the Market Cross.
I enjoyed the day and took loads of pics, but it must have tired me more than I realised, for that evening I lost all the pics while trying to transfer them from the camera to the laptop - usually a simple operation. So instead of giving you my own pic of Barnard Castle, I've used this one taken from http://www.visitcountydurham.com
The castle was built shortly after the Norman Conquest but Sir Robert Bowes of Streatlam was beseiged there in the sixteenth century and had to surrender for lack of victuals. After that the castle fell into disrepair.
There is a plaque in a little rose garden near St Mary's church in memory of Richard III, who was lord of Barnard Castle from 1474 to his death in 1485. He did much for the town and they thought well of him.
I'm still wondering where my pictures went. Bill thinks they're lurking somewhere on my laptop, but I can't find them there, and they certainly are no longer on my camera. Still, let's look on the bright side - it's a super excuse to go and visit Barnard Caastle again!

Thursday, 26 November 2009

Publication of Till the Day Go Down

Author copies arrived this morning, so I presume it is safe to announce my new book!
I'm really pleased with the cover, which I left entirely to the publisher this time.
Here's the blurb - "Alina Carnaby lives a quiet life in the Tyne valley until Harry Scott saves her life, and reivers steal the family’s cattle. She discovers a body, her brothers blurt out a secret and her father orders Harry’s death. The name Scott is an alias. Why would Harry die rather than reveal the truth? Can she evade the marriage her father planned for her?
Standing at the altar rail, she has two men claiming her hand and neither will give way…
It's an exciting tale set in 1543, when theft, kidnapping and arson were a way of life on the borders between England and Scotland."
The title comes from a chilling little poem of the times:
But will ye stay till the day go down
Until night comes o'er the ground,
And I'll be a guide worth any twa
That may in Liddesdale be found.
The book is published by Quaestor2000, ISBN 978-1-906836-17-7 and available via Amazon, the Book Depository and all good bookshops.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Recuperation report

I must get back to taking pics again, though it is hardly the weather for it. Gales and rain do not tempt me out for walks at the moment. Yesterday we drove to IKEA and walked around the ground floor half of the store, and that was my exercise for the day.
Tired me out, too! What a weak and feeble creature I am right now. But I have to report that my scar is fading very well, and won't be at all obtrusive in a vee necked blouse. I lost a stone, but have already regained half of it back again, so it seems unlikely that I will retain that sylphlike 9 stone weight.
I give thanks every day for my writing. Without it I don't know what I'd do all day. Go mad, I expect. There are only so many re-runs of Monarch of the Glen I can watch in one day!
I expected to be able to report a new book out by now, but Till the Day Go Down is still up on Amazon only as a pre-order entry. Tomorrow I'll dig out the cover pic and announce it properly, regardless of its status. Call me impatient!

Monday, 23 November 2009

Clever novelist

I have to give Gregory credit for the ending of The White Queen. All the way through the book the hint of witchcraft is maintained and comes to fruition when Elizabeth Woodville and her daughter Elizabeth curse whoever killed the Princes in the Tower. They know it is not Richard, and suspect Buckingham and the Stanleys but cannot prove it. The curse decrees that the firstborn son of the culprit shall die through the coming generations until there are only girls left....well, we know who that pinpoints as the culprit, don't we?
So Gregory has avoided angering the Ricardians, found a novel way of stating the guilty party (no pun intended) and given the reader a flavour of the unease, uncertainty and distrust of the times into the bargain.
Good for her. But I still don't care for her heroine.

