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.

 

Mari’s reading Life: Four Books from my Kindle

Wrote this in the Summer House office: beautiful sunny day!

Are you a Kindle or a paperback fan? I admit to preferring paperback (easier to underline, and flip back or even forwards …). But, the Kindle’s useful: to buy and read books which aren’t stocked in our local Independent Bookstore (tiny, and very exclusive) or our large but tourist-oriented emporia – Waterstones and Blackwell’s.

So, Four books from my Kindle…

My books featured on postcards - a touch of publicity
My books featured on postcards – a touch of me-publicity

I write books about women’s lives … (Baby, Baby, and The Labyrinth Year …)

I read books about women’s lives (though not exclusively – I just read one (by a man) about Mindfulness …)

But it’s a paperback, back to the Kindle…

Two are Austen re-writes: the Austen Project rolls on …

I read Val McDermid’s Northanger Abbey, and Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible (updated Pride and Prejudice) with interest. Northanger Abbey was a set text at school. (Ever noticed that name – North Anger Abbey?)  We were set to read, alongside Jane’s ‘spoof’, The Mysteries of Udolpho (published 1794) by Ann Radcliffe, to appreciate the irony of her take on women’s popular literature of her time. Girls back then were in a Gothic Novel phase: sound familiar?

McDermid moves further into ironic observations of teenage girls obsessed with boys, and with reading scary tales of vampires and mysterious discoveries, in this amusing story. Reviews on Amazon vary, some even in the ‘I threw the book across the room’  style. Some reviewers had not read Austen’s original.  Unless you have read Austen’s novel, how can anyone fully appreciate this clever update? McDermid exploits both the Austen writing style and the recent teenage/YA fascination with Gothic themes. Moving the action from fashionable 18th century Bath to the contemporary Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the story is a silly riot just as it should be. A fun read, well written and well observed.

The Sittenfeld, (which I read second) is set in Middle America, Cincinnati, Sittenfeld’s family home. I noticed, after I’d read it, that Amazon advertises the book as ‘humour’. Humour it may be, but satire is more like it. With far too much about specific Cincinnati eating places, roads, neighbourhoods. Sittenfeld’s Prep I enjoyed, but in her Sisters I found a sleazy and uninteresting slightly satirical take on the foibles of humanity. So how does Eligible do Pride and Prejudice?

The updated characters – Elizabeth is a thirty-something magazine journalist with a selfish married boyfriend, who on fancying Darcy indulges with him in ‘hate sex’ left a nasty taste, because it didn’t capture and update Austen.  Sexual tension between Elizabeth and Darcy in P and P expresses itself cleverly in witty dialogue, not in simple lust. The fact that this is how a 30-something might behave today doesn’t justify substituting foreplay for that Austen’s stylish sharp amusing verbal interplay. Which credits her Elizabeth with a self-confident intelligence and ability not usually allowed a woman of her time. And Austen’s subtle irony doesn’t imply contempt for those she depicts as ridiculous (Mr Collins in P and P). Darcy is attractive, yes, but in Eligible we have the updated Colin Firth in wet shirt, not the Darcy of Jane’s novel. Sittenfeld’s writing lacks stylishness. And she’s lost the plot, updating with no more reference to Austen than writing a loosely based ‘comedy of manners’ which picks out social types and holds them up for our prejudice and amusement. Austen uses wit: Sittenfeld relies on curled lip contempt.

That said, some of it is indeed quite funny, especially the lampoon of a wedding (Jane Bennett the pregnant bride) on reality TV, which brings the story pretty much to a close. But no, I wouldn’t call this, as it is advertised, The Summer Book’. Plenty more out there to choose from for beach reading. Or is it simply that I don’t go for this writer’s work?

Two by One

My other two latest reads in the ‘women’s novels’ genre are delightful books by an unknown, compared to McDermid and Sittenfeld: Vivienne Tufnell’s Square Peg and Strangers and Pilgrims. Tufnell is a fellow member of ALLi (the Alliance of Independent Authors).

