Friday, 29 March 2013

Why do we write?

For money, for status, because it sounds an easy thing to do? I write because I love doing it. I love words, and stories and reading stories. I want to be able to create stories that people want to read. But whatever else it is, isn't easy.

For a start, it's difficult to know where to start. With research?  Of course, unless you are writing about what happened last week in the supermarket and you don't need to check a fact of any kind. You know baked beans are 45p a tine, right? (I guessed that price because I'm too disinterested in the price of beans to get up and check last week's till receipt or to think about how many ounces of beans, baked, lie therein).

But then how much research is enough? When to stop? When to start writing? and then - oh my, what will the first line be? You know, that first line-hook, that attention-grabber that will make everyone, including the agent, sit back and gasp. First lines have been the undoing of many a would-be writer. Conversely, wonderful opening lines in published novels make it look so easy. Remember the one everyone seems to know - "Last night I dreamed I was at Manderley again" - well, what's special about that? Is it an attention grabber? Not, I think, when you haven't read the book; but it is once you have read it.

But then, perhaps Du Maurier thought of the first line when she'd finished the book. Now there's a thought. When you think about it, the first lines are the lines that will probably change the most often as you start, and draft and re-draft the first chapter. Changes are so easily made these days. A little tap or two of the delete key and there you are, all set to go again. Read if you can, or get a glimpse, of the handwritten novels of the old masters - Hardy, Austen, Bronte to name but a few, and see the changes they made - some of the manuscripts are almost unreadable because of lines and words crossed out and re-written.
Most starts are false starts. How many of you, I wonder, have gone to press with the first page and first chapter as you initially wrote it? Not many, I would guess though I would be delighted to hear of any successes!

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

The future with ebooks

I knew in a vague sort of way that ebooks collected data about my reading habits, but I wasn’t fully aware that “they” – whoever they are – can tell when we read, how quickly we do so, how often  we stop, and if most readers stop at a particular portion of the book. It’s a scary thought that the publisher might suggest to an author that a portion of the book should be cut and a more exciting plot twist be inserted  to keep people reading beyond the “boring bit.” From there, it isn’t too much of a step to books designed and written by readers.

It also raises the question of editing. It is done now, with both print and e-books, but what of the future? Odd words and phrases have always been changed on an editor’s say so, sometimes much more than that. But with ebooks, change will soon, if not now, be the work of moments.  Open up your new book on an ereader and you could find you heroine’s name has changed from Pansy to Scarlet, or that your hero is an ex-SAS professional with a penetrating grey gaze rather than the cornflower blue you gave him. The difference will be that the editor has made the changes without consulting you first, and the changes may be far more wide-reaching than the ones I've quoted.

Musing on what might be normal in twenty years time, you can see that Publishers and Editors can only become more central in the book world of the future. But what of the agent? Perhaps those agents who see a bleak future ahead are the agents now offering to “edit” an author’s work - for a fee. You have to wonder if they have the required skills to do so. Some will, others won’t, but if the e-book market keeps growing, then editing and assisting an author to self-publish is a sure way of keeping one’s head above water.

Monday, 25 March 2013


The hair on the back of my neck stiffens when I watch this 6 minute video entitled The Ghosts of Hampton Court Palace.
It's not that there's anything outrageous there - well, maybe one thing that seems a little odd, but the whole thing is so atmospheric. It's one thing to go around the place in daylight, and quite another to contemplate going around it in the dark, after closing time when everyone has gone home. My house creaks as it settles at night, and its not twenty years old yet; imagine the creaks and groans that must come from a place that's five hundred or more years old. I once got locked in the library in a college where I worked - my fault - and that was a creepy place once everyone had gone home. I had to ring the police, who rang the caretaker, who came wandering along, laughing, with his Great Dane. The dog saw me through the glass doors and ran at full stretch along the corridor, barking, and then couldn't stop on the polished wooden floor and landed in an inelegant heap against the doors. I think caretakers and nightwatchmen must have nerves of steel and possibly little imagination, otherwise they'd be basket cases before too long.
I collected one or two more videos that I thought I'd want to watch again. This one visualises Henry VIII as an old, middle-aged and young man. Curious how the clothes that look so fantastic on a big man look so odd on a young man. 
Then comes a piece with vocals from Claire Ridgeway on what she thinks Anne Boleyn looked like: Lastly there's an eight minute piece on the execution of Anne using actors I do not recognise. I still think the Canadian actress Genevieve Bujold was the best Anne Boleyn...'get a child on that sweet, pale girl--if you can!' I can still hear her saying those words, but I think putting up bits of film here would be contravening copyright, so I won't attempt it.

