Friday, 30 October 2009

Smoke and sheep

Our moorland roads are pretty, but there are hazards.
Definitely not the place to drive in ice or snow. Even in mid-summer and autumn there are heather fires and sheep on the road. There were several plumes of smoke on the hillsides when we drove this way a week or two back, and driving through the down drift we got a lovely whiff of heather smoke.
Made me think of garden bonfires we had as a child. Now of course we live in smokeless zones. We've definitely lost something in our modern life with central heating and plain walls instead of open hearths. I still remember crouching by the fire, cheeks glowing in the heat, with a piece of bread on a toasting fork. "Is it done yet? Is it done yet? Ahhhh! it's burnt!" Nothing happened and then in a second, the toast went from white to black! a great learning experience about the way fire burned and might burn you should you be stupid enough to play with matches and fireworks.
I admire Sheep. They manage to thrive in the most inhospitable places, through howling winters, snowstorms,and rain sodden summers, all without out help or shelter; but they have no road sense. People say they come down to the road to lick the salt off, but whatever it is, it makes your heart lurch to come around a corner and find them in your way.

They don't always move aside
for cars, either. They have a particularly disdainful way of looking right through you, as if you're in their world and don't belong. Which I suppose is right. If you're a sheep.
I suppose tomorrow night I'll go into grumpy mode and snarl when the trick or treaters come knocking at the door. It is one American custom I really have no time for, and wish it had stayed in the states. Ask the kids standing at your door what it's all about, and they can't tell you. Whatever the rational behind may be, it is still across the pond.

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Bad Guys

How bad do bad guys have to be before they are unbelievable? These days such horrid crimes are committed in real life that almost anything might be considered believable in a fictional character. Not that I want to move into Stephen King territory with my current wip, not at all; but I find that most of my characters qualify for the label villain in some way. I've come to the conclusion that the times about which we write dictate the villainy level of the characters.
Possibly genre matters, too. I would expect a Thriller villain to be a worse villain than a Romance villain. Your average villain in a Regency Romance may need to have some redeeming qualities, but not so with a villain facing Rebus in the grey streets of Edinburgh. Which leads me to wonder about villains filling the pages of historical novels.
Documents list hideous facts, and I turn away from them, shuddering. But if my characters live in those times, then their senses are bound to be less sqeamish than mine, are they not?
I suppose it depends on the mental toughness of the character. Not everyone could be bold and brave. In A Place Beyond Courage, Chadwick has a female character who is an absolute wimp - and very believable.
My latest set of Tudor characters have to be tough to survive in their world, so maybe I'm wrong to label them all villains. But they're turning out to have some villainous qualities. All of them. I will have to sit very firmly my 21st century sensibilities.
Top pic is heather fire on the moors, bottom pic Middleton-in-Teesdale.

Monday, 26 October 2009

When it goes smoothly

Matho's Story is going well at the
moment. I hope I'm not risking the
terrible finger of fate turning in my direction when I say this, but it all seems to be falling into place in the most pleasing way.
I could be totally off the plot with it, but I hope not. Perhaps I feel at home in the time period; perhaps it is because I'm not conciously trying to write romance any more.
But whatever it is, I'm happy with it, and happy with the writing, too. If I get to the end of a chapter and get up and walk away, I tell myself I'll go for a walk, or do the ironing and I'll think about what is to happy next . I start to think about it, sure, but before long my brain wanders off, distracted by some other stray thought, and sometime later I realise I haven't thought about my plot at all.

Not conciously, that is. But because I
sit down the next day and start to write without any trouble, I realise the little old subconcious must have been busy plotting away all the time.
It is an amazing feeling when writing goes as well as this. I love it. If only I could think of a title...
Pics are of the road "over the tops" - between Brough and Corbridge, crossing the Tees and Wear valleys and then on to the Tyne. The pole at the side of the road is a snow marker.

Friday, 23 October 2009


So many things go to make a writing Style. Each one of us must find our own and not allow anyone change it.