Sunday, 22 November 2009

Floods

While Cumbria drowns we on the east of the Pennines suffer no more than a few rainy days. I suppose the east had it last year, when several places like Morpeth and Rothbury were almost washed away. It beggars belief how complacent we have become, building so close to waterways and rivers. Fine maybe in drought years, but what about the wet years? And the UK is predominantly a wet country, strung with rivers and canals, with a climate that is temperate and given to generous rainfall.
People talk of unprecedented levels of rain in 24 hours, but had there not been rain for days beforehand, the land would have soaked it up and drained it away. May as well blame the land, already full of water and unable to soak up more. Seems to me it's our old friend multiple causality again. The lesson to be learned?
Do not buy a house built on a flood plain. We seem to have forgotten what flood plains are, or why they were there. Better by far, if faced with a choice, to buy a house on higher land, out of reach of the river. The thought of sour-smelling river mud and worse creeping up through drains and catflaps while I sleep, coating every surface of my home, sends shudders through me. I don't know how the people caught this time will recover and begin again. I hope they will, with help from agencies and donations, and hope it will be somewhere safer.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

The White Queen

I'm still not enamoured of The White Queen, which is most odd, as I expected to like it. I buy very few books in hardback these days, but it was one of them. Nor can I say exactly why I'm not ripping through it at a rate of knots. There's something almost reported speechish, something quite passive about the voice in which the story is delivered, almost as if the main character is fatally pre-determined. Elizabeth and Edward share one of the most amazing love stories in history and yet there is no hot, fiery centre in the central figure of Elizabeth. She is cold, thinks herself related to the watery spirit Melusine and seems fuelled by hatred more than love.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

I'm doing a lot of work on my latest wip as I recuperate. There's not a lot of other things to cloud my attention, and my "straight historical" still flows easily enough to make me believe this is what I should be doing. Either that or I'm way, way off course!


I'm still in two minds about letting my hero and heroine come together in an "encounter of the bedroom kind" or whether to keep them apart, but that will sort itself out further down the line. What's nice is that I'm not trying too hard to make any of my characters likeable. They either are or they aren't. If I keep them apart, them I can't be accused of writing a sloshy romance again. But as a friend of my husband says, "Shagging sells!" So it has to be a consideration.


I've had The White Queen on my to be read pile for quite a while now, and dipped into the first few pages when I first came home from hospital.


It may be that it is too similar to Campion's book, which I finishd just before I went in, but TWQ did not grab me. It is written in the first person viewpoint of Elizabeth Woodville, consort of Edward of York, parents of the Princes in the Tower. The pervading tone is dismal and sadly lacklustre.
Now I'm willing to concede that this may be more to do with me than the book; but in my defence I have to say I put it down in favour of a little gem called the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (see my Books I'm reading list for the authors) recommended and sent as part of my birthday present from my daughter-in-law. An odd little book by any standards, compiled of letters between an author bereft of a story and a collection of Guersey individuals picking up the pieces of their lives after the German occupation in the 1940s - but a delight.

Sunday, 15 November 2009

Die Hard 4

A wine cooler and a bucket have been pressed into service to hold the flowers that keep arriving. People are so kind!
More than usually at the mercy of the tv schedules these days, I recorded Die Hard 4 and sat down with high expectations to watch it.
It is hard to convey the growing sense of unease it gave me. The spirit of heroic adventure pervading the first John Maclean movie degenerated into a comic strip cartoon within the first few feet of film and I half expected the BIFF, BANG, KRUNCH explosions to litter the screen. I grow weary of 30-year old teenagers who rush into supposedly complex situations, size them up in a split second and start pushing buttons - the correct ones, mind you - to avert the catastrophic explosion that will blow them to kingdom come if they get it wrong. I worry for the state of society when it is OK for a determined cop to career down a motorway in a juggernaut hurling innocent road users to certain destruction but who demands that the entire united states airforce must be deployed to save the daughter of that same cop. Promise me! he cries, ramming another innocent victim against a motorway pillar. I despair of films that show villains bouncing off concrete buildings and falling out of helicopters without so much as a bruise, or leaping gymnastically (and impossibly without a springboard) around lift shafts and turbine rooms.
And surely jet pilots are trained not to blow up civilian infrastructure including motorways in case they kill hundreds in pursuit of one man? Let's hope so.
One has to wonder what films such as these teach young people today.
Certainly not kindness, nor selfless bravery to save others. I could possibly have argued the John MacLean of the the first film wanted to save his wife and the people with her. But this hard-bitten version of the hero went on a rampage and it wouldn't be going too far to say he caused more damage and loss of life than the villains.

