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

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

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

So why those pigs, huh?

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

Ah, the bit about writing … and the paintings …

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

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

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

Sennen whitesands beach

 

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.

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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.

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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 …

Why really do writers not write? Why?

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Winter writing space …

We are told…

how to combat writers’ block (is it a myth? Or not?), to carve out time for ourselves and our writing, to spend 10 minutes writing, even if its nonsense, every day. We are told how to overcome procrastination. But in the real world of writing, what really screws up and halts creation?

 Stuff happens …

We’ve just had that thing happen, the thing which heralds winter more than the fog, switching on the central heating, or Hallowe’en.  When you go you upstairs in a lovely warm house, only to step into the bathroom, put on the light, and discover a small river now runs across from the radiator to the bath … That.

You seize the nearest bath towel to stem the river in its tracks. It is definitely not time to go to bed for a quiet read after a long day spent at the keyboard creating an imaginary world.. . Or to have a lovely hot shower where inspiration pours like water onto and into your head. It’s time to ring the emergency plumber … Not a situation to set the creative juices on their way, (unless you can incorporate the plumber of course, and throw together a bit of flash fiction (as my friend Debbie Young probably would!)

And of course there’s always stuff, happy things, (a first grandchild) and irritating things, (try to sell a house in today’s market …), re-designing a website, writing book reviews)

As we in the Northern Hemisphere plunge down into the season of cold, darkness, and bare leafless trees, we are living in dark times.

“Brexit”, the USA election prospects, the increasing violence in Syria, with destruction of cities, civilians, children, and classic artefacts, is enough to knock the idea of writing fiction out of anyone’s head. What use is fiction? What purpose does it serve?

As inside my own community, a microcosm of the world at war – discontent, destruction, disillusion are everywhere. Food Banks are common, and rough sleepers. Even the doctors go on strike over conditions of work, and are opposed by the government.

Writing feels like a cop-out, unless it changes something for the better.

The rebellion of the computer!

What a creature it is – moody and rebellious, its sensitivities rear up to block the rifles flow of words – and I do not mean by ’writer’s block’.

E-mails and messages straight from the beast itself demand attention: check your security, change your password! These could be genuine or they might be phishing. Better do as it says, change the privacy settings, but do not click on any of the addresses the email suggested.  Many of the computers complaints or demands take an hour or so of tripping between windows and websites, searching the net for forums to gain wisdom, creating new ways to access and protect your data, and even indulging in serious online chat.

My computer suffered major slowdown last spring, only solved after much trial and error, by fitting a new solid-state hard disk. The initial cause? Upgrading to EL Capitan!

Procrastination? Hardly. Unless you count avoiding beginning the work day, in order to give a stream of frustrations and interruptions.

Happy writing!

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 Summer writing space (on a grey day!) 
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On the computer, ready to help…

Where did (summer and) the writing go? Research time …

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A sunny day at the local farm, when we picked raspberries for jam

So, finally, August was summer! Then September began with dank, wet, days under a lowering, deep grey sky. After a few moans about the annual angst of shoe-buying for kids, all the writing Mummies I know began lively blogs on the happy theme of new coloured pencils and shiny notebooks… new clothes, new shoes, new thoughts, new space to write! …Autumn is not the End of Summer but a happy time of New Beginnings!

True to history, autumn begins the academic year in the northern hemisphere, since it was time to plant the crops. So summer counted as year’s end, with the harvest brought in … then back to school, back to the desk. Thankfully, the sun’s also back. New beginnings are looking brighter and more possible.

We have a new (and first) grandson so there’s a new beginning in our family … All

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Beginning to  know a new little person

grandparents are besotted with a new little one. He is a magical baby, growing by the day and beginning to observe the world around him—colours and shapes beyond Me and Mummy! After a jumbled year interrupted by computer problems, and deep doubts about writing and publishing, (and with the weirdness of the political happenings here in the UK), back to the desk. To revive the Work in Progress. And with a revised Hodge website  which embeds the blog.

Though quite honestly, (see  Altruism the British Way of Life) the world scene, “Brexit” and the American election prospects put fiction writing into question: is it pointless? Is it irrelevant?

But would giving up change anything?

