Saturday, 27 February 2010

Golden Toast by Lynda Waterhouse

Food is important to me. When I am reading a book and there is no food or eating described then I am strangely dissatisfied. I love reading Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum books for the sugar rush. When I’m dreaming up a story I often visualise my characters eating. More often than not food equals comfort to me. A symbol of warmth, friendship and celebration. Food triggers powerful memories .
I have my mother to thank for this. She created a magical warmth around food. There was very little money to spare so Mum used her imagination to make meals exciting. Every morning as a child before I went to school she would wake me up, give me ten minutes rousing time and then make me ‘golden toast.’ Golden toast was two slices of white bread toasted on one side only with butter. The two slices were put together toasted sides facing outward making the toast both soft and crunchy.
A ‘cowboy dinner’ was a mountain of mash with baked beans on top. An ‘Indian’s dinner’ (this was the 1970’s) was a mountain of mash with mince on top. A’ Fruit Tea’ was an apple, orange, banana and a small packet of iced gems. When I was ill I was given ‘an egg chopped up in a cup’ to make me feel better.
My favourite dish of all time is ‘Swear Pie’ – homemade whimberry pie. A flavour which I often crave and the rare sighting of a punnet of whimberries can drive me to distraction.

Friday, 26 February 2010

A Most Ingenious Paradox - Joan Lennon

(I like this photo - it always makes me smile.) I watched a Horizon programme recently called "What Makes a Genius?" presented by Marcus du Sautoy, mathematics professor and pleasant guy. For me, the best bit was right before the end, when another nice man (Dr Mark Lythgoe from University College London) talked about "the paradox of creativity" - which (I'm pretty sure) is this: Everybody has walls that they use to filter out irrelevent information. This allows us to focus. Creativitity requires us to be able to lower these walls - to be open to all sorts of things, creating new associations in our minds AND still be focussed.

"You've got to be able to hold these two states of mind at the same time - you've got to be open and also incredibly focussed." (I took notes off the iplayer version so if this isn't an absolutely exact quote please don't sue me.)

Isn't that neat? Doesn't that sound just the way it feels?
That ping, ping of random things banging around the inside of your head, the oh that's amazing! of a problem solved by something out of left field AND AT THE SAME TIME the absolute stillness and, for lack of a better word, muscle of concentrating ... Yes, well, something like that.

Does this ring bells with other people? Or does your creative paradox sing to a different tune altogether? It would be interesting to hear!

Cheers, Joan.

Visit Joan's website
Visit Joan's blog

Thursday, 25 February 2010

REVIEWS by Adèle Geras

THE MUSEUM OF MARY CHILD by Cassandra Golds Puffin Australia.

Here is the whole blurb from the back of this novel. I’m quoting it in full because it’s a model of its kind, telling you enough but not too much about a most unusual book.
Heloise lives with her godmother in an isolated cottage. Next door is a sinister museum dedicated to the memory of Mary Child. Visitors enter it with a smile and depart with fear in their eyes. One day, Heloise finds a doll under the floorboards. Against her godmother’s wishes, she keeps it. And that’s when the delicate truce between Heloise and her godmother begins to unravel. Heloise runs away. She journeys far but one day she must return to uncover the secret at the heart of her being.”
Cassandra Golds is Australian and this book has still to find a British publisher. Orchard brought out her lovely novel CLAIRE DE LUNE a few years ago, but this one is stranger and for slightly older readers and perhaps in these days when everyone is chasing the next vampire/wizard/robot/High School musical lookalike, it’s not going to be easy to make a commercial case for it. It’s very easy, though, to make an artistic one. Even today, there are, I’m quite sure, children (to say nothing of adults) who would fall in love with Heloise and get as much pleasure from reading about her adventures as I did.
Golds says in an autobiographical note that she read and reread Hans Christian Andersen as child and his spirit would be pleased with this book. There’s something Scandinavian about Golds’s imagination. I mean by this, it’s a fusion of the practical, the sensible, the rational with the seriously weird and fey - a mesmerising combination. Dolls are important in the story, and so is nature, but here again, the fairy tale atmosphere which is so brilliantly created by having the events take place in an unnamed country far away (which has snow!) and at an indefinite time in the past, is cut through with references to the modern and lit with flashes of humour. I’d bet the flocks of birds who help the humans, led by Merryfeathers, a blue budgerigar, are closely related to the ones in the Disney version of Cinderella. There are some glorious puns, including one you can only pick up on if you remember a certain kind of sweetie from the past.
The characters are out of a fairytale, too: Old Mother, who oversees a choir of twelve orphan girls (echoes of the twelve dancing princesses), Sebastian, who is a prince chained up in a dungeon, the terrifying and tragic figure of the Godmother, and Heloise herself, whose whole being slots into proper perspective only at the very end of the novel. There is love, adventure, friendship, terror, and all taking place in a landscape that’s there in front of our eyes from a bare minimum of description. We have a City, in which there’s a Prison and a Madhouse. We are given only a few details of each, but it’s quite enough, together with those ominous capital letters, to make us feel we are there. As for the eponymous Museum, I shan’t say a word about what it contains....
Special praise, too, in these days of the cheap and cheerful, to Puffin Australia for the care and attention that’s been lavished on the look of the book. It has a perfect cover, gorgeous endpapers and chapter heads and a truly beautiful font. I’m a fonts bore, I know, but I do deplore the rise of the sans serif style which publishers think gives a modern look to a book. Thank Heavens for a novel that announces its love of the old-fashioned to such good effect.
Who would read this? Anyone who loves Frances Hodgson Burnett. Any fan of the fairytales of Andrew Lang or Andersen or even Oscar Wilde. It would make a perfect book to read aloud, chapter by chapter, each night. That’s what I thought of when I was reading it: it’s exactly the kind of thing our housemistress at school would have read to us in pre-television days while we sat on the carpet in our dressing gowns embroidering traycloths with coloured silks in little skeins....this gives you an idea of how old I am.
I’m sure it’s possible to order books over the internet from Australia. I would urge readers to do just that. You won’t regret it. And maybe there’s a smaller British publisher somewhere (Quercus? Canongate?) who’d be willing to bring out a book that won’t sell in its millions but will touch and move and inspire those who do read it. It truly is not like anything else around at the moment. Please seek it out.

