Sunday, January 30, 2011

Maps: A Love Story

Maybe it started with Winnie-the-Pooh, and that map of the wood drawn by Christopher Robin. Or with the map above, from my own loved and battered copy of the Milly-Molly-Mandy Stories by Joyce Lankester Brisley. I'm not sure which book I read first, as a child, but together they made me a fan of the map in the front of the book, and inspired me to make my own maps of the places I write about.

Being an engineer's daughter, I'm hard-wired to love the whole concept of maps their precision, their detail, their orderly lines. And I like to imagine my characters moving within them; to know where the streets and the trees and the fields are, and where the sun rises.

I don't need to hand-draw my map, if the setting I'm using is real I just print off a map that's already been made and then mark it to show where the characters live and where certain scenes happen. But if I've adapted the setting, as I did with Avebury in Mariana, or with Gardone Riviera in Season of Storms, I happily get out my pencil and paper and set to work.

Usually no one but me ever sees these. They're filed in the ring binder where I keep all my stray notes for that novel, along with my research. They can either be a close view, like this one I did of Exbury (above) for Mariana, or a wider landscape like the one I drew for my upcoming book The Rose Garden (below), which takes place in a reworked version of Polperro, Cornwall, with an altered coastline and a Beacon and a cave and stream thrown in where none exist in real life.

I'm not sure what it is with me and maps. I don't do outlines for my novels, and I've long since given up the notion that I'm in control of what my characters are doing, so perhaps in the absence of any real structure I find all those orderly lines reassuring.

Or maybe it's all down to Winnie-the-Pooh and the map in the front of the book an associative reflex, or something.

My son and I just started reading The Hobbit together, and one of the first things he wanted to do was to study the map at the front, showing where Bilbo travels, so maybe it isn't just me...

What do you think of maps? Do you love them, or hate them (or make them?)

Be sure to come back here this Thursday, to read Julie's post.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Displacement Activities

My mind's idea of a displacement activity
Some days all I want to do is avoid writing (or my tax return, or that big project at work). I have discovered avoiding things means inventing displacement activities to fill the gaps so it seems that you just didn't have the time.

I can watch DVD box sets and TV until the cows come home as a way of avoiding doing things but lets be honest we all know that is being idle. Having displacement activities give the illusion of you being dynamic and constructive but all you are really doing is scattering energy and doing a version of sleight of hand.

I have discovered that in the latter part of the year I tell myself I can't do any writing on a certain day because I need to do my tax return. Now the tax return does need doing but I have discovered that really it is a displacement activity. It gets even more complex when you realise that I will do anything not to do my tax return... so I get out all my reciepts and tell myself that I will sort them whilst watching DVDs. Ha! I can make that tax return/reciept thing last months!

But when I have done the tax return and the big project at work has been completed there is nothing stopping me from writing. Or is there? Maybe I should tell you a little about my domestic scene. I am not by nature a tidy person. Things do not get automatically put away when used or washed. And I have just spent the last few months displacing all activity with my tax return and day job... yup my flat is a tip. So on Monday night when I promised myself that I was going to get some writing done, I suddenly had this overwhelming urge to clear out my bedroom. And very satisfying it was too. I can now get in and out of bed without risking life and limb climbing over a pile of stuff.

I did have this grand idea of taking up some new hobbies in lieu of going to the gym. I was going to go flamenco dancing and ice skating. I really was. But I had a good chat with myself last week, why? Why did I suddenly want to take a few more hours out of my week to do these things? Was it because I was bored with the gym? Or am I too lazy to run round my local park? And then I realized! They were just displacement activities. They sounded great but they would eat into my precious time. But because they sounded interesting and constructive I wasn't being lazy! See how tricky my mind can be, it had me convinced that I was doing them for my own good. Not that I don't want to do flamenco dancing... I so do! But I want to be a writer more.

So this weekend I will tell myself I will write, goddamnit. And I will have it all worked out... but I really have a very messy living room. If I just move that set of books over there before I start...

What are your displacement activities?

 Please come by on Sunday to see what Susanna has to say....

