Friday, 9 December 2011

Time for Reflection

During November, in common with many other writers, I took part in NaNoWriMo - National Novel Writing Month. The aim of the exercise is to start and complete a 50,000 word novel within the month. Of course, that doesn’t include planning the book, just writing it. And here comes the difficult bit. Not writing the 50,000 words, no, because I do write very quickly, but 50,000 words is only half a novel by my standards. When the task is broken down, 50,000 words over 30 days is an average of 1,667 words every day. Easy, I thought, provided I planned meticulously and kept my focus.

And so it should have been. A writing friend of mine managed - wait for it - 112,600 words inside the month and knowing him, I also know that he will have been scrupulously honest and not written a word until 1st November. I worked out I needed to write about 3,000 words each day to get to my usual novel length. My preparation was good. I knew the characters, the setting and the plot. By the first week, I had written some 20,000 words. Then a few personal problems hit the fan and for 4 days, I didn’t write anything. Not a problem. I had to put the problems on the back burner and bring the novel back into focus. And I did for one memorable day when I wrote over 6,000 words. This is not to be recommended. Not to put too fine a point on it, I was exhausted, nothing left. Next day I was ill. And I stayed ill for almost a week.

I could see the word “failure” staring me in the face. So I knuckled down and, to cut a long story short, I did manage to end November with almost 53,000 words done, including the end. The middle is virtually non-existent. What have I learned? I can do it. Well, I can write over 50,000 words inside a month, but I can’t write a novel that fast even though I prepared more than I usually do. Why? Because writing is organic.

I am not a machine churning out words. The words build up into an entity that has a life of its own and sometimes, in fact, often, it doesn’t want to go where you planned.

It’s like driving from London to Birmingham. There are so many routes and you might well plan to go by the most direct motorway route. But, wait a minute, what’s that over there? Looks interesting, let’s go and explore. And suddenly you’re miles off the motorway and although the bonnet of the car may be sort of pointing vaguely towards Birmingham, you’re in the middle of the countryside discovering places you’ve never been to or heard of before. And you’re loving it. It isn’t about getting to Birmingham any more. It’s about the discoveries on the way.

Just the same with writing. I write on a loose plan, know the beginning and the end, but the middle isn’t set and that’s the most enjoyable part. Exploring. It’s what quickens my blood when I’m at the computer, fingers flying allowing the characters to take me where I hadn’t even thought of going.

So the biggest thing I’ve learned is that, yes, I can do the words, but that isn’t what drives me. It’s the journey. Not the destination.

Monday, 17 October 2011

Fun and Learning

Last week I spent a great few days in London with my very dear friend, professional opera singer and voice coach, Janet Shell. We went to Kensington Palace, enjoying a few hours there looking at the ‘Seven Princesses’ exhibition. Many of the state rooms are being revamped. The palace has cleverly set up the exhibition devoting a room to each of the princesses, including Victoria, Margaret and Diana. In each room is an almost mystical representation of that princess, along with clues so that the more enquiring visitors can deduce to whom that room is devoted. The ‘Explainers” throughout the exhibition are, as is usual for all the historic royal palaces, incredibly well-informed and enthusiastic about sharing their knowledge. As a keen student of history, I loved the challenge - and yes, I worked out all seven.

Knowledge of a different kind was another of Janet’s objectives. We’ve called this Avril’s London Orientation Project. Last visit was largely given over to the underground and how to get from A to B in the shortest time possible. This trip was the continuation of the overground bits. All of which was conducted by bus from Kensington Palace to St Pancras, or as my spell-checker would prefer, pancreas, for a meal at the Champagne Bar. London seems full of roadworks at the moment, so the route was anything but direct, all of which suited Janet’s purpose to try and make me see how the ‘grid’ works and which streets are connected to which. No two ways about it, if you are not in a hurry, bus is a great way to see the city. For me, this will be an ongoing learning experience.

After our champagne meal, we went to the Union Chapel to hear Eric Whitacre and his singers in concert. Once again, I was stunned by the pure tones of his choir and the ingenuity of his chord structures.

The most thought-provoking part of the week, though, was, for me, watching Janet give a ‘taster’ presentation for student teachers of her work with voice. Her company, Talking Voice specialises in teaching those whose professions are prone to voice issues, to save their voices from the dangers of overuse leading to vocal nodes and other less pleasant things.

I had no idea that 60% of teachers will at some time be off work with vocal problems. Janet makes her presentations about fun and energy as well as learning. She will change tack and focus the instant she thinks anyone is glazing over. these include games and a lot of physical movement to bring home her mantra - that we only have one voice and you cannot go to the supermarket and buy another if you damage it.

This fun/enjoyment approach led to a much deeper feeling of regret and, yes, sadness. Today, we are bombarded by employers saying that many young people have neither the Maths/English nor Communication skills necessary to be effective in the workplace. I wrote to David Cameron when he was elected leader of the Conservative Party, suggesting that what was needed in education was a complete re-think about what it was really for. Why educate our children? Surely, as well as trying to make them rounded individuals who can think, the overwhelming need is to prepare them for the world of work.

What I received in reply was a standard ‘we’ve done this, written this, suggested that’ bread and butter letter from someone I’d never heard of. What a shame DC himself couldn’t even be bothered to sign the response, let alone read what I’d written.

So, what can we do about the parlous state of our education system? Can we stop the tick-box mentality, where, if a child learns the letter H in a week, he/she is judged to be a success? Could we - heaven forbid - try to make learning fun? I know when I was young if I enjoyed a subject, I was far more likely to work hard at it. I can’t think children have changed that much. Isn’t it worth a try? After all, these are the people who will be controlling our lives in 20 years time when we are all sitting by the fire mumbling our gruel.

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Displacement in Time

Last Sunday I had the strange experience of standing on the distant past, looking up at the recent past while still being in the present.

We visited my brothers who live on the Lincolnshire Wolds near Horncastle, one of the towns that rebelled in the Lincolnshire Uprising of 1536. This rebellion greatly affected the Pilgrimage of Grace that took place north of the river Humber soon afterwards. Robert Aske, the leader of the Yorkshire Pilgrimage, saw what happened to the leaderless Lincolnshire rebels, how easily the “commons” or common folk were manipulated by the “gentlemen” and how this lack of common purpose led directly to the failure of the rebellion.

