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…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What’s Write with Christmas?

This year many writers I know have blogged comments on how they are not, really not, looking forward to Christmas. Often, it’s deeply personal: a tragedy struck them at Christmas, and the season has become one of awakening unbearable memories. And they sound apologetic, or resentful, or both: but to feel that way is reasonable, and sad. And ‘stuff happens …’ So, Christmas has become huge, year on year there seems to be more of everything – food, fun, feasting, drinking, partying, carols and travel and stress … and greater expectation … But there’s other reasons to find ‘Christmas’ a unbearable prospect, and those lie within our grasp …

My book The Labyrinth Year

TLY: Art, Science, and Losing your Way

includes a Carol service scene where I’ve  tried to catch the wonder and magic seen though the eyes of a child … but that wonder and magic are on the back burner this year: behind the busyness and the buying, and certainly behind the mood of a society in political uncertainty… Many of us may feel, as Yeats said ‘Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold’.

Does our Christmas need a centre?

An article I read recently, advertising a fundraising carol service, quoted one of the organisers explaining that it’s necessary to reassure people who might buy tickets that, although this is a kind of Carol service, it’ll be “kind of festive” but “not particularly religious”.

And here’s the thing: ‘Christmas’, historically, has always been a season feasting and fun, though its origins come from the Bible story of the birth of Jesus. It celebrated something: it was the champagne and congratulation cards for a birth. Throughout history in the West, the story has probably strayed far from how the event actually was – adding in the Innkeeper, his wife, the donkey, and other elements (those tea towel head-dresses for example), familiar to anyone who’s had to do with a school ‘Nativity Play’. This ‘religious bit’, once central, continued to give it ‘meaning’, a reason to exist, a reason to celebrate, a birthday – makes sense …

What’s wrong with the story?

So what is the threat in keeping up awareness of the origins of Christmas by telling the story which lies behind the Festival? It’s a wonderful and mysterious story, full of the nearest thing to magic, with its angel choir and a moving Star leading that camel train of astronomers across the desert. To describe the story as ‘religious’, as a contrast to being “light-hearted,” and assure them that there will be “nothing from the Bible” in this carol concert (held in a Cathedral) seems to clearly demonstrate that there is a terrible fear of the Bible, and its ability to take the shine out of Christmas, and make us miserable. Heaven forbid, we may find that book attractive, full of amazing stories of the ancient Middle East as it is. And then where will we be? In chapel, on our knees, ignoring the feast?

I’d suggest that celebrating the basis of a faith is not the same as being ‘religious’: and I’d agree that in today’s parlance, the word drips with gloomy and negative connotations, and with disapproval of fun and celebration. But what the Puritans did to ban Christmas was long ago. The whole idea of feasting and fun at Christmas implies the opposite: celebrations and joy in keeping the feast along with telling the story is perfectly fine. However, apologies have been made, and assurances that there won’t be any religion. 

So Christmas is okay without the story?

The well known carols usually find their inspiration and context in the story – or myth – or fact – of the birth of Jesus. In the start of a life on which the so-called religion of Christianity is based. And there is no real way around this – however much the desired audience dislike the awkward origins of our midwinter celebrations… Having dismissed the very grounds of Christmas, we still want a celebration of carols?  

Would it not be more honest to restrict all the readings by the celebrity readers (invited to “make it interesting”)  entirely to secular writing, and the singers to well-known popular songs? This way the event would neither  offend the secular attendees, nor create a need to ensure that anything ‘serious’ is counterbalanced, with an ending that is upbeat, flippant and not religious (in other words nothing to do with the Bible. So that everyone is sent home happy.

A festival without a centre, then?

The message of the article promoting the Macmillan fundraiser carol service is tragically interesting. It tells us by implication that “religion” – believing in the central Christmas message of God becoming ‘incarnate’ as a human being in order to live out the pattern of a generous and unselfish life, to ‘bring light in darkness’ – is sad, downbeat and best avoided. ‘Happiness’ is evidently  found by rejecting the Christmas message, and embracing instead the satisfaction of our own appetites and emotional excitement. If this is so, then why Christmas in the first place, and certainly why now? What can be ‘rescued’ by the many people who are for one reason or another, not in the mood for, not in the state of health for, just ‘not  feeling Christmassy’? What makes this so sad is that in times of suffering, loss, or loneliness there is actually nowhere to turn at Christmas. Christmas underlines what, materially, we don’t have. What, materially, we’re expected to have. Even non-materially – the expected mythical ‘family’ or ‘love’ … Christmas without the religious bits becomes merely a time to do more than we have energy for in the darkest, dampest, coldest time of year, to travel in terrible weather, to overeat and to overspend – and not much else. A time maybe to be unwillingly alone. As, on the last day – ‘Christmas Day’ – everyone (seemingly) is to shut themselves  away in tight little family groups, keeping out the neighbours, the world at large, and the many people who ‘have to work’ so that the infrastructure and the emergency services keep going…

What’s left?