Sunday, January 23, 2011

First Lines

This past week I was showing some wonderful people around Dubai. One of the them was the head of marketing at a major publisher and we were talking book covers and first pages. I spoke about my habits of watching people in book stores - a bit of a stalker I am. I look at what draws them to books....covers - then what happens. First the blurb on the back then the first page but in truth the first line.

I was listening to Jeffrey Deaver this past week and he was talking about our job as writers...we owe it to our readers that from the first line through everyone there after to entertain and pull the reader through the story to the end.

So I took a random selection off my bookshelf and looked at the first lines....

1. Okay, so finding a naked man in her bed wasn't that unusual.
2. Last night, when the third gin and tonic finally knocked the sharp edges off my day, I dared to look in the mirror.
3. When the east wind blows up the Helford river the shining waters become troubled and disturbed and the little waves beat angrily upon the sandy shore.
4. When I was little, the great mystery to me wasn't how babies were made, but why.
5. I, Hassan the son of Muhammad the weigh master, I, Jean-Leon de Medici, circumcised at the hand of a barber and baptized at the hand of a pope, I am now called the African, but I am not from African, nor from Europe, nor from Arabia.

I think it's easy to guess the genre of the novels and in some cases the authors. Four out of five raise a question and one sets a scene... A first line draws a reader in, sometimes encapsulates a whole book. It is the writer saying follow me and I will give you pleasure, take you away, teach you, scare you but ultimately entertain you. I will enrich your life with a my tale for a the hours that you give it to me....

Help! That's a big task and that first line, opening paragraph, first page is ultimately a promise, a glimpse of what is to follow. So what is your favorite first line? If you are a writer do you sweat over it? Is it written first or last?

The first lines above are from:-

1. LOVE POTIONS by Christina Jones
2. OLD SCHOOL TIES by Kate Harrison
3. FRENCHMAN'S CREEK by Daphne Du Maurier
4. MY SISTER'S KEEPER by Jodi Piccoult
5. LEO THE AFRICAN by Amin Maloof

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

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Violent tendencies?

As I sat down to write this blog post, I was in something of an angry mood for various reasons, which wasn’t really conducive to thinking up something good to write about. But since my thoughts were already turned towards violence (figuratively speaking of course, as I’m not a vicious person), it occurred to me to wonder how much aggression is admissible in a romantic novel?

Obviously, in certain types of romance violence is necessary, especially in sagas and historical novels since life was much harder in the past and the laws brutal. There are villains to defeat (who think nothing of maltreating the main characters in order to achieve their dastardly ends), real battles to be fought, duels to defend the hero’s honour, and sometimes rapes to avenge. Possibly there are evil step-mothers or brothel madams whose goons might use their fists to try and persuade a poor heroine to co-operate. We definitely can’t let them get away with that without giving them their come-uppance. So there are times when we have to pull up our sleeves and describe these things whether we want to or not.

Since my novels are historical and also feature the hero’s point of view to a large extent, I’ve had to write quite a few fight scenes. I suppose it helped that I was a bit of a tom boy when I was little, so participated in my fair share of “fisticuffs” (not to mention the numerous times my brother and I had, er ... slight disagreements), so I didn’t find it difficult to imagine myself in the middle of a brawl. Being a girl, however, I probably mostly fight like one, which as I’ve often been told is not a good thing. No self-respecting hero would resort to pulling his opponent’s hair or raking sharp fingernails down anyone’s cheek, nor would they try and kick them in the groin as a rule. So I had to do a bit of research in order to make my hero’s fighting authentic.

I happen to like films like Die Hard and Indiana Jones where the hero seems to be forever brawling with someone. Not to mention Troy and Gladiator which have superb fight sequences. I’ve also suffered through Rocky I, II and III (I think I managed not to yawn) and the more recent The Expendables, as well as numerous other such testosterone-fuelled yarns. And although a lot of these feature the extreme (over?)use of machine guns and other weapons, the heroes do use their fists as well which is where they are invaluable to me. In fact, in my new favourite film Prince of Persia, Prince Dastan appears to regard taking part in a street fight as fun – a very male viewpoint if ever there was one! And one we have to remember if we’re going to make our heroes believable.