ALONE IN BERLIN by Hans Fallada Penguin Modern Classics pbk. £9.99

Hans Fallada is the pseudonym of Rudolph Ditzen, who died in 1947, shortly after he wrote this book. This edition comes complete with an account of the real-life case on which the novel is based as well as an afterword about the author.
It’s an account of what happens when a German couple, whose son, serving in Hitler’s army, dies in action. Otto and Anna Quangel begin a campaign which is meant to sow dissent among the citizens of Berlin. It’s intended to erode Hitler’s power and the power of the Nazi Party in every walk of life and lead to change and improvement. What actually happens when Otto starts leaving postcards with subversive messages on them in various buildings dotted around the city is the subject of this astonishing book.
We are given, in almost documentary style, the stories of many people who surround the Quangels: in their apartment, at Otto’s workplace, in Anna’s family and elsewhere, so that by the time the main action starts, we’re caught in a kind of spider’s web of relationships, and every thread leads straight to the Gestapo. Otto’s postcards, far from being picked up and inspiring revolt, get given, for all kinds of reasons, straight to the man who’s made it his job to hunt down the writer of these missives.
It’s not a thriller in the normal sense, and you pretty much know it’s going to end badly for Otto and Anna right from the start, nevertheless, the cat and mouse goings on, the betrayals, lies, evasions and the petty cruelties and privations surrounding every part of life at those times and in that place are brilliantly evoked. It’s a grim story, and yet, even in the grimness, human warmth and kindness and decency do shine through: in certain people, in certain ways. This is not about the death camps or the concentration camps. Rather, we share the day- to- day life of a city and some of its least important denizens and the ways in which they accommodate their existences to the demands of a ruthless and all-powerful tyranny.
It’s a novel which tells you things you didn’t know before, but it’s not only for educational reasons that I’m recommending it. It’s a moving, terrifying story about real people in dreadful situations and written simply and well. You won’t have read anything like this before. Do try it.

CASTLE OF SHADOWS by Ellen Renner Orchard pbk. £5.99

In spite of my small moan about sans serif fonts (see above) I did enjoy Ellen Renner’s debut novel very much. [PS written later in the day. I read the book in proof and I believe the sans serif font has GONE in the published version. Hurray!] It’s the winner of the 2007 Waterstone’s WOW factor competition for unpublished writers. Ellen trained as a painter and it would have been wonderful if she’d been allowed to illustrate this book with a few line drawings, because the world it evokes is a picturesque one: half Victorian, or Georgian perhaps and half something more Gormenghastish altogether.
Princess Charlie’s father does nothing but build castles out of cards. Her mother disappeared a long time ago, and Charlie is left to run wild in Castle Quale. She finds a clue to her mother’s disappearance and then the hunt, or maybe the chase is on. Charlie is helped by Tobias and Bettina but there is a whole cast of wonderfully-named villains and half-villains to contend with, including an evil Prime Minister called Alistair Windlass. It would be a shame to give away the ending but this story rolls along at a cracking pace, with one adventure following close on another; one narrow shave leading to an even narrower one. This is an entertaining and involving story and what’s more, one for both boys and girls. I’m sure there’s going to be a part two coming shortly. I’m looking forward to that.