Friday, 13 November 2009

Flower shop


I live in a flower shop at the moment. Because I've had an operation recently, friends have swamped me with flowers, which is wonderful and so very generous and thoughtful of them.
However, typing on one's lap without resting a heavy laptop on one's legs turns out to be well nigh impossible. And I can tell you that while taking painkillers is easy, the effect of certain painkillers on the body's natural system is less than good. Now I have to take laxatives, too! But enough of these woes.

Instead let me sing a hymn of praise to the UK's NHS, which has been absolutely wonderful. Let no one tell you anything different. There may be hold ups, but usually it is because someone, somewhere, is more ill than Iam and went in before me. Would you expect anything different? Surely not. I waited a month longer than expectation, but I have no complaints. Some of the people who went in before me were still there when I came out. The District Nurse has been in contact with my home, the Cardiac Rehabilitation team has already made an appointment for me in December.

Now I have to get on and make myself fit again. Already I'm up and about, doing bits here and there. I breathed the wonderful air in the back garden at lunchtime. Tomorrow, I'll maybe take a little walk. My school motto used to be Pas de pas...step by step one may go a long way. Seems appropriate, don't you think?

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

The nose of the beholder

Sometime this month my new book should appear on the shelves.
Till the Day Go Down by Jen Black. Since I don't have my publisher's permission to put the cover up yet, I've amused myself by playing with a painting of the heroine I did when I began the story, and a photograph of a castle that features in it.
I like to visualise my characters and painting is often a good way of getting a likeness - if a bit styalised and impossibly wasp-waisted - my husband's comment! But who cares? Heroines are never stodgy, are they? They don't have pimples or a sudden outbreak of zits at a crucial moment in life. Even in the most desperate of situations, their clear skin and beautiful eyes never let them down. Me, I get bags under the eyes from sleepness nights, and I get a lot of those when I'm worried.
Come to think of it, heroes never have bad breath or stink of horse manure. They always smell of male musk or some such enticing odour. I don't know about you, ladies, but a man who has been doing something active and energetic often smells sweaty and many times it is not a turn-on. Especially if it is more than a day old. But then perception is all. When I worked for a living my staff came to me with a complaint about a client in the library. His smell, they complained, made them feel sick, and the other students were leaving in droves. Upon investigation, their complaint was justified, so I had the unpleasant task of warning him that he must leave and not return until....all was well for a few days and then gradually the smell got worse again...I asked a senior member of staff to intervene. (ie get rid of him!) She came in, spoke to him, and told me she did not find his odour reprehensible at all. What can you say to something like that?

Friday, 30 October 2009

Smoke and sheep

Our moorland roads are pretty, but there are hazards.
Definitely not the place to drive in ice or snow. Even in mid-summer and autumn there are heather fires and sheep on the road. There were several plumes of smoke on the hillsides when we drove this way a week or two back, and driving through the down drift we got a lovely whiff of heather smoke.
Made me think of garden bonfires we had as a child. Now of course we live in smokeless zones. We've definitely lost something in our modern life with central heating and plain walls instead of open hearths. I still remember crouching by the fire, cheeks glowing in the heat, with a piece of bread on a toasting fork. "Is it done yet? Is it done yet? Ahhhh! it's burnt!" Nothing happened and then in a second, the toast went from white to black! a great learning experience about the way fire burned and might burn you should you be stupid enough to play with matches and fireworks.
I admire Sheep. They manage to thrive in the most inhospitable places, through howling winters, snowstorms,and rain sodden summers, all without out help or shelter; but they have no road sense. People say they come down to the road to lick the salt off, but whatever it is, it makes your heart lurch to come around a corner and find them in your way.

They don't always move aside
for cars, either. They have a particularly disdainful way of looking right through you, as if you're in their world and don't belong. Which I suppose is right. If you're a sheep.
I suppose tomorrow night I'll go into grumpy mode and snarl when the trick or treaters come knocking at the door. It is one American custom I really have no time for, and wish it had stayed in the states. Ask the kids standing at your door what it's all about, and they can't tell you. Whatever the rational behind may be, it is still across the pond.

