Are you still writing??

Beginning to settle on the storytelling for the next book, my idea for the opening page is a girl on a train…

“Are you still writing?” Friends – especially the long lost who reappear, visiting – sometimes ask. The answer– yes – looks untrustworthy, since the third book in the Mullins family saga series, hasn’t yet appeared, and number two, The Labyrinth Year was published in 2014.

‘So – are you?’

My “Mullins Family – book 3″ hasn’t yet appeared for unavoidable reasons: health, computer problems, politics. I’m picking up from there, publishing a selection of poems, ironically perhaps relating to those years 1997-2007. and redesigning (with a designer) the Hodge website. Some writers, either by contract or by their own choice, must aim to turn out a book a year. Their readers expect it. Are these always a good read?  Maybe. Or maybe not. Even within a genre, (and genres which follow must-have elements and expectations, such as ChickLit, fast paced thrillers, cosy crime, police procedurals), there’s variation. It takes committed, well informed, professional writers, often with a background in journalism and no “day job” to do a really good job on a yearly basis. My kind of thought provoking books will always take longer, involving research, time to mull this over, and integrate it into a plot with a story arc and satisfying conclusion.

So, I’d thought, ten fictional years forward for each novel. Book two is set in 1997, that’s then a leap forward – to 2007.  Enormous social and political change took place in those ten years. Pre-millennium, governed by Tony Blair’s New Labour, life was very different. We were on the edge of the financial crash but most of us didn’t know.

Pre 2000, we were warned to fear the “millennium bug” which could potentially ruin computer systems. Thanks to hard work from techie people this didn’t happen. But instead, terrorism struck in 2001 –  9/11 shocked and rocked the world. And catapulted the world into a different era. Followed by, in 2016, the idea that we should leave the EU in a process called “Brexit”.

Pre-2000… post Brexit…????

Quite how life in 2007 would speak to us today, when our minds are filled with wars, terrorism, paedophile scandals, Brexit negotiations and now knife crime, what would be exciting about the year before 2008?  Even post 9/11 and the London bombs of 2005, it was still a time of innocence compared to today’s news. Even adding a dimly growing awareness of Climate Change … Book 3 is now set in 2017.

My heroine is a Millennial, Jenny and Max Mullins’s daughter born in 1992, a five year old in 1997. We find her, Alice aged 25, in tears as she travels by train, her mind full of memories… She has recently opened a box and found items she’d saved back in 2007, aged 15. What these memories are should unfold as the story moves along, and we learn of the personal tragic end to that year for Alice. The climax of the idea for 2007… but not the same book…

It’s going to stretch my imagination, and my research capability, to get inside Alice’s mind, but it is an exciting prospect. Have you a book within you, disrupted by political change?

Live… Lose… Learn… poetry by Mari Howard will be available later this year… look out for it soon on the new Mari Howard Hodge website…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Writing my series in Winter

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The large pond at our local Nature Reserve, a photo of the resting and waiting which sums up winter. I’m so glad Christmas and New Year are gone now, and we begin looking up towards the longer days and the creeping up of  new shoots and signs of spring!

A few days ago, some writer friends were talking about writing for Christmas in the summer months – I am trying to write about summer as nature is lying low under frost (and hopefully not more snow!) and low cloud. It’s cold, damp, and horrible  here: the pond surrounded by thick, dark, mud, the trees bare except for the clinging ivy, the reeds broken, brown and collapsed.

Meanwhile, the volunteers who care for the reserve have (and are) running work parties to cut, prune, and plant … out there in warm clothing, hats, boots, gloves … And their work will encourage birds (already just beginning to practice their mating songs), butterflies (maybe there are crysalis/pupa hiding cosily amongst the apparently dead vegetation, or the piles of lopped-down logs), I know there are eggs of a particular butterfly somewhere in there, safely waiting … It’s all poised, even as we hurry by, nipped by a north wind and frozen by the incredible damp of living between several rivers …

Yesterday afternoon I walked through the sticky mud, under the low, grey sky, along a waterside path … and yes, this swan couple are back to dating, having driven away last year’s teenage brood … signs of spring, fertility, and the return of warmth to the sun, and colour to life!