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

You Don't Have to be Posh to be Privileged - Charlie Butler

MRSA looks like a ball. Bacilli look like a rod. You can tell the difference between them using 100x magnification – the ‘Edu Science Microscope Set’ at Toys’R’Us for £9.99 will do the job very well (if you buy one, with the straightest face in the world, I recommend looking at your sperm: it’s quite a soulful moment).
This passage is taken from Ben Goldacre’s fascinating, important but occasionally smug book, Bad Science (page 282, to be precise). I quote it here merely as the most recent example I happen to have noticed of a widespread phenomenon – the assumption by writers that their readers are, in every way that matters, rather like them. Here, Goldacre is clearly addressing an audience of adult, fertile men – much like Ben Goldacre, in fact, though less well informed about microbiology. Women, children, and vasectomy veterans amongst others will not be in a position to carry out his suggested experiment, and if Goldacre had stopped to think for a moment I like to imagine that he would have realised this, and edited his sentence. However, he didn’t stop – he didn’t have to stop – and neither his editor nor anyone else involved in the book’s production seems to have brought it to his attention. Perhaps they were all men too?
Now let's look at another book. Malorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses is set in a world in which white people are considered inferior to blacks. At one point her (white) hero Callum has to put on a sticking plaster. But all the sticking plasters in this world are brown, to match the skin colour of the dominant group. It’s a neat way of bringing to the attention of Blackman’s white readers the fact that, in our own world, the situation is exactly reversed, with plasters coloured pink to match the skins of white people. But how many white people have noticed this without prompting, or thought about its implications?
Obviously it would be better if they did notice, and were aware of the many ways in which the world was arranged to suit them, but when one is running with the grain of the world it’s hard to stay continually aware that it could be otherwise, and that for other people it is otherwise. How many right-handed people notice that the flexes of electric irons are designed with them in mind, but are hard for left-handers to use without scalding themselves? How many straight people notice that fairy tales only tell of straight romance? How many people who don’t use a wheelchair habitually take note of the height of doorbells, or the places in the street where the pavement is lowered? Why should Ben Goldacre need to remember that not everyone who's interested in science is male? And so on. Everyone is privileged in some way or other, and privilege means, to a large extent, not having to notice. Privilege is oblivion.
One corollary is that, when you notice your own privilege, or someone else points it out, it’s not a cause for breast-beating or melodrama, or ‘making it all about you’. Just note it, act on the knowledge, and try to be more aware in future. It happens to all of us.
Unfortunately, books can perpetuate and even entrench privilege, by making the privileged position appear right, natural and 'obviously' desirable. It’s easy to scoff at Enid Blyton for making her villains into aitch-dropping oiks – something far more visible to us than it was to her – but there are some similarly disparaging tropes at large today in the world of children’s books that are very rarely challenged. Fatness is one such. Too often, and too easily, fatness in children’s books is used as a marker for moral character. The fat are stupid, the fat are either bullies (like Rowling’s Crabbe and Goyle) or victims (like Piggy in the Lord of the Flies), the fat are filled with self-hatred – and of course, and particularly in books for Young Adults, the ultimate redemption for a fat character is to become thin. The growth of their self-confidence coincides with a shedding of pounds, a sudden looseness in the clothes and a re-notching of the belt. Losing fat becomes at once the sign of, the means to, and the reward for, a sense of self-worth.
It’s not only bad writers who do this. I yield to few people in my admiration, this side idolatory, of Diana Wynne Jones, but her latest book, Enchanted Glass, is guilty of casual fatphobia, being sprinkled (I almost wrote ‘larded’) with such phrases as ‘the fat of stupidity’ to describe someone who is, as it happens, both fat and not particularly bright. I should add that I didn’t spot this until someone else pointed it out to me. I’m privileged that way, you see.
On the other hand, literature can also help make us more aware of other people’s unprivileged realities. Blackman’s book does that, of course, but there’s no need to create a whole world for the purpose. I love the wheelchair-bound Sarah in Hilary McKay’s Casson family books, partly for herself, but partly because McKay gets exactly right the balance between acknowledging the realities and restrictions (and in some few cases the advantages) of being disabled, on the one hand, and on the other reducing her character to that disability - and her book to a patronising parable. Few writers are as deft. As for fat-friendly books, I’ll refer you to a list compiled by my friend Rebecca Rabinowitz, writing at the fat-politics blog Shapely Prose, and taking in both picturebooks and books for older children (all right, including one by me).
Could her list be extended? Can we at ABBA be part of the solution? Or have we added to the problem?