Where is Love You to the Moon, caught in the events of this crazy year? At Hawkesbury Litfest, on the fiction writers’ panel discussing ‘Write what you Know – or Not?, we all agreed that even if the novel is centred on your own locality and workplace, it’s very much not autobiography. Even a family story is more than that.

books
Research, observation – or autobiography?

Fiction demands research, facts to build the skeleton which shapes the plot. This is (mostly) as true of contemporary fiction as of historical. If political or medical facts, say, don’t fit, it’s the plot which has to change. What makes Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings stand out amongst fantasy fiction is the verisimilitude of the languages (they work) and his enormous knowledge, accumulated for decades and beginning in his teens, of mythologies.

Thankfully I’m not writing fantasy so my inability with languages won’t spoil the story. And my  novel’s set in 2007, not 2016, so nothing about the current complications facing our government.

Where my research will be centred

The science driving the plot in Love You to the Moon, and how this affects and is employed by the characters, needs firming up. Will one of the strands work better driven by research on diabetes or mitochondrial diseases – either, or which?

And what’s on the school curriculum for teenagers of 13 and 15? How have they reacted to the rise of terrorism? What are they reading, in 2007, and what’s the career path for a woman academic scientist with two children and husband with a time-consuming job and a social conscience? Which iPhone belongs to what years? Small details and large ones …

Emotional and physical growth, increased insights for characters and author?

Meanwhile, the characters wait in the wings —but ten years older…What is different for them? Are Max and Jenny still together? What’s Daze been up to?  What kind of a teenager is Alice?

research booksAfter a break, concentrating on reading, painting, enjoying our local nature reserve, and not thinking about whether or not I would actually write this third book in the series, I’m going back to re-reading about the Edwardian scientific research that made possible Dolly the Sheep, which first excited me into writing Baby, Baby.

books (Islamic authors)

And the books from non-Western writers who convinced me to explore diversities nearer home, and develop a cool and unemotional writing voice. Back to new beginnings around hidden cultural diversities, the impact of medical science on social attitudes, the ups and downs of family life.

And am hoping the sun shines (not metaphorically, factually) through autumn …

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)

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 …)

For my NaNoWriMo Writerly friends

Nearly every writer friend seems to’ve joined the NaNoWriMo challenge this year – November being a drear month of dreich weather what could be more attractive than sitting down at a computer and banging out a story? (I think they’re using it to try out fiction writing, see if they can do it for the long haul … real novel production takes a lot more work and time than this!)

Here’s a poem I wrote to celebrate Writers’ Month:

(illustrated by our elderly cat, Moppet, who’s become a bit ‘Nanna-like’ lately) 

Moppet takes up knitting
Moppet takes up knitting

Nana’s nicked my pencil, she’s casting on her words
Nana’s doing Wry-Mo, that knitting fun for nerds
She thought it was a needle, she was in such rush,
To get her novel started while there was quiet and hush.

Nana’s cast on lots of words, and she’s working really hard
Nana wants to win this year, she’s really quite a bard.
We creep around like mouses, and make her cups of tea,
We tell her ‘don’t procrastinate!’ when she goes for a wee.

We’re buying all her shopping, we’re making all our beds,
We’re being very very good, and keeping down our heads,
‘Cos otherwise, as Nana said, we’ll get put in her book,
And then we might get deaded, all drownded in the brook.

She’s reading up policing, she calls it ’cosy crime’,
She writing, writing, writing, creating all the time,
The words just grow an’ grow an’ grow, a long long trailing scarf,
We’re not allowed to read it yet, we hope it makes us laugh.

When at last the WryMo’s over, and we get our Nana back,
We’ll know that it’s been worth it, despite the sweat and flack,
And the cheesecake for our breakfast, and the prayers for something else!
And she’s done her fifty-thousand, so her banner will unfurl
With ‘I’m a Winner!’ on it, in plain and rib and purl,
(Though cable’s really suited to her wry and twisted style.)

For Nana’s knitted up a book, which we never thought she could
Without the NaNoWriMo to keep her working like she should
And I shall need my pencil back because you see
I’m knitting up a novel now, as wry as it can be.

CMHW 11/15

For non-writers, YOU CAN READ ABOUT NANOWRIMO HERE