So glad I am writing about my characters in summer … the long, damp summer of 2007 … when there is mystery, distress, and growing up to be done …

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The Fun of Writing a Series

Mullins family saga mindful painting

The fun of writing a series – my fellow author and member of Alliance of Independent Authors Francis Guenette’s blog post a few weeks ago inspired me to write about fun of writing a series. Francis had asked whether we as readers were ‘fans of serialised fiction’ – did we enjoy reading or watching a series or prefer one-off, ‘stand-alone’, stories? My response was that I love reading a series and I am enjoying writing one, (the Mullins Family Saga – if I’d known it was to become a series, though, I would have given Max Mullins a more noble, memorable, surname perhaps! Dashwood? Or Mac-something?)

Examining the subject, it is fun, but it also creates its own drawbacks.

For example, November is Nano-month: many writers will use ‘NaNoWriMo’  ( National Novel Writing Month) to scribble down the basics of a novel, in the form of chunks of unedited script, on a daily basis throughout November. Why November? Well in the northern hemisphere November can be the dreariest of all months. After the beauty of October days, with bright sunshine and the trees in their autumn colours, November brings the true end of the year in our gardens and countryside, shorter days, long dark nights, increasing cold. And it is not yet Christmas, so, how to keep going? For writers, hunker down with storytelling.

For a first-time attempt at the long haul of a novel, Nano offers a solution to the question ‘how do I get the first 50,000 words down?’ But for the long-distance series writer, the attraction of ‘just keep going’ will never work. Once you have novel number one published, you have your characters in situ, and they must now develop in believable ways, following up the first story with what they really might do next.  You have family history, you have disputes to carry through or to resolve. You have consequences and memories.

And, that’s also the reason to move into a series. Exploration, and taking things further within established constraints. Seeing if they learn from experience, if they cope with new circumstances … That is the fun of it. And, therein lie the restraints.

After Baby, Baby, will Max and Jenny stay married, given the vast differences in their childhoods? And if so, how and why? How will their kids turn out? How do their careers and ambitions develop? What will crazy Daisy do next?

Even though I don’t subscribe to the rather romantic idea ‘the characters tell me what they will do next’, I have found, working on story number three, that there are some threads leading from past events into a future which I had not exactly planned, or planned at all. In The Labyrinth Year, two of the characters are growing closer as the book progresses, and now 10 years on from there, they are still in touch.

This was ‘never meant to happen’. It is enormously exciting to follow and see where it may go. And, it demands a whole lot of research …in unexpected areas.

On the other hand, they look to be making a bid for the centre stage, not where these two were planned to be in this story. Do some characters ‘come to life’ without the author’s orchestrations? Romantic whimsey, or psychologically predictable? What do you think?

Baby, Baby, and The Labyrinth Year (The Mullins Family Saga, books 1 and 2), published by Hodge Publishing, are available in paperback (or on Kindle). Find more about them on the Hodge website: http://hodgepublishing.co.uk/

Read Francis Guenette’s blogpost on being fans of serialised fiction here

Why call it Pigs to Paintings when it’s about Writing?

pigs through seami st, Pendeenallotments
 Pigs in a sea mist, on the Pendeen Allotments

Today I happened to read a survey for writers. “How much time do you spend outdoors and not sitting down?” It asked. Interesting? Writing has in the past few years sent me back into the outdoors, to walk and observe the natural world. Writing also sent me back to painting a few years ago. Writing, engaging the brain while sitting at a computer, seems to almost demand that human beings return to the practical, the hands on, and use the old skills. The open air calls to be breathed. Many people who work in an office all day are taking up crafts such as knitting, baking, cake decorating as well as painting and drawing in order to satisfy the need to create in three dimensions, and to use their hands rather than simply their “digits” or fingers.

So why those pigs, huh?

We have been away recently to West Cornwall, the inspiration for my novel Baby Baby. Cornwall is a county of contrasts – you wake to sea mist, then in a few hours there is a blue sky and the hot sunny day. See mists wraps the place in the chilly gloom making Midsummer look very much like November, (see photo above, taken 6th July this year!) Contrast the craggy cliffs and deep ” zawns” with the flat of the moors, or the poverty of tumbledown abandoned cottages and Pound Shops on the high Street with the sleek cars bringing surfers to the coast. Or the life of the Newlyn artists’ colony with the lives of their models, the fishing community, vulnerable to whatever the weather threw at them. The villages are dotted with chapels from revival times, a witness perhaps to reliance thrown upon God in an uncertain world.