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

A Wolf in Woman's Clothing: N M Browne

I am a wolf. This is somewhat inconvenient because wolves don't cook or clean or shop for food. I also seem to be something of a stay-at-home, chocolate eating wolf, inclined to sleep a lot: a semi hibernating wolf who, lacking opposable thumbs, is pretty useless at living my life.
I thought I was going to have to be a wolf for most of my book but I am rapidly changing my mind, though, to be honest, as a wolf I don't do much rapidly. My claws make too much noise on my wooden stairs, my breath smells and my dog has forsaken his place under my desk; I think I have to give it up. I have been a fox before now, but she was female and largely co operative if more feral than I would have liked. I am often a man, or a boy anyway, which is straightforward, though I obviously have to remember that it is only in my mind that I pee standing up.
I like shapeshifting it's what we novelists do. I always remember an internet friend remarking that she had persuaded herself she was several inches taller in order to live in the skin of her heroine and was constantly surprised that she couldn't actually reach the pickles off the highest supermarket shelves. That hasn't yet happened to me, though I am occasionally disturbed to see the face of an old woman in the mirror in place of my youthful and (invariably attractive) protagonist: always a bit of a let down that.
The wolf is different. The wolf is semi-nocturnal and always tired, plus he has no self discipline. Absolutely none. He is an alpha male who won't compromise and is horribly territorial about the best place on the sofa. He expects the pack to obey him, which, frankly, has come as a bit of a shock to the pack who are used to a little less snarling.
None of this poses an insurmountable problem, the deal breaker is that the wolf doesn't want to tell his story. He can't be arsed. The wolf doesn't care if it never gets written. The wolf wants what the wolf wants and it isn't what I want so I think I have to let him go, let him slink off back into my id or wherever the hell he's come from and take his stink back with him. I think my husband will be pleased.

Monday, 22 February 2010

The Opening Chapter by Marie-Louise Jensen

I love beginning a new novel. Partly because I love that first chapter. By the time I get to write it down, I've usually been shaping it in my head for months and months and I know exactly how I want it to be. So the writing process is usually satisfyingly quick. Even if it does include getting up at dawn the following day to make changes that have come into my head in the night.
But I also love the first chapter because it's such a moment of possibilities. It's the time when the story is in my head in a full colour, digital, high definition, 4D version. I see all its potential and, as yet, none of the pitfalls and problems that will inevitably surface and leave me sitting staring in frustration at the computer screen. At this point I can still tell myself it's going to be better than anything I've written so far.
Once I'm ten chapters in, I will, of course, still be enjoying myself. I'll be thoroughly involved in the story. But I'll have red notes scattered throughout the manuscript, reminding me to 'rewrite this bit' or 'make motivation stronger' and so on at some later stage. A slight sense of dissatisfaction will have crept in. Once again, I won't have fully succeeded in tranfering my vision to paper (or screen) in the way I first saw it. Instead of 21st century graphics, my dread is it may end up looking like one of those early colour films where it looked like they'd still filmed in black and white and then splashed the colour on afterwards, all blurry round the edgs.
This is the sixth manuscript I've worked on (two are still works in progress) so I'm getting familiar with the mental and emotional process of my writing. I'm in the Viking era for the third time, but this time it's a very different sort of main character to any I've worked with before. She's difficult, willful and rebellious, and she has a tragedy ahead of her.
At the moment, just two-and-a-half chapters into the story, I still see it all as I want it. So I'm still very excited and happy, cocooned in the belief that THIS time...

Friday, 19 February 2010

The Best Laid Plans Catherine Johnson

Which kind of writer are you are you? Do you sit down and write an outline for each chapter? Do you stick to it religiously, or perhaps you have a kind of route map, with a clear direction that you follow 'til you write THE END

If this is you then I salute you.

Most times I am happy with the way my stories get written, not by some kind of magic, but by trial and error, having an idea of where I want to get to, but finding out plenty of new stuff along the way if needs be.

Sometimes, though, I am jealous of those planners who know exactly where they are going and how long it's going to take.

I know I could never write like that.

I am a mess. My desk is a mess, although I do know where everything is, honest, sort of, mostly. My story begins the same way with a nugget, a little seed of an idea which I roll down a hill gathering stuff. I have a vague idea of where I am heading, and a kind of mission statement which I remind myself of daily, but inside my head is a bit like one of those computer games where you can go absolutely anywhere within the world.

And usually things go just fine. The seed grows up and out, I prune, I train - enough plant metaphors - I play around with it. I THINK I am going in the right direction and I usually am.

However I have just wasted near on six weeks where my story has taken me deeper and deeper down a dead end. I invented a whole raft of characters (facebook friends will have heard of the tongue harvesting professor, he was a kind of early victorian speech therapist with a side interest in electricity, phrenology and of course tongues) but they were all useless.

In the last week I have had to cull them all. My lack of planning has meant I followed my nose far away from the heart of the story into another book entirely.

I think I'm back in the right place now. It feels right. I had to stop and remind myself exactly what the story I am writing is really about. What the first few (lovely, though I say it myself) chapters promised.

I would like to say that from now on I will be more rigorous, but I know it's not true, I can't imagine working any other way.

Two quick things. I have been taking part in a local (Hackney) schools writing competition. I was in a primary school a week ago where every single one of the children were brilliant writers, confident, funny, insightful, sometimes rhyming, lovely, writers. The teacher, (hats off to Aidan) was fantastic, his secret? An hour of free writing every week, where his class writes in any way about anything they like.

Other thing; I just finished Andrea Levy's new book The Long Song, it has made me cry and laugh and think deeply. The characters are wonderfully drawn and it shines a light on an important but neglected part of the history of the British Empire. What more could you want from a book?