This one fact made Aske realize that if his uprising were to succeed, it must have a single purpose. He made that the restoration of the religious houses that had been mauled by Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell. What Aske, and very few others, realized was that Henry was not the tool of Cromwell, not being led astray by low-born councillors. Henry was the aggressor, severely frightened by the strength of the rebellion and determined on savage retribution. Many men from both counties were executed.

Not far from where my brothers live, the men of Horncastle murdered Raynes, the Bishop of Lincoln’s hated chancellor and a clerk called Wolsey. Both these men are buried in the churchyard at Horncastle. Those executed for their part in the uprising have no graves. That is the distant past.

The recent past flew overhead from its home at RAF Coningsby. One of the few remaining Lancaster bombers, the planes that carried out many raids of World War 2, including the Dambusters’. The aircraft is a

wonderful sight and beautiful to hear. I remember my mother, who lived close to the Lincolnshire air bases during the war, telling me how she would watch the squadrons fly over the village on their way to Germany and how the authorities “hid” bombs in the bottom of local hedgerows so that all the weaponry was not in one place and could not be destroyed in a single raid.

Last year, I visited the Moehne Dam, taking a boat trip onto the lake, following the path of the Lancasters as they dived for the water, tried to avoid the flak and bounce their bombs up to the dam wall. It was a sobering experience, especially when we are now told that the dams’ raid didn’t really do that much damage to the German war machine.

On a Sunday in 2011, I stood on the site where men killed each other in 1536 and looked up at a beautiful machine that spewed death from the skies in 1943. We all think history is so distant, but the truth is that if we took the opportunity to take time out and look around, it surrounds us. It has fashioned our lives and our freedoms. Please don’t ever tell me history doesn’t matter.

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Scrivener. Discipline needed

In the good old (bad old?) days, I used to write with Word. Used it happily in the main, but it did have a few issues. What software doesn’t? But I wrote, on average between 2000-4000 words a day with music softly going on in the background. Some books, like the Sherlock Holmes “Murder at Oakwood Grange” come back to me whenever I hear certain pieces of music. I had a system. It worked. I switched on the computer, loaded Word and started writing.

Then I discovered Scrivener and my entire writing life changed. It can almost claim to do everything except make coffee. I have had to learn a whole new way of working. Writing scenes instead of chapters. Scrivener can store all your research, your manuscript, character studies, location details et al in the one project file. You can shift your scenes around at the click of a few buttons to give your story more tension or conflict. You can analyse the text to see if you have too many repeating words, you can set a novel wordcount and a session wordcount and keep abreast of your progress. When you are finished, you can compile your book, formatting it as you wish, including what you want to include and export it as a “ready for agent” manuscript or in epub format if it is an e-book, or as a pdf, a paperback novel, etc.

One drawback to all this ability is that using Scrivener requires quite a bit of discipline. As David Hewson says in his excellent e-book “Writing A Novel with Scrivener”, you don’t want to spend hours learning the software, you want to get on and write. And that is the one difficulty I have. Why? It is partly a need to write differently to the way I have for years. I've always written chapters in the correct sequence, not "scenes". In my chapters as in most novelists', there is usually more than one scene in a chapter.

It is also partly that when I open up the project file, I can see everything, and I mean everything, at a glance in the binder. Research, character information etc. I get distracted so easily, especially when, as now, outside influences are hindering me from focussing as much as I am used to and I find the story not flowing as it should.

There is a nifty way round this, of course. You can use Scrivener in full-screen mode so nothing appears on the screen except your words. So all I have to do really is discipline myself to use that before I allow the distractions to hold sway. That’s an easy one. A given.

The other thing about the software that I find completely incomprehensible at the moment is how to get the compile function programmed so that my scenes become chapters. I normally pick up software so very easily, but this bit has me completely bamboozled. I’ve read Hewson’s section on compiling several times. I know it’s in English but it might as well be Martian because I just don’t understand. Just at the moment, the tail is wagging the dog for me on this subject.

So, today, I am taking part in the amazing Jurgen Wolff’s Massive Action Day and one of my goals is to finally get to grips with ‘compile’. If I can’t, I shall admit defeat and ask the support team at Literature & Latte for help. But, one way or the other, I must fettle this one, because Scrivener is such a fantastic piece of software for writers of all kinds and there is no way on this planet that I will go back to using Word. Wish me luck.

Saturday, 10 September 2011

Take control

A few years ago, we were inundated with “how to” programmes. Re-vamp your house, one room. Take out all the furniture, paint everything beige and sell it. Make a new garden in 48 hours. That fad passed and we came to the life de-clutter fad. Or the amazing – and I am an unashamed fan – Paul McKenna who showed us how to train our brains to lose weight without dieting and become more confident. Both of these work, by the way. I lost 21lbs in 6 weeks on the first. Shame I didn’t keep it up but that’s my fault not McKenna’s.

There will always be a market for those who we believe can improve our quality of life, but I believe it is time for a rethink. Why are people so stressed these days that they cannot cope? I have a few ideas on that score.

In days gone by, because of the social mores, we all, allegedly, “knew our station”. We accepted it. For the last 30 years, we have all been brainwashed into thinking we can have it all, hence the rise in “Law of Attraction”, “Cosmic requests” websites, where we are told we only need to envisage our success to attract it. Been trying that one for 3 years and so far, nada.

These days, when we are all having to tighten belts, it is much easier to fall into a negative attitude than pick yourself up, dust yourself down and get on with it. A probably apocryphal “speech” by Bill Gates went around the Internet a few years ago. Supposed to be his advice to students, the first item was “Life isn’t fair. Get used to it.” Damn right. Neither will our current “there is no failure, only deferred success” rule in many schools help the pupils one iota when they have to fight for a job. We all have to face reality and realize that we might strive and strive, always do the right thing, make good informed decisions and still fail.
So what can we do? We can’t change circumstances, but we can change how we react to them. I have several “rules” by which I try to accentuate the positive. I don’t always succeed, but I do my best.

1. Don’t hibernate and don’t hold imaginary conversations with yourself that spiral into depression.

2. We might live in a 24 hour society, always accessible via our mobile phones, Facebook, Twitter et al. But it is our choice. The phone has an off switch. Use it. Turn off the Internet. Learn to talk to people instead of texting them all the time. Do not be at people’s beck and call 24/7. Build downtime into your life. Time for you. If they don’t like it, tough.