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Bad Guys


How bad do bad guys have to be before they are unbelievable? These days such horrid crimes are committed in real life that almost anything might be considered believable in a fictional character. Not that I want to move into Stephen King territory with my current wip, not at all; but I find that most of my characters qualify for the label villain in some way. I've come to the conclusion that the times about which we write dictate the villainy level of the characters.
Possibly genre matters, too. I would expect a Thriller villain to be a worse villain than a Romance villain. Your average villain in a Regency Romance may need to have some redeeming qualities, but not so with a villain facing Rebus in the grey streets of Edinburgh. Which leads me to wonder about villains filling the pages of historical novels.
Documents list hideous facts, and I turn away from them, shuddering. But if my characters live in those times, then their senses are bound to be less sqeamish than mine, are they not?
I suppose it depends on the mental toughness of the character. Not everyone could be bold and brave. In A Place Beyond Courage, Chadwick has a female character who is an absolute wimp - and very believable.
My latest set of Tudor characters have to be tough to survive in their world, so maybe I'm wrong to label them all villains. But they're turning out to have some villainous qualities. All of them. I will have to sit very firmly my 21st century sensibilities.
Top pic is heather fire on the moors, bottom pic Middleton-in-Teesdale.

Monday, 26 October 2009

When it goes smoothly

Matho's Story is going well at the
moment. I hope I'm not risking the
terrible finger of fate turning in my direction when I say this, but it all seems to be falling into place in the most pleasing way.
I could be totally off the plot with it, but I hope not. Perhaps I feel at home in the time period; perhaps it is because I'm not conciously trying to write romance any more.
But whatever it is, I'm happy with it, and happy with the writing, too. If I get to the end of a chapter and get up and walk away, I tell myself I'll go for a walk, or do the ironing and I'll think about what is to happy next . I start to think about it, sure, but before long my brain wanders off, distracted by some other stray thought, and sometime later I realise I haven't thought about my plot at all.


Not conciously, that is. But because I
sit down the next day and start to write without any trouble, I realise the little old subconcious must have been busy plotting away all the time.
It is an amazing feeling when writing goes as well as this. I love it. If only I could think of a title...
Pics are of the road "over the tops" - between Brough and Corbridge, crossing the Tees and Wear valleys and then on to the Tyne. The pole at the side of the road is a snow marker.

Friday, 23 October 2009

Style

So many things go to make a writing Style. Each one of us must find our own and not allow anyone change it.

It is probably the hardest part of writing, for anybody can string words together. But do they tell the story in a good way? Here are a few snippets to help get it right:

-do not misuse long words;
-don't use cliches;
-use the best word to express the idea;
-do not abuse commas, em-dashes and exclamation marks - use them correctly. For example use an exclamation mark in dialogue only when your character is shouting.
-description should be unobstrusive and lend substance to a novel;
-description is not and never should be an inventory;
-don't focus on the generic but give us the specific;
-do not reiterate something you've already mentioned;
-treat time carefully;
-use appropriate metaphors - a comparison must be accurate;
-The larger ideas in a paragraph should lead from one to the next so the text is not jerky.
-don't flaunt your vocabulary unnecessarily.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Characters must have