It is probably the hardest part of writing, for anybody can string words together. But do they tell the story in a good way? Here are a few snippets to help get it right:

-do not misuse long words;
-don't use cliches;
-use the best word to express the idea;
-do not abuse commas, em-dashes and exclamation marks - use them correctly. For example use an exclamation mark in dialogue only when your character is shouting.
-description should be unobstrusive and lend substance to a novel;
-description is not and never should be an inventory;
-don't focus on the generic but give us the specific;
-do not reiterate something you've already mentioned;
-treat time carefully;
-use appropriate metaphors - a comparison must be accurate;
-The larger ideas in a paragraph should lead from one to the next so the text is not jerky.
-don't flaunt your vocabulary unnecessarily.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Characters must have

More words of wisdom, this time on CHARACTERS. First of all, Don't Introduce a Character to No Purpose.
Always remember your character has to have one; he must be more than a gender stereotype. Err on the side of the specific, concentrate on features and qualities.
Above all, Ignore that Mirror!
Remember that a POV character knows what she looks like, and that a POV character "sees" whoever she thinks about.
Don't overdescribe clothes, and don't use politics as an accessory.
Lastly, but important - perfect people are boring.
As for SETTINGS - don't stop in the middle of an action sequence to describe the scenery. If you're running from a murderer you don't think "What a beautiful tree" as you tear by. Well, you wouldn't, would you?
Mention food only to advance the plot or illustrate a mood.
Reading the comments in a list like this, it is so easy to chuckle and think well, of course not. Which idiot would fall into such traps? But beginners do, and occasionally so do we all. I know I have. Food isn't one of my things, I'm happy to say, but I've read many potential books where each meal is described in loving detail and I suspect the author is salivating as she writes. All it does for me is make me groan and skip to the next bit.
My fault line, as it were, is describing outside locations. Less is more, I keep telling myself, hoping I'll learn the lesson eventually.
(Top pic is one of the orchards at Acorn Bank; bottom pic looking north west across Northumberland from the Roman Wall.)

Monday, 19 October 2009

How Not to write a Novel

How Not to Write a Novel is entertaining. (Sandra Newman and Howard Mittelmark are the authors) By advising that we write in a style that will certainly fail to achieve publication, they pass on sound advice and amuse at the same time.
Cut out the backstory in chapter one, for example. Don't bog down on only two characters (unless you write category romance, I suppose). Don't write a scene twice.
They say these three are the biggest mistakes. As soon as I read the subtitle In which the character's childhood is introduced to no purpose, I realised I needed to do some work on the opening paragraphs of my current wip.
Where the author substitutes location for story, Where the author stops short of communication and In which the reader is unintentionally misled give you a flavour of the style.
Sigh. It is easy to get so immersed in a character's life that other characters get shoved onto the back burner and when they reappear the reader thinks Who is this? Ah, wasn't he in the story about twenty chapters back?
And then there's the last rule. Well, I suppose it must happen subconciously, for no one would set out to write a scene twice, surely? But they say it happens so often. A different angle, setting, characters - but there is no new information, and the original conclusion is unchanged. That's basically a re-write. And even if it does add new information, don't do it if the scene is essentially the same as the original.

Friday, 16 October 2009

What not to do

Writers must write something that makes readers want to turn the page.

Therefore, plot must be number one in the list of priorities. So if we start with a thorny problem and a sympathetic character, we should be on the right track. The plot must thicken (like a good sauce?), the hero must be hindered in every possible way but triumphs in a surprising way that once you know it, seems inevitable.

Almost every How To Write Book I've ever read says such things. They say it in different ways, but say it they do. So you'd think that by now I wouldn't be writing about a hero, and then bring in his mother, father and three sisters and her cat and have them discuss their lives to date.

I wouldn't drivel on endlessly and get to page 120 without so much as a hint of what the storyline will be once I get around to it.

I won't be writing a prologue where my hero stares at a flower, gazes through of a rain-drop covered window, walks through the long grass and contemplates why his life is not running as it should.

Indeed no. I should know what the chase is, as they say, and cut to it at once. No pages explaining what I want to tell, why the hero is as he is on page one or what terrible history happened to make him the way he is.

