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.