These are straight novels, placed in unusual settings and displaying a deep observation of nature (as in human) and nature (as in the wilderness around us). They are pleasure to read, as Tufnell writes well about what she knows, displaying a real eye for compassion and acute observation/insight.

Square Peg tells the story of a young woman whose husband is studying to be a Vicar. Without satire or lampooning, but with incredible insight, she accurately captivates the culture of a residential College. The men study, while wives languish producing endless babies or darting into the outside world to work in the real world of contrasting environment. It didn’t have to be a Vicar-factory of course: any residential College would do, but an extra spin comes from the religious angle.  Group hysteria among the wives with their inward looking lives, deprived of a wider community or a job, creates the crisis, for the main character, Chloe, (a civil engineer by training, but raised by a sensible, but hippy-type, Gran) is so ‘different’ in so many ways that they spook themselves she’s some kind witch. Okay, today such colleges are mixed: but it totally captures when they weren’t…

Strangers and Pilgrims explores another assorted group, who gather at a remote venue in hope of healing from emotional pain. Cleverly Tufnell weaves her story to demonstrate of how the healing takes place: not by the miracle workings of the mysterious Warden or the holy Well, but by the relating, co-operating, living together, of the six lonely and hurt individuals, over about a week. It is realistic, and down to earth, and the surprise at the end gathers up the meaning: who is this Warden, who nobody has seen?  Does s/he exist? (And it is not a predictable solution, nor is it a spirit or God …)

Tufnell deserves a wider audience. Her books are delightful: great reading on the beach, or anywhere that a person can curl up, undisturbed, with a glass of wine or a mug of tea.

And the Mindfulness book?   That’s for another time!

Hawkesbury Literature Festival Two!

The First Venue: The Fox Inn

This year’s Hawkesbury Literature Festival (the second, and expanded, version) has spawned a whole host of author blogs: so where to begin? As we drove West to the Cotswold village of Hawkesbury Upton, rain lashed down from a uniformly grey-ed over sky. It didn’t look promising. It continued raining steadily as some us gathered at the Methodist Hall to help lay out the pop-up cafe and display our books. Outside the Fox Inn the marquee, put up for the children’s art and writing activities, stood in the downpour.

But the weather’s total turn-round overnight meant Saturday promised a wonderful day. Moving between the Fox, the tent, the Methodist Chapel and the Hall, authors, visitors, and volunteers enjoyed  blue skies, bright sunshine, and attractive gardens full of spring flowers.

My home-made Lemon Drizzle Cake: already a quarter gone!
My home-made Lemon Drizzle Cake: already a quarter gone!

If there was anything wrong with Hawkesbury this time it was there was so much to do and to see. The Tent buzzed with children doing art or writing sessions, and adults viewing the illustrators’ work and the colouring books, the cafe buzzed with Tea-and-Coffee drinking, cake-eating, cheese-tasting the Cornish Yarg, chatting and book-browsing. (That’s the Yarg, in the bowl at the front of the photo, and William Fairney’s book title? Fifty Shades of Yarg … you get it?)

Performance poet Dan Holloway kicks off the poetry reading session

And there were sessions on poetry, (one beginning ‘I stubbed my toe on a  hedgehog ...) and on ‘Writing with or from Difference’, besides last year’s Fiction category, divided into several sections, and all featuring in both Readings and Panel discussion categories.

As a participating author, this year I enjoyed my first experience of being on a discussion panel (two: ‘Contemporary Fiction: Write What You Know – or Not?’, and ‘What’s the Point of Poetry?’).

