Saturday, 29 June 2013

Harsh reality

"In 1206 Walter fitz Gilbert died leaving a widow, Emma and two daughters, Alina and Alesia. Herbert de Penewurth offered two hundred marks and two palfreys for the marriage of the widow, but at the price of two marks and one palfrey she obtained leave to marry whom she would, subject to the king's assent.
In 1207 she married Peter de Vaux, who paid the king five palfreys."

Such little snippets found in old manuscripts amaze and horrify women today. The thought of not being able to choose the man you married, and having to bribe the king in order to have any choice at all, is deeply upsetting. I don't know how men feel about it, but authors ought to take note of such transactions and include them in their storylines. Tales of feisty heroines running off into the countryside and meeting a handsome young knight who feels impelled to protect, love and marry them are just so much the stuff of dreams.

The reality is more likely a man of mature years seeking a second wife because his first has died in childbirth. His first priority may well be to ask what she brings with her in terms of land or property, and the size of her dowry. Her looks were probably immaterial, or at best a lucky bonus if she was passably handsome. He may well have battle scars, missing teeth and several children as old as the bride, but who wants to write, or read, of such marriages? But it doesn't hurt to inject a little reality into historical romances. Not every girl got to marry the equivalent of Mel Gibson.

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Modern tv

 Have you ever watched a newscast and muttered rude comments about the presenter, the guest and whatever it is they are discussing? It has become commonplace in our house. "Rubbish," I hear my dh say when someone spouts forth with some new plan for educational reform. "We tried that forty years ago. Stop re-inventing the wheel."
I get incensed when I hear someone say volunteers can run a library as well as paid staff. "Rubbish," I hiss.
We're old fashioned enough to dislike the news that a huge section of children are growing up without the influence of a father, to wonder why young women, often inappropriately dressed, are walking home alone at three in the morning through darkened streets, why film soundtracks are now so deafeningly loud, why people over forty still cling on to the gigs and pop music of their youth, why the media consistently attacks the NHS, why people buy so much pre-packed rubbish from supermarkets, why there has to be so much packaging - all brightly coloured and appealing to the eye when the goods inside are so much the opposite - and above all why people throw away so much food.

Another thing - why are presenters and interviewers so rude these days? When they interrupt people trying to give an explanation, cut across them in mid-sentence, talk over them to the point that the viewer cannot hear either person clearly - what are they teaching young people? That it is cool and clever to be rude? Another annoyance is the presence of so-called music running behind the person speaking to camera. This is particularly annoying when it's a documentary and the information you tuned in for is being drowned out by some mad drummer in a basement. If he was a neighbour, people would be hammering on the front door and asking for him to desist. The other irritating thing is the camera drooling over presenters from every possible angle including the revolting up-the-nose shot from around knee height while ignoring the rock formation (Ian Stewart) and the historical artefact (Too many presenters to mention) the landscape (Neil Oliver) and I am so tried of watching the screen with growing nervous tension  as the presenter drives along a motorway while talking and gazing at the camera. (Julian Richards and Bettany Hughes) Even Liz Bonnin and Chris Packham, to the detriment of the snow tigers and the creatures on Springwatch.

Bah humbug! Feel pleased to have got that off my chest, and hope someone from the BBC is reading.

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Editing and other groans

 First day of Wimbledon, and my favourite tennis player is out. I suppose, seeking for the bright side, it means I'll be watching the box a lot less than I expected, which in turn means I'll be writing (or rather editing) a lot more. I may even get to do my blog posts on the correct day! But how sad for Rafa to be in such pain that he can't play his "normal" game. and how unfeeling of the Wimbledon crowd, who cheered and clapped for the unknown player rated 135th in the world. Maybe he was playing the match of his life, but did they have no sympathy for Rafa? It was plain to see he was limping, and pulling up when he tried to run. People are so fickle.

Tomorrow is earmarked for grocery shopping, and we'll do that early in the morning. Then it's a relax into writing day except for walkies with Tim. I'm up to Chapter Fourteen and spotting a need to sharpen up the motivation for certain characters. All the time I'm seeking better verbs, a more appropriate adjective and combining sentences still. It's an interesting exercise, especially since I thought I had finished with this story months ago. Unhappily, I've come to a halt with the critique groups to which I belong. I need to really concentrate and not muddle my mind by writing or critiquing other stories. Probably they won't miss me, may even be glad to see the back of me, as I suspect I'm far to honest with my comments. But you know, they don't have to agree with me. They can always stick to their version of their story. On the other hand, sometimes, I'm  blunter than I should be. My excuse is that I'm usually doing these comments quickly and don't stop to make my comments sweeter.

