Monday, 31 August 2009

Accept a challenge


I set myself a challenge last night. Don't ask me why, but I did. How do you write first lines, asked Ginger, and gave some examples. I said I'd paste some on here and she could get out her red marker pen and tell me what she thought. Whimpers, wrings hands in sudden anxiety attack. Oh, go on then. Anyone. Tell me what you think.

Here goes:

(1) Kellie’d been way too impulsive last night, and she was about to pay for it. No, she decided. He would pay for it. With his balls, if not his life.

(2) Jane looked at the golden liquid, twelve years old with a faint tang of iodine curling into her nose, and decided it was far too good to throw in his face. Bastard. She raised the glass and sipped, savouring the taste on her tongue. “Did Harry not tell you?” she murmured, killing her smile. “He fired you yesterday.”

(3) Unfastening her bikini top, she flung it over her shoulder as she ran, laughing joyously, into the waves. Behind her she heard Ben’s voice, and it took a minute for the words to penetrate her brain. “Bella, no! Shark! SHARK!”

(4) Jess shifted from one foot to the other and looked down. The woman’s hand crept around his waist, climbed and undid one of the buttons. Her hand slid inside, turned, and her long red nails scraped slowly down the skin of his chest. One naked leg twined around his thigh, rubbed up and down. Her body heat swarmed through the thin cotton of his shirt as her hand descended, kept on going down.
Hee hee. That was fun. Next post will be far more serious, and about dialogue.

Thursday, 27 August 2009

Following on...


Anita asks “Is this an ethical dilemma? Does fiction need policing in case it misleads the reader? Or is it simply the literary mafia telling us not to watch or read anything which may be slightly historically inaccurate? And what about the premise that history is written by the victors - so how true is true?”

Whether it is the literary mafia or someone who has been hurt by a fictional slur on an ancestor and has decided to rush into defensive print, the discussion has raised a topic I had never previously considered. I simply accepted that it was OK for authors to invent the thoughts of real characters in history. Yes, fiction sometimes casts a character in a bad light, but it can also do the opposite, and redeem a character who has hitherto received a bad press at the hands of writers. Jarman’s We Speak No Treason did it for Richard III.
We are all individuals, and will always have our own prejudices and favourites. One woman’s blameless character can be another woman’s vicious thug. But it does seem suddenly dangerous to write about characters within living memory of people alive today.

My own taste in history has mostly been pre-1600, but the Victorian period has always been popular. Now that 1900-1950 is suddenly accepted as “history,” stories set between those dates are going to involve events and sometimes people who may be alive today. They will certainly have sons and daughters to fight their corner if they feel the written character in any way defames or discredits their ancestor.

The chance of someone complaining that Anne Boleyn’s character has been defamed is unlikely, since relatives are likely to be few and the connection obscure. The further back in history the character lived, the less likely it is the author will stir a reaction, however much they blacken the character. Most authors feel a certain responsibility in this regard, however, and deal carefully with real characters.

Stories set pre 1600 seem to suffer more from the attitude that “accuracy doesn’t matter anyway – it’s all fiction.” Certainly there is less written evidence pre-1600, it is difficult to consult and what facts there are may be awkward, contradictory or downright inconvenient. Faced with a fact that doesn’t fit, many authors simply ignore it and write what suits their story. Some people live happily with this, and others find it outrageous. Respect for history and scholarship far beyond my own will probably make me stick to the facts. I’m only too glad that scholars have taken the time and the trouble to record the facts that we do have from the distant past.

As for what real characters thought…that is difficult. Reading between and around the facts and making my own deductions about the character’s decisions and thought processes may be claiming a perceptivity I do not have. I don’t often write about real characters, but I have included Sir Thomas Wharton in TILL THE DAY GO DOWN and he is reappearing in my newly begun story along with some other historical characters. I’ll use what facts I can find about his/their personality, try not to invent too much and deal with them as fairly as I can.

Giving them speech and actions seems better than giving them thoughts, perhaps.

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

All in the mind?

