Monday, 29 April 2013


Have you ever tried to explain to someone what a cliffhanger is? I suspect they became popular when Dickens, Trollope and co were writing weekly instalments and there had to be something exciting and dangerous so that people would remember and buy the newspaper or magazine the following week. Classical scholars would cite Scheherazade, who managed to save her life night after night by telling the Shah of Persia stories and always ending on a cliffhanger. Try that for a thousand and one nights and see how you fare.

You could argue that cliffhangers exploit the reader. The author chooses to tie the heroine to the railway tracks and  leaves her there with the distant hoot of a train in the distance, so of course the reader gets agitated. If only someone would find and free the woman then we'd all relax - and forget to buy the magazine next week. As it is we spend the entire week in a frenzy of will she die - or will she be saved?

Too many cliffhangers in one story do exploit the reader - or they annoy and irritate at the very least. But a good, gripping cliffhanger is worth it's weight in gold, and it doesn't have to be in a thriller, though the one I'm reading at the moment happens to be one of Dick Francis's classics - Come to Grief. At the end of Chapter Twelve, the hero is tied to a chair, and has watched his  prosthetic arm destroyed by a one-time friend - and you just know that there is worse to come for Sid Halley. 

So the essence of a good cliffhanger is the build up, I think. First of all, there has to be empathy for the victim, otherwise the reader doesn't care enough to worry. Then there must be a slow tightening of the screw, tension has to rise somehow, and then - only then, can the author bring the cliffhanger to its proper threat. And escape must seem impossible. 

Friday, 26 April 2013

Medieval Sickness

I've recently bought an excellent book - The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England by Ian Mortimer, who also writes historical novels as James Forrester.

 I was struck by many things as I read it, but one of them was an eye opening sequence on sickness.
The possibilities of injury were common. You could be struck by a blade, an arrow, a staff or even a cannon ball. When such injuries in themselves would not have proved fatal, the medicine of the day and lack of hygiene did the necessary.

How disease spread was quite unknown, and how the body functioned was guesswork. No one knew about circulation of the blood, so instead of feeling the pulse for signs of life, a bowl of water was placed upon the victim's chest to see if you were still breathing.

The most common cause of illness, according to the medieval mind, was divine justice. Disease was  regarded as a tempering fire sent to test an individual's faith in God's mercy. Even if a cure was effected, it came courtesy of God's grace, never the skill of the doctor.

The planets and stars were thought to have an influence on health of individuals and communities and  it was believed they controlled the function of organs such as the brain and liver. Medieval people had medical knowledge, but it was very different to our own, comprising as it did of astrology, herbology, religion, philosophy, a lot of hearsay and quantities of desperation.

I thoroughly recommend Dr Mortimer's book for your enjoyment. You'll learn a lot, I assure you.

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Looking back

I loaded a post on Historical Fiction excerpts this morning and it made me realise how much time I've been on this writing game. I began in a very tentative way back in the seventies, when a typewriter and a bottle of sno-pak were the tools of the writers trade. Progress was slow, because I was working full-time, and leading a good social life most of the time. The pile of pages grew so very slowly!

Now, a writer's life is comparatively easy, thanks to computers. It is very easy to produce a page of immaculate typing, perfectly formatted on the page/screen, run it through the spell-and-grammar checker and be assured that it as correct as it is ever going to be. Even better, the internet makes finding facts easy if you are prepared to accept the first you find without cross-checking for accuracy.

But no matter how impressive a perfectly formatted and typed page seems, it is the content that is so vitally important. "Rubbish writing" can look equally as good as the most literary writing! Like most other skills, writing a story has to be learned skill. I doubt there's one writer in a thousand successful writers who made it with their first attempt. I know I look back on my earliest attempts and itch to get the red pen out and delete the repetitions, remove the unnecessary sentences. Maybe one day I will, if only for my own satisfaction. But looking back has made me realise how far I have come, and gives me an inkling of how far I have still to go. I suppose writing is a skill that just goes on growing until brain fade occurs.

Monday, 22 April 2013

Work and where to do it

My writing room is a little haven of sanctuary for me. Once I'm in there with the door shut, all is well with the world. It isn't luxurious. It is the smallest bedroom, and there is a single bed,  and a desk-cum-bookshelf arrangement made out of an old wardrobe. The most expensive thing in it, apart from the pc, is the black swivel chair. Right now I have to share this precious space with Tim, who decided on the first day that his preferred place was at my feet, under the desk. Sometimes he lies there with his chin resting on my foot.

