Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Animal World

I'm just back from safari in Tanzania in the Selous Game Reserve at Beho Beho....amazing. But I won't tell you about that here as I'll be posting about that over at Just Keep Writing and Other Thoughts soon.

During the course of the trip we studied the animal world and its interaction within their own species and with others. This of course as a writer is something I do everyday and many days without even noticing that I do. You know what I the checkout queue - half your mind is what you may have forgotten, but the other part is noting what the girl behind the till is wearing in her ears, the conversation taking place in front of you and the one behind while the mother with the toddler in the other queue negotiates the way past the chocolate.... You go for a drink with a friend and you spend most of the time watching the casual and not so casual interactions at the bar...

On an afternoon walk through the bush after we had sat still for a half hour watching a pack of wild dogs, I was encouraging our guide Sacha to write. (You know when you meet someone who is a natural writer, but they haven't figured it out yet...) He shook his head and said no, but then I pointed out that he was a passionate reader, spent his days studying animal behavior and had a huge urge to share this with others.... I could then see him thinking this through.

He said he didn't see how his knowledge of animals could help him to write....I said just look at the Fenwick pack - look at the dynamics that he had seen all week. We were on safari to celebrate DH's 50th, DS1's 18th and DS2's 16th....the young continuously vied for top/alpha position, but stopped just short because they are still financially dependent. Sacha laughed as he, of course, had noticed the gentle jibing that had taken place at every meal.

I think Sacha will see his vocation..probably either in the non-fiction arena with his passion for the disappearing art of bush skills (he showed us the local form of basil which is used to make a poultice for coughs among the native population) or I think as a children's author. Time will of course tell...

My hours spent observing the animal world will certainly add to my understanding of the human world. Have you ever applied animal knowledge to people or the other way around?

Please come back on Thursday to see what Biddy has to say...

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Houses with Character

My DH and I are in the process of doing up an old house and as we paint, plaster and wallpaper each room, I feel its true character is emerging and this is giving me ideas for stories. Halfway up a ladder I realised that’s happened to me a lot. Whenever I visit a house, it has some effect on me and more often than not it results in a novel. Sometimes it’s almost as if the buildings are a living, breathing entity, but although they may not play an actual part, they’re always there in the background, watching the events that unfold.

I’ve always been fascinated by old houses. Modern ones don’t do anything for me – it’s like they know they haven’t seen anything of life yet and have no stories to tell. Their walls are silent, uniform, boring, whereas old buildings seem to ooze history from every crooked wall and uneven floor board. If only they could talk, they’d be able to divulge any number of secrets. They’ve seen it all – love and laughter, misery and ecstasy, tears and grief. There are whispers and shadows in every corner.

When I say old houses, I don’t mean just castles and famous buildings (although I do love those), but also ordinary ones or those built for slightly less prominent members of society. Whenever I walk into a building like that, I feel each one has a different atmosphere. Some are welcoming and happy places, some brooding, and sometimes they even feel menacing, as if you’re trespassing and shouldn’t be there.

Take the Merchant’s House in Plymouth for example (see photo above). I found my way there a couple of years ago while doing research for a historical novel set during the English Civil War and as soon as I stepped inside, I immediately felt enveloped by the past. You enter through a dark stone-flagged passage and it’s like stepping back in time. It’s a house that has clearly experienced a lot and it proved the perfect setting for my story. Seeing that house gave me lots of new ideas, it's almost as if it was helping me out, giving me advice.

Another house that virtually cried out to be part of a story was a small Elizabethan manor house I used to visit regularly. For some reason it always made me uneasy. Although it was a beautiful building, I was terrified of being alone there. It didn’t help that the owners told me the house was haunted by a benign ghost, who loved to play pranks and delighted in wrecking anything modern or mechanical (he obviously didn’t think such things fit in there). It was clear to me the ghost didn’t want me in his house either, but it was the perfect setting for a story and I just had to write a novel about it (which I hope to sell one day). In it, I described the house like this:-

Approached through a pair of wrought iron gates, the old manor house nestled in a hollow, as if it had burrowed into the ground for comfort. Picture perfect, it was built of weathered timber and orange red bricks, with tiny leaded windows and tall chimney stacks. The colour gave an impression of warmth, reinforced by the sunlight reflected off the myriad of windowpanes. A short drive led to a yew hedge which surrounded a small flower garden immediately in front of the house. The hedge had been trimmed to velvety perfection and grew thick and deep. A profusion of snowdrops peeped out from underneath the bushes, looking as if they were wondering whether it was safe to come out yet ...