Authors inhabiting the minds and thinking processess of people long dead, or not so long dead, or even alive, is a new argument I have stumbled across this week. Beevor and Byatt seem to be against it, and this astonishes me. I think of all the historical novels I have read over the years and think how much poorer my personal book world would have been if all those famous authors of the past had not given us those kingly/queenly thoughts. There are many authors writing today who are very good at creating thought processes for historical characters. I was about to say that so far nothing of mine has included anything but fictional characters - and then I remembered Kings Malcolm and Duncan in Banners of Alba. It is hardly an excuse to claim that so little is known of them that one has to invent, but it is true. I remember Dunnett's King Hereafter and the relationship between Thorfinn/MacBeth and his wife Groa and realise how much of the author's imagination went into that, but I cannot be other than glad she did. The result was a joy to read. I sit here and wonder if at any point Dunnett gave us their actual thoughts, and realise I would have to go and check to be sure, but I feel that she did not. A good author's craft can convey many things without inhabiting thought processes. Is that allowable, I wonder? I must go back and re-read Byatt and Beevor!

Sunday, 23 August 2009

Poppies and problems


The poppies bloomed at all the wrong times for me this summer - namely, when I didn't have a camera! They were shyly poking their heads up when I took this shot, but still almost a ghostly presence. Maybe next summer I'll remember to take the camera whenever I go out. I bet David Bailey never went out without one.
Summer seems to have disappeared in the last couple of days. The leaves are turning yellow and tumbling down, and the mornings have a distinct chill in the air. Lots of research notes sit in a neat file on my desk but I haven't found the right time and the internal story I want to tell. It isn't gelling together yet. Rafa lost his match to Djokovic, which is not a surprise. My stats counter and clustermap are playing silly devils this morning. Norton is telling me I need to optimize my PC - is anything going to go right today?

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Lindow Man


I saw Lindow Man yesterday. Strangely disappointing experience. I can remember the initial excitement when he was found way back in 1984 in the bog between Cheshire and Manchester and read all I could about him. Over the intervening years I'd forgotten his lower half had been lost in the peat extraction process before they realised what they'd found, and found it odd to look at only his head, torso and lower shinbone with foot still attached. There seems to be only one set of photographs of him, and the originals are amazingly detailed. In reality, in his little glass case set out on a bed of what look like fibreglass chips to resemble the dark brown bog, it is hard to see him at all, since the lighting is so low to preserve him. He was well and truly killed way back in the Iron Age. Holes in his skull, a broken neck, a ligature still around his neck, broken ribs...when offered the choice of death: sacrifice, execution or murder, most people threw their chips into the murder jar. I found it sad, but if anyone wants to know more, simply Google Lindow Man at the BM.

Sunday, 16 August 2009

Football to KING KONG

Arsene Wenger is manager of a football club and has this to say in Saturday's Times..."The common denominator of successful teams is that the players are intelligent. That does not always mean educated. They can analyse a a problem and find a solution. The common denominator of a top-level person is that they can objectively assess their performance. You speak to a player after the game and ask him to rate his performance and if he analyses well, you know he is the sort who will drive home thinking, 'I did this wrong, I did that wrong.' His assessment will be correct and, next time, he will rectify it. That player has a chance. The one who has a crap game and says he was fantastic, you worry for him. This is also true in life beyond football."

Well, how true that is. Rafa Nadal certainly qualifies but I'm not so sure about me! I hope I'm learning as I go, and I certainly look back on things I wrote a year or two ago and wish I could edit them again. I think I can look back objectively on a day's writing output and say if it is good, mediocre or bad. Usually I twiddle with it next day, and that always improves it. Well, nearly always! H'mmm, maybe I qualify.

However, I was much chuffed to receive a compliment about FAR AFTER GOLD last week and it really cheered me up:

"(The book) irresistably hooked me in. I think what I really adored about it was the way you really gave your characters realistically and believably ancient sensibilities and moral codes. You so rarely see this done well it was wonderful to read - thank you!"

I watched KING KONG on tv last night. At the point where the ape seizes the coloured man and looks as if he's going to bite his head off, I clicked the remote and gave up. It was an ugly film, nasty to watch and not redeemed, as far as I was concerned, by computer images and back projection. Clever doesn't always mean good.
The pic? Matfen Hall, where we sometimes go for a meal.

Saturday, 15 August 2009

Histotainment anyone?

Continuing the discussion about Historical Fiction

Hilary Mantel thinks the novelist should serve history, and is rigid in her approach. She never makes anything up if she can find a fact and looks at each fact warily. Whose fact is it, how do we look at it, remembering how the past changes behind us, how we look at it from our perspective.
She never changes a fact in order to make a better story. Real life is an awkward shape, and the challenge for the novelist is to produce a good novel from awkward, lumpy and truthful facts. She offers her readers a guarantee that it could possibly have happened the way she portrays it.

Many popular authors tend to simplify and therefore falsify history. Antony Beevor coined the words Factocreep and histotainment to cover this.

