Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Alert for western fans - Interview with writer Gary Dobbs

Trying to pin Gary Dobbs down is not easy. The man admits to rarely sitting still, so I hope you enjoy the following interview. Gary, under the pseudonym Jack Martin, writes highly esteemed westerns including "The Tarnished Star" and "Arkansas Smith", which will be available shortly. You can find his Tainted Archive blog at http://http://tainted-archive.blogspot.com/ subtitled "spearheading the western revival" and follow him on Facebook.

AFT: You are an actor and comedian as well as a writer. How do you fit writing into your schedule and can you tell us about your writing methods? For example, do you make a meticulous plan or let your characters lead you where they want to go and how do you research your books?

GD: My schedule is hit the ground running - I never plan anything before hand but just fill the day the best I can and I can't sit still for more than a moment. My writing methods are simple really - every day I do something, even if it's only a blog entry. Sometimes when I'm blocked on a piece of fiction doing a post on The Tainted Archive can get things moving again. When I start a book I always have a pretty good idea of the end, though it can and often does change in the writing. And doing an outline would bore me as I like to be surprised in the writing much in the way the readers are, I hope.

AFT: What comes first with you – plot, characters or setting? Why?

GD: I've usually got a good idea of the driving event of a story, the catalyst so to speak but other than that I like to write blind and see where the story takes me. I always understand and know the main group of characters before I start as I find the characters the foundations from which you build the story. Without characters you have nothing and it is from them that everything else springs.

AFT: What are your needs as a writer? How do you fulfil them and what problems do you encounter?

GD: An idea, my pipe, a few ounces of good tobacco and my keyboard. Something that is essential to me is complete and utter silence and seclusion. I can't write unless I’m alone - often when I'm disturbed it can be quite painful to be yanked from the imaginary world. It often feels like a violent assault - I hope that makes sense because I find that when I'm disturbed mid flow I just can't get back into that special place. I've often read that writing is a lonely business but then I guess it has to be.

AFT: What is your favourite western movie and why?

GD: The Searchers - I think it's a wonderful story and so beautifully shot. The landscapes are breathtaking and of course the sweep of the narrative is truly epic. We spend years with these two main characters while they search for their kin stolen by a group of Indians. It may in some way be a throwback to the old Hollywood where the Indians were always the bad guys but the film doesn't show the Indians as two dimensional and really builds credible characters. It's a brilliant story and based on fact, you know.

AFT: You’ve also written a crime novel set in the South Wales of the early 20th century. Crime is a genre that shares much of the morality tale ethos with the western, but has to be more tightly planned. How did you approach it? Did you enjoy it and do you have any plans to write more crime?

GD: You are correct about the planning involved with the crime genre and I slipped up with this initially. I found that by working with too loose a structure I was wandering in the narrative and not really progressing with the story. I had to completely rethink things and virtually start all over again. But the novel, A Policeman's Lot which is being considered by my publisher at the moment, is not a typical whodunnit and I feel that it is an adventure as much as a crime thriller. There was a lot of research into the historical period and I must say I really enjoyed that. I spent many an afternoon in the library going through old newspapers and that's as addictive as any drug.

AFT: I’m interested to hear you say that. For me the plot, the puzzle, always came first because I’ve always written crime and it was only a few years ago that I realised the characters had to be just as strong. How do you think you would fare with a straight puzzle who-dunnit and do you fancy having a go at one?

GD: To be honest although I enjoy reading straight puzzle who-dunnit books I have no interest in writing one. I think it takes a different thought process than I possess. My favourite type of crime is the character led works of writers like Ian Rankin and Mark Billingham. In “A Policeman's Lot” the reader knows who the killer is from the start but not the why. I do greatly admire writers who can produce work that becomes a sort of puzzle for the reader to solve because I think that's beyond me.

AFT: Some say that westerns have been superseded by space adventures. How would you comment on this?

GD: I think there is some truth in that. Star Wars is after all western set in space; it owes much to the Magnificent Seven. And a lot of alien landscapes are basically the landscape of the mythical West. Of course the joining of the western and sci-fi will become complete when Stephen Speilberg gets around to filming his long gestating project, Cowboys and Aliens.

AFT: What do you read for relaxation?