It’s always interesting to learn how other people ‘work’, their motivations and their approach to creative activity. A number of us on the Fiction panel go for the ‘get the story all down, then edit’ method, and one at least said she doesn’t usually know how the book will end when she is at the beginning. I’m actually not usually that kind of writer: I’m apt to begin a writing session with a bit of editing on the last bit I wrote, it seems to get the creativity going. We all agreed that whether or not you set out to ‘write what you know’, research will enter you life as you turn your well-known environment (Jackie Kabler’s is working as a TV journalist/presenter) into the settings your plot.   Lynne Pardoe’s stories come straight from her experiences as a social worker – and have happy endings. Ali Bacon continues to experiment with how far or not she writes what she knows, and enjoys producing short stories. Jackie set her story within the TV Newsroom but someone had murdered her boss … which she certainly hasn’t witnessed … and Lindsay Stanberry-Flynn told us how her editor had suggested that although she had researched Venice and knew it well, the enthusiastic  descriptions needed editing down. Nikki Owen’s story features a woman with high-functioning Aspergers Syndrome, which she doesn’t have but obviously found fascinating enough to enter into and create a story. Thomas Shepherd does have Asperger’s, but his story, a fantasy, doesn’t feature this. Some find the research time a necessary evil: others really enjoy digging into what they don’t know. And we seized the chance to enlighten our audience about how much writing what we know is autobiography: no, it pretty much always isn’t.

So with sessions on contemporary, historical, sci-fi and fantasy, and writing fiction from a point of ‘being different’, what was the most popular with the audience? It was this one: the skill of writing about your or another’s difference or disability: making the ‘difference’ work for your writing, overcoming  by your  writing, sharing what it is like to be inside what counts as difference. Read Thomas Shepherd’s blog about participating in this discussion here.

Debbie Young, Festival Organiser, with Dan Holloway and ShIrley Wright, poets

At the same time, learning more about other authors, how they work, why they write, is tremendously unifying: books are the bottom line, and within that, a huge diversity of interests, styles, attitudes, and lifestyles.

Recently, we’ve hosted, as a City, the huge Blackwell’s Oxford Literary Festival – a chance for celebs and well known authors to be gathered into one place and for audiences to hear them speak and have them sign copies of their books.

Blackwells Oxford LitFest Festival Marquee … parked near the Sheldonian Theatre

A small Festival like Hawkesbury has a totally different feel: a chance to interact with readers, and fellow participants. Hawkesbury aims to be inclusive: we were a mixture of Indie and ‘trade published’ writers, of amateur and professional poets. None of us could claim ‘celebrity’ status, and this makes for a truly festive and for-the-people feel, offering a ‘platform’ to everybody and aiming to give exposure to new names in the writing business. And so back home, and to writing Love You to the Moon …

Find my books at Hodge website, or on Amazon here and here …

Photos of Hawkesbury Literature Festival with thanks to Joanna Penn, author and very active member of ALLi (the Alliance of Independent Authors), photo of Blackwell’s marquee and the Baby, Baby/The Labyrinth Year publicity card my own. 

HULF & to Pay or not to Pay? Author Pages …

Screen Shot 2016-04-18 at 11.56.30Here’s a very brief post on the  blog!  Here’s wondering if any of you nice followers have discovered my Author Page … or investigated what I wrote when I’m not writing the blog or doing one of a hundred thousand other things?

For example, this weekend, promoting my work (and hopefully entertaining an audience) at a book festival along with other authors, many of them, like me, members of the Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi).

On Saturday (23rd, Shakespeare’s Birthday …) the Hawkesbury LitFest will be taking place – all day from 10.00am to 5.30pm … a great  gathering of authors in the Cotswold village of Hawkesbury Upton. H.U. is a friendly place – especially friendly to Books and  Reading … (Also to Italian food at the Fox restaurant, and to cakes, coffee and tea at the festival Cafe).  It’s friendly to authors and a crowd of us will be going along to read, discuss, promote, hopefully sell our work, and to meet other authors and our readers …

me reading at Hawkesbury 23 APril 2015
me at HULF 2015 (copyright Clint Randall)

You may live far away, in South Africa, Canada, or the USA – but have a look at the Mari Howard Author Page on Facebook anyway … have a look at the LitFest adverts to see what we’re (I’m) doing this weekend, and let me know, via blog comments (if you have an opinion: should Facebook ask authors to pay to promote their pages? I am undecided – this is not a rant either way – I am just wondering, would the promotion be worth the cost?  At $10 a day?)