Which is your favourite house? And have you ever been so inspired by a building that you just had to write a story set there? If so, I’d love to read a description of it!

Please come back on Sunday when Liz will be posting.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Mercenaries with Jet Packs and Laser Guns

Husband is a great supporter of my writing.

He's bought DVDs for research (like the Bourne series), never moans if I don't get round to things I ought to, stoically eats beans on toast and gets on with the laundry while I'm wrestling with a book. He never raises an eyebrow when my little office turns into the Godforsaken Hell Pit of Despond (which it is now - clearing it up feels too much like procrastination away from the book).

He doesn't read manuscripts - which might explain our continuing marital harmony - but he does help me out with brainstorming, with detail, with questions.

But if I ever think the book I'm working on needs just that little something extra, Husband always makes the same suggestion, uttered with glee and anticipation.

"You should put in mercenaries with jet packs and laser guns."

Now, let's face it, this is a good suggestion. There's not many a work of fiction that couldn't be improved with the addition of some jet-packing mercenary las-guns. Imagine Elizabeth Bennett calling them to her aid when Lady Catherine de Bourgh comes to visit. Or, hey, how about simply having Fitzwilliam Darcy packing a laser canon?

I'll leave you with that thought for a moment.


It's not even as if I can use the excuse that I don't write Sci-Fi - after all, jet packs and laser guns are pretty much science fact these days.

All these things notwithstanding, I am yet to include mercenaries with jet packs and laser guns in any of my books. I am clearly a woman of little sense.

Happily, Husband's imagination is not limited to aerial hired soldiers - he also gave me the false wall in the laboratory in my current work-in-progress.

So what's the worst (and the best) plot idea anyone's ever suggested to you?

Visit us again on Thursday, when Christina will be here!

Thursday, October 21, 2010


On Tuesday I finished working on the book I’ve been writing for the past ten months. I did a final check, I printed it out, I put it in an envelope and I posted it to my agent. She says she’s going to read it this weekend and let me know what she thinks. That gives me five days, at minimum, during which I don’t have to work on it.

I have neglected my family for this book. I’ve let my husband and kid go off and play without me. I’ve spent mornings during my holiday writing, when everyone else was at the beach. I’ve let the house get absolutely filthy, I’ve had an empty refrigerator for weeks, I’ve gone off on weekend-long research trips or writing marathons, I’ve turned down invitations from friends. I’ve hardly left the house. I’ve dreamed of the book, thought of the book constantly, stayed up late working on the book, got up early to start work again. For the last two weeks, during my last intense push to revise the huge manuscript into something readable, I’ve been popping ibuprofen every four hours and wearing a wrist brace, to stop me from suffering too much from typing-related repetitive strain injury.

One of the first things I did after posting the manuscript (after going for a little lie down) was to go out with a friend for dinner. We had a glass of champagne to celebrate my achievement, and then she told me about what she’s been doing. She has crazy six-month deadlines to finish up writing a big trilogy, and at the same time she’s going on a promotional tour for the first book, interacting with her growing army of fans, and doing copy edits for a different publisher. She hardly has time to eat or sleep or talk with her husband. She is constantly in the world of her trilogy. Whatever we were talking about, the conversation slid back to her characters, and the look on her face was priceless: the look of a woman in love.

I was wildly jealous of her. Not of her success, which is well-deserved; certainly not of her lack of sleep or social contact, which I’ve got plenty of myself, thank you very much.

I was jealous of the book-love.

For me, the crazy obsession takes a little bit of time to wear off. I send the book, and then I dwell on all the things I could have changed. I think about the characters and their story almost as much as when I was writing. But then the reality sinks in. It’s over. My love affair is done. It’s no longer just me and the book. It’s time for someone else to read the story, and judge it.

Don’t get me wrong; it’s incredible to send off a book and have it read. I await my agent’s judgement with fear and crazy anticipation. But there’s a wearing-off period when I feel sad that it’s over, that it’s not my entire life any more. It's time for me to fall out of love. I feel exhausted, inadequate, at a loose end, and really lonely.

Obsessively working on your novel is bad for your health, it’s bad for your social life, it’s bad for your family. It can’t be doing your sanity any favours. And it leads to a consumption of wine and chocolate which is truly disgusting by any civilised standards. But it is wonderful. Just wonderful.

I miss it.