GD: I go through phases with my reading - at the moment I'm heavily into Richard Stark but recently I've read the entire Sherlock Holmes canon an I've got some Agatha Christie in my TBR pile. But every now and then I'll dip into my comfort genre - The WESTERN. I love the genre with so much passion that I can never tire of it. George Gilman's Edge series are favourites as are Louis L’Amour, Elmer Kelton and Larry McMurtry. There's also some stunning current work going on in the genre - The Black Horse Westerns, for which I write myself, are pretty much guaranteed to supply good western adventure.

Sunday, 1 November 2009

Interview with Yorkshire author Linda Acaster

In keeping with the season of Halloween, I grabbed an interview with renowned Yorkshire author Linda Acaster.

After what was supposed to be a temporary writing gap devoted to helping new and budding writers improve their prose, and with it their chances of being published, Linda found herself inundated with writers looking for the edge and turned the whole enterprise into a business. Her latest novel “Torc of Moonlight”, a paranormal romance set around the University of Hull and on the North York Moors, has just been published by Legend Press and is available from Amazon, Waterstone’s, WH Smith and Barnes & Noble.

“Torc of Moonlight” follows the growing relationship between second year students Nick and Alice who, at first glance, are chalk and cheese. Nick came to Hull’s university to play rugby, drink beer and get laid; Alice to focus her studies, not on the syllabus, but on uncovering the shrine of a Celtic water goddess. Alice knows why universities surround the North York Moors as once did mediaeval seats of learning, that’s why she chose to come to Hull. Nick dismisses her theories as fantasy bordering on the delusional, until the trees crowd in and he realises that his training regime is not to hone his rugby skills.

To whet your appetite the opening extract is available as a pdf from
and http://www.lindaacaster.com

Q: I am intrigued by the fact that the novel’s prologue deals with what amounts to a Celt being murdered, is “Torc of Moonlight” a timeslip novel?

LA: Not at all. The novel is a contemporary one, set in the city of Hull for the most part, and up on the North York Moors where the remnants of Roman military infrastructure are still highly visible in the landscape. There’s always a lot made of Hull’s fishing past, but sitting in the Hull & East Riding Museum are the most fantastic Romano-British mosaics taken from villas in the region, and a life-size reconstruction of part of a Celtic village. It might not be on the scale of the Jorvik Viking Centre in York, but it is still pretty good.

Q: Can you say something about the paranormal aspect?

LA: It’s the thread of history, and of belief, taken on an extreme timeline. For good or ill we are influenced by our parents and the social mores of their generation. Many of us will have grandparents actively influencing the way we view the world and our place in the family unit. Some families have active great-grandparents, others no more than blurry sepia photographs with no identifying names. But what if, instead of the people of the present looking back along a timeline into the past, it was the past looking forward along its own very long timeline influencing the present?

Q: Tell us about the torc in “Torc of Moonlight”

LA: A torc is a neckring. It was a symbol of status, of aristocracy, usually fashioned by twisting strands of metal, often gold. Some had elaborate end-pieces depicting real or mythic animal heads. The one depicted on the cover of my novel has plain ring end-pieces, but there’s a reason for that, and I’m not giving away any spoilers.

Q: As well as a host of short fiction and non-fiction, you have previously written two historical romances, so you obviously enjoy your history. What piqued your interest?

LA: I was about eleven, and in a new school in Hull – now the site of Wilberforce College. The school was so new the playing fields were still being laid out when I started there and the bulldozers unearthed a group of Celtic roundhouses. I remember watching the excavations from the first floor window of our classroom and wishing I’d been allowed to help the way some of the older pupils were. The art master made a 3-D picture which hung on wall in the school’s entrance right through my years there. I’d often stare at it wondering what the dwellings had been like in reality, and I’d stand on that part of the playing field glowing in the knowledge that Celtic people had lived and worked and walked about on that very spot, so close beneath my feet. That empathy, that link to a past beneath my feet still stays with me. And it’s everywhere we go. We share a timeline with those who went before us, locked into the place, into the earth, sometimes only centimetres beneath the surface.

Q: You’ve been a published author for over 20 years and run a business helping would-be writers to polish their skills. If there was one piece of advice you could give about the writing life, what would it be?