3. Nobody knows the minutiae of other people’s lives. What might look to you as undeserved wealth and happiness might have come with a price tag you wouldn’t want to pay.

4. Go and do something physical. Work up a sweat, but not in the gym. Make it constructive exercise. Do housework for an hour or some serious gardening.

5. Try to laugh at something every day, the sillier the better.

6. Remember the late Claire Rayner’s dictum – “This, too, will pass”, because, believe me, it will.

7. Hug someone who loves you – your significant other, the dog, a friend.

8. Try to take joy in those things that are free – a beautiful day, a stunning view.

9. And finally, remember that time is yours. Maybe not the time you spend at work, but you dictate how to spend your free time. The richest man on the planet can’t buy the last five minutes. So make it count. You are the only one living your life. You are responsible for you, so take control.

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Short - long. Stories are not a one size fits all

Most writers at some point in their lives write short stories for competitions. I have had some little success in this area, with the emphasis on little. But writing shorts is great training for the budding writer. A word limit forces you to be sparing, but you still must get every nuance and twist into the story while making sure your characters are not the literary parallel of cardboard cutouts and that everything holds together in a coherent whole.

I have many short stories in the relevant folder, most of them have not seen the light of day. Some did see the light of day only to be relegated to the computer equivalent of the back of a drawer. Some have shone. But there are always a few that live in your memory. I have three currently sitting idle. One in particular is a good story, logical, bit of a twist, a protagonist that I like and who I feel excites sympathy. So why is it still languishing in the darkness. Because, I realised yesterday morning, it is actually a novel, not a short. I can't tell you how quickly I woke up when that thought flashed into my brain.

Of course, it needs a lot of work, not to mention an extra 85 thousand words, but I'm now in that first flush of seeing the whole thing. In fact, I believe it could well make a vehicle for my early-music soprano detective, Georgia Pattison. And, what is so heartwarming, is that I don't have to work out where the story is going because I already know. At least that's the theory. When I actually get down to it, the whole thing will change because it always does and I know I can't write to a strict 'this is what happens next and then ...'. I know of many writers who make detailed chapter plans. The most I can do is write on a clear glass panel that used to be a shower door, now fixed to the office wall. A kind of mind map making connections. I stare at it, drink coffee and then adjust a few bits. So the most I know when I begin is where I am beginning and roughly where I want to end. The bit in between is as much a journey for me as it will be for the reader.

And that, dear friends, is one of the absolute joys of writing. Characters are not puppets for me to manipulate. They are themselves and act in character, which is why I will write something and then wonder where on earth that came from. It's a wonderful feeling. Why would I ever want to do anything else?

Monday, 22 August 2011

A sense of place

My home county by marriage is Yorkshire in the north east of England. During our turbulent history, the county has been subject to invasions from Celts, Vikings, Normans, Romans, you name it…

All this has resulted in some very weird place names, so just as a momentary diversion, here is a small sample of how some Yorkshire towns and villages came by their names.

Broadly speaking, ‘ing’, ‘ham’ and ‘ton’ are Saxon for hamlet or farm. If ‘ing’ is in the middle of the name, it means ‘belonging to’, so Bridlington, was the farm belonging to Beohrtel (Saxon).
‘Caster’ means site of a Roman fort – Tadcaster, was the land belonging to Tada on the site of a former fort.
Thwaite means meadow or hollow, so Yockenthwaite is the clearing belonging to Youghan.
Filey is thought to derive from ‘five’ and ‘lea’ or ‘meadow’, hence Five Meadows.
Fridaythorpe denotes a farm (Thorpe – Viking), belonging to one whose name had relevance to Freya, god of fertility and from whence we get the day name Friday. Brings a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘Thank God it’s Friday, doesn’t it?
Esk is a Viking name denoting a river valley., so the Esk Valley near Whitby really means Valley Valley. (Incidentally, there is a hill near Plymouth in Devon called Torpenhow Hill. Tor = hill. Pen = hill. How = hill. So the proper name should be Hill Hill Hill Hill.)
Goodmanham is the home of Godmund and his people – once the most important pre-Christian pagan shrine in Deira (South Northumberland)
Arkengarthdale, a gorgeous name, simply means Arke’s enclosure in the valley.
The river Humber is interestingly named. A celtic rivername meaning ‘good well’, the river was a vital dividing line in the landscape, hence all the land north of it was called Northumberland.
Appleton literally means an apple farm. So Appleton Roebuck, was an apple farm belonging to Roebuck and Appleton Wiske was an apple farm on the river Wiske.
Hornsea lies on Hornsea Mere, meaning ‘pond or lake’. So the place name means land on the lake with horn-like corners.
Scarborough is also interesting. Documents can accurately place its origins to 966 or 967 AD. Allegedly, a Viking with a hare-lip or ‘scarthi’ made it his stronghold – borough or burg.

York has so much Viking history, it would take a whole blog to even scratch the surface. The city also has some very strange street names – usually with the suffix ‘gate’ meaning road or path. The most interesting of these is ‘Whipmawhopmagate’. Opinions vary, but one is that a snarling worthless dog or cur was called a whappet. Whappets were whipped in this street on St Luke’s day, which is also known as ‘dog-whipping day’.

Can’t top that last one.

Monday, 15 August 2011

Lessons from the past

A close friend lent us their house while they fled to the fastnesses of France recently. I have to say we didn’t do a lot, mainly because we wanted to rest and restore ourselves. However, when I am in London, Hampton Court Palace is always a must, so we duly spent a cracking morning there. The sun was out, the gardens looked fabulous, a game of real tennis was in progress and I managed to suss out a bit more of the geography of the Tudor palace for the Luke books. It retains a prime place in my heart. I waited 40 years to visit it and have been 7 times in the last two years.

Paul had never visited the Tower and I’m always up for a jaunt there, too. Of course, the queue for the Jewel House was very long, which I find strange because the crown jewels are incredibly boring. The only bauble that moves me at all is Queen Victoria’s little crown, incredibly sweet and designed to go over her widow’s cap. Much more interesting is the sense of place, the reality of looking over walls, imagining holding enemies at bay or being a prisoner and seeing how difficult escape would have been. The thing that always annoys me about the Tower is how they insist that Anne Boleyn was executed in front of St Peter ad Vincula, when historians have shown quite clearly that she met her end in front of what is now the Waterloo Barracks.