That’s all very well on film, but in real life I’d hate to witness something like that. Faced with actual brutality I would be horrified and I’m sure my legs would turn to jelly. I doubt I’d fight back unless it was a matter of life and death. But writing about it doesn’t seem so bad - thank goodness for imagination!

The question of how much violence to include, however, is one that I’ve had to consider quite a lot. My next novel is set in 17th century Japan, and my research into the period made me realise that the samurai warlords could be very ruthless indeed. Their swords (the longer katana and shorter wakizashi) were kept razor-sharp and I read about instances when a master would test the sharpness of his blade by cutting off the head of the nearest servant. Would it be ok to include such a detail in a romantic novel, in the interests of authenticity? Possibly, but I decided against it as I’d rather not try and describe it. And after all, I want to entertain my readers, not turn their stomachs (apologies if I’ve just done that anyway!), and this seemed to me like a random act of violence which had no real purpose. Punishing a villain severely would be a different matter though. I would definitely have no scruples about making him suffer a nasty death and hopefully the readers would find that acceptable too.

What do you think? How much violence is justified/enough? Where would you draw the line? And how do you go about writing fight scenes – by imagining them yourself, or by enlisting the help of male relatives/friends?

Please come back on Sunday to hear from Liz

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Thanks Dad

I'm not the first writer in the family.

My Dad, after a lifetime of passionately climbing mountains, and diligently working as an administrator, took early retirement and promptly started writing guide books for long-distance paths in his beloved Pyrenees.

They're meticulously researched, rather beautifully written, and much appreciated by their readers. Dad drew the maps, took the photos, planned the routes. When walking in the Pyrenees, it wasn't uncommon for Dad to meet people using his guides. He was shyly delighted, and we were laughingly proud.

The royalties for Dad's guides still trickle in, surprising Mum on a regular basis. We still get letters from people who've used the guides and want to say thank you. This month, three and a half years after he died, Dad paid for Husband and I to go out to dinner together.

Thanks Dad.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Same Old, Same Old

I think one of my special talents is being able to complain about any stage of the writing process whatsoever. I believe I've already moaned on this blog about finishing a I'm going to moan about starting one.

People ask "Where do you get your ideas"? And my answer is usually, "Getting ideas isn't the problem. It's getting the right idea that is tricky." More specifically—getting the right idea and then developing it in the right way. This right idea doesn't have to be particularly original. Most every idea has been done already, in most cases over and over and over again. Shakespeare stole most of his plots. What an author has to do is take an old idea, and make it her own.

I'm at the point where I've got an idea for the next book, and it feels like the right idea, and I'm spending some time brainstorming and researching and developing it. My biggest problem right at this moment is trying to make it new for me. This will (hopefully) be my fifteenth published book, and I've found that I tend to have types of characters, types of situations, types of settings that appeal to me and that I want to use over and over again. Like, I like chefs. I really like chefs. I've had three of them so far, and those three characters have appeared in five books. I them, okay? Same with writers. I've had four of those, and they've all been heroes or heroines.

So rule number one and two for this new book: No chefs. And no writers.

More insidiously, I tend to have types of story and conflict that appeal to me. They say that every writer has her core themes, which she returns to over and over again, and mine are identity and truth. Someone, most likely the heroine, is always going to be lying or hiding something in my books. And someone, most likely the hero, is going to be the person who forces her to admit and face up to the truth.

I know that other writers have their own core themes. In every book of Susanna's that I've read, for example, the theme seems to be discovery of self and community, of connection between people, and between present and past. Anna's books are about self-discovery, too, but in a different way: they're about finding moral strength, and courage. (Susanna and Anna might disagree with me here, of course.)

I keep on trying to think up different stories. But my brain, my heart, my fingers all steer me in the direction of stories about identity and truth. Probably featuring chefs and writers.

(NO! No chefs or writers! I swear it!!!!!)

Of course, this doesn't bother me in other people's books. Marian Keyes, for example, often writes about overcoming depression or addiction. Do I care? I do not. I lap it up. I love it! That story of hers is something I want to read, over and over and over again.