How do you read - as a reader or a writer? - Linda Strachan

When we discuss books how different is our point of view if we are one of those who loves reading but has no aspirations to write?

Like most writers I read all the time and like most readers I enjoy different kinds of books at different times. I may be looking for something that either entertains or challenges me or at times both.

When on the beach, travelling or if I don’t have a lot of energy I will look for escapism and entertainment. At other times I want stronger meat, something to make me think,  a book that is more complex in ideas or depth.

If you are a reader (and a non-writer) you may be less concerned whether the writing is particularly good (technically) as long as the story grips you and carries you along. You may be the kind of reader who is not satisfied unless you are reading more elegant prose.

You may read a book to its end, just because you have started it, whether or not you are really enjoying it.   I know people who have said that this is what they do but personally I can never understand that attitude, there are too many wonderful books to read and I feel life is too short to waste time reading things I don't enjoy!

But as a writer I have found that the actual activity of reading has changed.

I am often irritated if I pick up a book that is that is badly written, where the research is thrown at you, undisguised and in indigestible chunks, or where plot tricks are so clumsily and noticeably used. Even if the storyline and some of the storytelling romps along I find myself being thrown out of the story because it is so badly written.

In one case when I was reading a book on a train I was so irritated by the terrible writing, more so as because I had nothing else with me to read and had picked the book up in a hurry, making the choice because of the cover, blurb and recommendations. I found myself reaching for an editing pencil which in the end was more entertaining than reading the book.

On the other hand I love discovering the occasional phrase or use of a particularly imaginative metaphor that stays in my head long after reading, as long as it is beautifully woven into the story and works for its living.

I find I no longer just read a book because I am always subconsciously looking at the construction - how the characters are developing,at times admiring the author's skill. The problem is when this interferes with the flow of the narrative and I find myself more interested in structure or technique.
That is when I realise that the plot or characters are obviously not quite gripping or fascinating enough to hold my interest.

The books I enjoy most are those where I have been so carried away with reading that none of these considerations occur to me until I have finished reading it or had put it down for a while.

Do you read as a reader or a writer? If you are a writer, has how you read changed?

Read my blog  - Bookwords -
Visit my website - to find out about
my new book Dead Boy Talking - published June 2010- Strident Publishing

Thursday, 18 February 2010

Taking Issue with Astrid Lindgren - John Dougherty

Okay, it's a deliberately provocative title, I know. I almost called it Taking Issue with Sally Nicholls, because, really, what I want to do is reply to the last Awfully Big blog entry of 2010, when she posed the question, Who Are You Writing For, Again?

So if you haven't already read that one, take a quick look at it. I found it very thought-provoking, but I think it somehow got lost in all the kerfuffle of New Year's Eve, which is rather a shame. I was going to reply to it in January, but then I broke my wrist and decided to write about that, instead.

The wrist's coming along nicely, by the way; and I've got this very fetching purple cast now instead of the grubby white one.

Anyway: what issue is it that I want to take? Well, it's this: Sally tells us that Lindgren believed "children's writing should be aimed directly at the people it's for - the children - and that anything aimed at anyone else should be deleted" [my bold]. And I'm just not sure I believe that.

Yes, you can go too far in the other direction. It's possible to bung in so many knowing winks in the direction of adults that the children, the intended audience, end up being left out. But if you do that, it's likely that children will just give up on the book and go and do something else instead.

On the other hand, it's also quite possible to successfully use references that none of your intended readers is likely to get. At least, I hope it is; because I've done my best to do so - notably in my third book, Jack Slater, Monster Investigator. There's one running reference, in fact, which I sincerely hope will go right over the heads of the children who read the book; because it's a reference to Dirty Harry, and - call me old-fashioned if you like - I just don't think that's a suitable film for children.

So why reference it in a children's book? Well, let me give you a few reasons:
  • because it amused me; and I believe that a writer has a duty to him- or herself as well as to the reader. I think that if I'm not enjoying what I'm writing, the reader is unlikely to
  • because, actually, sometimes I like to think that I write family books rather than children's books. I enjoy the idea of parents and children sharing them; and just as a good family film may have bits that some members of the family won't get, that's okay for family books, too. As long as the whole is accessible to everyone, it doesn't matter if some of us don't get bits. You can completely miss a line of dialogue but still understand the scene
  • most importantly - because it worked. I'd begun to picture Cherry - whom both Jack and the reader were about to meet for the first time - as feisty and fearless. She was going to rescue him from a monster after his weapon - his penlight torch - had been broken in a scuffle. I wanted the rescue to have an edge of mystery and drama...
...and it occurred to me that an effective way to tick all those boxes would be the sound of a battery-cover snapping menacingly shut, and a threatening voice telling the monster that she knew what he was thinking: that surely she must have run out of batteries. And, to tell him the truth, she'd kind of lost track herself. But considering that this was the Night Blaster 35, the most powerful hand-torch in the world, and could light him up like the Blackpool Tower from half a mile away, what he had to ask himself was: did he feel lucky? Well - did he?