Friday, 22 March 2013

Changing stories

I'm up to 12,000 words in a new Viking story and already I'm altering the synopsis to keep up with the way the story is going. Is this bad? I don't know. I read on blogs that some authors do full ten-page character analysis charts or use ennegrams and even horoscopes prior to starting a work, while others just sit down at their computer and think, "Ho hum, let's see what happens today." Frankly, for me, that would end up in a whole lot of trouble!

Those who advocate all the preliminary work on characters say you must have the characters clear in your mind before you begin, because the characters drive the story. I agree with the latter half of the sentence, but not necessarily with the first. I start with a rough outline in my mind of where the story will (probably, unless I think of something better along the way) go and who the characters are, but beyond that, they (and I) discover each other as we go along.

Sometimes the characters just don't react the way I thought they would, and rather than force them into a mould they obviously don't want to go, I feel happier bending the synopsis around them. The changes are not huge. The goal will still be met. Only the route will be different. After all, you don't get to know a friend all in one huge gulp, do you? So why expect to get to know a character before you test them in different and possibly vexing situations?
 (Sometimes I feel talking about characters I'm inventing "not wanting to go where I want them to" is nonsense, even pretentious rubbish, but that's another topic for another day!)

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Finished or still Tinkering?

Do you know when you've finished writing a book? I'm not sure I do.
If I've reached the word count I wanted and the story has reached a grand denouement (Ha!) it's tempting to think 'Good that's done' and go on to something else. But...and it's a big but that won't go away... ideas start occurring in the little grey cells.

Thoughts like ... Didn't I intend to re-write chapter 4 in order to have the main character meet Meg then instead of two weeks later? Do I really need that prologue, or should I ditch it? What if I changed the POV and took out some of the minor characters to make the main story line more powerful? and the worst one of all: Good grief! I forgot to write the scene where she told the Dowager who had stolen the child!

Once this sort of mind set starts up there's no escape. Revisions are not only recommended, but required! This must be where it is bliss to have an agent or an editor read your work and tell you where you've gone wrong or where the story could be improved. The cold, clear eye of the professional must be invaluable. On the other hand, does it then become a joint effort? Depends on the amount of professional input, perhaps, but right now I'd settle for any at all!

Once you've written all the bits you forgot to include in the first draft, re-written the paragraphs to match where the plot changed as you went along, tweaked characters who probably said and did the wrong thing at the wrong time, then there's the endless fiddling with the English language. There are so many ways of saying the same thing, so many variations of word, of word order, where to place the comma or where to use a semi colon that this sort of re-writing can go on forever. Once I had a good grasp of where to use a comma, but five years of critique group work has left me confused because Americans do it differently to the UK. Their use of language is definitely more fluid that ours and I cannot help cringing when I see nouns used as verbs, or verbs used as nouns. I passed an example last night: "the crystal fell in shatters to the floor." Ah well, some readers will love it.
When you've gone through all these possibilities at least once, then it might be possible you novel is finished. What do you think? Another run through, just to be sure?

Monday, 18 March 2013

A decade of paperwork

Today should be the start of getting back to normal. There's been a week of upheaval at chez Black, but now I have only a few books to move back to their original place and voila! I'm done. It was a good opportunity to weed out all the accumulated rubbish of the past decade, and I've filled the "paper" wheelie-bin ready for collection tomorrow. It is amazing to see how long I have been sending out submissions. The first was dated 8th March 2001 and in it I committed almost every sin - giving my age, mentioning a brother - I mean, what has that to do with my writing? Hopefully I've got better at it.

Not that learning to write query letters and stuff brings success. It brings the same old rejection letters, but now they all say I write very well but they don't love the work quite enough to go with it. I suspect I will have to change the format of my book and bring it into line with all the Queen-type books for sale these days. It seems from my latest dip into the market place that men write from the male POV and women write from the female. There are exceptions, but generally, that is the way it works, but I've done both in the same story. Time for a re-think.

With more snow forecast for today, plus the fact that I'm bowling off to Durham for lunch with friends, I thought I'd put up a picture of the lovely walk along the river bank at Durham on a hot, sunny day. The wooden steps down, used by the boat crews, were steaming in the heat! Those were the days....

Friday, 15 March 2013

Medieval Manners

More things learned from Ian Mortimer, all useful to me. He's talking about 1300-1400. I'm writing about 1543, a mere hundred and forty years later. Some things seem to have changed very little, especially in regard to manners which is my topic for today.