Come back on Sunday, when Anna Louise Lucia will be posting.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Rules

"There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are."
-W. Somerset Maugham

Last weekend, I had the very great pleasure of listening to Kelley Armstrong talk about the craft.

For those who don't know, I'm a great fan of Kelley's. I've probably handsold as many copies of her novels as our local bookstore has, just because I enjoy them so much and because I think everyone needs to read Bitten.

But anyway, there I was last week at breakfast, and Kelley was giving a speech about The Rules. You know...the rules that Every Writer Needs to Know, the ones we're told and told again from the moment we pick up our pens:

Don't use prologues. Don't use adverbs. And for heaven's sake, don't use the passive voice. Et cetera, et cetera. A laundry list of things we shouldn't do. And Kelley's comment was that rules on getting published are most often quoted, she's observed, by those who aren't yet published, and that writing rules are rather like the Pirate Code: They're more like guidelines, really.

Not only was I happy to discover she and I were kindred spirits on that point, but I was pleased to see that many in the audience for Kelley's speech were writers who were just beginning, still in search of that first contract, still discovering their voices, because they're the ones who really need our reassurance that The Rules aren't absolute.

They have a place, The Rules. As with grammar, it's probably best that one knows the rules first, before breaking them. If I split an infinitive, for example, I know I'm splitting an infinitive. Or using a fragment. But I've chosen, whether for style or cadence or emphasis, to be ungrammatical at that moment, just as I often ignore what the writing books tell me to do, and use adverbs, or start a book slowly. I know that I'm doing it, and that it's not the accepted thing, but for the sake of the story I've chosen to do it.

And that's what new writers deserve to be told: that it's OK to break The Rules, because there aren't any. There are as many "right" ways to write as there are writers, and part of your path as a writer is finding the way that's your own, that works best for you.

What's the rule that you find most constricting? Mine is "always use the active voice". It's terribly exhausting, for my characters...

Come back Thursday, to read Julie Cohen's post.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

First Kiss

There is nothing more important or memorable than a first kiss. In life and in fiction. I am writing for teens at the moment so some of the first kisses I am writing are FIRST KISSES. You know that first ever kiss that some of us had earlier than others. The first kiss of which every subsequent first kiss is a reflection of.

I know that one of the reasons I read and write romance is to remember that feeling of excitement and discovery at the beginning of a relationship. To shiver with the memory of hands touching, those careful looks from the corner of eyes, feeling dry mouthed, my heart thumping and stomach churning before that first kiss.

I have been trying to recreate that feeling in my current book. I have a sixteen year old heroine who is enamoured with THAT boy, you know the one… mysterious, dangerous and completely gorgeous.

"His other hand came up and held my face still. There was nothing gentle in the way he held it. As his mouth was millimetres from mine I heard him say,
“This doesn’t change a thing.”
And then he was kissing me.
Except kissing didn’t do it justice.
His lips touched mine and all the stone left in me leapt to the surface and span. His lips were hard against mine until my mouth opened on my gasp of astonishment.
He was kissing me.
And then it changed, warm wet air exchanged and his lips softened. As he tasted me, my head held up by him. My body held safe by him as I leant against him my legs rubbery.
Sparks exploded in my head.
He was kissing me.
An incandescent trail warmed its way from my lips down through my chest into my stomach, which was lurching and churning and dropping.
He was kissing me.
My eyes had closed as he had got closer. I flickered them open briefly to see him looking at me. His hazel eyes still open and dark as he looked at me.
Was he kissing me?"

When I wrote this and the second kiss (which is the really the first TRUE kiss) I thought back to all my first kisses (and being a single woman of a certain age there have been a few). Some have been memorable for all the right reasons and some for all the wrong.

My very first kiss was when I was sixteen and at a school dance, like my heroine. Sadly that is all there is in common. So I thought to some other first kisses. Standing under a lamppost in Leeds in the snow stealing kisses every time we got to a curb or lamppost. On a river bank with me nervously talking and him kissing me to shut me up. At a Christmas party with a guy I had liked for a long time. On the bus after a night out at a ski resort, having held hands under the table all night. On my birthday on a sofa after having been cooked a beautiful lunch. Coming out of a pub on a cold night giggling because the brim of my hat was in the way and then afterwards being left breathless and stunned. Each kiss was as different as the person it was with and this is what I have to remember when I'm writing. Each hero and heroine are different and so their first kisses need to be to.

What do you remember about first kisses?