So... actually, even though the reference wasn't aimed at the children I see as my primary audience - I suppose I was thinking about them. I was wondering how best to introduce Cherry to them, and keep the story moving; and when I came up with my Dirty Harry reference, it really didn't matter if they got it or not. "Getting it" might add an extra layer of enjoyment for the parents, but the reference was there to move the story along. I hope it did that, and did it well.

Maybe, in the end, that's the only good reason for adding any reference to anything into a story - to make the story better. If it does that, maybe it doesn't really matter whether the reader gets it or not. The one who does has the fun of a secret shared; the one who doesn't just gets on and enjoys the story.

And maybe, in that, I'm not as far from Astrid Lindgren's position as I thought.

John's website is at His latest book is Jack Slater and the Whisper of Doom.

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

The Wild Hunt and the Flying Monk - Katherine Langrish

Because we are getting a new puppy (tarantara!) we recently drove over to Malmesbury, Wiltshire, to visit her.  Malmesbury is a sweet little hillside country town with the remains of a huge medieval abbey.  And I mean HUGE.  It was founded around 676, built and rebuilt, and by 1180 possessed a 431 foot spire, easily beating Salisbury Cathedral. So it was pretty catastrophic when, circa 1500, the spire was struck by lightning and collapsed; and then the west tower also fell down fifty years later and – well, what’s left is impressive but nothing compared to past glories.

For a small place, Malmesbury has a colourful past. A gravestone in the churchyard commemorates the death in 1703 of a barmaid called Hannah Twynnoy who was killed by a tiger: 

In bloom of Life
She’s snatched from hence
She had no room
To make defence
For Tyger fierce
Took life away
And here she lies in a bed of Clay
Until the Resurrection Day.

The tiger belonged to a travelling circus which parked in the inn yard.  Like Albert in ‘Albert and the Lion’, it seems that Hannah could not resist teasing the animal - with fatal consequences.

A luckier and much earlier Malmesbury character was described by the chronicler William of Malmesbury, a monk of the abbey who wrote several books including a history of the Kings of Britain up to the Conquest.  It is this book in which he details the magnificent escapade of the flying monk.  Some time in the early 1000’s, the monk Eilmer of Malmesbury flew something like a primitive hang glider off the top of one of the abbey towers:

“He had by some means, I hardly know what, fastened wings to his hands and feet, so that he might fly like Daedalus, and collecting the breeze upon the summit of a tower, flew for more than a furlong (220 yards).  But, agitated by the violence of the wind and the swirling of the air… he fell, broke both his legs, and was lame ever after.”  Enthusiastic despite his injuries, Eilmer declared that he knew what had gone wrong: his glider needed a tail. He was probably right. And he wanted to have another go, but his abbot – who must have been a long-suffering and enlightened man to allow him to try in the first place – utterly forbade it. 

My book ‘Dark Angels’ (‘The Shadow Hunt’ in the USA) is set in the late 12th century, and I spent months researching the period.  I wanted to know as much as I could about ways of life in a monastery and in an (already old-fashioned) motte-and-bailey castle.  I wanted to immerse myself in the stories 12th century people told and sang, and the legends they believed in.  There was no better place to find this out than from the medieval chronicles themselves.  They are irresistible once you get going, full of colour and vigour and human emotions.  Take an example from the Peterborough version of the Anglo Saxon Chronicle, the progressive year-by-year account of important events which was kept and copied up with some slightly different variants from 1042 to 1155.  The thing to remember is that the Anglo Saxon Chronicle was written in the vernacular – in Old English, not in Latin. Hence the name. This meant that after the Norman Conquest, as far as newly appointed Norman French abbots were concerned, the Chronicle was effectively written in code.  These abbots could read Latin and French; they couldn’t read English.  So for the year 1127, the monk writing the chronicle is free to say exactly what he thinks about his new abbot, Henry of Poitou, who has been appointed by the King: 

“Thus miserably was the abbacy given, between Christmas and Candlemas, at London, and so he [Henry] went with the king to Winchester and from there he came to Peterborough, and there he stayed exactly as drones do in a hive.  All that the bees carry in, the drones eat and carry out, and so did he…”

So far, vivid enough – but this is merely the lead-in to a piece of vituperation which has become famous as an account of one of the earliest apparitions of the Wild Hunt in Britain!  Our anonymous but angry chronicler continues: 

“Let it not be thought remarkable when we tell the truth, because it was fully known all over the country, that as soon as he came… then soon afterwards many people saw and heard many hunters hunting.  The hunters were big and black and loathsome, and their hounds all black and wide-eyed and loathsome, and they rode on black horses and black goats.  This was seen in the very deerpark of the town of Peterborough… and the monks heard the horns blow that they were blowing at night…

“This,” our chronicler concludes darkly, “was his coming in – of his going out we can say nothing yet.  May God provide!”