The highlight of the holiday, though, was a visit to the Downland and Weald Open Air Museum near Chichester. Houses from all periods – 12th century onwards – have been moved and restored. I was able to get a real sense of what Luke’s house might look like, how his rooms were arranged. I learned about herbs and herbal medicines and, the crowning glory – much more fascinating than the imperial jewels – a proper working Tudor kitchen.

We learned how to make butter. I was introduced to a couvre de feu, anglicised to ‘curfew’, used to bake small batches of bread when the cook didn’t want to light the bread oven, the rotation of beer-making so that the household never ran out, making cheese using rennet to split milk into curds and whey. The curds made a cheese a bit like mozzarella. They used the whey to help flavour bread. Tudor cooks used everything. (When the family pig was killed, the joke was that everything was used except the squeak, a custom that my grandfather practised into the 1930s with their family pig. Stains from salt dripping down his bureau from the hams and bacon hung over it are still visible.) Leftover ashes from the bread fire went under the beer cauldron ensuring that the yeast didn’t die. There was no waste. Perhaps in times like these, we could all learn a lesson from them.

Monday, 8 August 2011

Keep right on to the end of the road.

I have a confession to make. People think I’m organised. By profession, I’m a librarian. Trained to develop effective retrieval systems for all manner of information, so that when someone wants something, that something, should be quickly identified, located and brought to the enquirer.

When I worked for a pharmaceutical company, I was landed with the organisation of their scientific archives. Details of projects, experiments, tests etc. to support the company’s products. All these records had to be readily available to any regulatory authority, worldwide, at any time, so that checks could be made, claims confirmed and all the work done verified. By the time a regulatory authority came to visit, we had the average search and production of documentation time down from 20 minutes to 8. The system wasn’t foolproof, no system ever could be. But it worked.

So, please could someone tell me why, in my own personal filing, I can find a receipt for an insignificant item I bought in 2005, but I cannot track down my birth certificate? I can show you pictures of me from age 0 to the present day. I can even show you the original wedding certificates for my parents and both sets of grandparents. I have my great-great grandmother’s death certificate from 1884. But if you were to ask me to prove I was born and my birth name, all I would be able to do would be look in a mirror and assure you that the reflection was definitely me.

This is just the last in a long line of things not going as they should. Perhaps it’s the weather. Sunshine and showers – showers as I type this. Perhaps it is my turn for rough water. Perhaps as I see summer going by so fast, I’m beginning to dread the coming dark nights and cold weather. Perhaps my attitude of persistence, determination and pressing on is suffering more than a little hiccup.

But perhaps, just perhaps, this is the darkest hour before the dawn. And if I find the bloody birth certificate, that might perhaps be a sign. I’ll keep you posted.

Monday, 25 July 2011

When the day seems dark...

We all have those days when even getting out of bed seems a bad call. When a friend having a rough time puts a weight on your soul because you feel so helpless and you know they are unhappy. When, for all the affirmations about determination and persistence, they are just empty words that have lost the positivity that first imbued them. When nothing is right and everything is wrong. Wading through treacle.

Chiming any bells? I have a friend who claims with justification that she long ago learned to love what she has because for so many years she couldn’t have what she wanted. Another friend battles constantly with her health, juggles money better than anyone I’ve ever known but still manages to find that extra something that enables her to keep going. I find these two ladies inspirational and I hope that by now, they know that.

Being prone to depression, I have learned to take notice of the ‘soul weights’, knowing that if I ignore them, I will begin descending into the pit. So, when those days come, what do I do?

First of all, hard as it is on a rainy Monday in July, I think about what is good in my life. Paul, who supports me, puts up with my flights of fancy and retains a very dry sense of humour that never fails to make me collapse with laughter. He and my friends who believe in my writing; living within ten minutes walk of the sea, Rufus, my golden retriever who always manages to lie under my desk so that it is uncomfortable to either type or write, but who sticks to me like superglue, has a tremendous sense of humor and demonstrates it every day.

But sometimes, that isn’t enough. Sometimes, I need to just recognize that it is one of those days and I would be better doing something active to get the old endorphins batting about than sitting at the desk trying to wade through the treacle. Living in a four-storey Victorian house, there is always something to do. My latest project is painting the inside of the Word Shed to make it more welcoming. Have to wait for the Garden Store to be delivered first, because, with the best will in the world, sharing a creative space with the lawn mower just doesn’t cut it. So, as today isn’t going so well on the positivity front, I shall go and look out the old cream curtains we had at the other house and prepare to make them into covers for the seat and back of the bench I am planning to buy for guest seating in the Shed.

Yes, as writers, we do try to write every day, but sometimes, it’s more than okay to give yourself a pot-luck day off and go do something active. See you later.

Monday, 18 July 2011


As I get older, I seem to spend more time looking back on happy memories. My grandfather used to smoke a pipe with Old Holborn in it. Even now, almost 50 years later, I only have to catch a whiff of it and in an instant, I am eight years old again. Much in the same way, there are pieces of music that take me back to people and places. My mother explaining Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture, with the sound of the waves washing in and out of the cave – I think I was about five at the time. Music has been a huge part of my life and I seldom sit down to write without something playing softly in the background.

What else? The silky softness of our first labrador’s ears, a joy that has stayed with me throughout my life. I am now on my fifth golden retriever and his ears are especially soft – matching his brain. The first sight of glorious scenery or a seascape, you all know the ones I mean. They take your breath away momentarily. There is a road leading from Dore and Totley near Sheffield to Hathersage, the place where, allegedly, Little John is buried. As you drive round the corner, you see the entire valley laid out in front of you and it is stunning, something I shall never forget. And will I ever forget the taste of Nicky’s warm homemade wholewheat bread spread with her just cooling homemade blackberry and apple jam? Doubt it. I only have to close my eyes.

Memories are made of this, so the song says and it’s true. The senses are what keep us connected to the world, so that we are part of it and not just spectators. How much does a hug mean when everything looks bleak? Beyond wealth.

The senses are also a valuable weapon in the writer’s armoury. So frequently, we read of what characters see and hear, but how often does the writer evoke scents or tastes? When Keats talks about ‘beaded bubbles winking at the brim’, can’t you just see and almost taste the delicious water from the fountain of the Muses?