The outside … No surprise that many people have reasons to feel ‘unChristmassy’: rough sleepers, sick people, anyone who doesn’t have a partner, or a family, or is a ‘migrant’ awaiting deportation … And what’s important seems to be that it’s necessary to become a celebrity in order to be interesting – think of those carol service readers, who must be celebrities to help pull in an audience…

No surprise really that many people have a reason to feel left out of all this …

Strange thing is that the so-called religious people would say that they are celebrating the greatest celebrity of  them all. In a dark world and political uncertainty the message of light coming where there is darkness is amazing. The “religious side” is a message of hope – for anyone and everyone, which doesn’t depend on wealth, status, state of mind, or unending pleasure … while it’s still about The true light, which gives light to everyone, … coming into the world.

 

Brexit Blues and Advent Hope

(photos: my own)

From Halloween to Thanksgiving, Black Friday to cyber Monday, and the new one, giving Tuesday, we have journeyed to the beginning of Advent. Advent is now of course the season of chocolate calendars, shopping, glitter, parties, multiple Christmas trees, eating and drinking, and maybe the great trek to see the in-laws. It’s also where we’ve now met the real debates of Brexit … The pressure is on …

And as pressure is the run-up to Christmas, so confusion is the run-up to Brexit. Let’s see how Advent and Brexit mix and match:

Stress – stressed out for 2 years now, we Brits are faced with our second Brexit-season run-up to Christmas, paralleling arguments and debates in Parliament with … Extra shopping, extra catering, extra excitement, extra parties, extra alcohol—to buy, to make, to plan, to consume … wasn’t running up to Xmas bad enough already …?

Brexit was sold to the public as if it would improve our lives, freeing us from being in thrall to something called the EU, which was supposed to be making our lives harder.

  Christmas is sold to the public as a glorious extended holiday time, filled with fun and pleasure, freeing us from the daily grind of work, which is supposed to make our lives more exciting …

Are both Brexit and Christmas actually fantasies, ideas, maybe nostalgia for ‘what it was like when we were very young’?

Brexit tells a story about ‘taking back control’ from a dominating power…

Christmas tells a story about the birth of a baby who was meant to ‘take back’ his nation from a dominating power (or so they first imagined …)

Brexit may involve us in ‘stockpiling’ essential medicines and food …

Christmas always involves stocking up on essential food—not to mention luxury food—and possibly medicines …

The thought of Brexit is exciting (for some people …) because it is meant to bring about change …

Christmas is exciting because … because it eats up all your change …

(photo: my own)

You get the point: stress, anxiety, and worry. Battling through more than one adrenaline-ladened period of time, made more difficult by darkness, dreary damp weather, the season of coughs and colds, the school holidays … then add the demand to be cheerful because of all those glittery trees, the red and green Christmas jumpers (too warm for the late December mild spell), and that jangling upbeat music in the stores…

Are either of these worth the hassle?

Advent is meant to be a time of watching, and waiting … the idea is to live frugally, to be ‘awake’ to the signs of the times, to notice what needs doing and to prepare ourselves … Advent’s hope includes what we can do to make the future better … 

The Christmas cards may show Santa with a sleigh of presents – or they may show a refugee-type scene of a couple, the man leading a donkey, the woman seated on it (she’s heavily pregnant, but we don’t usually see that). The Brexit scenario covers both … ‘taking back control’ can mean riches or poverty and rejection, which for whom, depends who you are… 

Against the Brexit backdrop, this year the circus of the run-up to Christmas appears to be wilder, more glittery, more demanding,  centred more than ever on partying and fun, as the big stores reveal their Christmas videos, and the on-line outlets rain down advertising emails designed to tempt – with money-off to help us spend …. which makes you think they must be desperate …How much does it take to drive a person away, I wonder, what is the tipping point, when shall we all begin to believe in cancelling Christmas? How many of us are already responding by scaling down, giving smaller gifts, donating meals to Crisis?

So, if all the hassle is giving you the Brexit Blues …How many of us wouldn’t mind if, as Liam Fox said, ‘Brexit is stolen from us’ (BBC Website News 5/12/2018) – just as the wonderful magic of Christmas seems to have been …?

(photo: my own)

Advent is the ‘not yet’ for celebrations, but it is time of hope …for an end to poverty, and violence, and a beginning for climate justice … the characteristics of real freedom … Advent, as we open our calendars or light our Advent candles, is for watching, waiting, being awake, reading the signs… and making positive, non-commercial, changes …

Maybe even for Taking Christmas Back

A couple of relevant Christmas sites:

Useful blog post for parents of kids with additional needsFind help for Going shopping, surviving Christmas here

Giving to Crisis – buy a meal for rough sleepers here

And a spot of on-line Christmas present solutions: how about one of these books?

‘Enjoyed this story about science, research and issues, but mostly about families and how they work. It’s a love story too. I learned a lot, and rooted for the characters to get it together. It’s a good book when you care about what happens …’ (‘Lynn’ Amazon review)

The novel is structured around the shifting perspectives of three people – Oxford fertility researcher, Jenny; her doctor husband Max; and Jenny’s step-sister Daisy. ….The descriptions of Oxford and Cornwall are breathtaking. It felt like being there. Whether a homey pub, a Church, a research lab, a doctor’s office, a country fair or a beach – it all rang wonderfully true.’ (Francis Guenette, fellow author, Amazon review)

 

 

 

 

Writing, creativity, and cliché

Writers and readers: how often have you read or even written something like this: ‘Where a divan bed (substitute tea pot, table, pile of books …etc) served as sofa (dormouse’s house, desk, support for a pot plant …etc)’? Or given your protagonist, male of female, a ‘stiff white shirt’?