More words of wisdom, this time on CHARACTERS. First of all, Don't Introduce a Character to No Purpose.
Always remember your character has to have one; he must be more than a gender stereotype. Err on the side of the specific, concentrate on features and qualities.
Above all, Ignore that Mirror!
Remember that a POV character knows what she looks like, and that a POV character "sees" whoever she thinks about.
Don't overdescribe clothes, and don't use politics as an accessory.
Lastly, but important - perfect people are boring.
As for SETTINGS - don't stop in the middle of an action sequence to describe the scenery. If you're running from a murderer you don't think "What a beautiful tree" as you tear by. Well, you wouldn't, would you?
Mention food only to advance the plot or illustrate a mood.
Reading the comments in a list like this, it is so easy to chuckle and think well, of course not. Which idiot would fall into such traps? But beginners do, and occasionally so do we all. I know I have. Food isn't one of my things, I'm happy to say, but I've read many potential books where each meal is described in loving detail and I suspect the author is salivating as she writes. All it does for me is make me groan and skip to the next bit.
My fault line, as it were, is describing outside locations. Less is more, I keep telling myself, hoping I'll learn the lesson eventually.
(Top pic is one of the orchards at Acorn Bank; bottom pic looking north west across Northumberland from the Roman Wall.)

Monday, 19 October 2009

How Not to write a Novel


How Not to Write a Novel is entertaining. (Sandra Newman and Howard Mittelmark are the authors) By advising that we write in a style that will certainly fail to achieve publication, they pass on sound advice and amuse at the same time.
Cut out the backstory in chapter one, for example. Don't bog down on only two characters (unless you write category romance, I suppose). Don't write a scene twice.
They say these three are the biggest mistakes. As soon as I read the subtitle In which the character's childhood is introduced to no purpose, I realised I needed to do some work on the opening paragraphs of my current wip.
Where the author substitutes location for story, Where the author stops short of communication and In which the reader is unintentionally misled give you a flavour of the style.
Sigh. It is easy to get so immersed in a character's life that other characters get shoved onto the back burner and when they reappear the reader thinks Who is this? Ah, wasn't he in the story about twenty chapters back?
And then there's the last rule. Well, I suppose it must happen subconciously, for no one would set out to write a scene twice, surely? But they say it happens so often. A different angle, setting, characters - but there is no new information, and the original conclusion is unchanged. That's basically a re-write. And even if it does add new information, don't do it if the scene is essentially the same as the original.

Friday, 16 October 2009

What not to do

Writers must write something that makes readers want to turn the page.

Therefore, plot must be number one in the list of priorities. So if we start with a thorny problem and a sympathetic character, we should be on the right track. The plot must thicken (like a good sauce?), the hero must be hindered in every possible way but triumphs in a surprising way that once you know it, seems inevitable.


Almost every How To Write Book I've ever read says such things. They say it in different ways, but say it they do. So you'd think that by now I wouldn't be writing about a hero, and then bring in his mother, father and three sisters and her cat and have them discuss their lives to date.


I wouldn't drivel on endlessly and get to page 120 without so much as a hint of what the storyline will be once I get around to it.


I won't be writing a prologue where my hero stares at a flower, gazes through of a rain-drop covered window, walks through the long grass and contemplates why his life is not running as it should.


Indeed no. I should know what the chase is, as they say, and cut to it at once. No pages explaining what I want to tell, why the hero is as he is on page one or what terrible history happened to make him the way he is.

So, consider the opening lines of my wip:
Matho Spirston stood at the door of the tiny cottage athwart the hill at Halton and surveyed the countryside with pleasure. Small and poor though the cottage might be, it was a start. He folded his arms, leaned idly against the door jamb in the late sunshine and gazed south. The roof of Aydon Castle, where he had spent so much of his life, was visible above the tree tops beyond the meadows. Further south, the hills of Durham rose like a humped blue quilt across the horizon and somewhere in between, the river Tyne ran unseen west to east through the valley.
This was his territory, where he had reigned as undisputed leader of the gang of children who fought and played together among the scattered farms, cotts and cabins that composed the Aydon Township, and where his father had put him into service with Sir Reynold Carnaby, Lord of Aydon, five years before.
But things had changed since then, and would change further. Both his father and Sir Reynold were dead, one in the Rising of ’37 and his patron last month after a long illness. Then three weeks ago Alina and Lionel Carnaby had stood with Matho at his mother’s graveside.
A warm feeling filled him at the thought of the two elder Carnabys. They were still his friends. On their uncle’s death, most of his holdings went to their father, Cuthbert Carnaby and Lionel now had lordly duties of his own. If Lionel said the cottage belonged to Matho, then no man would question it. It was the least the family could do after he’d helped Harry rescue Alina from the clutches of the reiver Johnny Hogg.
She was married to Harry now. Matho shifted, settled his shoulder comfortably against the wood. One way and another it had been a grand summer, full of life and adventure and all because Harry Wharton turned up in the locality.
Now the dust had settled, the humdrum days threatened to return and Matho sensed boredom creeping into his life. Already he found himself glancing at the horizon several times a day, vaguely hoping for something more exciting than drilling the local farm lads into guard duty around Aydon Castle.
As if he had conjured something out of the air, a small figure rode across the field towards him. Matho squinted against the sun, but no insignia betrayed the identity of the rider. Still, as the distance lessened between them, Matho recognized the familiar set of the wide shoulders and long limbs. A grin stole across his face at the sight of a daft cap with its jaunty ostrich feather curling back in the breeze. He shook his head. Harry was always the lad who liked his fancy clothes.
Matho straightened and strolled forward.