So, consider the opening lines of my wip:
Matho Spirston stood at the door of the tiny cottage athwart the hill at Halton and surveyed the countryside with pleasure. Small and poor though the cottage might be, it was a start. He folded his arms, leaned idly against the door jamb in the late sunshine and gazed south. The roof of Aydon Castle, where he had spent so much of his life, was visible above the tree tops beyond the meadows. Further south, the hills of Durham rose like a humped blue quilt across the horizon and somewhere in between, the river Tyne ran unseen west to east through the valley.
This was his territory, where he had reigned as undisputed leader of the gang of children who fought and played together among the scattered farms, cotts and cabins that composed the Aydon Township, and where his father had put him into service with Sir Reynold Carnaby, Lord of Aydon, five years before.
But things had changed since then, and would change further. Both his father and Sir Reynold were dead, one in the Rising of ’37 and his patron last month after a long illness. Then three weeks ago Alina and Lionel Carnaby had stood with Matho at his mother’s graveside.
A warm feeling filled him at the thought of the two elder Carnabys. They were still his friends. On their uncle’s death, most of his holdings went to their father, Cuthbert Carnaby and Lionel now had lordly duties of his own. If Lionel said the cottage belonged to Matho, then no man would question it. It was the least the family could do after he’d helped Harry rescue Alina from the clutches of the reiver Johnny Hogg.
She was married to Harry now. Matho shifted, settled his shoulder comfortably against the wood. One way and another it had been a grand summer, full of life and adventure and all because Harry Wharton turned up in the locality.
Now the dust had settled, the humdrum days threatened to return and Matho sensed boredom creeping into his life. Already he found himself glancing at the horizon several times a day, vaguely hoping for something more exciting than drilling the local farm lads into guard duty around Aydon Castle.
As if he had conjured something out of the air, a small figure rode across the field towards him. Matho squinted against the sun, but no insignia betrayed the identity of the rider. Still, as the distance lessened between them, Matho recognized the familiar set of the wide shoulders and long limbs. A grin stole across his face at the sight of a daft cap with its jaunty ostrich feather curling back in the breeze. He shook his head. Harry was always the lad who liked his fancy clothes.
Matho straightened and strolled forward.

Oh, Lord. I can see the red pen glowing, leaping up and down on my desk. There is work to be done. What would you change, if you were me?

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Literary Agents, are you listening?

What is the magic ingredient that agents and publishers look for? Does anyone know? Do agents and publishers know that they want?

I am sure there are thousands of well researched, well written books flooding through their letter boxes and inboxes every day and most of the writers receive no more than a polite thank you, but no thanks.

It can be disheartening. It can be soul-destroying. I heard someone say of Mills & Boon that they make "nice" rejections, because they are kind people and they don't want to hurt anyone's feelings.

That can be bad, too. The next agent, perhaps pushed for time, may tell the plain unvarnished truth of the same submission: this is total rubbish and unpublishable. Which is the kindest in the long run?

What would help, and is virtually impossible to receive, are concrete facts on what publishers want. I think the truth is they want the next bestseller but don't know it until they see it. A bit like me searching the dress racks rejecting them all and then pouncing on one item: thats it!
But what do you think a book needs to make it that hot certainty?
Clarity of prose? Accurate research? a good story? or does it come down to the real nitty gritty - no adverbs, no past tense, no passive sentences?
Must we follow fashion and write in the first person or the present tense? Must there be a cliff hanger at the end of every chapter - or, as I read somewhere last week, at the end of every scene?
How much luck is involved? If I am writing a book about Merlin (I'm not, but let's imagine I am!) and a new tv series on Merlin starts to rapturous ratings just as my manuscript hits an agents desk, will that do it for me?
H'mmmm. If so, I'd better buy a crystal ball.

Sunday, 11 October 2009

Acorn Banks and Roman Wall

The dovecot at Acorn Banks (right)now serves as the Office and shop.
The name Acorn Banks was first recorded in 1597 and refers to the ancient oakwood that lies behind the house. The house dates back to the sixteenth century, with earlier links to the Knights Templar. The property was owned by the Dalston/Boazman family from 1543 to the 1930's, then by Dorothy Una Ratcliffe, a wealthy writer, traveller and art collector. She gave it to the National Trust in 1950, and it was tenanted up to 1997.
I have to say I don't recognise the lady's name, but I will look her up.
The watermill on the Crowdundle Beck is believed to have been on the site since the fourteenth century.
As we drove west beside Hadrian's Wall the views were exceptionally clear. I stopped and took a shot looking south towards the Durham Hills. I'm standing in the car park for the Mithraic Temple which is in a little dell over to the right of the picture. People still leave offerings of coins on the little altar. And strangely enough in this days, no one seems to stela them. But then, I suppose I wouldn't know if they did!

Friday, 9 October 2009

Acorn Banks

Wonderful day out yesterday. Headed out to Gretna on the west coast, visited the Outlet Centre (I stocked up on nothing more exciting than M&S knickers and socks!) then south down the M6 to Penrith. Acorn Banks at Temple Sowerby was our destination and it did not disappoint.

We had brilliant weather all the way and I realised all over again why I love autumn. The clarity, and colours, the crispness.

Acorn Banks is famous for its herb garden which is certainly one of, if not the best, herb garden in the country. Names of herbs I read about in historical novels are growing there in profusion. Mandrake, hemlock, a section marked Women's Herbs...