Cliché abounds in the world of writing …

How about the inevitable ‘procrastinating …’ which all writers must admit to?  How about ‘and should I have heard of you?’ as the (dreary, hopefully positive) response to admitting you actually write to earn your daily crust? (Or not, as the case may be – because you procrastinate?) (And the turning away …) Do you spend your life in pyjamas, no time to dress properly , the Muse awaits … You surely don’t wear that stiff white shirt – how does one move the arms when wearing one of those? Won’t it crackle when the hero embraces the heroine (in her stiff white shirt)?

To be serious,

this is meant to be about that first cliché – the divan/teapot/table/pile of books which serve … Never mind it’s cliché (a thing can’t serve – can’t it?)  The thing was being used as whether it chose or not. Let’s get creative: what other ways to say that someone hadn’t a sofa/dormouse’s house/desk/pot plant stand, and grabbed the only substitute to hand …

Meanwhile – I guess when someone is needed to do something, ‘will you serve as …’ is more reasonable. We serve on committees, we serve (if in the military) our country, we serve (if a shop worker) our customers. We can serve a meal …

Now, here’s the thing:

writing in the SH
Writing and gardening: creative stuff!

serving relies on, well, reliability. As a ‘creative’, as a person who writes, I know that I am not reliable. In a fallow phase, I may serve (in a toddler group, for example, or making cakes to sell at a fete) but, in full flight with a deadline, writing a novel, I can’t promise to serve reliably. Or should I? Which takes precedence: the writing or the service to others?

Good question. Some people would say, ‘You must be faithful to yourself, and achieve your goals’.

Personally, I’m not sure about that one. It feels isolationist … and a bit self-important. Solipsistic, in fact.

However, as ‘a creative’, I know I am not reliable. I know my novel, and my paintings,

Daze 11 /04
Even a creative kid has the problem! 

are important, they are who I am … They will die without my help to bring them to birth …When there’s a call to serve – on the charity stall, the committee, putting out chairs for the concert, counting the traffic so we residents can complain to the council … Or, in more serious, long-term ways, Is that a good excuse? Can creatives make good volunteers?

Over to you …

‘Reading and writing: what do writers do all day?’

Good question. From a series, asking ‘What do Artists do all day?

In my writing – well, what do I do all day? 

Is it ‘writing’?  Actually, unwinding the story thread onto the page/screen? In reality: it’s housework, on-line-admin (dreary but dreary!), keep the fridge stocked, keep the garden from becoming a wilderness, keep in touch on-line to maintain a ‘platform’ (!), research for writing, planning for writing, thinking for writing, actual writing …

Trying to reach the point where you can enter the zone and work … without interruptions from real life, on-line life, or the cats … While lots of writing happens in my head, where it queues for the opportunity to hit the keys …

Reading is absolutely essential for writing.

Writers don’t only write reviews of other writers’ books,  and whiter about sales, marketing, and the Amazon algorithms (we do all of that): they exchange gossipy stuff like ‘what are you reading?’ (we’re hoping the others will respond ‘Your book, of course!’)

Today I found this note (to one of my on-line groups), sitting on my desktop:

“You asked the group what we’re reading. I’m reading Jessica Bell’s memoir ‘I Didn’t Mean to be a Rebel’ and Jodi Picoult’s ‘Great Small Things’. In tandem. Alternately. Together. And when I have time! Both insightful and both recommended. I’ve just finished Francis Guenette’s ‘No Compass to Right’ and am writing up a review of this lovely compassionate character-driven fourth novel in her Crater Lake series. (Yes, it’s all the heavy brigade story-wise: thoughtful, thought-provoking, and somewhat sociological … but never ever boring …) Well, you did ask …!”

Reading, like writing, is time-consuming.

But is the way you learn to write. (I happen to think it is one of the very best ways, and am grateful after nearly 50 years (gosh, it really is!) that we read Dickens at school. I never thought I’d be a writer … but looking back, reading Dickens wasn’t a waste of time in a past era where people thought differently, but a wonderful example of how to create and keep up dramatic tension! (Yes, I’d read them straight through, to find out what happened, not chapter by chapter as homework…)

books read June-August 2017
Books I’ve read over the summer …

Have you, reading this, read any of these?

(You can find reviews of some the books I’ve recently read, here on the Hodgepublishing website … shall be adding more reviews, including of the Picoult and Jessica Bell’s, soon… You can also read about, or purchase my books Baby, Baby and The Labyrinth Year, on the website …)

Hearing or seeing

Do you hear or see words on a page? Does it make a difference to your reading? In my family, the creative arts are represented by music and visual arts: people don’t write, or at least, they don’t write for a living, or write fiction. Very interesting. I realise that I hear what I read, and when I write, I see it like a movie, and I hear the words as the file out onto the page. There’s the musical ear, then. Despite I don’t play an instrument or sing.