At the moment, I am trying to write a love scene, something I have never before attempted. Part of me wishes I had left it that way, but the story needs it and so I must gird up my loins as it were and write something that must be slightly more than real, but not so beyond it that it tumbles into comedy. How will I do that? I shall start with the senses of touch and taste, action and reaction and go from there. The final judgement will rest with the feedback from my writers’ group should I ever have the courage to read it to them. I’ll keep you posted.

Monday, 11 July 2011

Adding verisimilitude...

Research for a fiction project is either a love-it/hate-it thing. Me? I love it. Which is why I became a librarian. But it has its pitfalls. Sometimes, I will spend two days trying to track down a certain piece of information and it can only provide a sentence in the book. All that time for one sentence. No wonder it is such a temptation for beginners especially, to show how much they know about their subject. It is also one of the biggest turn offs a writer can offer a reader. After all, who wants to be force-fed information which has only a background influence on the plot? The writer who does this is, in effect, not caring about the reader at all, only about demonstrating how clever he or she is.

Take my current book. Perfect example. My protagonist has a couple of dogs who have managed to bring a traumatised child from her dark inner world to the light. The repercussions of this will flow on in the story to where someone with an autistic child asks my heroine for help. Can her dogs make a difference? The daughter of a close friend has helped me get some of the information I needed from peer-reviewed scientific papers about the effect dogs in particular can have on the wellbeing and socialisation of autistic children. It took a couple of hours of searching for information, a day or so to work out which papers would be most useful and almost two weeks for them to arrive on my doormat. The information I have gleaned will occupy, at most, three sentences and possibly a bit of conversation in one or two scenes. But I needed to spend that time, take that trouble, to make sure that what I write is accurate.

The same goes for my alternate history crime stories featuring Tudor apothecary, Luke Ballard. As far as I can manage, I have retained true incidents, real people and the tenor of Tudor life. It required weeks of research – and this for someone who was fairly convinced before she started that she knew a great deal about the period in question. Not slipping into the trap of lecturing to the reader is sometimes quite hard, especially when I’ve learned something that piques my interest. And, a couple of times, I have unwittingly fallen into that trap. On one occasion, I had just read David Starkey’s assertion that Catherine of Aragon was responsible for the Reformation because she wouldn’t give Henry a divorce so that he could try for the son he so desperately needed to give the dynasty some security. After a whole paragraph of telling the reader this, I realised I had to scrap it. The reader still knows, but it is one character who says that it was “all the old Queen’s fault. She should have been an obedient wife and gone into a nunnery. Then this wouldn’t have happened.” Two sentences replaced a sermonising paragraph and the book is all the better for it.

I’ve learned the hard way that research is like salt on chips. Too much and they are uneatable.

Monday, 4 July 2011

Back in the Word Shed again

Last Autumn, with great fanfares – well the odd muted trumpet – food and champagne, we opened the Word Shed and I spent a few happy weeks out here in the intermittent sunshine and fresh air, crafting the second Luke Ballard book, “The Taste For Treason”. And very enjoyable it was, too. Then three things happened. The weather deteriorated, winter arrived in all its ferocity and Paul, bless him, bought me an iMac.

The winter put paid to many things for many people. We had so many broken arms and wrists here on the coast that the local hospital couldn’t cope, almost every palm tree snuffed it in the -18 degrees freeze as did 3 of my 6 fuchsias and the snow and ice took its toll not just on the flooded basement, but on the roof of my shed, which, when the thaw came, sagged alarmingly.

It wasn’t too bad until the weather began to improve and I had a longing to sit out among the burgeoning greenery and feed my creative side looking at the clematis Montana tumbling over the fence in front of the shed doors. It was not to be. Not until last week when a dear friend and all round good egg looked at the roof, went and bought wood and made it safe again.

Was that the end of my problems? Well, no. You see, the shed had been shut up from November through to June and there was the issue of
S P I D E R S…….
Those who know me well know that I don’t put these creepy-crawlies on my best friend list, or even the nodding acquaintance list. They go on the ‘don’t show your face – or legs – near me, or you won’t live long enough to regret it’ list. The problem with spiders is that they can really run and I have no idea what primeval instinct makes me fear them, but that’s how the cookie crumbles, or, as we say in Europe, that’s how the Mercedes Benz.

Enter St George in the form of my husband who really doesn’t like them any more than I do, but is considerably braver than me. He went round with the vacuum cleaner and a long hose. And so, I type this looking out at the sunshine and the trees, listening to Vaughan-Williams and thinking that, really, life doesn’t get much better than this.

Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Scrivener - a quick appraisal

I’ve been using Scrivener now for a few months and must say that I really like it. Sometimes I feel that it’s like using a sledge-hammer to crack a nut, but learning which bits are useful is an ongoing process. So much so, that, on Paul’s advice, I now devote one morning a week to learning something new and then spend the rest of the week working it into my daily writing.

Basically, for those who have not come across it, Scrivener is a multi-tasking piece of software whereby you can collect all your research, import relevant files and pictures, write scenes as stand-alones and then rearrange them in the order you want, have a ‘corkboard’ of cards for synopses for each scene/chapter etc. etc. all in one file or project. The left hand side of the screen – the “binder” – is a one-look overview of what you have in that file. You can work with split screens. The other week, I was writing an account of my fictional queen’s coronation for the third Luke Ballard book. I needed to check back on a contemporary account of Anne Boleyn’s coronation in 1533. So I worked with a split screen, one side was my chapter and the other side was the account. I was able to scroll down the research document, find what I needed and immediately begin to relate the events in my fictional account. When you have finished, you can compile the scenes/chapters and export them as a Word document in a format that most editors will accept for submissions.

There is a lot of support on the net, including video tutorials, an instruction manual – huge – which I did print out and interactive tutorials. And, one of the best things, the package is very affordable. I tried it out free for about a week and then bought it. It has helped my writing in several ways. The most useful so far is the ease with which I can write scenes out of order and then play about with where I want them to be in the finished document.

So, there has to be a downside, doesn’t there? Yes, there is. I still can’t find a formatting method whereby after a double space denoting the end of one section and the beginning of the next, the first line of the new part will be blocked and not indented. As this is a basic requirement of fiction editors, I can't work out why I can't find out how to do it.