LA: Persevere, and learn your craft – two pieces of advice for the price of one. It’s difficult handling serial rejections but it’s part of the writer’s life. The age of the conglomerate publisher is passing, and with the ascendancy of digital technology once again smaller publishing ventures are becoming viable. Just hang in there.

Q: What’s in the pipeline for your next book?

LA: I have a non-fiction book for budding writers nearing completion, and a series of late Viking era novels for children bubbling on the backburner. But as for the paranormal….there is one, set again in Hull, exploring the psychological aftermath of a fatal road accident. It might sound a bit grim, but several years ago I was half a second from taking the starring role, and that sort of experience tends to leave an indelible mark on a novelist.

Sunday, 18 October 2009

To ebook or not to ebook?

That really is the question. I have always been one of the 'nothing will ever replace the paper format of books' brigade, but having done a bit of research, I am no longer so sure. Both Amazon and Sony have brought out an e-reader. Haven't seen the Sony one, but Kindle, the Amazon reader is the thickness of a pencil and the size of a normal book. It is light and weighs less than most books. It also holds numerous books in its memory and a download, according to the blurb, is only a few seconds away.

So, how will the world go as far as the printed word is concerned? A friend asked me if I had a penpal when I was younger. Yes, I did. I obviously wrote to her and posted the letter. Yes. But, as she pointed out, were I to have that friend now, I would be e-mailing her, not writing letters. There are few people now who do not access the Internet, if only, like my husband's 83 year old aunt, to e-mail her younger sister in Wisconsin. So, perhaps in 10 years, most books will be of the e variety. I don't think paper books will ever completely die out, but even with old, out of print ones, they are occasionally available on Google books.

I am currently writing an alternate Tudor history detective story, called "Duty of Evil". The alternate bit is that, in my book, Anne Boleyn did not miscarry the boy child in 1534 and he is now Henry IX. My detective is an apothecary who is also an elemancer - a magician who uses the elements. Elemancers go into trances and need protection when they do, so I have invented greysprings, a cross between a springer spaniel and a greyhound and the greysprings stand guard over their magician if he or she happens to go into a trance in a public place where they could be vulnerable. But the plot is the time-honoured one of some unknown person trying to kill the King. Because I know Anne Boleyn was very fond of dogs, I have made her an elemancer, too. The point for this long-winded paragraph, is that, because the thesis of the book is so left-field, the history as far as I can make it so, has to be right and here Google books has been magnificent, both in terms of the lives of prominent Tudors and in terms of clothes, food, crime and punishment etc. So, I am becoming accustomed to reading a book on the screen. It's only a hop and a skip to sitting in bed, holding a tablet and reading a book there.

Of course, like most things of this ilk, the big explosion of ebook readers is in America, so, having just published a Sherlock Holmes adventure - "Murder at Oakwood Grange", based on Dr Watson's unwritten story of the politician, the lighthouse and the trained cormorant - I might just stick an experimental toe in the world of ebooks and see what happens. I understand that the great detective is very popular on the other side of the Atlantic. Wish me luck. If you prefer the printed copy, of course, just go to Amazon.

Sunday, 20 September 2009

Hand washing - and wringing perhaps?

There’s a Bible story about Pontius Pilate washing his hands. I wonder if it wasn’t the crucifixion of Christ he was opting out of, but that someone had told him the donkey Jesus came riding into Jerusalem on had E-coli. (Has nobody tumbled to it that animals can be dirty and that the solution is not to prevent our children from contact with them, but to educate them to wash their hands?) Perhaps old Pontius was the originator of today’s mantra that whatever happens is always someone else’s fault. Unless, of course, we’re talking about our political overlords.

It seems to me that it is about time politicians stopped believing that a bit of dervish dancing can fool all of the people all of the time. Whilst everyone is getting in a tizzy because parents are so busy threatening to sue farms when they would be better advised teaching their offspring to wash their hands properly, our politicians – of every party – are once again using us, the great British working public, like force-fed geese to achieve their political foie gras.

Now, stay with me whilst I work this one out. We work. We get paid, less a hefty amount in tax. This wodge goes to the government to look after us – allegedly. So, the banking system goes belly-up, due, we are told, to the greed of the people running the banks. The politicians tell us that the only recourse is to use our money – the part the government grabs before we even see it – to bail them out. So, we paid for that, too.