While I'm in here, I can be anywhere I choose. Right now I alternate between the bracing west coast of Scotland in 1045AD messing about in longships with Flane and the gang, or in Stirling in 1544 with Matho as he gears himself up to capture the queen and keep out of Lennox's way. In earlier years I spent months in Viking Dublin watching Eba run from one spot of bother to another, and breathed the fresh clear air of Victorian Northumberland two steps behind Melanie Grey as she slowly comes to believe she is falling for a smuggler. Then there was the time I wrote Shadows and re-visited the sunny delights of the Cadeau valley in France. In a way, my little room is my Tardis.

Although I've never read A Room of One's Own (actually I may have done during my university years, but cannot recall much of it beyond the general premise of a room and £500 a year) I thoroughly agree with the idea. I've tried working downstairs and it just doesn't do for me. I can't get comfortable and if I'm not comfortable, the ideas don't flow. But then, I could never start work at an untidy desk when I was "at work." Only when the desk was neat and clear could I then start on something. I have a friend who works in absolute chaos (my words, not hers) while the only thing I'm itching to do is tidy her work space! Good thing we're not all made the same way. How's your work space? Be honest!

Thursday, 18 April 2013

High Concept

If you are anything like me, you read the phrase High Concept and wrinkle your brow. Nicola Morgan has a talent for explaining things in terms I can understand, and I bless her time and again when she does. Here's her succinct explanation of High Concept: "Essentially, a book with an extra-strong hook. A high-concept novel is one which is easy to sell because the idea has wow factor and is easy to explain very quickly. The wow factor often comes from a sense of, “Why didn’t I think of that? That’s going to sell in shedloads. Damn it.”

High Concept often means High Stakes. The fact that you fancied a married man and bravely decided to give him up for the sake of your family is not exactly High Stakes to anyone else, though it may be to you. No one is going to die even if you do decide to kick over the traces and run off to Marrakech, though a few are going to be pretty miserable for a while. High Stakes fictionally means at least the risk death for the hero, and sometimes the end of the world. Hopefully it also means that the writing will be good.

 High Concept usually means you can easily explain the premise and that it will grab attention - for example: Life of Pi by Yann Martel. The tag line that sold it was something like a boy shipwrecked on powerless boat with dying zebra, hyena and tiger called Richard Parker. For a long time I took one look at that and thought to myself What Rot. I studiously avoided reading it for almost two years, but I never forgot it. Then it became an acclaimed film, appeared on Kindle at 20p and I couldn't resist any longer. For 20p I would take a look at this strange book. Within pages, I was hooked.

Another bestseller was The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time. This one I am still avoiding, and don't think I will ever read. But the tag line that sells it certainly has a stand-out quality. "An autistic savant with a fear of yellow finds a dead dog and sets out to solve the killing." Other titles might include any of the Harry Potter books, or The Hunger Games.

The trouble with agents and publishers seeking High Concept manuscripts is that, in aiming to please, there is a risk every book published will become a ride of thrilling anxiety and overdone conflict. Introspection becomes lost, and description is thrown overboard as exciting incident follows incident. Some books turn out to be quite tiring to read. There was a famous book about following clues in the Louvre that had me aching for the last chapter long before it arrived.

You can find out lots more entertaining ans useful things at Nicola's blog:

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Sorry for the delay

DH and I were both out of action yesterday. The mystery bug finally caught up with me and gave me a miserable day. Hopefully today will be better for both of us. One good thing, if I look for positives, is that I could afford to lose a pound of two around my middle. Sitting around in a chair playing with words all day does tend to increase one's seating area.

I've got very little writing done these last few days since Tim arrived. In another few hours he'll have been here a week. Just a week. Amazing. I've had more exercise running around the garden with him, than I've had for ages. Getting up at two or three in the morning for a trip down through the darkened house so he can go into the garden and pee hasn't been as hard as I thought it would be. Thank the Lord that Spring has brought warmer temperatures. The thought of doing 3am toilet trips in the dead of winter makes me shudder. Thankfully his bladder will soon be strong enough to make it through the night.

Tim doesn't like wind. He tends to bolt back into the house on windy days, but he follows the sun through the big windows and flops down on the carpet for a snooze. Now, once he stops using everything in sight as something to chew, we'll be making progress. The cardboard rolls from the centre of kitchen paper are so very much more chewable than the two rubber toys I've bought for him.

The pic is St Mary's Chare in Corbridge. It always gives me a feel for what medieveal streets were probably like.

Friday, 12 April 2013

Lots of activity

I am chief shit-cleaner in this house and this week has been an exceptional one. Being nervous and in strange surroundings, the pup crapped about four times a day and sometimes he didn't make it outside into the garden. Still, because he's small, the piles were tiny and anyway, you just get on with it, don't you? Small he may be, but his determination is huge, as I've found already. The second night he was not prepared to stay in his newly-purchased basket in the kitchen, not by any means. His cries, yaps and howls were probably heard right around the cul de sac! I'm ashamed to say we gave in and brought him upstairs. Peace at last. He wants to be with us, preferably both together and runs from one to the other is we do separate things in the house.