In other words, the Peterborough account of the Wild Hunt is informed by the Peterborough monks’ hatred of their new, foreign, and greedy abbot.  It’s a splendid piece of mud-slinging, which has preserved an even more splendid bit of folklore – and yes, it did find its way into my book.   

For more stories visit my website at  or my blog: Seven Miles of Steel Thistles

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Tomboy in a tree - Miriam Halahmy

This is my first post for ABBA and I've been looking forward very much to getting started. I've been thinking about all the places I have written over the years, right the way back to childhood and how the places we choose to write in show something of who we are.

I was a tomboy as a child - not a term used nowadays, thank goodness. Girls are encouraged to be adventurous in 2010 but back in the black n' white fifties my mother expected me to wear nice dresses and behave decorously. I was a massive disappointment. I wanted to be a cowboy and ride my horse across the range. And I loved climbing. Today I would probably be a free runner - I was the best at tight rope walking garden walls. But there were not too many rock faces in west London, so if I wanted a proper climb which took me way above the neighbourhood streets, I had to find a good tree. And climbing trees was not just about the adventure. It was also about finding a quiet and inspiring place to write. I chose trees with good broad branches which I could tuck myself into way above the teeming streets and parks of London and away from our noisy boisterous family home. With my notebook and pencil and an apple to keep the wolf from the door, I could sit happily scribbling away or simply daydream peacefully into the London sky.

I have written in many different places since childhood. I don't climb trees any more but I still seek adventures. Most recently I went on a trip to the Arctic Circle and found myself totally alone in snow bound forests, where nothing moved and there wasn't even the sound of a bird. The hunters told us that to get close to their prey they have to use skis because the silence in the forest is so complete. A paradise for writers. No Facebook, mobiles, sirens, heavy metal beat from an IPod on the tube, just the deepest silence I have ever experienced. Highly recommended.

I have written in cafes in the Latin Quarter in Paris where I lived for six months after uni, drinking red wine and smoking Disque Bleu and imagining that Sartre or Simone de Beauvoir would walk in and strike up a deep and meaningful conversation with me. I have written in cafes in most of the cities I have visited over the years, from Oslo to Marseilles to Belfast just a year after the start of the Troubles. In the Old City of Jerusalem, in the seventies, we had favourite cafes where they served tea in glasses with mint and turkish coffee with hell ( cardomom). Next door the great tanoors, clay ovens, produced mounds of pita bread and at midday the Imams would call to Allah, their voices skimming above our heads without the help of microphones.

I have written in the waiting room of a prison where a friend was incarcerated after a miscarriage of justice and composed my letter of protest to the local paper after incorrect reporting. They published the letter and later on I wrote a poem, Visiting Jack, included in my collection, Cutting Pomegranates : appeal allowed/banged up from five/ he washes in his cell, listens to the radio/ pegs out socks, writes.....
In December 2007 I was a Writer in Residence at the Brick Lane Art Gallery Peace Camp. I invited people to contribute to a Wall for Peace. But they told me they felt numb, had no idea how to bring about peace. So I wrote a poem to give everyone a place to start.... sweat for peace, pierce for peace/ tune your guitar/ swipe your Oyster card/ sink your difference for peace.....
Nowadays my favourite places to write are my local coffee bars. I have a favourite table in Costa Coffee in Golders Green and have written two novels there in the past three years. I have just started a third. This is my Hayling Cycle for Young Adults. The novels are all set on Hayling Island and are stand alone novels, but a minor character from the first book becomes a major character in the second book and so on. The books deal with contemporary gritty issues, such as the plight of failed asylum seekers, the terrors of the drugs scene and repairing family loyalties after betrayal. The whole cycle has been taken by Meadowside Childrens' Books and publication will be finalised very soon.

I love getting out early in the morning,usually before eight, walking up the road to get the blood and the adrenalin whirling, stepping into the shoes of my characters. I know all the barristas in Costa and they are intrigued by the progress of my work. I find the background noises, the hiss of the coffee machines, the chat with the regulars, the music, all blend into one soft chorus and help me to focus on the work in hand. The strong Italian coffee gives me the required lift and I always begin by ringing the better half while my laptop boots up.
Writing in coffee bars has been part of my life for so long I don't know what I'd do if they all closed down. Perhaps I'd end up writing in trees again.
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Monday, 15 February 2010

Living with the dead

A few years ago I wrote a biography of Einstein. In fact, it was half anthology and half biography, being a collection of Einstein's bon mots on myriad different topics, set in a roughly but not entirely chronological account of his life. Now I am writing six science biographies, this time for children, and beginning again with Einstein.