As a writer, it’s almost impossible not to read ‘critically’, studying the style without really wanting to. Cliches can’t not jump out, and slow passages beg to be edited. Authors divide into two groups: let’s call them ‘raconteurs’] and ‘experiencers’. Raconteurs take the reader to a cafe, and having ordered two coffees (let’s say), and palate of delicious cakes, proceed to tell the tale. Or maybe it’s the pub, a pint, and sandwich.

Experiencers take the reader by the hand, and draw them right inside the story. ‘Here we are, step into my book: we’ll share the lives of the characters, we’ll feel what they feel as they feel it, see what they see when they see it, run from it if it’s scary, be embraced by it if it’s friendly, scent it, taste it, live it …’ You are inside, not noticing the story arc, not stopping long enough for a character to ‘tell herself …’ anything, because she has thought it, in the instant it took:  ‘Courage! Take care! Trembling at the roaring of the dragon in the mouth of the cave, I seize my magic sword. Excalibur! I’m charging towards the beast, lungs painfully gulping breaths, legs shaking, as the sweat rolls down my back..’

I love those writers who draw you into the book. I learn from them. A good story, with a great plot, can always be a page-turner as it unfolds. But when are you inside one which gives you the all-round experience … you stop reading, to study how this works … It’s one of the things which writers do – work to improve our writing. Edit and re-write, edit and re-write…

For this of course it’s preferable to be a person who loves solitude, which I am not. To write, I must climb inside my own work in progress, meet my characters once again, and fully engage …

You can find a good article on the process of writing here: (I agree with a lot of it, but not all (for example, I definitely don’t go for the arse on your chair whatever bit (unhealthy, and battering the  brain when it’s empty and needs to relax a while doesn’t work for all of us!… but, it’s comprehensive, lively and entertaining …)

Writing: Living in the Gaps in between … cats, blackberries, and pruning the jasmine … an overview …

blackberries
Distractions or necessary reality? 

One of those conversations appeared on Facebook today: the ones between writers where someone suggests (or puts up someone else’s blog suggesting) that we must ‘write something every day, in order to keep up/improve your writing skills.’   …’

Another version is ‘morning pages’: upon waking, or as soon as possible after (take the kids to school, feed the cat, walk the dog …etc, but do not forget you’re a writer) seize your notebook and write solidly for ten to twenty minutes. Not stopping, and even if what you write is rubbish. This will improve your skills, keep you writing …

There was some disagreement: is this helpful, or even wise? One person puts a new poem on her blog everyday. Another swears by deadlines, rather than daily practice. You get idea.

In practice, I don’t write every day, but I’m living in the gaps in between. Between my physical life and the life in my creative brain, where a scene can rest for days before there is space (between the realities) to write. And when that arrives, the scene may improve (vastly) on its sketchy beginnings.

The last scene I wrote, I’d only imagined in advance that Jenny (a research scientist and a mum two teenage girls) would at some point, at home, be discussing with her daughters what the family would all do at half term. When the scene arrived on the laptop, it brought along its own vivid details: (here’s an edited extract …)

‘How about,’ Zoe says, as she sidles into our study, bringing a tray with two mugs of mug of hot chocolate laced with vanilla, and the cinnamon biscuits she’s been making, ‘How about – it’s very boring for anyone who’s in a single parent family. When their Mum has to go to work. And they’ve just been told that if they bring a book along, they can read quietly in the St Hildie’s library…’

I shut down the rather peculiar e-mail I’ve been reading, and slide my arm around Zoe. ‘Zo-zo, this smells like heaven, darling. Have seat.’

‘Shall I move these?’

‘Careful. Can you dump those files on the window seat? I’ll need them tomorrow.’

… Then, head on one side, ‘Mummy, I thought, maybe we could ask Annalise to come with us to Granny’s house at Sennen?’

Mmm, I think. Daze will be there, with Rothko. Rothko, aged eight, is hardly a companion for a thirteen year old, slightly geeky, girl. Where would we all sleep? ‘I’ll think about it.’

‘For how long? Will you think?’

‘As long as it takes?’  We could, I realise, take a tent and pitch it in the garden. We have a family-sized tent, in the attic. Annalise and Stacey are, however, not really my kind of person. What is it with children, when they make friends with people you’d never hang out with? ……

  ……. ‘Mummy?’

‘Yes, Zo-zo.’ (She’s been reading one of the undergraduate scripts, something I shouldn’t let her do.) ‘Okay, … I’m wondering if Granny and Des would be okay with us pitching our tent in their garden, and some of us – maybe you and Annalise – could use it to sleep in? Because it’s hardly an elastic house, and Daze will be staying, with Rothko.’

‘Yes!’ Zoe punches the air. ‘And that’ll keep Rothko out of our things. I’ll take a padlock, zip up the tent and padlock it: during the day of course.’

‘I hope that’s just an idea, not something you’re planning?’

‘Rothko can be a pain…Shall I phone Annalise?’