The house is not open, but I'm sure the National Trust magazine will not mind if I quote a snippet from their Autumn 09 pages: Acorn Bank in Cumbria, a fine old red sandstone manor with "glorious views, acres of wild daffodils in the spring, ancient oakwoods, orchards and a watermill. But the old house was nearly impossible to live in. The heating came from an oil-fired boiler much the same size as the one that drove the Queen Elizabeth liner. When this monster was cracked up, the great house smelt like a garage and half of Cumbria was covered in oily particles. When the price of oil rocketed in the 1970s, it became so expensive to heat that we lived in one room to keep warm." John Vidal writes of forty years ago and the NT, who work towards clean and renewable energy in all their properties, have plans afoot to change all that.

The watermill, a half a mile from the house through the aforementioned oakwoods with acorns crunching underfoot, is now restored, and will produce hydroelectricity as well as grinding corn. I have in mind Future visits, particularly in the spring to catch all those daffodils. Today we saw a couple of red squirrels darting about doing acrobatics through the tree tops, and discovered that there are holiday apartments to let. More pics will follow in the next few days.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

From Historical to Horror

The Man Booker prize, awarded last night, went to Hilary Mantel for Wolf Hall. I shall wait for the paperback, or the library copy, as I haven't had much success with reading Ms Mantel in the past.
The most interesting thing about the final six for me was the fact that they were all historical novels. Hopefully, this may mean the genre will open up again after being on the back foot for a few years.

Paranormals rushed into the market place and must have helped push historicals to the back of the queue. It was interesting to see how many historical writers added a paranormal twist in the hope that the new "young" market would read them. I'm not so sure the market was or indeed is "young" in the sense of teenagers or people in the early twenty something bracket. The paranormal novel has been around for years in different guises - sometimes called gothic, sometimes horror, sometimes horrid. When I worked in public libraries, I was amazed to find that the most popular section of the non-fiction was true crime - how murders were committed, with gruesome details. Now I suspect forensic crime has taken over - any modern librarians out there to testify?
People, perhaps only those comfortably situated, seem to have always had a need to be scared. It might make for a good dissertation to discover if the need for horror in reading matter diminishes in times of war and other disasters. As real life becomes more comfortable for so many in this modern age, it is perhaps not so surprising that horror and paranormals have flooded onto the market.
I long for good, solidly researched historical novels with a story to tell, and sadly the library shelves are full of titles I've already read. The Plaidys, Barnes and Heyes currently being re-issued are fine if you haven't read them, but I wish the twenty-something publishers would remember that lots of people were around the first time the books came out - and those folk are still here and looking for a good read!

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Writing Time

Morning? Afternoon? Late at night?
When do you write? I used to write when I had time and when the mood took me, and the combination didn't happen very often. Seventeen years is a hell of a long time to write a first book, but it is proof positive that you need several things working for you. Now that I have the luxury of choosing when to write, I've found a few things that surprise me.
First of all, you need time to write. That's almost a given. Then a place to write. I know some people write amid the hubbub of family life, but I get irritated when the tv pricks my bubble of concentration, or the phone rings, so I retreat upstairs to a converted bedroom which now proudly bears the name Jen's study. It's OK - dh has one as well.
Then I need a tidy desk, because I can't work in chaos. It only takes a moment to tidy things away, and then I'm good to start.
I've tried writing all day, and it is wonderful when the story flows, but however good it is, after a few days I drift to a stop, as if the story supply has slowly run dry. A few days doing nothing, and it starts to filter through again. so that means pacing the flow is important for me.
I tried various ways of limiting how much I do in a day. Walk first, when the weather is often best and write after lunch? Yes, its OK. Good to sit down after the exercise.
Write in the morning, and walk in the afternoon? Turned out to be more productive for the writing.
Go out with friends, a day out, and write in the evening? Didn't work well at all. Conversation and new things must have tired my poor brain.
Write late at night when the household is asleep? Sometimes works very well indeed, but it has to be when I can't sleep, when the brain is raring to go at the wrong time of day. I can't sit there after a busy day, feel tired and make the story work.
It seems working in the morning is best for me. It doesn't have anything to do with biorhythms or anything like that. I'm an autumn baby, and if anything, a night owl. I do not wake up in the morning bright eyed and raring to go; it takes me time to wake up and if rushed I can get really grumpy. But by half nine or ten o'clock, I'm usually at my desk, poised over the laptop and my brain, awake at last, is fresh and ready to go. A coffee on the hop mid-morning and I don't stop till noon. That's when my best, most productive writing takes place.
Things will interupt it, and of course I can adapt to suit. But it is handy to know what works best for me and to stick to it if I can. I salute anyone who must write in and around fulltime work and is hard, really hard.