And thanks for following .. welcome to several new readers …

HULF poster

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mothers’ Day, Mothering Sunday, who do we include?

Anyone who’s read my books, Baby, Baby and The Labyrinth Year
Available from the Hodge website (www.hodgepublishing.com) (or Amazon ...)
Available from the Hodge website (www.hodgepublishing.com) (or Amazon …)

will know they feature families and several different kinds of mothers. Professional women struggling to juggle the work and the family; a pastor’s wife expected to mother the congregation as well as her five growing children; a mother who has escaped a violent teenage marriage, been forced to abandon her child,  and worked in a women’s refuge … Though all are western mothers, and only one has suffered the trauma of the stillbirth of a malformed baby.

This Sunday is Mothers’ Day

or as it used to be known, Mothering Sunday. The middle Sunday in Lent, when (as you may already know), domestic servants had a day off to go and visit Mother.

Hedgerow spring flowers
Hedgerow spring flowers

Many of them would be just kids, really: girls the age we now count legally as children, girls who’d now be in school, girls too young to marry, and who we count as being too young to be seduced into sex. Sent out to earn a living as young teens, some as young as twelve, living in a servants’ attic, eating in the servants’ kitchen surrounded by adults. A visit home to Mother and the sisters and brothers was a real treat. They might take Mother a bunch of flowers, picked from a hedgerow along the way …

In fact, it’s a day about showing love.

So, here we are on Mothers’ Day
Me and my daughter, summer 1981

with cards, shop windows and catalogues of possible gifts, and for churchgoers a service where little  bunches of flowers are given out to the mums.

The churches have also, so as not to leave out the childless, so as to be inclusive, led the way to this becoming an all-women’s day.

It’s a good intention: but is there actually a reasonable argument for keeping this day to specially celebrate and be thankful for mothers? For what they do, for what they go through to produce, nurture, and protect, children? Hoping not to hurt anyone’s feelings, I think there is.

Every-Mothers’ Day

We might up-date celebrating mothers by being aware of mothers world-wide.

Well off, well educated, mothers in Western countries, aren’t in the majority of women on the planet. And we have health care to ensure that (usually) pregnancy, birth, and the post-natal days are safer than ever before. Clean water, a warm home, an income, maternity leave, all work towards happy motherhood. Postnatal depression can be treated.   

Most young girls here have not gone through FGM, with all that does to intercourse and giving birth. 

Most have not, at puberty, had an arranged marriage, which nicely puts an end to education, can lead to pregnancy  before they are fully grown and developed, can lead to dangerous childbirth, or at worst to death.

Most western women do not develop a fistula from going through complicated, protracted labour and delivery in a poverty stricken area without enough doctors, nurses, or trained midwives: for us, the minority, there are maternity units with skilled staff who can perform a safe caesarean.

But all these events give a very realistic picture of being a mother in, say, somewhere like Afghanistan, or many African countries..

Mums in the refugee camps in Europe
Remember this? But most are in camps under makeshift shelters
Remember this? But most are in camps under makeshift shelters

Having fled war, mothers living in makeshift shelters are having keep an eye on their young girls. Living in a tent, or substandard group housing, girls are vulnerable to abduction, presumably to be used for sex. It isn’t nice: it’s a terrible worry for parents. Especially for mothers, who know what sex with an older, maybe roughly forceful, man would be like for their young girls.

So, it’s a day about love?

I would really love to see Mothers’ Day become a day when we think about the reality of being  mothers. While being thankful to our mothers, and for our own safe birth, let’s do more than that. 

That’s not to say we need to deny ourselves giving and receiving flowers, chocs and hugs … But whether or not we are mothers, inclusivity might mean showing empathy to mothers less fortunate: giving to an organisation which cares for women as mothers.Let’s make Mothers Day about love and generous inclusivity 

Find out about fistula, FGM, and other related topics:

Information on FGM, and other related topics

What is a fistula, how are they caused, why are they so dangerous and excluding? 