Now it is hard to get loans or mortgages because the banks are too scared to lend us back our own money, preferring instead to pay inflated pensions and bonuses to the people who caused the crisis in the first place. Why? Because if they don’t, these “assets” will go and work abroad and we will lose them. Really? Where abroad? I thought this banking problem was global, or does RBS have a branch on Mars they’ve kept quiet about?

To shore up the banks, the government spent a lot of money they didn’t have – bit like the banks really. So, guess what, there are going to be cuts. Still with me? Good. But here’s where steam starts coming out of my ears. Who is going to pay for the cuts?

Could we solve the problem by getting our troops back from Helmund province? Last I heard, it cost about £3million a day to keep them there. Or how about reducing board room, banking and political bureaucrats’ lavish pensions? Or, and here’s my personal favourite, how about making all our politicians take a polygraph test? Before the test, we, the great British public who pay for it all anyway, can place bets on how long it is before they lie. When they do lie, we brand their cheek with a big fat L. I’m sure this would catch on. We’ve always been a sporting nation. It could raise billions.

But, no, none of this will happen. They will do what they’ve always done. They’ll cut the education and health budgets – the ones which affect us most. They’ll tell us that, of course, it won’t affect patients or children. Any takers for a big fat L on the other cheek?

So, not only do they use our money to shore up the banks, they will now make us pay again for an ever more pathetic education system where the only tables in evidence are league ones and by making our health system even more patient unfriendly than is already is. It’s enough to make you want to wash your hands of them, isn’t it?

Thursday, 3 September 2009

Music and History

What a wonderful weekend. I visited Janet Shell and Christopher Goldsack who live commendably close to Hampton Court Palace, which I needed to visit as part of my research into "Duty of Evil", my Tudor apothecary crime novel - currently at Chapter 14!

Janet and Christopher headed up a wonderful recital on Monday evening in aid of Save the Children. The mix of the serious and amusing was perfect and brought me right back to my musical side, which has been a little neglected of late owing to the number of hours I spend on the laptop writing. Christopher's portrayal of 'The Count' in Mozart's 'Marriage of Figaro' encompassing his exasperation at Cherubino and his frustrated attempts to get Susannah to submit to him gave me several useful plot points for the third book in the Georgia Pattison series, not yet written, but entitled "Say Goodbye Now" a direct quote from Dent's edition of the opera and taking place during a production of 'Marriage of Figaro'.

Janet's brilliant acted "I can't quite remember your name" had everyone in fits of laughter and was a perfect adjunct to the more serious part of the programme. Christopher's Promenade Girls' Choir was a joy to listen to. Then it was back to their house for delicious food, champagne and music talk into the small hours. Bliss.

The next day was my long-awaited visit to Hampton Court Palace. Another gem of a day. I met Tom Davie, the President of the East Molesey Photographic Society, who took two hours out of his day to show me around the palace and tell me endless interesting snippets that only someone who has known and loved the place since he was a boy, would know. All the warders knew Tom and that made it easier for me to talk to them later because I had been introduced by him.

The day was just incredible and made so by the wonderful staff and warders. If anyone reading this is interested in our history and has not yet been to HCP, you are missing a huge chunk of your education. That the warders can discuss all aspects of the palace's history whether from the level of a child's education, for the casual visitor or for a serious researcher is not only an accolade to them personally, but also to the palace management. I salute all of them. Indeed I became so excited that I completely forgot to have lunch and only realised this when I left the palace at just gone 5pm. I found out quite a bit I didn't know, always a good sign.

So what did the weekend teach me? Several things. That music is such a massive part of my psyche that I must keep it "tuned up". That time spent with friends is equally important and perhaps, most important of all, that sometimes it's good to get away from the laptop for a few days and re-enter the real world.

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

The old, old story

I live on the Yorkshire coast in a small town with a village feel. At the back of the house is an old railway line, which has been made into the Trans-Pennine Trail. I walk the dog here early each morning, so early that I seldom meet anyone. It is the best time of day, looking at the sunlight dappling through the trees and breathing cool fresh air. On the other side is a large area of grassland. Sometimes I see a fox making his way back home and crossing the path in front of me. At night, we can hear the hoot of owls. One afternoon last winter, just as light was fading, I watched a barn owl quarter this grassland, flying low, seeking food. I was transfixed.