Tristram Hunt is wary of going beyond what’s written in letters/memoirs and stating what a monarch is thinking at a certain time.
Asked if having kings thinking and feeling runs the risk of turning a guess into a yes, Phillippa Gregory said non-fiction authors have luxury of showing in their work all the theories about a known fact such as the death of the Princes in the Tower. Novelists don’t have that luxury; they must pick which theory to follow and then tell one version on the page.

Some authors are cavalier with the facts and others feel they control the borders between history and fact. Some are happy to inhabit the bodies of real historical people and think and speak inside them, but Sarah Dunant wonders “how the hell do you know what Henry VIII might have thought?” Hilary Mantel believes she signals the gap between what her books show and what she knows to be true, and adds that in a way we’re all unknowable to each other.
Bibliographies can point interested readers to the history and many follow things up.

Friday, 14 August 2009

Populist versus literary historicals

Interesting points in the BBC Radio 4 Front Row discussion on historical fiction follow. (Swot that I am, I took notes!)
The field is littered with terms like literary historical versus generalist historical, down to populist historical usaully written by amateurs.

Novelists “explore and explain the past.” Sarah Dunant is a trained historian and says as a novelist her job is to tell you really good stories and as a historian to be as truthful to the facts as it is possible for her to know.

Tristram Hunt, academic historian and non-fiction author, is bored and appalled by the rise of historical fiction and the relentless focus on detail which provides the authenticity.
Prof Margaret MacMillan is gloomy about the profession abandoning the field to amateurs. Amateurs are not trained to weigh evidence. They often write without informing themselves about the period and produce, for example, 14th century heroines who sound like 20th century feminists, which is simply not correct.
Antonia Fraser thinks we shouldn’t write with hindsight, ie Henry VIII thought each marriage was going to work, though we know otherwise.
Sarah Dunant doesn’t write about real people. She reads around the pressures, politics, dress and culture and creates composite characters who are not real but might have experienced thoughts and feelings akin to the real characters of history.
Philippa Gregory does the research for the bare bones of history and her fiction breathes life into the bones.
More later.

Thursday, 13 August 2009

Historical novels


I listened to Front Row on BBC 4 last night courtesy of the Listen Again feature and enjoyed 30 minutes of discussion about historical novels.
Interesting to hear the different views put forward. Novelists claim to explore and explain the past, while Tristram Hunt is tired of the relentless detail that fills most historical novels.
Phillippa Gregory, Antonia Fraser and others talk about how they see their work. Some cannot write without the facts ..."I never invent anything," while others are prepared to look at the facts and make a stab at interpreting them. Others, unnamed, the narrator said disparagingly, happily change the dates of battles and other facts without a qualm if it will make a better story! An intriguing listen.

I recommended Lisa McMann yesterday. Today I popped over to read through her advice once more and lo and behold the thing is unobtainable. I guess Nathan recommended her and people flew to her site and crashed it. I'll wait a few days and see if it recovers.

The pic? Looking out from the formal gardens at Cragside. That's the road that takes us home.

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Marketing magic


"From the day I got the book deal I started marketing."
Lisa McMann has something to say about marketing her best selling book WAKE and I know I can learn from her. Catch her blog here

Nathan Bransford is talking about the same topic and he says "There's no such thing as "just an author" anymore, and I suspect there never was." (How that man keeps up with his day job I'll never know. His post has been up 2 hours and already there are 38 comments. For any newbie writer who has not discovered him, he is the man who must be read)
The bottom line is that however much we dislike marketing ourselves and our work, publishers are much more ready to put the money behind the author if the author is willing to work at marketing as well.
So now FAR AFTER GOLD is happily with a distributor who knows the business, it is time for me to start work. People can actually get the book now. I picked up a copy from my local library today. Imagine that! My book, the book I wrote, on the shelves in my local library! I feel faint with happiness.
The picture looks through the Debden valley towards Cragside. Armstrong's old iron bridge has been refurbished, repainted and opened up for people to walk across for the first time in a great many years. It trembles, rather like the modern Millenium pedestrian bridges, which is why it is rather blurry in the photograph.