Come back on Sunday when Susanna will be posting

Sunday, October 10, 2010


This past week was national poetry week, but that is not why I have chosen to write about poetry – although it would be a good reason. No, what set me onto this topic was in all probability age – forgetting things…I had fragments of an Emily Dickinson poem snapping at the edges of my memory. All week I had been reworking A CORNISH HOUSE and one of the key themes is faith and I was overwhelmed by so many thoughts during the solemn sung mass at Westminster Cathedral last Sunday.

A few weeks ago Biddy, here, asked how do you refill the well and recently another writer friend asked the question what do you do when you get stuck and another when do your best writing ideas come….be patient I will pull all of this together, I promise.

So sitting in the beautiful cathedral my senses were beginning stimulated in many ways – visually – I love the unfinished church and the way the massive crucifix pulls the eye while the morning lights streams in behind it; olfactorily (yes, it is a word – I had to check) the mix of incense and candles and people; auditorily the exquisite voices of the choir – all the while being on autopilot through the order of the mass which is simply a part of me. So my mind in the face of extreme stimulation yet relaxation picked up the words of the opening antiphon …

All things are submitted to your will, O Lord, and no one can resist your decisions; you have made all things, heaven and earth, and all that is contained under the vault of the sky; you are the master of the universe…Blessed are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the Lord.

This was further echoed in the readings…

Hab 1:2-3
How long, O LORD? I cry for help
but you do not listen
2 TM 1:6-8, 13-14
I remind you, to stir into flame

the gift of God that you have through the imposition of my hands. 
For God did not give us a spirit of cowardice
but rather of power and love and self-control.
So do not be ashamed of your testimony to our Lord,
nor of me, a prisoner for his sake;
but bear your share of hardship for the gospel
with the strength that comes from God.
Take as your norm the sound words that you heard from me,
in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.
Guard this rich trust with the help of the Holy Spirit
that dwells within us.
Lk 17:5-10
The apostles said to the Lord, "Increase our faith." 
The Lord replied,
"If you have faith the size of a mustard seed,
you would say to this mulberry tree,
'Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.

I came out of church buzzing with ideas for the book – excellent. (the well refreshed – who would have thought…but the music and beauty and the autopilot did the trick) The well had been refilled and the difficulty I had in progressing with the rewrite was reduced to surmountable obstacles.

Now fast forward to the end of last week. I was within thirty pages of the end of the rewrite and all I could think about was Emily Dickinson. I had been a good girl so I allowed myself to do a little research…

You see, in my final year at Mount Holyoke (where Emily herself spent time – although in those days it was labelled a women’s seminary), I did a fabulous senior seminar on her poetry. I won’t say we read all her poems, but I may have done it (something of a fan girl back then)….somewhere I knew there was poem of her struggling with her faith that I knew would tap into my heroine’s feelings…but could I find it – no.

However I did while away a happy hour or three rereading her work, which reminded me how important poetry used to be in my life. Call it my Irish roots and grandfather reciting bits of verse to me as I sat on his lap, or my teenage need to express all that was trapped in me…poetry spoke to me and to my soul.

It saddens me to say that with the odd exception I haven’t read poetry with diligence since I was twenty-five (this is of course discounting nursery rhymes). This is a mistake, a huge one….

So, poetry…where each word is weighed and measured and given forth almost reluctantly…do you read poetry? Did you read poetry? Do or did you write it? And if you do, do you share it? (Challenge – if you do post a link in the comments)

I just stumbled across my journal from my time studying the great poet….I can clearly see the influence of studying her work on thoughts and my words. I shall leave you with one of my favourite poems of hers:

You constituted Time –
I deemed Eternity
A Revelation of Yourself-
‘Twas therefore Deity

The Absolute – removed
The Relative away –
That I unto Himself adjust
My slow idolatry –

(Apologies if I have transcribed this incorrectly as I working from my old journal …underneath it I had added the comment ‘scalding prayer’)

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Autumn Blues and Reds

I’ve been hearing a lot of complaints lately about the fact that summer is over and autumn is here. They range from “The days are getting shorter and it’s so dark and gloomy” to “Where’s the sun and why is it always raining?” and of course the inevitable “Ohmigod, there’s only 79 days left till Christmas!” But hang on a minute here – can’t we just enjoy autumn before we start to get depressed about it? (And yes, there are 79 days left till Christmas, but that’s ages – trust me!)