The other downside is that I am the kind of person who works better with a tutor and a course, so I just wish that somebody somewhere in the north of England would run a ‘Scrivener for Writers’ workshop for a couple of days, purely so that they could show me – s l o w l y – how to use the various components that I need for me. The videos are good, but the instructions are too fast and by the time I've assimilated them, the instructor is on the next but one bit.

That said, it’s still a cracking piece of software and one with which I will persevere.

Monday, 27 June 2011

Stepping out of the comfort zone

The amorphous 'they' tell us it is good to step out of our usual habits once in a while. I have been experimenting with this idea on two fronts in the recent past. Normally I have a very controlling method of writing in that I start at the beginning and go on to the end, only stopping off at about chapter 5 to write the last bit of the book so I know where I'm headed. Using the amazing Scrivener, though, I am now writing scenes that I know must appear in the book, but I'm not exactly sure where. The pudding still has to be eaten to see if this method works for me, but, so far, so good.

And the other experiment is writing a suspense/romance. Not my usual genre at all, as I usually prefer crime, either contemporary or historical. The working title for this new book is "The Croaking Raven", but I am not at all sure it fits the genre. Great for a crime thriller, but probably not a susp/rom. I have my plot. I have my characters AND their photographs - again all stored in the one Scrivener file. I need to see what my characters look like to read their personalities, if that makes sense. It's an extension of the Miss Marple device of certain people reminding her of someone in St Mary Mead. I used to be quite skeptical about this, but so many times I've seen someone who reminds me of someone else and find that they are exactly like that person.

The setting for the new book is the north of Wisconsin just above Green Bay in a small fictional town called Ballards Bay. My protagonist, Abbie Russell, is a computer expert in the local library. She has two flat-coated retrievers who are therapy dogs for those who cannot communicate with people because of some trauma, or who are lonely and cannot relate to anyone. All goes swimmingly until Abbie's boss is relocated and arrogant, stand-offish Ellis Carter takes charge.

So far, I've written about 12,000 words and I think I will be aiming for about 80-100k. It's a learning curve, one I am enjoying. I'll be keeping you posted on my progress, so watch this space.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Choosing a title

Choosing a title is one of the most important things a writer has to do and is perhaps only superceded by the crafting of synopses as the most hated task. So, where do we find our titles?

Sometimes, the theme of the book suggests a title. Jane Austen’s “Sense and Sensibility” falls into this category. The perfect description in three words of the basic characters of the two main protagonists, Elinor all head and Marianne all heart. Short, snappy, says everything.

Some titles are just alluring whilst referring to the subject matter of the book and I would choose Linda Acaster’s “Torc of Moonlight” to illustrate this. A timeslip thriller, it deals with the distant past infringing on the present. Again, the title is short and sweet, but has an eerie quality about it that tells you all you need to know about the tenor of the story. A play on words is frequently hard to resist. Stuart Aken’s “Breaking Faith” uses this and it reflects the multi-layered story of Faith as she comes from darkness, through adversity into light.

The genre can also help with formulating a title. Shirley Wells’s “Presumed Dead” uses policespeak to set the mood for ex-cop Dylan Scott’s search for woman who has been missing for a long time. Sometimes authors use repeated phrases; the perfect example of this is J D Robb’s ‘In Death” series, now up to about No 34. Karen Wolff’s ‘Seers’ series uses this device, too.

For the rest of us, and I include myself in this category, searching for the perfect title can be a game. I must know my title before I can begin to write. I think about the theme or tone of the book and go initially to Shakespeare, always good for a pithy bon mot or a phrase that can be tweaked to say what I want it to say. Penny Grubb used this to good effect with a quote by Joseph De Maistre in her crime novel “Like False Money”.

For my contemporary crime series featuring Georgia Pattison, I use musical titles, because she is an early music soprano. For these, I generally go to opera, so the second in the series, not yet published is “When I Am Laid In Earth” from Purcell’s ‘Dido and Aeneas’ and the third will probably end up as “Say Goodbye Now” the title of Figaro’s first act aria to Cherubino in ‘The Marriage of Figaro”. It is amusing how many musical titles fit a crime story!

So, when you next pick up a book from the library shelves, don’t think the title was just added as an afterthought. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Working day of a writer…

Or perhaps the title should be the working day of this writer. Talking with non-writing friends, it is alarming how frequently the M and I words come up. Muse and Inspiration. When I tell them that it’s a job like any other, that I work similar hours to them, they look at me as if I just exited the shuttle from the planet Zog. So here for those of you who are interested is my day.
6am – out of bed with husband. Follow him into shower.
6.30am. Sit and check mails with a cup of tea (thank you, Paul). Plan day’s work if I didn’t do that the previous day.
7am Walk dog. This is one of the best parts of the day for me. I have to be careful with my knee, but try to get a good walk in on the beach or in the park.
8am Back home. Prepare dinner, if possible to the stage of putting it in the oven so all that needs to happen is the oven gets turned on at the right time.
8.30 Breakfast. Coffee. Read
9am At desk. Check day’s plan. Use a the timer on the phone to work in set periods with intervals for coffee, getting up and moving about. Basically, it is bum in chair and words on page.
12pm Lunch
I am currently trying to work in an extra 15-30 minutes of walking in the middle of the day, but the knee dictates what I can do. However, following Jurgen Wolff’s suggestion, this period of walking/strolling or whatever is useful for sorting out plot points, thinking about characters etc.
1pm Back at desk. Ditto the morning. Last job, clear desk and plan out next day’s work.
4pm Go down, feed dog, fill dishwasher. Sit and wait for husband to come home and pinch his iPad in the meantime to catch up on my reading.
So that’s my routine. If the weather is foul, I stop work earlier and sit in the bath to think about plot points or characterization or settings etc. John Mortimer used to do this and I agree with him that proximity to water is a great thought liberator.
So, now you can all see, it IS just a job, like any other. But far, far more enjoyable than most.

Monday, 13 June 2011

Flaming June indeed!