AUTHOR EVENT:

Celebrate books and reading:

It will soon be time for the second 

 Hawkesbury LitFest … Saturday 23rd April, all day

at Hawkesbury Upton … author readings,

talks, poetry, children’s activities … in a Cotswold

Village setting 

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).

01/09/2004 11:23
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?

 

 

DSC04335.JPG
 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 …)

How to spend a Bank Holiday Weekend: Selling and sorting

BB, H for H, TLY
Late summer bank holiday isn’t known for its predictably splendid weather, but we HULF Pop-Up LitFest people were hoping.
HULF Indie Authors arriving and preparing the marquee
HULF Indie Authors arriving and preparing the marquee

Here’s some of us at the Hawkesbury Village Horticultural Show showground, preparing our marquee, and hoping that our location – next to the Pimms Tent and opposite the Local History Society stand, will attract customers!

Saturday’s weather was fine, bright and warm …

There were lots of stalls and attractions …

and floats from the carnival procession (this one won 2nd Prize in the competition)

We’d thought we’d do some readings from our work to attract the customers … but look at the opposition!

the oppositionjpg

The marquee was also opposite the biggest, loudest, screamy-est fun fair ride!

We abandoned the readings idea (next year we’ll find a quieter spot maybe with the Teas)

But, we made some videos of readings, and we sold books!

What drives sales?
ALLi authors and their partners, selling briskly at 4.30pm ...
ALLi authors and their partners, selling briskly at 4.30pm …
  • Good covers,
  • a blurb that hooks the reader in …
  • enthusiasm from the salesperson (in this case, we were all there as authors selling our own books) …
  • belonging to a supportive community (we were all members of ALLi, re-meeting after the LitFest for World Book Night back in April, at the Fox, and re-meeting each other – authors Ali Bacon, JohnLynch, Ellie Stevenson… and more I’d not met before… ).
  • Glasses of Pimms from the Tent, and later cups of tea – all brought round by Debbie who’d organised our appearance at the Hawkesbury Show …
  • wanting to succeed …
  • and keeping on until the end … in the last hour, we all made more sales than through the previous three and half.

Find out more about Hodge Publishing at http://hodgepublishing.co.uk/about-us/ – where you can buy our books, Baby, Baby and The Labyrinth Year 

‘… just finished The Labyrinth Year and want to tell you I thought it was a super read.  Baby, Baby was good but the sequel is even better!’  (review extract)

Monday, typically, it rained

Back home, Monday was dark, damp, and drear. But the plan was already in place!  It was time to do some attic clearing …

Files of course notes, assorted mugs, roller skates, random clutter, and possibly that thing you've always been wondering where it went ...
Files of course notes, assorted mugs, roller skates, random clutter, and possibly that thing you’ve always been wondering where it went …

There’s always something which has gone past the sell-by date of memory lane stuff … 

Despite the rain, and the effort, a welcome day of family involvement and catch-up, plenty of stuff taken to the Dump, and plenty more for the charity shops …

A Bank Hol of Boots and Books ...
A Bank Hol of Boots and Books ...

A good late-summer weekend!

And now, back to the desk and the Mullins family, and what does ‘love’ mean?

On the Wild Side: the Writer’s ‘Retreat’

A Writers’ Retreat?

Into the Wilds! Woodland path, Oxford
Into the Wilds! Woodland path, Oxford

Being ‘too busy’ is bad for creativity: I awarded myself a writer’s Retreat.  A retreat from writing. To re-group the creative mind: to paint, bake cakes, encourage the garden.

Book Reviews are on hold.  I’ve joined the 30 Days Wild project  (http://www.mywildlife.org.uk/30dayswild/)… as anyone who’s read Baby, Baby or The Labyrinth Year will  know,  Jenny and Daze investigated wildlife as children, and so did I …

Probably un-clubbable like most writers, I do actually believe in joined-up-ness. As in joined-up projects, community activities, and making creative connections. It’s fiction-writerly thing: joined-up-ness yields plot. Getting back  to really looking at nature is joined-upness with my childhood, having once been a child!