Hot choc with vanilla, cinnamon biscuits, undergraduate examination papers, and Zoe’s sudden request to bring a particular friend whom Jenny isn’t keen on … that all arrived  and the scene came alive – and did I add,it takes place in a twilight room with Jenny;s desk illuminated by just a small lamp? I  had better …

Today a further scene forms in my mind: they have arrived at Jenny’s old home in West Cornwall, the holiday venue. Jenny’s partner (Max, a GP) is putting up the tent in the garden for Zoe and Annalise to sleep in. Possibly, it is raining or there is a sea mist: I don’t yet know which will arrive. Or, maybe, a wonderful golden Cornish seascape sunset… Max hears Jenny and stepsister Daze arguing inside the house… Where and when will he ask Daze to ‘lay off Jenny, she’s got a lot on her mind. A rather upsetting thing happened at work…’ and Daze counters with ‘You’re assuming I’ve got not problems in my life right now?’ (And will she, as she used to in a previous book, add a few choice bits of colourful language, or has she left that behind? Does she still smoke? Where are the kids? Who’s listening?)

It will reveal itself as I type – but the essence is stored already. It cooks gently in small gaps between the realities of the day.  Both cats had routine health checks. The jasmine (fastest growing fragrant shrub I know!) got pruned so the plants living its shade could see the sky. We went blackberry picking: the warmer drier weather earlier means fruits are ripening earlier. The bramble blushes were covered with more berries than I’ve ever seen, shiny black ripe ones, red ones coming on, a few still tightly green.

bee on thistle
Busy on its daily tasks …

There were rabbits bounding about, bees on the late thistle flowers, and a huge gorse bush covered in yellow blooms. A kestrel watching in the sky.

The berries (several kilos of them) will become jam.

Seems to me we fiction writers live two lives in tandem: words and events, words and events. Keeping the writing flowing along may not rely only on writing every day but on living creatively in the gaps in between.

Oh, but I did write yesterday, didn’t I? I hand wrote a long letter, to a friend I keep up with now she’s moved away… The pleasure to scribble away by hand, not typing a keyboard …

Getting back to the Writing …

BB new coverTLY new cover

2016 – a ‘Labyrinth Year’ for Fiction writers?

Many writers post only about writing…

Though it’s arguable that we should connect readers to what else matters in our lives, and why it can take well over a year to write a book.

As they say, not only frustrating and sad things are stressful: our first grandchild arrived in August, so last  year we had all the excitement, and the involvement, of the waiting, the arrival, and the getting to know. Otherwise, for me, the stresses of 2016 that were detrimental to writing were political instability and computer problems, occurring enough to disrupt every attempt to live creatively in the imaginary past world of 2007.   image6 (1)

What survived these better was my painting: two pieces for an exhibition in North Wales, as well as a number of others. I’ve been observing the natural world and taking photographs in our local Nature Reserve.

heron
A heron hides in the reed bed

And with others I’ve attempted to found a

lasting ALLi (Alliance of Independent Authors) local meeting in Oxford. I’ve done two interviews at Oxfordshire Live: (local TV). One, with my friend and fellow ALLi author Debbie Young, successfully went out. The other, with 4 of us ALLi authors, was scuppered by the station, which was a pity, as we were reading stories for Christmas.

I’ve been doing Mindfulness courses and making cakes, (some for the courses …)

 Fiction and Politics …

It was really when one of my ‘friends’ on social media posted a writing-related question that I realised I wasn’t the only fiction writer whose creative imagination had been hit by the political uncertainty, and its resolution. When asked, how or whether the political events of 2016 events had influenced our writing, many others were affected, even knocked sideways, by Brexit and/or the American election. A problem area particularly for contemporary fiction, though a possible encouragement for dystopian fantasy writers. And we contemporary fiction writers were already disturbed, concerned, and generally aware of the mass movement people across the Mediterranean and Europe, and alert to what this might mean. Even, if like me, your novel is set ten years earlier, in 2007, some fairly astonishing facts are now waiting to become future history, so should we take that into account?

In the present WIP (working title LYTM ), part of the Mullins Family Saga, we find Alice and Zoe (daughters of the couple who first met in Baby, Baby in 1984) as teenagers. Concerned for the future, with memories of the London bombings (July 7 2005) and conscious that attitudes towards the Muslim community have been influenced… it’s background, but it’s there…

The how-to of getting back to creative, imaginative, original writing:

Once 2017 began, my first decision was to give Baby, Baby and The Labyrinth Year new, exciting covers, to appeal to my ‘target readers’ out there. So, (via ALLi) I found a designer, and we got started. It  has become an inspirational project, and we agreed to also re-do the paperback versions. Lots of creative interaction over the details – and of course the blips and bits that need re-thinking … like asterisks … (see below).  These should hopefully be ready for the Hawkesbury LitFest, planned for Saturday 22nd April this year. Hawkesbury 2017 iconBoth Edmund and I will be involved in panel discussions at the “HULF” this time.

Here’s how I’ve made progress:

‘Plotter or Pantser: which are you?’ If you ever write a novel, you may be asked this question.

January and February were all planning. Gathering all the notes and scenes from 2015-2016. Putting them into an order, so the narrative made sense. Then who was doing what when, and what others were doing the same time, was all plotted on a 2007 calendar.

I teased out the development of plot and characters, and the backstory into 3 separate files.

This became a summary, evolving into a scene by scene file of the steps which would carry the story through from beginning to end. Inevitably, an author will be able to see whether there’s a problem at this point: mine was the ‘floppy middle’, well known to fiction writers.

clean lab, fridge cabinetAnd research …  I’ve been busy with all manner of research – science, place, weather, the News, slang … incredibly grateful for the people I know who have experience and knowledge in many diverse areas … neighbours, friends, contacts have been willing to talk about their lives, work, and places they’ve lived.  Some such as Penny, Ant, and Lianne who’ve supplied help and editorial/subject corrections in previous books are contributing again.