But hey - writers need to be thick skinned when it comes to receiving rejections and comments that don't say how terrific every word is - and don't alter a thing. No first draft is that perfect. Not even my sixth - groan!

Sunday, 23 June 2013

This makes me happy

A little self promotion today - a new review of Victorian Beauty has gone up on Amazon and since it says more than simply I like/love this book, I'm posting it here:

4.0 out of 5 stars New Twist on a Romantic Cliche 23 Jun 2013
Format:Kindle Edition

There is a plethora of romance novels involving heroines with physical or psychological scars, dark, brooding heroes, a precocious child or two, loyal housekeepers, and remote, rural settings with slightly forbidding manor houses, or even castles. To use any of these literary chestnuts these days is dangerous, I think, unless the author is good enough--and sufficiently inventive--to overcome so many clich├ęs huddled under one roof, so to speak.

Jen Black has done that admirably in Victorian Beauty, which succeeds on a number of levels, where others have failed abysmally. Read the plot synopses elsewhere--I`m more interested in the author's skills at making what could have been a hackneyed tale come alive again, fresh and fun to read. First, her writing is smooth, economical and, in quite a few places, graceful and evocative. There was never one of those moments, on the first page or elsewhere, where I had to sigh, hoping the writing would improve as I turned the pages. It was good from the beginning--what a relief! Second, Ms. Black's setting--the North of England--is one she knows, so now I know it as well, or at least that small part of it. Her descriptions are elegant, imparting exactly what's needed to lead the reader fully into the scene, and then move on. That's a neat trick which many authors have failed to master. Most important, however, are her characters, Melanie Grey and Lord Jarrow. Melanie is neither a beauty nor a typical Victorian noblewoman, but most fortunate for the discerning reader, she is not a "feisty" heroine saddled with the ridiculous trappings of the 21st century. She's vulnerable, to be sure, and she has her moments of fear and weakness, but she leavens those with an endearing nosiness--this woman will pry into things in a heartbeat!--a rather endearing refusal to be obsequious to anyone, including her employer, and a bit of rock-solid strength when she needs it. Jarrow has his moments of brooding, but for reasons that become clear only much later in the book, and are quite a revelation. He may be tall, dark, and moderately handsome, but I don't hold that against him--no one will eventually fall in love with a troll. The interactions between these two provide the requisite sparks, conflicting outlooks on the world and how it works, and an intriguing two steps forward, one step back pas de deux that makes an historical romance so entertaining--when it's done right, as it is here.

Ms. Black consistently writes outside the mold, the formula, or the whatever-it-is of historical romance. Her style, to include the sometimes wry, sometimes quotidian, and almost always refreshing take on her characters and the period she portrays, is a breath of fresh air. Additionally, the two main characters are ones you might want to spend time with outside the confines of a Kindle, and the minor characters are equally well-drawn, beyond the trite and true.

There's a lot of junk out there, folks, so spend your time and money wisely. This is a book I can recommend without reservation, and I don't usually like historical romances,

Thursday, 20 June 2013

First chapters and antagonists

I've  just read that someone advocates writing the last chapter of a book before you go back and start at the beginning. Cripes! I can't imagine doing that; in fact I think it would be a waste of time. I may have a general outline in my head of what the end point is going to be - or is intended to be - but the detail of how I'll get my characters there is far too vague for me to try and write the last chapter first.

 I've also been reading a good blog post on first chapters. Here's the link, in case you are struggling with those opening pages: It's the post for the 9th June you want.

I think I'm OK on most of the things she mentions, and it is good to know how important the antagonist is in novels and how varied they can be. My antagonist, of course, is Meg Douglas and she makes Matho's life a misery! She is such fun to write because, like Scarlett O'Hara, she is entirely self-centred and doesn't hide her feelings from the reader though she may and often does hide them from the characters around her. I've even given her a vulnerable spot, just so she comes across as human.

I've been very bold this month and sent off two submissions. Let's hope one of them turns up positive.

Monday, 17 June 2013

Amazon Hold Up

This must be the silly season when everyone has either gone on holiday or is looking forward to a holiday. Certainly cyclists in vivid Lycra (or all in black, depending on their personality) are now haunting our country roads, and backpackers are striding across Hadrian's Wall. It's also hay fever time, and as well as teething, Tim is sneezing.