As the recession bites deeper, we made a decision that at least once a month, we need to go out for a meal and our chosen restaurant is near the sea. We walk there and back at the moment whilst it is still light in the evenings. It was almost dark on Sunday as we walked back to our house down the old railway trail. About halfway down, literally just in front of us, a large white object swept across us and flew into the grassland field. I can confirm that owls are, indeed, silent. We heard nothing, it was like seeing a ghost. It was one of those moments, like when I see the fox or watch an owl quarter the field, that really truly does fill you with wonder at the beauty of nature.

Isn't it sad then, that a well known supermarket has just been given permission to build yet another new store on this field? I acknowledge that the town needs a supermarket. The local authority seems to have the mistaken idea that it will bring people into the town. Yes it will. They will park in the supermarket, do their shopping and then drive home! Are our council officials really so naive as to think that shoppers will walk into town and visit other shops? With frozen food in the boot waiting? I don't think so. It makes one think. As a caveat, the supermarket has to leave a "corridor" for the wildlife. Yeah, right! I have no illusions that the days of the owls and foxes are numbered in that area. I am still trying to come to grips with the balance of the scales. Foxes, owls, other wildlife on one side and the fact that fresh veg and a bottle of wine is less than a five minute walk away on the other. Let's face it, I am a material girl, but this time, because I have been given the privilege of watching owls and seeing foxes at close quarters, the wildlife wins. What a shame it won't win in reality.

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

The national UNhealth service?

I heard on the news this morning of a suggestion to give everybody over 55 medication for high blood pressure - "to prevent heart attacks". I despair. How about concentrating on people who NEED medication, not doing a blanket 'everyone has high blood pressure so we'll make them all take pills' exercise? Or is it another ruse to get us to pay even more? I've often wondered if our PM goes back to Scotland when he has a medical problem because, of course, the Scots don't have to pay for prescriptions, or whether he refuses to let the English off the charge as a punishment for Bannockburn or the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots.

If our befuddled leaders want a crusade, I can give them one. My brother is a long-distance lorry driver. He isn't an overweight beer-swilling moron with an IQ of 3, which is what most people seem to think lorry drivers are. He is slim, eats sensibly, has an occasional glass of red wine and is 62. Our family have a history of heart problems, so when he had some intermittent chest pains, he paid one of his 'blue moon' visits to the GP. Result, tests. Result, he has a 10% reduction in the function of his heart. Result, DVLA have taken his HGV licence away. All that I can understand and have no problem with.

Now this is where it gets silly. Before the NHS will do anything about his problem, he must either have a heart attack, at which point he will either die or get the operation he needs, or further tests must show a minimum of a 15% dysfunction BEFORE he is eligible for any treatment.

So, he is left too ill to work but not ill enough for treatment. Unless he pays for private treatment, of course, in which case, he can have the operation tomorrow, provided he pays the cash. He has worked all his life, never claimed any kind of benefit and the first time he needs the system into which he has paid for almost 40 years, it tells him to sod off. He isn't sick enough or rich enough. Why don't the preventative lot do something about that instead of assuming that everyone over 55 has high blood pressure? My brother is lucky. His boss is keeping his job open on the understanding that he will get treatment as soon as possible. He is also lucky that he has an understanding consultant who is trying to help.

Where he is not lucky is that the hospital keep 'losing' his file or 'not receiving' correspondence from the consultant. His pathetic - and in my opinion, negligent - GP suggested he get a "van driver's job". Perhaps the GP thought that having to load a van, drive to a very strict timetable and jump in and out of the van unloading and delivering parcels was the answer for someone who has a heart problem and less stressful than watching someone load his wagon, driving it to a destination in a reasonable time and then watching someone else unload it. Perhaps the GP was just ignorant about a van driver's duties or too focussed on his budget to actually give a monkey's cuss about his patient. Perhaps he should consider another career rather than medicine, one which doesn't come under the heading of a "caring" profession. Perhaps someone ought to do the same thing to him. I'd certainly like to.

So my brother is left with few options. He can wait for a heart attack to solve the problem, but risk dying in the process. He can save up the thousands of pounds needed to pay for the operation before he has a heart attack, but with no job and therefore no income, the heart attack will probably win the race with the bank balance. Or, maybe, just maybe, the hospital might 'find' his file, pull their finger out and get him the treatment he needs to become what he wants to become. A man doing what he is trained for, paying taxes and once more being a useful member of society.