Yesterday I went to Ogle Castle because the horses have arrived. The Magic Trust, which offers carriage driving for the disabled, runs from there. I got interested last autumn when I saw the horses pulling carriages around the Gibside estate, but they were just about to stop operations for the winter, and we were about to go off to Australia. With the coming of spring, operations are starting up again.

So yesterday I "met" the horses, Sparky and Bumper, groomed them and almost choked on the hair coming off them. They'll look much more streamlined when they've shed their winter coats. Then we were shown how to harness a horse to a carriage, and tried it ourselves - two other learner/volunteers beside myself. Complicated or what? Breastplate first, I remember that, and bridle last; but two other bits go on in between. Reins and whatever they call the "girth" that goes around his stomach and latches around his tail. It'll take me a while before I learn where all the bits go, and they have to be correctly fitted because when all is done, a wheelchair is clamped onto the bed of the carriage and the person in it drives the horse. There is an able-bodied driver beside them in case of need, and I stood on the footplate at the back to act as groom when we went out for a long walk with Sparky. Naturally I'm not in the photo, because I'm taking it as Sparky went by.

Must run, because Tim's appointment is looming! Will add pics later.
Later: Vet says Tim has a heart murmur and recommends an ultrasound scan to see what's what. H'mmmm.

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

New arrival

Not a book, but a puppy! Tim. Three months old, very small, half the size of his big brother. He was very politely and quietly sick in a towel in the car five times on the way home, so  he wasn't up to smiling for his picture. He's crapping a lot still, probably nervous and strange, but he slept through the night but for one little burst of crying. Two piles and two puddles waiting for me in the morning. Good job the kitchen floor is what we used to call linoleum but is now known as cushion flooring.
So now I'm off to buy him all the necessaries he needs. Since he might grow quite rapidly I'll buy cheaply and invest in good stuff when he's six months or more. I can see I'm going to have no time for anything for the next few days except looking after Tim!

Monday, 8 April 2013

A Big Day Tomorrow

Short entry today as we're driving down to Carmarthen area to visit puppy and hoping to bring him home. Don't ask me why puppies for sale much closer to home didn't appeal and this one did, for I don't know. I saw his picture and couldn't get him out of my thoughts. We've spent the day wondering where he'll fit in (though we've got a fairly large house for two people, there seems no corner that jumps up and down and shouts put dog basket Here!) DH is more panicked about puppy peeing in car on 320 mile journey home. Does he already answer to Timmie? (Puppy, not DH) Seems a bit girlish for a dog, but Tim sounds better. Then there's vaccinations and boosters and puppy food - no wonder the other people cried off. I'm wondering if I should rush to pet shop and buy collar and lead - we'll be nervous wrecks soon.

I've forgotten how big (or small) three-month-old puppies are. Will he manage the back door step? the stairs should be out of bounds. I've swept the kitchen floor so there are no intriguing bits for him to eat. At least our garden is enclosed and he won't be able to get out unless he digs a tunnel under the fence. Will I still be smiling when he cries in the night, or wakes me up at five in the morning? Of course I will. I've waited a long time for this.

Friday, 5 April 2013

How much is too much?

I must be mad. Soon I'll be meeting myself coming back, and the reason for this is that I have re-joined the critique group I used to be in, so that means keeping up with two sets of critiques now. (HistoricalFictionAuthors and HisficCritique, if anyone is seeking a good critique group) Also, I've got three different stories on the go - one Tudor, one Viking and one Victorian. Add to this that the tennis clay-court season is getting very close - Monte Carlo starts on 15th April, and I could be the proud owner of a Dalmatian puppy if the stars are going my way. I was late on registering interest with the breeder and someone else is going to visit the puppy on Sunday. If they decide to buy him I shall be so disappointed. I won't tempt fate by saying more on this at the moment. Let's see what Sunday brings.

There's another thing - I bought a copy of Writing Magazine  about a month ago, saw how many competitions there are for short stories and immediately thought I ought to enter. It seems that winning comps makes a writer more eligible somehow in the eyes of an agent, though I don't know why. Some people have a talent for short stories, and others have a talent for writing 90k+ novels. I fail to see why a talent for one should automatically mean a talent for the other. It's like saying that because you're good at running a hundred metres, you'll be good at running a marathon.

And of course, there's the garden. There it is out there, everything looking thin and weedy after all the cold weather and lack of sunlight. I've been out on my hands and knees whenever there's the slightest hint of sun and the temperature climbs above 4 or 5 degreees, but there's still much more to do. Any day now, the weather is going to go warm and the garden will spring into overdrive and I'll be overwhelmed by the weeds. Come and rescue me if you see me disappearing under a carpet of green!