Sunday, 4 October 2009

Truth and writing

There's very little scope for danger in the world these days ! If you click to enlarge the pic you'll see people are fobidden to abseil from the disused railway bridge and neither may they jump into the river below. Not that I'd want to do either, you understand. It makes me wonder though - if people have been warned off, does that mean someone has tried to abseil? Doesn't seem the right place for it somehow.

In the middle of last night I woke up thinking I knew what needed to happen in my wip. (I was worried I didn't have enough story to get to the end of 100k) I am guilty of narrowing my interest down to two people - wouldn't you guess it's the Hero and Heroine? and "reporting" what other character are doing. That comes of trying to write for Mills & Boon. What I need to do is widen out my scope and write the missing scenes. Problem solved. I hope!

I'm reading Alison Weir's The Lady Elizabeth at the moment. The author is a historian turned to fiction. I read her Innocent Traitor about Lady Jane Grey and liked it because I didn't know much about the girl. She turned out to be another prodigy, like Elizabeth, though I have to say this portrait shows Elizabeth as precocious, certainly, but interested in parties and lovely clothes as well. A more human kind of personality.

However, I'm not sure I really enjoy this kind of fiction, which sticks so closely to known and reported fact that it reads like non-fiction-with-dialogue. I persevere more as a learning experience than an enjoyable pastime. Would you believe a child not yet three years of age would, or could, ask "Why, govenor, how hath it, yesterday Lady Princess, and today but Lady Elizabeth?" I'm not sure I do.

The author says she makes no apology for the fact that, "for dramatic purposes, I have woven into my story a tale that goes against all my instincts as a historian...I am not, as a historian, saying that it could have happened; but as a novelist I enjoy the heady freedom to ask: what if it had?"
There goes that blurring of the lines again. Even historians are now citing dramatic licence as an excuse for writing untruths and half facts and runours as if they are truth. It seems there is more and more of it about these days. I feel the excuse "its a spoof, its for kids" is even worse; things aimed at kids should tell the truth about the history of this country. Once they've learned the truth, then they can enjoy the spoofs; but I am afraid we have a generation or more growing up thinking the spoofs are the truth.
Surely we can make a novel interesting without introducing rumours and untruths? If the story is not interesting enough to hold the interest, why are we trying to tell it? I'd prefer it if the Sub plots, featuring fictional characters, have all the (untrue) drama thrown at them.

Last night I watched Merlin, which I like. But even there, irritation strikes now and then as I see mountain ranges that are certainly not in the UK, wonder how Morgana flits around in silk dresses (without freezing to death) styled by methods far from Arthur's sixth century setting, and a Druid chieftain who appears to have been born somewhere far to the south of Britain. I've grown acclimatised to Gwen being a servant, and looking vaguely Spanish, and wonder how she and Arthur are ever going to marry. Oh, it is all getting so out of history is being twisted out of recognition!
And I know that someone is going to tell me that Arthur never existed, so
anything can and will happen...and come to think of it, Morgana's dresses are probably polyester...

Thursday, 1 October 2009

Revelation and AT

I have discovered C J Sansom, and I'm loving his work. Somehow I assume the writer is male, though I have not checked.
I grabbed Revelation because it is set in 1543, the exact year in which I am working in my (as yet titleless) wip, and would have read it for that alone but it has become a fascinating read. A hunchback lawyer on the trail of a serial killer and a background of religious fanaticism. I am aware three or four titles from this author have been on the bookshop shelves for some time now, but the covers gave me the impression that they would be heavy, slow and slanted towards religion - not my usual fare!

However, my expectations were so very wrong. The story is lightly conveyed in modern dialogue so easy to read that it slides by without effort. The detail comes in the workings of the court and officials, the backgrounds, the lives lived by those who suffered under the dissolution of the monasteries - detail, yes, but in a way that fascinates rather than bores. 600 plus pages are whizzing by.
It makes me realise all over again how important covers are in attracting a reader to a book. I've seen a rough copy of my cover for TILL THE DAY GO DOWN and I like it ~ a sumptously gowned lady of the correct period, if a tad more richly attired than the heroine's status would have allowed. So difficult to get it exactly right without spending a fortune with graphic artists and design studios.

My latest work is going well, if slowly. I tend to write dialogue and then go back and build up the scene around it. Seems to work for me. I think I may have got some happenings out of sequence by a day or two, but then - it may well have happened like that.
Today we live in such a world of immediate and global announcements that we don't think how confusing it must have been back in the days of handwritten letters delivered by a man on a horse or a man on foot and then relayed by mouth to those who could not read for themselves. News would have taken days to filter down except in case of war, when it would be announced from the market cross or similar. I wonder if the gossip was more accurate then, or did the Chinese whispers effect have a hand in things then, too?