And after giving my computer an upgrade … could  use another retreat from that techie, not  writerly, project. After several days working on, and adjusting to, the upgrade, I’m back with the Wildlife.

The MyWildLife Project – 2 walks and what’s in the garden

The idea is that as many of us as possible get outdoors studying and relating with the natural world. They suggest many ways and your own choice: own choice for me is being out there to record what I see photographically, then do a bit of research to find out more.  

Here’s the results for the past week: be prepared for creepy, crawly, things …

Oxford Evening Field Walk:

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Wildflower Meadow

Fields and wooded paths run along the back of the University Parks, Lady Margaret Hall, The Dragon School, and Wolfson College, towards Marston Ferry Road. The paths run beside sports fields and a farm, and are edged with a huge variety of wildflowers and grasses.

  • Slugs:  I was photographing a bee on comfrey, and nearby sat a large black slug. Our
    Black Slug, Arion Ater, hermaphrodie
    Black Slug, Arion Ater, hermaphrodie

    garden slugs are usually tiny grey/white (British, and dangerous to plant life) or big and brown/orange (continental recent-ish newcomers, less of a pest). Joined-up-ness: I decided to take more than a destructive interest in our black slug and looked up Latin name and details (see right under photo).

  • Their vile mucus (quote Wikipedia, It is somewhat difficult to wash off) as well as helping them move along, is a defence.  Apparently it stinks and tastes so horrible that they have few predators, and unlike snails, have never been added to the human menu, though hedgehogs well eat them. Bring back the humble hedgehog … we used to see them around here.
  • The wooded path home, lined with sycamores, filled in a knowledge gap from when I was a kid and observed how susceptible sycamore leaves are to an acne-like rash of small scarlet pustules. I used to find these creepy and never researched them. Joined-up-ness:
    Red galls on sycamore leaf
    Red galls on sycamore leaf

    this time I’ve looked them up and discovered they’re “galls’” caused by a mite (official name Aceria cephaloneus). The females lay their eggs inside: the developing mites live inside them. (So what exactly is a mite? A bit like a tiny tiny spider which bites? Mites: ‘small arthropods belonging to the subclass Acari and the class Arachnida’ (Wikipedia)

  • Masses of wild flowers are out in June. Ragged Robin was a great find, I haven’t seen it around
    P1200280
    White deadnettle
    P1200296
    Ragged Robin
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    sorrel
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    Purple Veitch

    here before.

  • Bracket Fungi were found on the trees.

wick wood infoEast London Afternoon walk:

This was in Wick Wood, Hackney, a wood planted about 20 years ago on what used to be playing fields to provide a wildlife habitat, right beside a raised section of the A12. Two gatekeeper butterflies were flying around and settling on beech leaves.

Gatekeeper, Hackney Wick Wood
Gatekeeper, Hackney Wick Wood
  • The undergrowth – blackberry bushes – are flowering and come July/August anyone in the know will be able to pick berries and make jam.
  • Here’s a bee in one of the flowers: sadly not a worker making honey but some species of ‘bumble’ either solitary or maybe, as we found on another walk in Oxfordshire, a member of a ground-based colony living in a hole (possibly abandoned by rabbits or dug by a dog).
    Bumble Bee on Blackberry Blossom
    Bumble Bee on Blackberry Blossom
    Blue or prickly comfrey (S. asperum)
    Blue or prickly comfrey (S. asperum)

    A clearing had been cut in the wood, and a hedge woven from branches. It’s probably part of a schools project. In Oxford it would’ve been made from the willows which grow everywhere here, but I’m not sure what had been used for this one.

  • Wild flowers were woodland types such as these blue comfreys which grew at the wood exit. The trees were mostly beech, there was an avenue of planes (good London trees): as this isn’t a natural wood, these trees were probably selected to grow happily in a polluted environment.