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

In Grump Mode

At last the sun is shining. Everyone is walking around with big grins on their faces - long may it last. It doesn't, however, make me any less inclined to have a grump this morning about things that irritate me - these are in no particular order, but here we go:

1. Lawyers who encourage silly people to sue someone when what happened to them was their own fault, so beautifully exampled by the policewoman who tripped over a curb and then sued the owner of the garage who had called her out because he feared a break-in was taking place.
2. People who knock the NHS when for most people, me included, it does a wonderful job.
3.Twenty-four hour news repeating the same stories over and over and over again, and not actually reading the news any more but offering gossip, speculation and telling people what to think.
4) Benefit scroungers - the real ones. We all know they exist.
5) Cinemas that run films at ear-crunching levels these days. Psychologist say we are inherently afraid of sudden loud noise - so what do filmakers give us? Plenty of sudden loud noise so that we'll jump in our seats when really what happens on the screen isn't worthy of our being so scared.
6) My fingers, when they garble what I am trying to type on the keyboard. (Usually they embarass me by doing it on Twitter)
7) The world for thinking that twenty-somethings must be catered for, when the largest slice of the population is probably the over sixties (I should have checked my facts, but I haven't. It's a feeling I have. Thank God for films like Quartet and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, which remind the sixties and up that they exist.)
8) People who cough and sneeze on public transport without benefit of handkerchief.
9) Can I make it to ten? I'm running out of grumps here. Oh, yes, novels published in the UK but which use the American verb "gotten." Plus all the other American slang that filters over here. Australians seem to keep it to themselves.
10) The fact that when I write and publish in America, I have to change my language to American English. Grrr.

Phew! I feel better now. Have a happy day, everyone.

Monday, 1 April 2013

Reading for pleasure or stimulation?

Carlisle Castle
There are various schools of thought on books and reading. Some say that in order to be good, a fiction book must make its reader think, give intellectual satisfaction, perhaps even educate.
Others think that if a book entertains its reader, stirs the imagination, engages the mind, that is enough. Certainly a book of any kind is a God send during a sleepless night or a boring journey. I'm of the school that says reading anything sharpens judgement and thus enriches the experience of life. Stories can provide a feast of the senses without being intellectually stimulating - Fifty Shades of Grey may qualify for this - and it is possible to read it, enjoy it and almost  automatically critique it at the same time. The book is of its time, and perhaps that is all we need say of it in these sex saturated times. Perhaps poetry provides the richest sensory feast. Kathleen Raine's has stayed with me since I read it in my twenties and still gives me pleasure.
I sometimes wonder why certain stories become classics. I read The Woman in White not long ago and found it overlong, wordy and decidedly strange. The premise is fine and perhaps in a time without radio, television and film, such lengthy, slow-moving books were acceptable, even desirable. In today's world, with our eyes, ears and brains attuned to faster rhythms, I flicked through pages positively aching for the story to move on. I never finished The Moonstone because I lost my grip on the story and turned to something more modern.
 Some readers adore detail, facts, arcane theories and lucsious descriptions while others plunder the book for the story. Writers these days are warned to avoid the dreaded info dump for fear of boring the reader. Yet we are all encouraged to read the classics, where info dumps abound. Who is to say which style is right and which is wrong? Easier by far and more gracious to agree that different tastes abound and that every book will find a reader. Yes, even The Moonstone!

Bad Guys, anyone?

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. Perhaps I have a warped, villainous mind and create characters in my own likeness.

 Genre matters, too. A Thriller Villain surely has to be a worse villain than a Romance Villain. Your average villain in a Regency Romance needs some redeeming qualities, otherwise no heroine would love him, would she? I know certain women love a bad boy, but there's a limit - I hope. A villain facing Rebus in the grey streets of Edinburgh can be as wicked as he likes and he still won’t out-villain the villains we have in our society today.

 What about the villains who fill the pages of historical novels? We know that people suffered horrid deaths, lawfully applied. Documents list hideous facts of torture. But if my characters live in those times, will their senses will be less squeamish than mine? Does it depend on the mental toughness of the character? Not everyone would be bold and brave. In A Place Beyond Courage, Chadwick has a female character who is an absolute wimp - and very believable. Facts record that the Marchioness of Salisbury picked herself up and ran from the executioner who failed to deliver the first blow correctly, and ten more blows followed as he chased her. One has to hope that the tale has been more than a little embroidered, but it has a terrible ring of truth about it.

 I've come to the conclusion that the times about which we write dictate the villainy level of the characters. Tudor characters had to be tough to survive in their world and maybe I'm wrong to label them as villains. But they're turning out to have some villainous qualities. All of them. Uncomfortable as it is, I will have to sit very firmly my 21st century sensibilities and think Tudorish. Otherwise the book will never be finished.