You followed the protocols, if you knew what was good for you. When visiting, you left your weapons at the gate and did not presume to enter a man's hall without permission. If you were visiting someone of yeoman status or above, a servant would announce you. Grander houses had chamberlains or ushers, who would take you to your host. Remove your cap and keep it in your hand until told you may replace it. You bowed to a person of equal status, and if they were of higher status,you knelt, right knee to the ground.

Before the king, you grovelled! The instructions were: Kneel on entering the chamber, walk to the centre of the room and kneel again. The king will beckon you forward, and you move toward him. The chamberlain will tell you when to stop and at that point, you kneel for the third time and wait until he addresses you. It was considered polite to begin with a greeting, once you have been asked to speak - 'God speed, my lord' for example, and don't forget to bow each time you speak. Do not avert your eyes, but regard him honestly and directly.
Most of all, never turn your back on a social superior.

I wondered exactly what yeoman status might be, and here's the answer: a Yeoman or Franklin owns 30 acres, known as a yardland, and his own team of 8 oxen. He may have servants.
A Reeve oversees a manor.
A Villein was bound to serve his lord. With only one or two acres he found it difficult to feed himself and his family from such a small plot.
The word peasant was not used in the 1400s, but terms like Rustici (meaning "countryman") and Nativi ("born to servitude") were used.

Bondmen, like villeins, were not free men. They worked the land for their lord, and have the use of some land for which they paid rent. Their crops technically belonged to the lord, and he could take whatever he wanted, but usually only a "heriot" was required - a gift on the villein's death. If the land was sold, then the villein and his family were sold with it; the lord controlled who his villeins married. He could demand compensation if a daughter married out of the family, or select a husband for a widow. Refusal could end in prison. To me, it sounds like slavery.

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Things were different then

How have I missed Dr Ian Mortimer? I've only just discoverd he writes fiction as James Forrester, and yes, I've read them. Duh. Now I am deep into the Time Traveller's Guide ot Medieval England, and enjoying all the detail. He claims that medieval man  had no understanding of cultural development which is why the paintings on the fourteenth century church walls depict Christ and his disciples in medieval clothes.

He says, and I believe him, that almost everything about the fourteenth century is different from the modern world.  Consider the aristocracy of England, who have been speaking French since the Norman invasion in 1066. By the fourteenth century, they are only just switching to English. Edward III speaks English, books start to be written in English even though Latin is still the preferred language of law. English slowly becomes the tongue of the country even though old knights and ladies cannot be bothered to learn a new language "at their age." Cornwall persists in speaking Cornish, and Wales in Welsh. If dialects present problems today, they were so much stronger more prevalent and more difficult in medieval days.

Knowing the date is such an easy thing today. But medieval English people considered Lady Day, 25th March, as the start of a new year. Some aristocrats prefer 1st January, and clerks of the Exchequer begin their new year on Michaelmas Day, 29th September.
All three systems were in use at the same time, and things are furthe complicated when you know that Florence and Venice work a year behind England. Portugal and Castile operate a different calendar altogether and sailing into Lisbon would have taken you into a future 39 years ahead of England. Nobody uses the term Anno Domini, either. They use the regnal year, ie I am writing this in the sixty first year of Elizabeth II.

Other things are different, too. Work and working condition, for a start. Then there's money, and dress and education....

PS We have frogspawn - and the little pond is frozen!

Monday, 11 March 2013

Medieval money

Medieval money is sometimes a mystery. The UK went decimal in the early seventies, but before that the system was based on the pound sterling, or the pound in weight of silver. The most common coin was the silver penny (1d). Twelve pennies made a shilling (1s) and twenty shillings made one pound (£1)

Until 1344 only silver was considered money. There was a big silver groat worth 4d, and pennies, half-pennies and farthings (1/4d or one quarter of a penny.) In 1344,  new coins arrived - a florin or double leopard worth 6s, along with a half-florin or leopard (3s) and a quarter-florin or helm (1s 6d).

In 1351 came the noble (6s 8d). Nobles, half-nobles and quarter-nobles were minted in gold. The earlier coins were minted in silver.

Just to confuse everything, there was also the mark, worth 13s 4d. Those of you who are good with numbers (which I am not!)  will realise that the noble (6s 8d) is exactly  a third of £1 and half of a mark. This made counting money much easier.

Between 1279 and 1399 there were perhaps 160 different sorts of penny struck, and this was because there were several mints operating at once. Three royal mints operated from Berwick, Canterbury and the Tower of London. The abbot of Bury St Edmunds, the bishop of Durham and the archbishop of York operated private mints and the marks changed when a new man was elected to the top post.