Editing is going well. I've lost a lot of extraneous, unnecessary words and it has been done when the aim is not cutting word count, but re-writing sentences more gracefully. I tried to purchase Sarah Dunant's new book Blood and Beauty in paperback format this week, but there seems to be a hitch in supply for some reason known only to Amazon. Her first line, from memory, is something like "Dawn was breaking like a bruise in the night sky...." Now that is the sort of grace I want to achieve.

Her sentences are often two or three lines long, yet the clarity is perfect, and nothing like the short, sharp snap and jerk of so many e-book novels these days. An American told me that the illiteracy rate is so high in America that writers have to write at a low level of literacy if they want to sell to the masses. I hope that isn't true, but fear it may be so. It seems a terrible record for the nation that calls itself the most powerful country on earth. Seems to me it won't be long before China and Russia challenge that claim

I don't know why Amazon can only offer used paperback copies. Presumably they are review copies. Yet the paperback publication date was supposedly 2nd May 2013. I could look further afield, but we have just the right amount in voucher form to spend on Amazon and it seems silly not to wait. But I will only wait so long! Dunant's historical novels are among the few I purchase as opposed to reading via the library. I read The Courtesan's Lover this week. It's by Gabrielle Kimm and tells the tale of a woman who sells herself for money in Naples in 1564. The period was a draw for me, and the blurbs promise a good story, but it was a struggle to get through it and the main reason was too much detail painstakingly given. In fact, I could say what the agents have said about my submissions: It's well researched and written but I didn't love it enough!

Saturday, 15 June 2013

A typical morning

Today I was woken at 4.30am by dh claiming "The dog's being sick."
Just what you want to hear as you come hazily out of sleep. Staggered into dressing gown and downstairs with said pooch, opened the door into the garden and out scooted Tim. You may be interested to know that at that time of the day, this far north in the UK, we had a clear blue sky and a vague hint of sunshine. The birds were singing all around the garden. I caught sight of a snail still munching on my new lupin, so it joined its pals in a plastic container.(I caught three last night doing similar things) (Reminder to self: they're still in that container and need to liberated on the field.)

So, pooch was not sick, but - look away now if you are squeamish - defecated in three different spots in the garden. (Not to self: still to be bagged and cleared away.) He tried to eat the plastic container holding the snails, and when deprived of that, sat by his food bowl with one paw raised and offering an angelic expression.

I gave him a few biscuits and staggered back up to bed. Tim went to sleep immediately (dh wasn't even awake at this point) while I lay and thought Oh My God - it's Puppy School in three hours time.

Thursday, 13 June 2013


The weather is not nice today - it is warm and damp. Go out for a walk and unless you stroll around at the slowest pace possible, you come home damp and sweaty. What we need is a breeze and sunshine and according to the local forecast, we're not going to get it, so I may as well resign myself to a day for working on the novel.

At the moment I have two versions of it. One is slightly longer than the other, but I don't know which is the "better" version. Ever been in this situation? Careless of me, I know. I should be more careful in saving and labelling my work. It means I will have to run  through the two versions side by side to check for changes and or differences.

This time I'm going through to improve the writing. This may sound silly, but an agent told me some time ago now that he liked the story, the setting, the period but was less enamoured with my writing, Not that it was bad - it was confident and clear, but it just didn't make him love it. Well, it has taken me a long time, but now I can finally see what he was getting at. I can see where I can snap two sentences down into one, and make it more graceful at the same time. It takes a while (or it has with me!) before this critical faculty develops, but I'm happy to say I'm there at last. It's a re-writing task in a way. Not changing the storyline, but maybe tweaking it a little for more impact, more conflict, more clarity.

So, I'd better get on with it. Wish me luck!

Monday, 10 June 2013

The submission thing

After all my concentrated efforts on editing my first few chapters, I think I'm ready to send off to an agent. Again. The last agent I applied to on 30th January has yet to respond, so I guess that's dead and gone. Looking around the agent listings over the last few days, I notice  many of them now ask for e-mail submissions. Not only that, they have prepared online forms  . Somehow I find these more daunting than the old cover letter, synopsis and three chapters routine. OTOH, it is very clear what they want, which helps, and probably only seems strange because it is new.

I've been trying to discover which agent actually wants historical fiction and pin-pointed one or two who come across well on Twitter - or at least, they come across in a way I like. Not all do, of course. It is interesting to think that agents are - to use that dreadful American expression - showcasing themselves by being on Twitter. I wonder if they think of it in that way? Balancing that and the information they give out on their websites, I have made my choice.