Sunday, 17 May 2009

Living by the rules

They say the best cure for depression is vigorous physical activity. The way I feel at the moment, the best physical activity I can imagine would be packing all our belongings and moving to a bedsit in the south of France. Leaving Britain. I would have liked to say leaving England, but in a lot of eyes, the words England and English are a pejorative – mostly Scottish, Irish, Welsh and, of course, Robert Mugabe’s eyes. Strange then that we have a Scottish PM and Scottish speaker who have presided over the one thing that has sickened everyone in the bit of Britain east of Wales and south of Scotland.

As yet more of our “Honourable” members are revealed to be anything but, I feel like most of the electorate. I would hazard a safe guess that if asked, virtually all of us normal mortals – the ones who go out to work the longest hours in the whole of Europe, pay increasing amounts of tax for decreasing amounts of services and try to be honest – we would say with one accord that we all feel cheated. Not one journalist in any of the bulletins I have heard, watched or read, has asked if we are surprised. I would hazard another safe guess that the answer would be a resounding no. Revealing, don’t you think?

Does all this furore have a silver lining, or, like the ‘cash for honours’ scandal when even the then PM was questioned by police, will it be swept under the Westminster carpet? It must be bloody mucky under that shag pile by now. Well, I suppose one good thing is that, once again, we are showing the “Dunkirk spirit” and beginning to pull together.

There are a few questions I would like answered, though. Has any MP claimed for a mirror, or are they all too ashamed to look into one? Why was a now retired MP allowed to claim £7000 odd (reduced, I believe from £13,000 odd) for bookshelves, when I have managed to house my hundreds of books in shelves from MFI which cost about £40 each? How many of the 16 sheets was the MP in the one-bedroomed flat using at a time, or had he forgotten to claim for a washing machine? Could somebody also explain which part of the pipe repair under the tennis court was furthering parliamentary duties? Was he having his electorate round for tennis parties, perhaps?

How come they can all pay these “mistakes” back so readily? Did they have the money all the time? And, most important of all, how can anyone not know they have paid their mortgage off? Apart from any other paperwork received from the financial institution who lent the money, you have to say what you want doing with the deeds to the property you now own outright, don’t you? Or are we meant to believe that not only are our politicians too busy to oversee their own expenses claims, they also pay large sums – just look at the tables of expenses for staff – to people who are as financially inept as they are. Any ordinary person who was caught – not volunteering are they, we have to catch them – doing this would have been not just instantly dismissed, but looking at the inside of a prison cell. Anyone want to join me hazarding another guess that nobody will go to jail?

The second homes thing has to go. What I believe is that there should be two huge Salvation Army type hostels built adjacent to each other in London, one for male MPs and the other for female MPs. No money changes hands. Bedding, security etc is paid for by the taxpayer, but we don’t pay for food or cleaning. I have to pay for my food and if I want a cleaner, I have to pay for that, too. So can they. The taxpayer can also pay for shuttle buses to take them to and from Westminster. They can work in their offices and sleep in their bedsits, like millions of normal people have to. Their pride – and ours – has to be because they are serving their country, just like the thousands of poorly paid soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, except that the MPs don’t get shot at on a regular basis.

For years, I have said that anyone wanting to be a politician is, by that very declaration, not fit to be one. A two-edged sword. Nice to be proved right, but the depression at what their fraudulent antics – and I believe it is fraud – have done to our already tarnished reputation makes me ashamed to say that I am English. When the mother of parliaments starts shafting her children, perhaps it is time we all left home.

Wednesday, 13 May 2009

Being there

A long time ago, someone asked me what I was most frightened of. Answer: Not being there. I remember when my daughter was small, that fear that she might need me and I wouldn't be there was all but overwhelming. I wonder if it is the same for all parents. There is nothing that can produce such a physical shaft of pain as thinking that your child is hurt and may be calling for you and you are not there. I was 12 when Brady and Hindley were on trial. In later life, I worked with one of the officers on that case. He was a hard-bitten, cynical, granite copper, but even he broke down on hearing the recordings made of Lesley Downey crying for her mother. I can only imagine what it did to that poor woman.