Oh, Lord. I can see the red pen glowing, leaping up and down on my desk. There is work to be done. What would you change, if you were me?

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Literary Agents, are you listening?

What is the magic ingredient that agents and publishers look for? Does anyone know? Do agents and publishers know that they want?

I am sure there are thousands of well researched, well written books flooding through their letter boxes and inboxes every day and most of the writers receive no more than a polite thank you, but no thanks.

It can be disheartening. It can be soul-destroying. I heard someone say of Mills & Boon that they make "nice" rejections, because they are kind people and they don't want to hurt anyone's feelings.

That can be bad, too. The next agent, perhaps pushed for time, may tell the plain unvarnished truth of the same submission: this is total rubbish and unpublishable. Which is the kindest in the long run?

What would help, and is virtually impossible to receive, are concrete facts on what publishers want. I think the truth is they want the next bestseller but don't know it until they see it. A bit like me searching the dress racks rejecting them all and then pouncing on one item: thats it!
But what do you think a book needs to make it that hot certainty?
Clarity of prose? Accurate research? a good story? or does it come down to the real nitty gritty - no adverbs, no past tense, no passive sentences?
Must we follow fashion and write in the first person or the present tense? Must there be a cliff hanger at the end of every chapter - or, as I read somewhere last week, at the end of every scene?
How much luck is involved? If I am writing a book about Merlin (I'm not, but let's imagine I am!) and a new tv series on Merlin starts to rapturous ratings just as my manuscript hits an agents desk, will that do it for me?
H'mmmm. If so, I'd better buy a crystal ball.

Sunday, 11 October 2009

Acorn Banks and Roman Wall

The dovecot at Acorn Banks (right)now serves as the Office and shop.
The name Acorn Banks was first recorded in 1597 and refers to the ancient oakwood that lies behind the house. The house dates back to the sixteenth century, with earlier links to the Knights Templar. The property was owned by the Dalston/Boazman family from 1543 to the 1930's, then by Dorothy Una Ratcliffe, a wealthy writer, traveller and art collector. She gave it to the National Trust in 1950, and it was tenanted up to 1997.
I have to say I don't recognise the lady's name, but I will look her up.
The watermill on the Crowdundle Beck is believed to have been on the site since the fourteenth century.
As we drove west beside Hadrian's Wall the views were exceptionally clear. I stopped and took a shot looking south towards the Durham Hills. I'm standing in the car park for the Mithraic Temple which is in a little dell over to the right of the picture. People still leave offerings of coins on the little altar. And strangely enough in this days, no one seems to stela them. But then, I suppose I wouldn't know if they did!

Friday, 9 October 2009

Acorn Banks


Wonderful day out yesterday. Headed out to Gretna on the west coast, visited the Outlet Centre (I stocked up on nothing more exciting than M&S knickers and socks!) then south down the M6 to Penrith. Acorn Banks at Temple Sowerby was our destination and it did not disappoint.


We had brilliant weather all the way and I realised all over again why I love autumn. The clarity, and colours, the crispness.