There are, as I type this, two bumblebees on the outside ledge of my office window sill. I won't describe in detail what they are doing, but if I say that I'm tempted to tell them to get a room, you'll have the basic idea. Yesterday's six hour downpour seems to have everything more vibrant and livelier. I was grateful, not least because I didn't have to heft watering cans all round the front garden. I just wish that my gorgeous scented climber rose Etoile de Hollande was a little more robust. The rain bent two stems down onto the lawn. The flowerheads are so big that they occasionally look like those anorexic stick-insect celebrities who end up resembling lollipops. One thing I can guarantee is that will never happen to me. However, the rest of my garden is blooming. The Black Knight delphiniums are glorious, the New Dawn climbing rose is giving the arch a run for its money and I have an attack of the Sweet Williams. Everything looks clean and fresh and fit for a carnival.

In fact, the rain has had another effect. I am rebelling against the strictures of my GP and her 'a little gentle exercise' because of my swollen knee. This morning, I am working in timed chunks and having a little dance for a few minutes in between. Is the resultant uplift in my spirits enough to counter the increased pain in my knee? Don't know. The jury's out on that one. But, with the help of Jurgen Wolff, I am embarking on a 30 day "Light Writing" programme that will not only focus my writing, but also help me back on the weight reducing/health bandwagon. I thank the powers that be that I only have to wait another 48 hours to see a physiotherapist and finally, I might find out what is wrong with the wretched knee and start back on the road to recovery. I found it very instructive that two of Jurgen's questions were 'how happy are you about your fitness level' and ditto about your writing productivity. Whilst I'm averagely ok with the second - 7/10, I am far from content with the first - 4/10. Hence the dancing. My only real sorrow is that I cannot cope with the local swimming baths mixed changing arrangements. I'm sure I've wittered on about this before, but I adore swimming. I've tried to get my head round meeting some geriatric leerer as I come out of the shower - sorry pal, no way am I taking my cozzie off until I get in the changing cubicle - but I can't. How can anyone shower properly with a swimming costume on?

My only other idea is to get to know one of the locals with a pool who wouldn't mind me ploughing up and down a few times a week. So, for the moment, I am reduced to walking Rufus to the nearest patch of green and throwing a ball until he flops on the grass and the odd, very odd, bit of dancing in between writing chunks. No wonder I've put 5lbs on in the last 6 weeks!

Of course, if some enlightened editor accepted my agent's view of "Duty of Evil", a swimming pool wouldn't be an issue. So, all together now, positive thinking. Om...swimming pool for

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Looking at the big picture

The life gurus and coaches are always suggesting that we do a 'life audit', a de-cluttering of our belongings and houses, thereby freeing up the brain to join in the serenity such an activity engenders. To be truthful, I've been a regular de-clutterer for a long time. When I was forced to move house 6 times in 2 years, I soon learned to cut the rubbish out with a ruthless hand.

I think that as a writer, we should do the same thing. Having taken part in Jurgen Wolff's Massive Action Day on bank holiday Saturday, I felt empowered to, not just focus on my tasks and increase my productivity, but also to extend that to the 'writing stuff' section of my filing cabinet. BTW anyone who needs a bit of focussing and allowing themselves the time to be creative will benefit from Jurgen Wolff's MAD days. It is a day when we reach out from our solitary cells to join in an interactive day of creativity, encouraging others, asking for help with problems and listening to Jurgen's tips on how to make the job of creating easier.

Anyway, back to the the filing de-clutter thing. This morning, I decided was 'the day'. I spent some of Saturday playing with Scrivener, software that many writers use, which keeps every part of a writing project, from synopsis, through scenes, chapters, research and the like, easily accessible in one folder. The software isn't a doddle. It needs time and for the user to progress through the interactive tutorials. I thought a productive way of gathering together all my writing odds and ends would be to make a project in Scrivener called Catalogue of ideas and plots. First job was to empty the filing cabinet of all the flotsam and jetsam I have gathered over the last 25 years and collate it. That alone took nearly two hours, mostly because I have 'bits' all over the place, a dreadful admission for a professional librarian to make. Then I looked through all the material, some of it going back to the late 1980s and added it to the Scrivener file. I can't make up my mind whether the result is encouraging or awful. One thing has emerged. I love plotting, playing what-if with ideas, twisting them round. I'm not so good at the follow-through. So here, ladies and gentlemen - as they say in the best circles - are the results.

I have two Luke Ballard alternate history mysteries plotted and unwritten. I have three Georgia Pattison, musical mysteries plotted and unwritten. I have, wait for it, ten full length plots for romantic suspense novels, including four that are partially written. I also have ten short stories plotted with some unfinished, including one, handwritten in, I think, 1992, which lasts for 3 pages and then stops abruptly just where it is getting interesting.

So, do I feel better for this 'writing audit'? I honestly don't know. Only time and the ease of reference to the different plots in the Scrivener file will tell. Watch this space.

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Displacement with Focus - Pardon?

Yotsuba & DecoratingImage by Manic Toys via FlickrI have spent a lot of time over the past few weeks reading about and practising focussing my efforts, mainly on my writing, but the techniques can easily transfer to other part of life. Next Friday is the royal wedding, which I thought a great opportunity for a party. This has morphed into a gown and tiara party and lots of champagne.
Now as many of my friends know, we had a flood in the basement a week before Christmas owing to a frozen pipe in the ground floor loo. Christmas was fun, if a bit character building, having to turn the water on and off as we needed it to prevent more damage. However, the refurb has taken far longer than we thought. We are now a week away from the party and there is still much to do.
I began a romantic suspense short last week and am a third of the way through the 15000 words. I have the beginning. I know the end. And the middle? Ah, yes, the middle. So, today I am taking the day off from my desk, picking up a paintbrush and hoping that in the midst of what is a fairly mundane occupation, some kind of inspiration will thrust its way past my sub-conscious and tell me what the middle of the story is. Wish me luck.
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Tuesday, 19 April 2011

A Helping Hand

All writers need a helping hand from time to time. I know that for the last couple of months, I have gone through a very lean patch. Displacement activities, procrastination, anything to avoid looking at the screen or notebook. I've always been a proponent of the 'stick your bum in the seat and write' school, so this was confusing. Why was it happening? Did I need a rest and my brain had gone on strike? A crisis of confidence? Laziness? All I wanted to do was either lie in bed looking at the trees and listening to the birds or read.

Time for action. I spoke to professional opera singer Janet Shell about the rise and fall of creativity and what can either help or hinder it. I joined Jurgen Wolff's Massive Action Day and managed 6 hours of concentrated, focussed activity. I bought his book called 'Focus' and read it. It has been a real revelation. There is a wealth of advice including breaking up tasks into small sections, using a timer and committing to work in a focussed way on the chosen subject for the duration. And then, the alter-ego suggestion. Depending on what you are doing, you work out what qualities are needed to perform the task and give that 'person' a name.