Meanwhile … daily life, a line or two from e-mails

I’ve received a strange tax form sent from Amazon, discovered a problem with asterisks in the new files which need adding … was hoping to watch Call the Midwife on iPlayer!  How life goes … Never dull. Some time I will sew a cushion back into its case … not today…

I have been trying to find the correct Foam Floormat for Leo – thickness, size, with or without letters/numbers – as they are hoping to stay next weekend …

I had a chat with our neighbours (who have worked in overseas development, and medicine) about where and how a British GP might be able to do a spot of work in an overseas setting (mid-career) … after some discussion, the idea of  South Africa came up … would be really helpful to have an extended conversation about anything you could add having lived there …(rural area …)

‘Could you please put this notice about the Food Bank into the church news sheet?’

I would … like to chat about the atmosphere in a lab in 2007 … styles of working, whether people use iPods …How might Jenny re-join an Oxford lab after her career break?

Hawkesbury 2017 icon

 PS: Don’t forget – Hawkesbury Litfest on 22nd April!

Wherever next, or “Happy 2017”?

I was a teen in the age of aquarius. An age of love, light, and humanity, unlike the current “Age of Pisces (Remember the song, from ‘Hair’? Maybe not…)

Talk, (not so long ago) ,was of how we have moved into a digital age.

dark days (fog)
Life in the post-truth era …?

But now we are also living in the post truth era.  

On New Year’s day, (a dark, damp day here), a friend posted an article on Facebook: Are we heading for in a post-human rights world? (Well, it was only what I’d been thinking – but here was the detail…)

So, …‘how was your Christmas? Ours was a lovely few days of family togetherness, and

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Family togetherness

suspension of considering the gloomy realities of 2016.  Although as a family we’re all roughly on the same side, at Christmas lunch political talk was banned on pain of having to eat another sprout for each politically driven remark – I (Mum to the instigators) took and ate two before succumbing with humour to the ban!

 It’s probably easier for us parents to ‘accept’ the darkness of the times. Our adult children, midway into careers, have a possibly worse prospect ahead in terms of employment, pensions, raising a family. Food Banks were almost unknown when we were in our mid 30s, and Crisis at Christmas Crisis at Christmas (founded ten years earlier, 1972) a relatively new idea. This year, our younger son was spending part of his Christmas holiday helping out at his local crisis centre.

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 Written by a fellow ALLi author , and recommended by me (photo, Amazon UK site)

 

Over the holidays, I’ve read a novel which partly draws its central theme from the  Aldermaston Marches. And the terrible events not only of Hiroshima but of nuclear testing which continued – without detailed public knowledge of its consequences  – throughout what appeared to us post-World War II children a safe and peaceful world, (despite the Cold War).

As this New Year arrives, it’s only too evident that decades on, we are living in dark days: 2016 has brought extraordinary changes, uncovered or unleashed hatred, disagreement, bewilderment, and fear. Civil war in Syria since 2011 sends thousands of civilians running for their lives, and the knock-on effect of camps full of refugees has frightened people. We in the western world aren’t used to such movement of peoples. What changes might it mean? Atrocities in major European cities and towns, the bombing of hospitals and schools in war torn countries, clearly ignore the most basic ‘human rights’. ‘Happy Christmas’ and ‘Happy New Year’ are lovely phrases when genuinely meant, but ring with a hollow sound while there is violence, suspicion, and little compassion, and the new age is described as ‘post-truth’. (And did I really see Donald Trump quoted as saying that torture kind of ‘does the job’, intelligence-wise?)

Ironically, 2016 also saw the demise of a huge number of iconic public figures, household names from the arts to politics. Who can replace Victoria Wood, (who got away with such lines as ‘Beat me on the bottom with the Women’s Weekly’ )? Can anyone be the new Prince?  Or Neville Marriner? Or mother and daughter actors Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher?

We face a new year, and with this astonishing concept of ‘post-truth’ to join the digital age, and the post-Christian cultural shift.

So, how do we live in these times? It’s hit my writing right in the centre – my ‘work in progress’ being a contemporary family saga which examines our Western values …

It would be easy to make a clarion call, saying with the Queen by doing many small acts of kindness. She, as we know, had a bad cold, so missed her usual trips to church this Christmas. Many others will have attended traditional Carol Services or Midnight Mass. How much the emphasis on the baby Jesus is relevant, among the general celebratory, festive, wintery, activities is hard to tell: carols like Away in a Manger or See amid the Winter’s Snow can miss the point. ‘Peace on earth’ sang the angel choir in the Christmas story…

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Annunciation 2017: Gabriel shows Mary her surprising future …

The Magnificat, (Mary’s song, from the earliest part of the ‘Christmas story’ ) is very ‘political’.  This baby’s mother, Mary, is hardly the ‘Mother mild’ of ‘Once in Royal David’s City’. Her song praises God for promising to shake up society. The baby Jesus grew up as a predictable son of Mary, who understood about equality, and human rights. His story of the care, and tolerance, which a traveller (the original “Good Samaritan”) showed towards a stranger from another culture and religion, demonstrate the type of attitudes communities and nations need to express towards one another. ‘Peace on earth’ wasn’t simply a beautiful choral display by angels: it was a hope, or wish, or even a prayer or a resolution, for a better future.