Acorn Banks is famous for its herb garden which is certainly one of, if not the best, herb garden in the country. Names of herbs I read about in historical novels are growing there in profusion. Mandrake, hemlock, a section marked Women's Herbs...

The house is not open, but I'm sure the National Trust magazine will not mind if I quote a snippet from their Autumn 09 pages: Acorn Bank in Cumbria, a fine old red sandstone manor with "glorious views, acres of wild daffodils in the spring, ancient oakwoods, orchards and a watermill. But the old house was nearly impossible to live in. The heating came from an oil-fired boiler much the same size as the one that drove the Queen Elizabeth liner. When this monster was cracked up, the great house smelt like a garage and half of Cumbria was covered in oily particles. When the price of oil rocketed in the 1970s, it became so expensive to heat that we lived in one room to keep warm." John Vidal writes of forty years ago and the NT, who work towards clean and renewable energy in all their properties, have plans afoot to change all that.


The watermill, a half a mile from the house through the aforementioned oakwoods with acorns crunching underfoot, is now restored, and will produce hydroelectricity as well as grinding corn. I have in mind Future visits, particularly in the spring to catch all those daffodils. Today we saw a couple of red squirrels darting about doing acrobatics through the tree tops, and discovered that there are holiday apartments to let. More pics will follow in the next few days.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

From Historical to Horror

The Man Booker prize, awarded last night, went to Hilary Mantel for Wolf Hall. I shall wait for the paperback, or the library copy, as I haven't had much success with reading Ms Mantel in the past.
The most interesting thing about the final six for me was the fact that they were all historical novels. Hopefully, this may mean the genre will open up again after being on the back foot for a few years.

Paranormals rushed into the market place and must have helped push historicals to the back of the queue. It was interesting to see how many historical writers added a paranormal twist in the hope that the new "young" market would read them. I'm not so sure the market was or indeed is "young" in the sense of teenagers or people in the early twenty something bracket. The paranormal novel has been around for years in different guises - sometimes called gothic, sometimes horror, sometimes horrid. When I worked in public libraries, I was amazed to find that the most popular section of the non-fiction was true crime - how murders were committed, with gruesome details. Now I suspect forensic crime has taken over - any modern librarians out there to testify?
People, perhaps only those comfortably situated, seem to have always had a need to be scared. It might make for a good dissertation to discover if the need for horror in reading matter diminishes in times of war and other disasters. As real life becomes more comfortable for so many in this modern age, it is perhaps not so surprising that horror and paranormals have flooded onto the market.
I long for good, solidly researched historical novels with a story to tell, and sadly the library shelves are full of titles I've already read. The Plaidys, Barnes and Heyes currently being re-issued are fine if you haven't read them, but I wish the twenty-something publishers would remember that lots of people were around the first time the books came out - and those folk are still here and looking for a good read!

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Writing Time

Morning? Afternoon? Late at night?
When do you write? I used to write when I had time and when the mood took me, and the combination didn't happen very often. Seventeen years is a hell of a long time to write a first book, but it is proof positive that you need several things working for you. Now that I have the luxury of choosing when to write, I've found a few things that surprise me.
First of all, you need time to write. That's almost a given. Then a place to write. I know some people write amid the hubbub of family life, but I get irritated when the tv pricks my bubble of concentration, or the phone rings, so I retreat upstairs to a converted bedroom which now proudly bears the name Jen's study. It's OK - dh has one as well.
Then I need a tidy desk, because I can't work in chaos. It only takes a moment to tidy things away, and then I'm good to start.
I've tried writing all day, and it is wonderful when the story flows, but however good it is, after a few days I drift to a stop, as if the story supply has slowly run dry. A few days doing nothing, and it starts to filter through again. so that means pacing the flow is important for me.
I tried various ways of limiting how much I do in a day. Walk first, when the weather is often best and write after lunch? Yes, its OK. Good to sit down after the exercise.
Write in the morning, and walk in the afternoon? Turned out to be more productive for the writing.
Go out with friends, a day out, and write in the evening? Didn't work well at all. Conversation and new things must have tired my poor brain.
Write late at night when the household is asleep? Sometimes works very well indeed, but it has to be when I can't sleep, when the brain is raring to go at the wrong time of day. I can't sit there after a busy day, feel tired and make the story work.
It seems working in the morning is best for me. It doesn't have anything to do with biorhythms or anything like that. I'm an autumn baby, and if anything, a night owl. I do not wake up in the morning bright eyed and raring to go; it takes me time to wake up and if rushed I can get really grumpy. But by half nine or ten o'clock, I'm usually at my desk, poised over the laptop and my brain, awake at last, is fresh and ready to go. A coffee on the hop mid-morning and I don't stop till noon. That's when my best, most productive writing takes place.
Things will interupt it, and of course I can adapt to suit. But it is handy to know what works best for me and to stick to it if I can. I salute anyone who must write in and around fulltime work and family...it is hard, really hard.