Not all want the historical stuff, unless it creeps under the radar as literary or commercial fiction. I find it difficult to claim that I write literary anything - that is for others to decide. But I think I can claim the commercial tag. Maybe even women's fiction, though perhaps that is too limiting. I'd like to think both sexes would read my book. There are lots of male characters to hold their attention, but there are also two very strong women who have a large part to play in the storyline. The male reaction to having women in any sort of power role back then was so contrary to the general run of things, that it makes for a very interesting time for novelists.
Ah well, off to do that submission thing. Wish me luck!

Saturday, 8 June 2013

Concentration and editing

It seems that no matter how many times I read through my first chapter, I can always, always find something to add in or take out, or simply say another way. I suspect this can become a habit, as much as anything. In a way, it might be putting off the evil moment of selecting an agent and sending it off - and thereby receiving a rejection a few weeks or months later.

Still, reading aloud was an interesting exercise and I recommend it. The only thing is it takes longer than reading silently to yourself. No doubt this is partially the reason why I found so many flaws. The eye moves along the lines at speed, and the brain grasps the essentials, but unless there is a glaring error, doesn't stumble and recognise a poorly expressed phrase.

Reading aloud requires a different sort of concentration. I don't know about you, but there have been times when my silent reading eye has skimmed down the page (or two or three) in a published novel and I suddenly realise I've been thinking about a knotty problem to do with something completely different. Being absent without leave is not possible when reading aloud. Let your mind wander and the whole process breaks down.

This morning we've been to puppy school for the second time, Tim was eager to go into the hall, and looked around for dogs to greet. He and the Alsatian puppy were initially next to each other, but became so engrossed in play that we had to separate them. He got too boisterous for the 11 week old Labrador puppy,  his next neighbour, and made friends with the sheepdog. An hour of 100% attention on what he has to do and what other dogs are doing means he is, to put it politely, knackered when he comes home. Right now he's asleep under my desk!

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Eating my words

Once again I have to eat my words. I thought reading a manuscript aloud was a daft way to go on, and that reading it in my head would do very nicely, thank you. Well, my better half was out the other day and I decided to try it. There was no one to hear me but the dog, and he didn't care. Snored right through it. But I did make changes to Chapter One because of reading aloud.

Awkward phrases showed up right away, and strangely, something I had not expected - I found small patches of unnecessary dialogue. Chapter Two wasn't so rewarding, if that's how I should look at the exercise. That writing seemed to flow much better, and was much easier to read, so far fewer changes resulted. It will be on to chapter Three today, if all stays right with the world. (And after I've walked the dog and watched Rafa at Roland Garros this afternoon, naturally. So little time these days!)

Skies are grey today, but the forecast is for more of the wonderful weather of the last few days. Spring has suddenly morphed into summer and the riverside walks are glorious with wild flowers and trees in their freshest shades of green. The thorn trees are boasting masses of white flowers and nettles are flourishing three feet high, something I noticed yesterday when I went walking in cropped jeans. Luckily dock leaves grew nearby and soon soothed the stings.

Monday, 3 June 2013


One thing I'm really not very interested in is food. I  barely register the pictures of food on Facebook, and  when I saw the Tudor Feast coming up on tv I hesitated with my finger on the record button. Then common sense clicked in. The programme was to be modern chefs cooking medieval food in the same way as medieval cooks would have done. Apart from the fact that I bet they didn't, watching people handle food revolts me at the best of times, so I took my finger off the button.
Hygiene in those far off days doesn't bear thinking about, particularly when food and eating are involved. Some of the medical concoctions include bat excrement and the like, so if that's what they think will cure you of an ailment, Heaven knows what they cook normally.

On the other hand, people's immune systems were probably vastly superior to ours. They would need to be, for starvation was common in medieval times. If a man's crops failed, what did the family eat? They couldn't rush off to the  supermarket, didn't have the cash to buy even if said supermarket existed. Poaching was forbidden and in some cases punishable by death. Your neighbours were likely as badly off as yourself. A man might walk many miles to find work, return with food and find his family dead of starvation.  In such conditions, the temptation to eat absolutely anything must have been horrifying.

The lowest ranks of society in medieval days were no better than slaves, bought and sold with the land, and starvation was common. Religious houses, and the homes of the rich, presented kitchen scraps at the back gate for the starving poor. Once Henry VIII got rid of the monasteries, those who had once lived within the protection of the religious orders were turned loose on the roads as beggars. Enclosures took away common land, and added to the problems of the lower classes. The odd thing is that these things have never been regarded in the same light as the potato famine in Ireland, the clearances in Scotland or the African slave trade and I wonder why. Perhaps it was because they took place in a time when a social conscience was a luxury few could afford. Perhaps it is because we had no one to blame but ourselves.