I love autumn! It’s actually my favourite time of year and I sometimes suspect I suffer from some weird kind of reversed Seasonal Affective Disorder (S.A.D.). When everyone else starts to feel gloomy, I perk up (not, I hasten to add, because they’re gloomy – I’m not that mean!). I hate summer heat, so the lovely cold, crisp air this time of year invigorates me. I like nothing better than to huddle into a jacket and go for a walk without getting hot and sticky the way you do in summer time. And the park is almost empty so I get the paths to myself.

The acer tree in our garden will be coming into full burgundy-red glory any day now and the neighbour’s Virginia creeper is an even more vivid crimson. It just makes you marvel that nature can produce such spectacular sights! It is perhaps a little bit sad when all the leaves fall off the trees in the park, but they’re so beautiful first and then the stark branches against the autumn sky have a different kind of beauty all their own that really appeals to me. Then there are the conkers, another autumn bonus – I’m childishly fond of picking up a newly fallen one and holding it in my hand, feeling its smooth, shiny surface.

It’s getting darker much earlier, but so what? That just means you can light some candles (or a nice fire if you’re lucky enough to have a fireplace), cook a warming stew and open a bottle of wine a bit earlier than usual. What’s not to like?

It rains a lot too, sure, but is there anything nicer than curling up under your duvet at night, listening to the rain pattering on your window? It makes me feel ten times more snug than usual and the whisper of the raindrops puts me to sleep.

Best of all, the upheaval of summer - with holidays, outings and people visiting - is over. The kids are back in school, I can get down to some serious writing. I find I do my best writing in autumn because often I’ve had to put it on hold for so long and I’m rearing to go. The ideas are fed up of forming an orderly queue in my mind – they want out!

How about you? When is your best time of year for writing and why? And what’s your favourite season? I’d love to know.

Please come back on Sunday when Liz will be posting.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

A Romance

I want to tell you a story.
Yes, this blog is definitely more about stories than about writing. You see, sometimes when we write romances, we start to think they can only be found between the pages of a book. That in 'real' life the Prince never met the Princess, that the Princess never made her choice...

We've just returned from a holiday with family in Brittany. It was wonderful, just the break we needed, with good company, good food and lots of fascinating sights and - our favourite - historical places to visit.

I also found a surprising enjoyment in re-awakening my schoolgirl French and trying to understand what people were saying. To my shame, as soon as I opened my mouth, however hard I tried, everyone always replied in English. *sigh*. But I did enjoy listening in French.

My burgeoning French comprehension was really tested on one of the last days of our break, when we visited the town and Chateau of Josselin, the seat of the Dukes of Rohan. The only way to visit the Castle was with a guided tour, and the tour guide only spoke French.
We managed okay. I was able to work out what was being said about half the time, giving quick, low-voiced translations of the gist to Husband. We learned about the Castle's history, it's declines and restorations, the motto of the Rohans, and some of their characters and stories.

And then, standing in awe in the great dining room, resplendent with silk carpet, gleaming polished silver and fine porcelain, I started to hear snippets of a fascinating story.

I gleaned that in the 17th century, Margeurite was the sole heiress to the Duchy's wealth and influence. She was beautiful, rich, and powerful - a much sought after marital prize. Dukes and princes sought her hand in marriage, many visited Josselin to court her.

Margeurite refused them all.

Because Margeurite was in love with Henri Chabot.

But Marguerite was a great heiress. Henri was a gentleman of no fortune. Margeurite had the status of a foreign princess at the French court, he had none at all. Margeurite was protestant, Henri Catholic.

In my schoolgirl French, I picked up all these things, I heard of the resistance to her marriage to Henri, I knew how very unlikely it was that she would be allowed to marry him. The tour guide (the lovely Melanie) paused for dramatic effect, then revealed the end of the story in one short sentence.

And I caught none of it.


But it was clear to me what must have happened. Relatives, or the French King, or both, would have brought pressure to bear and insisted she marry someone suitable, I knew. Very sad, but women of her time and rank very rarely had their happy ever afters, even if they lived in such fairy-tale surroundings.

When I got home, still thinking about Margeurite and her Henri, I googled her. I learned that she once said, "I do not know if I shall be able to decide to marry him, but I do feel that I could not bear it if he married someone else."

I also learned.... dear reader, she married him. Yes, Margeurite, the greatest French heiress of her time, married her gentleman nobody. She demanded special royal dispensation to do so. They were married in Paris on 6th June 1645. They had six children.

I was so very glad to learn that, in any language.

What's your favourite real-life fairy story romance?
Don't forget to pop back on Thursday, when Christina will be posting.