Sunday, 4 October 2009

Truth and writing

There's very little scope for danger in the world these days ! If you click to enlarge the pic you'll see people are fobidden to abseil from the disused railway bridge and neither may they jump into the river below. Not that I'd want to do either, you understand. It makes me wonder though - if people have been warned off, does that mean someone has tried to abseil? Doesn't seem the right place for it somehow.

In the middle of last night I woke up thinking I knew what needed to happen in my wip. (I was worried I didn't have enough story to get to the end of 100k) I am guilty of narrowing my interest down to two people - wouldn't you guess it's the Hero and Heroine? and "reporting" what other character are doing. That comes of trying to write for Mills & Boon. What I need to do is widen out my scope and write the missing scenes. Problem solved. I hope!

I'm reading Alison Weir's The Lady Elizabeth at the moment. The author is a historian turned to fiction. I read her Innocent Traitor about Lady Jane Grey and liked it because I didn't know much about the girl. She turned out to be another prodigy, like Elizabeth, though I have to say this portrait shows Elizabeth as precocious, certainly, but interested in parties and lovely clothes as well. A more human kind of personality.

However, I'm not sure I really enjoy this kind of fiction, which sticks so closely to known and reported fact that it reads like non-fiction-with-dialogue. I persevere more as a learning experience than an enjoyable pastime. Would you believe a child not yet three years of age would, or could, ask "Why, govenor, how hath it, yesterday Lady Princess, and today but Lady Elizabeth?" I'm not sure I do.

The author says she makes no apology for the fact that, "for dramatic purposes, I have woven into my story a tale that goes against all my instincts as a historian...I am not, as a historian, saying that it could have happened; but as a novelist I enjoy the heady freedom to ask: what if it had?"
There goes that blurring of the lines again. Even historians are now citing dramatic licence as an excuse for writing untruths and half facts and runours as if they are truth. It seems there is more and more of it about these days. I feel the excuse "its a spoof, its for kids" is even worse; things aimed at kids should tell the truth about the history of this country. Once they've learned the truth, then they can enjoy the spoofs; but I am afraid we have a generation or more growing up thinking the spoofs are the truth.
Surely we can make a novel interesting without introducing rumours and untruths? If the story is not interesting enough to hold the interest, why are we trying to tell it? I'd prefer it if the Sub plots, featuring fictional characters, have all the (untrue) drama thrown at them.

Last night I watched Merlin, which I like. But even there, irritation strikes now and then as I see mountain ranges that are certainly not in the UK, wonder how Morgana flits around in silk dresses (without freezing to death) styled by methods far from Arthur's sixth century setting, and a Druid chieftain who appears to have been born somewhere far to the south of Britain. I've grown acclimatised to Gwen being a servant, and looking vaguely Spanish, and wonder how she and Arthur are ever going to marry. Oh, it is all getting so out of hand....my history is being twisted out of recognition!
And I know that someone is going to tell me that Arthur never existed, so
anything can and will happen...and come to think of it, Morgana's dresses are probably polyester...