Yesterday’s observation and more to come …

(made seated on the grass as suggested in the Notes, and while eating a bun):P1200352

  • A large green, iridescent, beetle, busy eating the nectar in a rose… This seems to be a Rose Chafer, well known to eat petals and nectar. The larvae live on rotting wood and compost (maybe in our compost bin?)

Writing: Glasses full at Hawkesbury Upton

To become a writer is to expect disappointment…  wise words, from a wise writer. His quirky, lighthearted, semi-fantasy writings are deceptively wise. His name is Alexander McCall Smith. 

Wonderful, life-affiriming books
Wonderful, life-affirming books

And at a rather bad time in my life, a friend’s kindness was to introduce me to his wonderfully affirming stories.

An Indie Author Life seems about the worst idea in the world. Edit and publish your own books? Write, design, and print your own publicity? Promote yourself on social media? Find your own readers?

Fun at The Fox: the Hawkesbury Upton LitFest

One of many ways to promote our books  is to follow up every opportunity to appear before an audience, willing to invite them into your stories by reading an extract or two. Thursday  was World Book Night, and over a hundred people gathered at The Fox, Hawkesbury Upton, to celebrate.

The Fox Hawkesbury Upton
The Fox Hawkesbury Upton

It was a  warm sunny evening, and the initial readings could be held outdoors in the marquee, giving the event a summery feel.

Later, after the official opening by Katie Fforde of the Romantic Novelists Association, a  huge-er than imagined crowd meant we were packed in the Function Room like happy, book-loving sardines.  Authors (gathered partly via our membership of ALLi http://allianceindependentauthors.org/)  were wreathed in smiles, locals curious enough to purchase a pint and join the fun gathered to hear a bit about the writing life. And more 5-minute tasters of Indie authors’ work.

Katie Fforde opens the Festival (photo Clint Randall)
Katie Fforde opens the Festival (photo Clint Randall)

Situated in a village rather than a large town or city, had a really cosy feel, and The Fox was providing not only the venue but dinner in the restaurant and/or B and B for some of us.

I was able to read from both my novels (Baby, Baby and The Labyrinth Year) about the Mullins family – Max the GP and his wife Jenny, genetic researcher – and my ‘Wannabe’ poem found a use illustrating the apparent romance of being writers … (see blogpost  Trips and Tropes ...  ) 

The LitFest Effect …

Friday morning was time to take a walk around the village: rolling green Cotswold countryside, wild flowers, a sloping lane bordered by woods, and the ancient, part-Saxon, St Mary’s church.

field of cowsWhere a friendly local dog-walker borrowed a key and showed us around. After a few over-busy months, and a series of appliance disasters in our house, elated by the country break, ‘Writing this now,’ I wrote on Saturday evening, with that quote from Alexander M S in my head, (Radio Four  Saturday morning)t- ‘I’ve still got that now all the exams are all over feeling … ‘ 

It was actually time to affirm the whole quote …

To become a writer is to expect disappointment…  until you remember that the glass that’s half empty is also half full.

Half full, half full, I am telling myself … Thursday to Saturday maybe it was completely full … but even  if I (and others) sold nothing, the glass is not half empty (as here in this intellectual city we so easily think) … no, it is definitely half full – and it will be full again …  Mma Ramostwe of the No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency is so encouraging, as she says,  ‘... it is well known …’

From an Amazon review … (G.Heppel, Kindle Edition,  http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Labyrinth-Year-Mari-Howard-ebook/dp/B00T81L1AU)

… Alice and Zoe, Max and Jenny’s children, are beautifully realised characters in their own right, not drawing attention to themselves, fitting into the story exactly as they should.

TLY with MSF stickerThe conflicts begun in Baby, Baby of religious fundamentalism versus tolerance, scientific progress in genetics and fertility against the risks of new procedures, are more relevant than ever, and Mari Howard does an expert job of weaving these themes into her story without ever letting them weigh it down. In her wonderful, accurate portrayal of the different strands of Christianity, she shows how faith and science don’t need to be mutually exclusive …

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