One small act of kindness – yes. Mary’s song is about provision for the poor. It questions the power of the rich, it welcomes and celebrates an ending of oppression. It’s also why my painting of the Annunciation features Mary as a student activist …

2017 could be a challenge to us all. What are ‘traditional English/Western values’? How do we mend the rifts in our own society? How can the global community turn from destroying itself to achieve co-operation and harmony? How can the benefits of health care, science, and technology be used fairly and for peace?

Human Rights are really only a beginning – how can the world think to step aside?

 … and, how can anyone be a fiction writer, when there are so many wrongs to right …? It’s my commitment … I just hope it goes some way to convince some readers something worthwhile …

Crime and Punishment in Life and Lit: as featured in The Archers

Happy Families: who sees?
Happy Families: who sees?
Excuse me, if you don’t live in the UK, for talking about a British soap opera, one which probably won’t appear, like Downton, on your TV screens.
I’ve always used The Archers as nice quiet lunch break entertainment.

But for the past 2 years it’s become instead a nail biting tension-raiser.  I’m not about to rant about that. I’m thinking about how we writers draw in our readers.

If you read crime novels, why do you love them? 

Most people seem to enjoy crime fiction for what offers in terms of ‘who (and how) dunnit?’ The crafty patterning. The pleasure of trying to beat the author in uncovering the answers to the detective’s questions. The skill in writing crime is similar to the skill of composing/solving a crossword puzzle. A classic crime story usually doesn’t spend time on deeply developing the characters, since the pleasure of reading, and the essence of page-turning, isn’t primarily rooted in, well, rooting for them. Though of course it can, if there is an element of  adventure, or if rather than focusing on the solving the crime the story involves ‘woman’ (or child, or even man) ‘in jeopardy’.

So what’s interesting and why?

 Here we have a quiet, jogging-along sort of serial story. The Archers suddenly builds up and pursues a storyline where there is a vile villain, a woman jeopardy, and a very real social situation.  Contrast readers’/hearers’ emotional involvement with typical crime stories and this tale’s use of already-developed, well-known characters.

Maybe you (follower or casual reader of the blog) don’t listen to The Archers. Or maybe you do. Maybe you liked Helen, Henry, and Helen’s parents and other relatives already. Or maybe you found Helen boring and slightly neurotic, and Henry a sickeningly drippy kid: the received wisdom has tended towards ‘the awful Henry’. Whichever, we who listen have been taken through the stages of domestic abuse over time with these characters, and far from standing back and studying the patterning of the storyline, we’ve been sucked right in. I found myself caring about Helen as if she was a friend. Willing her to wake up and smell the coffee – or rather, taste the the deception, savour the distastefulness, and perceive the whole false flattery and fantasy that horrible Rob has been throwing over her from the very start of his wooing.

The reader/listener as helpless friend

Why the hell, we think, didn’t she realise what marital rape was? Face up to that sex on the sofa which wasn’t romance, it was a deliberate attack. To ‘get her pregnant’. How can she not hate and long to be rid of the foetus she realises was planted by that act of rape? What makes her willingly/unwillingly submissive? Can she be feeling anything but fear of this man in her life, her house, her bed?

Evidently, yes. She does. Why else did she swear her brother and her friend to secrecy: and so land herself with no witnesses to the true awfulness of her life?

And why do we care – she’s only a voice on the radio, an actress in a studio, expertly using a script.

Writing and acting to a high standard – even though it’s a soap

But, we do care. Or we can. I have. Could feel my  heart beating, my blood pressure rising, as I listened this past few weeks. When Rob derided her. When he lured Henry increasingly into his foul net of lies and promises and deceits. When he separated Helen from her family and brought in his mother as replacement. And finally, when he mocked and derided her and bawled at Henry, after handing Helen a weapon to do the deed (did he hope she would wound him, and thus prove herself psychotic?). What were his plans for poor Henry, long term?

Helen, predictably, protectively, snapped and hit back when he began to abuse her child, and now she’s been arrested. I am caught. I care as if she were real. I am also horrified that a woman so abused and traumatised is being put through arrest and interrogation by the police. Does she deserve punishment? Doesn’t he?

Because I know this is being written as true to life as possible?

Not only that. 

Because I know what they don’t know: the  background to everything. I was there. They were not. I was a fly on the wall throughout.

A practical lesson in writing

 The characters have been carefully built up so we care. Each scene of Helen’s torture by Rob has been carefully crafted. Each declaration of his ‘love and caring’ with expensive presents. Each odd occurrence, for example that secret wedding replacing Helen’s plans. The time frame has been real, and the situations well researched.

The impact of  characterisation well done grips the listener/reader. As I wrote before, writing a series involves getting to really know your characters … and their developing over time…

May Love You to the Moon (the work in progress) grip like this!