Scotland, needless to say, had its own mints and its own coinage.

Friday, 8 March 2013

A woman's lot

I've been thinking about women. Not today's women, but women in history. So many modern stories portray women as feisty, up and at 'em indviduals that it is easy to believe they were like that. But the reality is that they were ruled by a man. Women were divided into rough categories - maiden, wife, widow or nun - and treated accordingly. The maiden is dependent on her father (or other father-figure) , the wife on her husband, nuns, as brides of Christ, depend on the nunnery and only the widow or a rare, aged spinster, had any sort of freedom.

This is true of high-status women as well as those of low-status; it's just that the men who "ruled" them are of even higher status. The Bible, and therefore the Church, taught that women were "the ruin of mankind" because Eve ate the apple of good and evil, and from that, all sorts of negatives were heaped up women. Smaller, meeker, slower in working and moving, more feeble than a man. (Well, they would be, wouldn't they - draped in floor length gowns with sleeves that trailed the ground and steeple hats that must have been hell to get through doorways).

Strange beliefs abounded in the fourteenth century. Men believed that women needed regular sex (thanks mostly to the writings of a third century medic called Galen) and neither party in a marriage should deny the other this pleasure. There was also a belief that a woman must have an orgasm in order to conceive a child. This might be good in one way, but in another it was diabolical. If a woman conceived a child, she had obviously had an orgasm; therefore, a rapist could argue that he had not raped the woman if she took pleasure in the act.

A woman could inherit her husband's land but was not required to provide military service, which was often what had killed him. They could carry on their husband's business after his death, and some who came into business in this way were extremely successful. It is also worth remembering that the second richest person in  fourteenth century England was a woman - Queen Isabella. She was subordinate to her husband, naturally - but she was socially superior to everyone else.

I shall be reading more of Ian Mortimer's Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England and adding the bits that interest me here.

Tuesday, 5 March 2013


My interest is shifting and just to give you a clue, here's the opening passage from a book whose title I will not reveal until the end of the post. 
"As Rome fought great battles along the Rhine and lost whole legions in the darkling Teutoberg forest, a people-group made their way into a sparsely settled land. Cold, inhospitable and with a short growing season, it seemed an unlikely place to generate sufficient spare resources to enable a few generations of men to develop an ocean-going ship from a curious assembly of planks and rope in which you or I would not cross a boating lake. Yet that is what happened: as continental influences and migrations from the east caused the cultural changes that led from the Vendal culture to the people we have come to call the Vikings and the inter-reaction of cultures seems to have accelerated developments in boat technology....From this unlikely beginning developed a particular line of sailing vessels which could attempt ocean voyages across the Atlantic and - at the other extreme - light craft which could deal with shallow, fast flowing rivers and were capable of being moved across land to another river or lake."
So says J Kim Siddorn in his book Vikings, Weapons and Warfare.

I agree with him that there is much to admire in the Viking culture and from 793 onwards right up to and including the Norman invasion, Viking genes were planted across the lands that currently make up the UK. Few areas escaped attention. Given the small population then, and the widespread infiltration by Vikings, it isn't surprising that so many of us carry traces of them. No doubt it also explains our fascination with them. Race memory opens one eye when it hears the name...

Friday, 1 March 2013

The Half-Empty vew of Writing Fiction

Advice from a famous writer: Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish the wretched novel. Forget about the 3 or 400 pages you hope to write and write just one page each day. Then when you get to the 400th page, you are always surprised.

 Write as quickly as you can. Don't stop to correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down. Re-writing is usually an excuse for not continuing and interferes with flow and rhythm which can only come from a kind of unconscious association with the material.

 Don't think of your readers. Their nameless faces will scare you to death and they don't really exist. Write to one reader—a real person you know, or an imagined person and write to that one. It sometimes helps.

 If a scene is troublesome and you still think you want it—bypass it and go on. When you have finished the whole book you may find that the reason it gave trouble is because it didn't belong there. On the other hand, the scene that becomes precious will usually be the one that is discarded.
Speak dialogue as you write it - only then will it sound true.
The writer was convinced there was magic in story writing, and also convinced no one had ever been able to reduce it to a recipe that can be passed from one person to another. "The formula seems to lie solely in the aching urge of the writer to convey something he feels important to the reader. If the writer has that urge, he may sometimes, but by no means always, find the way to do it. You must perceive the excellence that makes a good story good or the errors that makes a bad story. For a bad story is only an ineffective story."
Who was this famous author? I'll write it backwards and  in tiny print so it doesn't leap out and spoil your fun. kcebniets nhoj