It is an impossible lesson to learn that you can't always be there, though, isn't it? Be it for your child, your partner, your parents, even your pets. Our retriever is now 13 and although he is shaky on his back legs, he is still avid for his food and his walk - more of an amble these days. It isn't so long ago that we had to walk a few paces in one direction until he came hurtling past us, then wheel round in the other direction until he came hurtling past again. We would do this 5 or 6 times until that initial explosion of energy was gone and he could settle into a walk we all enjoyed. Now, it is more usual for us to stop and wait for him to catch up. So, my fear is that on the rare occasions I have to leave him, I worry that he will be all right on his own. Stupid, but there you go. He sleeps on the floor at my side of the bed, so close that I have to reach over him with my feet to find the floor. Perhaps he not only feels safe there, but also knows that I feel better if he is there, too. I hope that one day I wake up and he has just gone quietly over the Rainbow Bridge. Easier for both of us than that last one-way trip to the vet. Because the "being there" syndrome brings a whole raft of responsibilities with it. If it does come to the vet trip, it will be me who takes him - the last loving thing I can do for a dog who has given us 13 years of fun, laughter and love. Yes, I will make sure of being there.

Friday, 8 May 2009

A writer on writing

So, how do writers write? I get asked this by friends who appear slightly embarrassed about the fact that someone they know is a "writer", as if it is something apart from the other arts like music or painting or whatever.

And the answer is that each individual's writing methods are different. I treat it like a job - 8.30-4.30 with a break for lunch and, if the weather is nice, a walk down to the sea perhaps. I used to start at 9, but need half an hour to look at e-mails, answer them and - OK, I admit it - spend a few minutes playing Mah-Jong Titans. But, at 9 on the button and occasionally before, my working day begins. I write very quickly. A good day is 4000 words. That is a good day, not necessarily a good 4000 words. I just bang out the words. I don't polish until it is finished. Some days I need to plan by hand - and it has to be good quality paper and a fountain pen, usually my silver Schaeffer Victorian Heritage Legacy and its gorgeous Florida Blue ink - you see, even the tools of the trade have to feel right. The dog has become used to me having conversations with myself just to see if the exchanges sound believable. My office looks like any you will find in a commerical company, except that my desk is huge because I need to spread out - or as my husband puts it, cover the surface with crap.

The last thing I do each day is to jot down three things I have to do next day, so that I am not sitting there wondering where to start. I like to have several projects on the go, not necessarily on the page, but certainly in my head. My husband will end a long mutual silence with the words 'You're thinking again, aren't you?'. And, it's true. My mind is seldom away from a plot, or listening to the "song" of people's speech, their mannerisms, the news about their lives. Writers harvest all that and use it without conscience. But mine isn't the only way, of course. I know one writer who only writes three days a week in the afternoons, who polishes as she goes along, another whose daily target is 1000 words and stays at his desk until they are written. The one thing all writers have in common, be they household names or obscure scribblers, is that we all write. How we write is immaterial. That we write is the point, and, as Wordsworth advised, we "fill the paper with the breathings of our heart".

Thursday, 7 May 2009

Music for a while...

Is there anyone on the planet who doesn't like music in some form or other? I know I couldn't exist without it, which is probably what convinced me to make my amateur sleuth a professional singer - well, that and the fact that I am familiar with the world of singing. When some artists work, they listen to music to see how it influences what they paint. I know one painter who regularly paints beautiful swirling backgrounds to Pink Floyd. I write to English pastoral music and last year found a fantastic 3-disk set issued by the National Trust. There are the usual suspects on it, like "The Lark Ascending", but also some gems from our lesser known composers like Bridge and Coates. I can be having the day from hell, but if I put on Williams's "A Quiet Stroll" or Binge's "Watermill" and I can't help but smile and breathe out. A lousy day can be expelled by switching on the Roland piano, playing back recorded accompaniments and having a damn good sing. My day is lousy no longer. I can't answer for the neighbours' day, of course. One man's Bach is another man's... well you get the idea. Singing is wonderful exercise. It gets the heart going and puts the singer on an emotional high. Dancing has the same effect, so next time you're feeling low, switch on your music, open up your shoulders and give your cardiovascular system a good workout. Whether you're a fan of Mozart or Metallica it doesn't matter. Just let rip. Music. There's no finer food for the soul.