Ah, the bit about writing … and the paintings …

This year’s holiday in Pendeen village, in far West Cornwall, was a timely reminder, as following on to The Labyrinth Year I am writing the third story in the Mullins family saga series. Part of the story will involve how Jenny and Daze face the possible end of Des and Caro’s marriage and selling of Chapel house, their childhood home. Will Jenny decide that she has grown away from her Cornish roots or will her return to confront her mother and stepfather reactivate the pull of memories and landscape? Meanwhile another more serious question hovers in the background of Jenny and Max’s life, as friends from their past reappear, but will they see what is coming? A tragedy involving Jenny’s workplace engages her mind as she tries to help Shaz through a difficult time. While Daze and her story escape notice.

All this is planned, and now the writer in me must reluctantly be seated at the computer, while the call of the wild remains as memories of time spent walking in the Cornish landscape, or at the beach.

Oh, and Pigs to Paintings was the day when we began by walking up onto the moorland, in the mist, and came upon the allotments and the pigs, and ended it by viewing Stanhope Forbes’s wonderful paintings at the Penlee Gallery, with sunshine, blue sky, and tea outdoors at the gallery cafe. Cornish holidays …

Sennen whitesands beach

 

Writing a Series: re-meeting my characters …

What’ve you been doing? Haven’t seen you in a while …

Yes it’s been while … Now Christmas is thoroughly over: it came with a pile of reading for the dark December/January evenings … I’ve read for review and I’ve beta read a couple of emerging books. And that’s where I’ve been. I need to write up a couple more reviews. All are Indie novels, some in genres I don’t usually read. (You can read my review of Francis Guenette’s Maelstrom on Amazon, or on Goodreads here) This is a novel by a writer whose ‘Crater Lake’ series I’ve enjoyed, and was a departure for her into something rather different. though stamped with the Guenette interest in landscape, indigenous peoples, and her insight into human psychology. P1210724Another was a debut YA fantasy, Philip Davies’ Destiny’s Rebel (available also on Amazon). For contrast, I’m reading (non-Indie) Khulud Khamis’s Haifa Fragments .

As a writer, I’m something of a rebel: for one thing, those writerly myths – the special pen or notebook, the childhood spent with nose in a book, the early stories scribbled in an exercise book … hum … here’s a writer whose serious work began on a keyboard, who drew rather than wrote all those early attempts at storytelling, (the art teacher even at A level was critiquing my work as, ‘Ah – it’s very narrative, isn’t it?’). And my handwriting doesn’t either deserve a special pen or get one. As for the notebook …

Myths aside, when I began writing, (and after those early attempts, two whole novel-length typescripts but not quite there yet) I really wanted to do something different. What is more exciting than the world of life sciences, especially the microscopic world where life begins? The cutting edge of biological science, the ‘how and why’ basics of cells and reproduction?

2 book covers
The Mullins Family novels: Baby, Baby and The Labyrinth Year, an on-going tale …

‘Write what you know’ is a (disputed) piece of advice: interpreting that as ‘write what thrills you’, I invented Jenny Guthrie’s world, set her up with a passionate relationship, and took her on a journey into a world she’d been taught to shun, religious fundamentalism. Research for Baby, Baby was thrilling, (especially being taken to look behind the scenes at fertility clinic, and viewing slides on an electron microscope). I added heaps to my biological knowledge, and got to know much more than I actually needed, and it was all fascinating.

In the follow-up, The Labyrinth Year, Jenny’s attempts at being a ‘feisty female’ academic and a yummy mummy leave her wondering where she went wrong. That was, fictionally, back in 1997.

sennen beach – Version 3
What might this picture say about how we understand love?

 I’m busy getting to know my characters again. Here’s a writerly myth that works for me: let the characters speak to you, and let them as far as possible lead the story. Research is underway (hence tardiness with the blog), and rumoured to include mitochondria and human embryos. Parents and teenagers are causing problems, and friends are sharing confidences. Stepsister Daze (the artist who crept sneakily into Baby, Baby although the book wasn’t meant to be concerned with art, galleries, and suchlike) will as always try to steal the limelight, though her language has ‘mellowed with time’. Genetics is still in there somewhere, and love is being interpreted by various characters in a selection of ways.

