Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Writing and Gender

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

Monday, 21 December 2009

Till the Day Go Down - first lines


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


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

Saturday, 19 December 2009

Cold weather


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

Friday, 18 December 2009

Snow and Meals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Show, don't Tell

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

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

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

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

Monday, 14 December 2009

Barnard Castle once again


I found the pics I thought I had lost!

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

Friday, 11 December 2009

Grey days

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

Thursday, 10 December 2009

Jeffrey Archer and Medieval Mondays


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

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Christmas, anyone?

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

Monday, 7 December 2009

Bad Sex Awards


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

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

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

Saturday, 5 December 2009

It's on Amazon!

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

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

Thursday, 3 December 2009

About Aydon

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

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

English, but for how much longer?

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