It is also a warning

This is the face of ‘non-violent’ domestic abuse. The stuff of taunting, and control. It is also (to my mind) the reason why the whole idea of women’s being expected to be ‘submissive’ in a relationship is, and has always been, so wrong. The reason why ‘obey’ is now so rightly out of the Church of England marriage service, and hopefully all marriage ceremonies. In my opinion, anyway. Control has no place in intimate relationships.

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Happy Families: who sees?
AUTHOR EVENT:

Celebrate books and reading:

It will soon be time for the second  Hawkesbury LitFest … Saturday 23rd April, all dayat Hawkesbury Upton … author readings,talks, poetry, children’s activities … in a Cotswold Village setting 

 

 

 

Writerly myths: ‘I’ll put you in my novel!’

I’ll put you in my novel!

It’s a classic myth: along with the writerly notebook carried at all times. Once you let it out, you’re a writer, the first question from family and close friends, ‘Oh, are you  going to put us in your novel?’ (Groan)

If you are a writer, the tease, ‘I’ll put you in my novel!’

working in the SHLet’s look at the myth…

So writers always carry notebooks, and have this habit of seizing the moment, and noting down anything which can later appear in their writing? Writers are people who sew patchwork quilts from scraps on real life…articles, novels , etc.? Maybe.

There is after all great skill in choosing colours, and maybe following the old American quilt designs. And in all those tiny, tiny stitches (unless you cheat and use your machine …)

But using lives …Is it kind, is it honourable, is it ethical, do we have the right?

Of course, we may’ve spread the word tongue in cheek

… hard to tell how far into cheek. Just a little bit sideways (like a crooked smile?) or tucked safely away, as if to avoid the dentist’s drill?   

It might seem a bit disingenuous, but, my reaction to the mythical ‘Will you be putting us in your novel?’ is a genuine No.

Not only because I’d so hate it myself. ‘Put’ into a novel, like a china ornament placed on a shelf? The outside of me: the way I dress; my (oh too loud, a friend said recently) voice, booming across a room; my love of cats; or my circumstances as the mum of twins, who though living in the midst of sophisticated intellectuals and academics, does not drink wine?  Not the essential me. And, how stupid would I feel if, had I ‘put’ a friend or family person into a novel, when they read it, were upset, disgusted, or never spoke to me again? They’d have the right: we can’t know the inner selves of others, and a novelist, in essence, deals not in outsides but inner selves. And selves that fit.

Jigsaw People

It’s like a jigsaw: does this piece go there?  Or are we forcing it in, to hurry up and get the picture done? ‘Putting’ a person (name disguised) into a novel, means fitting them into the plot. Each character has a shape contributing to the whole. No good trying to force Aunt Jane, with her lugubrious hats, her high-Tory opinions, her little Westie terrier, into your romance set in Cairo… though maybe your best friend, the academic historian with the banker husband, might fit your international crime story … but would your Australian cousin suit that cosy mystery set in Elsfield, Oxfordshire, in 1946?  Like all misplaced jigsaw pieces, your real person who had that funny incident in the cafe will protest, by bulging, wobbling, becoming stuck at an awkward angle.  Nothing else will go right until you take it out again…

Making a cake

Do you like to eat cake? If you’re putting me  in your novel, (please don’t), you need to know that I enjoy baking, and eating, cake.  

cake for mondfulnessThe creative process is like baking: the ingredients, the raw materials, are the real people we know and meet, the strangers on buses and trains, the acquaintances from the exercise class … then all this needs processing in our brains, maybe over years, decades. After mixing, the raw cake is subjected to terrific heat inside the oven. By the time it is cooked and ready  to eat, who can tell which bit is flour, sugar, fat, egg … baking powder, a teaspoon of vanilla, a sprinkle of cinnamon? Or where those characters, busy interacting and unfolding their story, began?

Every novel is a mystery

So, whether a novel is crime, romance, sci-fi, adventure, it is always also a mystery.

As is the idea that your writer friend will put you in her novel (indeed, why you?)

Don’t be disappointed to discover you are not there. Or delighted that you are.  Whatever has been ‘done’ to turn a gallimaufry of people into a set of characters was probably done unawares … and that one’s not you at all! Maybe all of us fancy a little adventure, a romance, or to solve a crime mystery? Are people maybe asking for a slot, when they act scared they’ll be put in a novel?

The key to how it’s done …

is observation. What goes in the notebook or sticks in the mind is observation of the how, not the what, of human beings as a species.

Just my point of view …

Two Writers whose observation of the species ‘human’ I admire: 

Debbie Young, (an ALLi indie writer, and founder of the independent, Cotswold village based, Hawkesbury LitFest) for her wonderful ‘flash fiction’ books on twenty-first century living – try Marry in Haste for a humorous look at dating, deciding, and tying the knot.

Joanna Trollope, (well-established mainstream published, ‘She likes to tackle the apparently easy, but really very difficult subjects – how parents get on with their children, and vice versa – which many a lesser writer prefers to avoid.’ (Guardian Books, 11/02/16)). Whatever you think of  her subject matter (upper-ish middle class …) admire her acute observations of  small but telling physical actions … for example, a husband is behind his  newspaper. The wife taps on the newspaper with a teaspoon to get his attention… not a ‘classic trope’ but a small action typical of that kind of couple.

(Photos: my copyright, please request permission before using)