So far, Max is keeping secrets to himself.

Confocal_microscopy_with_spectral_imaging-_Five-color_observation_of_organelles_in_Marchantia_polymorpha_thallus_cells_(17594447615)
Confocal microscopy shows us these organelles, (tiny organisms inside a cell)

I’m now getting excited by the possibility of learning more about the mitochondrial research recently approved by the HFEA . And though these mayn’t appear in the book, I have to find a photo which shows organelles … hopefully in creative commons.

Looking to the future, and in the real world : Hawkesbury LitFest, (known as the HULF) will be back on 23rd April again this year. I’m booked to read along will many other Indie authors who appeared last year, and some new ones. This year’s Festival will include poetry and children’s authors.

HULF poster

If you’re anywhere in striking distance, (Hawkesbury Upton is a Cotswold village in South Gloucestershire, UK), do consider joining us!  23rd April is a Saturday this year, and this year’s Festival will run all day. Readings, a selection of panel discussions, and books to browse and buy …

Writing a series: re-connecting with a vision of my characters

 Cambridge: Clare College bridge
Clare College, Cambridge: the bridge

So – when I began Baby, Baby, and even when I decided there was more to tell, and embarked on The Labyrinth Year, series were popular.  But I hadn’t thought in terms of a series. Love you to the Moon (the ‘work in progress’, novel 3 of the Mullins Family saga) now finds Max and Jenny as long-established professionals, into their forties, and parents of teens. It is 2007, and daughter Alice is almost the age Jenny is in some of the backstory scenes of Baby, Baby.

Sennen Village Primary School
Sennen Village Primary School

This is where the writer must skilfully re-connect with the characters, and imagine them forwards through the maturity (or not) that comes with time. Construct a backstory: career events, giving birth and raising kids, all that makes a family saga real for the reader. I shudder at the character changes we’re sometimes presented with by TV soaps – just to fit in the latest cliff-hanger story-line, and I dread falling into that myself!

Clare College entrance, where Jenny met Max
Clare College entrance, where Jenny met Max

Part of me even tries to suggest that this mis-matched pair would surely have parted by now?

If you, reading this, are a writer, I wonder how you would embark on re-finding Jenny, age 42? Last time I knew her, she was barefoot on the beach at Sennen, ten years younger, exiting a labyrinth drawn in the sand by her stepsister Daisy (known as Daze).

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The sand at Whitesands Bay, Sennen Cove

Daisy’s idea was that everyone walked the labyrinth, carrying a stone or other object to represent something they will leave behind as they move on…

 

Jy's stone 2
Jenny kept the stone which she’d forgotten to leave in the centre of the Labyrinth

… But Jenny finds, as she leaves the path, that she’s still carrying her stone. It feels heavy in her hand.

This led me to say, There is more, here … we should continue the  journey…

Like Daze, I’m a visual artist, so I’ve turned to studying the photos I’ve taken, over time, of the key places in Jenny’s life so far …

Lobster boats, Sennen Cove
Lobster boats, Sennen Cove

… the journey from Sennen Primary School, where she was the new girl in Year 2, after her parents separated …

 

 

 

Camb market
Cambridge Market (where Jenny unexpectedly meets Daisy, pregnant …)

to the local Cape Cornwall secondary school in nearby St Just…

 

to studying Natural Sciences at Cambridge

Typical lab desk, Oxford University Dept. of Pharmacology
Typical lab desk, Oxford University Dept. of Pharmacology

 

 

and her career as a research  scientist in Oxford …

Where next, Jenny? And who with?

 

 

Who are your friends and mentors, what is happening back in West Cornwall, and how is it for you, being a career scientist, a wife, and Mum to two bright teenage girls? Is there drama in this – and, who’s perception of love will drive them to despair?

 

 

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 Oxford Canal

The Labyrinth Year begins with a narrowboat holiday,

 

 

and takes Jenny to speak at a conference in California,

 

 

then ends with her career as an Oxford scientist in jeopardy ..

Oxford University science area from the Parks
Oxford University science area from the Parks

N Ben's garden 2008 - 2

And who is trying to take over the storytelling next?

Available from the Hodge website (www.hodgepublishing.com) (or Amazon ...)
Available from the Hodge website (www.hodgepublishing.com) (or Amazon …)