Me, at Cragside

Me, the other day at Cragside. Splendid day out
and the National Trust would be pleased that so many people wanted to visit the house - there was a queue!
Not just for a little while, either, but all the time we were there. The estate is big enough to absorb an awful lot of people so we didn't feel crowded out.
I'm at that tricky time writing wise. I need to start something new, but can't decide among several ideas. Which one do I want to work with for the next three months? Or six months? FAR AFTER GOLD is out and TILL THE DAY GO DOWN is scheduled for November as long as the sky doesn't fall down. I'm waiting on an agent's response to RELUCTANCE and not getting too hopeful, but I need to start on something else. How does anyone decide?
Tudor time period, perhaps? A follow up to FAG? M'mmm, I'll sleep on it. Again.
Eventually I suppose I'll make a decision. Maybe I should try roughing out an outline for several storylines and see which comes easiest? I think it is always easier to start with an outline. I know some authors sit down and say Goody, what shall I write today? and then they just go with the flow and see what comes. They must have very good subconcious minds to get it all to fit together when they don't know what the the next chapter will bring, and I'm not sure I could do that. I'll try the outline method. I suppose if I wrote a historical character's life I'd know what the ending would be - that would make it easier, and if the personage is well known, then there's no hiding it. Start the first page with Mary Stuart's beheading, because we all know that's where she ended; the question is How Did She Get There?

Sunday, 9 August 2009

Tranquil covers


Tranquil scenes of the North Sea on a summer's day. Temperature 23 degress, no wind and a calm, calm sea.
Dh presented me with a link to a site displaying cover pics of Mills and Boon and how they have changed over the years. Check it out here
The modern covers are not the ones I won't be seen dead buying over the counter - and not under it either! You know the ones I mean. The ones with impossibly handsome men, so handsome that the sensible mind shrieks oh yeah, pull the other one. The ones where the men look as if they need a bra to hold in their rounded pectoral muscles and their abdomens seem painted on. The ones where the female displays wanton limbs with only a scrap of limp muslin preserving her decency...
But even in the examples shown, we have a preponderance of couples lolling around on a bed.
Why do the media people want to give the impression that the stories are all about couples bedding each other?
The ones I have read (OK, yes, I have read some of them - ebooks do provide anonymity! - must be why erotica does so well there - No, really, I choose carefully so that the covers will not make me blush to admit reading them) Well, the ones I have read always have more story than the cover would have you believe. Carefully thought out, well motivated plots about why couples don't make it to bliss at the drop of a hat. But does the cover tell you that? It does not. It tells you Read About Sex Here.
When is the advertising/media world going to get over its preoccupation with sex?

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Numskull anyone?


I often write quite fast (and at others I write very, very sl-o-w-l-y!) but sometimes I surprise myself with the words I use. In a story set in 1803 I used the word numbskull and when I read it back thought h'mmm, how accurate is that? Would they use that word then?

I checked it today and find that numskull was actually used in 1717 to indicate a silly, foolish person. So I am happy - a slight variation in the spelling, but it is OK. It can stay.
I received my first Royalty statement and cheque today. No great shakes as far as amounts go, but a real milestone in my personal writing history. I may just frame it and hang it on my wall!
Makes me want to keep going, carry on, do better. It would maybe help if I did a little promotion now that Quaestor2000 has its distribution problems ironed out. I must go and read Ginger's blog as her guests are talking about promotion. I can learn a lot from our American friends who take to it so naturally.
The flower is a buddleia, in case you wondered.

Sunday, 2 August 2009

Daisy delight

I love these big, splashy daisies. When I sit on the patio and look through them, they seem like a forest of daisies, a wonderful world all of its own.



It seems everyone is on holiday, or else they're all laid low with 'flu, swine or otherwise. Usually I am on holiday along with everyone else, but not this year. At least staying at home has given me time to enjoy my garden all through the summer instead of missing almost a month and coming back to find a jungle and the birds have eaten all the raspberries.

Trouble is, you have to be quick to catch the sun in among all the rain we've had this summer.
We've learned to drop everything and go when ever it appears. We've also become very canny at
hopping on a bus , getting off at some previously unexplored point and walking home, map in hand.

Today we got the bus up the hill, walked across South Park fields and down through Stanleyburn Woods tot he golf course. Delightful. Quiet, pretty and no sound of traffic which is difficult to achieve in this day and age in a relatively small country like the UK. We saw only one person the whole walk, and that was for a split second as he veered off in another direction. Just one thing - I'm so glad we did it south to north. The uphill gradient the other way around would have killed me!


Reluctance is finished and now it is re-read and find all the mistakes time. The words the computer mysteriously edits without your knowledge or permission. The missing letters that turn a vital SHE into an irrelevant HE. The bits you've somehow included twice over and not necessarily because it was so darned good. And worst of all, the bits that you thought you had included and somehow just are not there.