Do you find you have topics you write about, over and over? Do you find your favourite authors returning to themes again and again? What do you think about repetition?

(And in my new book...can I maybe have a blogging dinner lady? How about a skywriting short-order cook?)

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Coming to Life

Starting a new book, as Julie said recently over at her blog, can be a bit nerve-wracking. I tend to combat that "being-on-the-brink-of-a-precipice-that-could-end-anywhere feeling" she talks about by using the lifeline of ritual: clearing my desk off and dusting my office and buying a brand new ring binder with labelled dividers to keep all my research notes tidily sorted. And while I'm not an outliner, I do know my first sentence, and a few of my main characters, and what I think their problem is. My problem is, that even though I have the right components, for those first few chapters nothing ever feels exactly right.

As Dr Frankenstein discovered, you can put the parts in all the proper places, but creation still requires a bolt of lightning to ignite that spark of life. And lightning isn't something you can just command at will; you have to wait for it.

I'm not so good with waiting.

But I persevere. Eventually, I know, if I wait long enough, the lightning strikes. Those characters that I've been dragging round from scene to scene like puppets come to life and start to go off script, and suddenly they're saying things and doing things that catch me by surprise. They've made that magic leap from simple constructs to creations, and I know I've got a book.

My mother, who reads all my books in their first drafts, can spot when this moment occurs by the change in the flow of my writing, she says. It will (hopefully) vanish in second draft, when I go back to smooth over the rough spots and take out the parts that no longer make sense, because by then the characters have been alive for me for months and they will bring that vital spark into the rewrites.

But when I was writing yesterday, the hero of my story settled back into his seat and made a comment to my heroine, and just like that, the lightning struck. And suddenly I know I have a book.

I love this moment.

Does the lightning strike for you, if you're a writer? And can you tell, as a reader, when a writer hits her stride within a story?

(Don't forget to come back Thursday, for another post by Julie)

Thursday, January 6, 2011

What is in the Stars?

I have a little secret. I read horoscopes. I don't believe them you understand... unless of course they say good things like how my love life will pick up or how soon I will make money from my 'creative endeavours'. No I don't believe them. I mean there are only 12 signs and if you divide the world into 12 different parts that is a lot of people all suddenly making money from their creative endeavours.

But sometimes I look at what astrology says about people's personalities, I will admit to visiting this site a tad too much to work out how my moon and rising sign make a difference to being a typical Libran. I have also been known to give my characters birthdays and look up what the stars say about them and how they deal with different situations.  Giselle Green wrote a book about how using the zodiac can work for writers.

This week at work we got hold of our 2011 stars and they said such great things were in store for us that we have cut them out and stuck them in our notebooks. We are also thinking of doing composite charts of people who want to business with us to check whether it will work out... this could be taking things a bit far.

So do you read your stars? 

Come back on Sunday to hear from Susanna

Saturday, January 1, 2011

New Year - Resolutions or Not?

First - Happy New Year! I hope that  your 2011 began well. Mine did. I bullied the family into their finest, pushed them over to the pub (caused quite a stir there to see a family of five plus the lovely Biddy in black tie), then back home - we read poems, ate pheasant and finally played charades before I fell asleep on the sofa waiting for midnight...

A great, friends, food and wine. Now what? New Year always begs for resolutions with the fresh beginning, clean slate etc., but .... I normally fail. Last year I resolved to read a book a week...managed about two and a half a month. So I failed but not really...I certainly read more than the year before.

Back as 2003 became 2004 I promised simply to write more and well I did and have been since. So this year I've said I would like to write another new book and polish up an old one. I think based on previous years efforts this will actually happen. Oh and I'd like to see the books read total climb to three a month....

But is this enough? Are New Year's resolutions about more than doing what you've done in the past. Are they about pushing our own boundaries? I don't know. Maybe they are just guidelines or hopes or dreams or hogwash?

Have you made resolutions for 2011? Or are they something you avoid like the plague?

Don't forget to come back on Thursday to see what Biddy has to say....