So, I am now right out of my comfort zone and trying to write a romantic suspense short - well 15,000 words short. So, I have summoned up 'Auntie Barbara', who is a cracking romantic novelist to help me. She is everything I am not and can deal with a suspension of disbelief that Avril is unable to. The other person who is developing in my mind is the one who wants to jeer when I fail and one who I want to prove wrong. In my head she is called Pansy, the Bitch Queen and no way can I let her win.

So, armed with timed tasks on which to focus, Auntie Barbara and Pansy, I am forging ahead with the story. I wrote 1500 words yesterday and have just plotted out the end. So, hurrah for Auntie Barbara and yah-boo-sucks to Pansy.

You can find tips on Jurgen Wolff's site. It isn't just for writers. The book is available in the usual places. Hope this helps anyone else out there having problems.

Sunday, 27 March 2011

Strange writing habits

Do any of my fellow writers have writing habits that make people narrow their eyes and think 'if she's normal, I don't want to be?'

There was a post on another blog a couple of weeks back asking what we all needed to get the juices really flowing. I did include Scrivener on my list because I am fast realising just how useful it is, especially allied with Dropbox so everything is safe. But when I came to think more deeply about things, it occurred to me that I'd been less than honest.

Want to know how Luke Ballard and his world of elemancy came into being? Those who know me well will laugh and shake their heads, but, truth is, I'd had the idea of 'Henry's black-eyed boy' in my head for about 5 years, not knowing what to do with it. Then in 2009, I took a deep breath and bought my heart's desire. A Mont Blanc Boheme fountain pen that cost £1,000, all but a few quid. So, here I was with this pen and a gorgeous notebook the assistant had given me. So I needed something to write in it, didn't I? All the way back to the east coast of Yorkshire from Manchester, my brain had little to do apart from think and up popped Henry's black-eyed boy again. That allied with a suggestion from my husband that I find a believable alternate world and, in the space of a two hour journey, Luke Ballard was born. He slid into my conscious somewhere around junction 27 of the M.62 and has never left. Duty of Evil was the result.

So, fast forward to Book 2 and again, stationery played its part. This time I was in Germany, bought a great A4 book and a really comfortable Faber-Castell Grip Plus pencil - bit cheaper this, it was only about £6. We'd gone on holiday for a rest, so only did a few of the trips, which left quite a lot of time at our disposal once I'd had a couple of daily swims. Paul just wanted to sit with a beer and gaze into space. I plotted the sequel to Duty of Evil. Now it's book 3 time and I am getting stuck in the real history of the time, something fascinating because it involves the village I was born and the estate of the family my father worked for in the 1930s. Odd bits of plot have been seeping through, but this is where I find Scrivener a bit too organised, so until I know where I am going, I am reverting to type. Yesterday I got my birthday present a couple of weeks early. Yes, it's another pencil, this time a Parker Sonnet.

I shall, in the short-term at least, revert to my other standby. The shower door. Ah, but this isn't any old shower door. This is one that is hung on my office wall to form a huge glass board. I scribble ideas at random, go and sit in my chair and stare at it, then make connections and let the creativity flow. What is useful is that the closing bar to pull the shower door shut is a perfect ledge at the bottom of my 'board' for the pens. I use different colours for different plot strands. So, my idea is, using a mixture of what works for me - i.e. new pens/pencils, notebooks and the shower door and the Scrivener software, I'm going to try and plot the whole of the book before I get down to the writing in earnest.

But first, I'm going to play with my new pencil and see what transpires...

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

The joy when it all flows

There are times when I am just so damned privileged. Here I sit in my fabulous office, writing on a state of the art Mac. The sun is shining, the words are flowing, English pastoral music is playing and all is right with the world. Last night I enjoyed a great rehearsal for St Matthew Passion, which we are performing in Scarborough and Bridlington on 15th and 16th April. My husband is back from the wilds of Nottingham and this afternoon, I'm having my nails done. Yes, shallow is my middle name.

Of course, there's always a weed floating about. Today, mine is called Rufus. He is our rescue golden retriever, a cracking dog, utterly beautiful - and knows it - and also completely naughty. If anyone in my locality is missing a bird-feeder, complete with nuts, then it was your garden he romped into the other day. Today, he chose someone else's garden - how I wish they would mend their fences, then he couldn't get in. Thing is, most of the time, he is a sweetie, but now and again, he gets the devil in him. If I am quick, I can head him off at the pass, but this morning I wasn't. Punishment for both of us is immediate cessation of the walk and Rufus back on the lead and home. So this morning's walk, instead of being a soul uplifting jaunt along the beach, throwing bits of wood in the water for him to swim to and retrieve, ended up being a 15 minute toilet trip and little else.

Still, if that's the only negative in my life, I shall count my blessings and thank the man upstairs for his generosity.

Sunday, 2 January 2011

New Year, new determination

The circle turns once more and we are again at a beginning. Our politicians are full of the joys of doom and gloom and it would be so easy to slip into a negative frame of mind. So I have, very selfishly, decided that 2011 is a year for my determination to come to fruition and knickers to the gloom merchants. The truth is that we have very little control over what happens to us in the large scheme of things, BUT we do have control over how we react to them. And, when a whole raft of nasties come along that threaten to swamp us in despair, we have friends who will catch hold of our hands as we slip down the well of depression and pull us back up to the surface.

So, what are my determinations in 2011? To cherish my family and my friends and try to keep up with them. To lose weight and get fitter - a perennial one for me, but I seem to be more resolute than usual this year. I can't influence finding a publisher, but I know my agent will be trying to do just that. I am a great believer in visualisation though and Paul designed a book cover for "Duty of Evil", which I then wrapped around another book and he photographed me holding it. The picture is in my eyeline as I type. So, it's not 'if' but 'when' the books find a publisher. I am also determined to polish No 2 - "A Taste For Treason" and write No 3 - "Sweeter Than Flowing Honey". The research for "Honey" is absorbing as it deals with the county of my birth, Lincolnshire and the childhood home and first job of my father. I shall say no more.

Here's hoping that all my friends and family have a wonderful 2011. I certainly intend to!