Writing a biography is a strange process, something akin to starting a love affair if it goes well and you hit it off with your biographee. It begins with some cautious exploration. Could this be someone you can really like? He looks interesting enough. (I will stick with the masculine, it being Einstein.) As you learn more, you become entranced, and then even obsessed. Soon, I was eager to get back to him in every spare moment that could be stolen from domestic responsibilities and other work. It was a deep pleasure to discover every foible, every quirk of character. I spent far longer than was sensible researching every esoteric detail I could find. I stalked him shamelessly around the web and around the University Library. I kept the first edition of the General Theory of Relativity on my dining table for six weeks. His idiosyncracies - and he had many - became endearing. Character traits that other people might find irritating or alienating raised a wry smile and a feeling of familiarity and tolerance. Sometimes he would retreat into areas I didn't understand. Sometimes he didn't want to reveal anything I could work with. He could be frustrating and sometimes downright annoying. But his appeal did not diminish and the more I came to know him the more I felt he was mine. I learned to relax with him, to accept the bits I didn't understand and just work round them. He was my daily companion who understood everything I was doing, a rare treat for a writer whose work is usually solitary.

But then I came to the end of the book and, reader, I killed him. The worst part of writing a biography is that your character dies - and it is a terrible shock. The months you have put into knowing and loving him, showing him off to other people and doing your best by him as far as you can, only store up pain for the day you have to write his death. Of course I knew when I started that Einstein was dead. So in one way it's nothing like a love affair, for a love affair is nourished by its sense of the future, and my relationship with Einstein was doomed from the start. I didn't have to agonise about what I had done, and whether if I'd done things differently it could have turned out better. It was never going to be any different.

Einstein was a determinist, so he would have liked this conclusion. He believed (as many physicists do) that everything was fixed by the laws of science and we live in the illusion of freewill because it is essential to survival. I willfully ignored his inevitable death and frolicked with freewill, enjoying the moment. And his death hit me hard. 'He died!' I would say, shocked, to friends who asked about the book and how it was going. So maybe it is still like a love affair after all. We love - and write - knowing death will come, and not holding back. And now I'm writing about him again. Will it be like returning to an old lover, starting a new affair but with the benefit of established love and comfort? Or will his magic have gone? Maybe he won't excite me any more and I'll just be anxious to get him out of the way and move on to my next great scientist. I hope not. But I have learnt to write the death scene first. My heart has become cautious, with regard to biographees.

Saturday, 13 February 2010

Supermarkets and fair trade books - Katherine Roberts

Like many other people, even though I prefer independent shops, I do a weekly food shop at my local supermarket. It’s convenient, the car parking is free, everything is together under one roof so it saves time, and it's affordable. It’s also a fairly pleasant environment with generally helpful staff, and I can always choose Fairtrade products or avoid those with vast numbers of air miles to salve my conscience. OK so far. But two things really annoy me. One is when they change the shelves around so I have to spend extra time wandering up and down the aisles to find all the things I want. The other is when they don’t stock a particular product I know is available elsewhere.

The first is a marketing trick, designed to tempt the customer into buying something they don’t normally buy, and I’m willing to play that game in exchange for convenience and affordability. The second is more sinister. Supermarkets know very well that, having driven to a location a mile or more out of town, few people are going to walk that mile in search of their desired product. Most will probably buy the nearest alternative (often an own-brand product) instead. I've even done it myself while muttering under my breath that I'm allowing myself to be controlled - but then that's the choice I make when I walk through their doors.

You might not think it matters with food. A bit less tasty, maybe, a bit more sugar, a bit less healthy, a few more air miles, but it’s still food. In the words of Crocodile Dundee, “You can live on it…” But now supermarkets sell books. These used to be a bit of a joke, sparkly eye-candy people would pick up for their nieces and nephews at Christmas. But more and more these days I see real books on supermarket shelves, good solid novels that took their authors several years to write and are for sale in real bookshops in town for twice the price.

Supermarkets don’t stock all the novels published, naturally. There’s not even as much choice as the hair products in my local store... clearly it matters more to people around here which hairspray they use than which book they read. But they stock books nevertheless, containing exactly the same words and often having exactly the same production quality as the more expensive variety. And your typical supermarket shopper, blissfully unaware of the range of other titles available, will pick up one of these books because it’s (a) convenient, (b) cheap, and (c) just as good as any other book in a particular genre, as far as they are concerned. You might argue the discerning book buyer will walk/drive the extra mile (or these days more likely 5 miles) to visit their nearest independent book shop, or simply head home and order their preferred title online. I’m sure you lovely blog readers would. I do, being all too aware of how tiny a royalty goes to the author from each supermarket sale (there’s a reason their books are so cheap). But most people won’t. They’ll buy what’s there under their noses at the time, especially if it’s half the price they can buy a similar product elsewhere.

This is a double-edged sword for authors. If your book is not stocked in the supermarkets, then you’re not only missing out on potential sales, but your book then looks ridiculously expensive in comparison to supermarket books, even if a customer does happen to see it on sale elsewhere. They’re going to need to be very motivated indeed if they are going to walk that extra mile to find it and then be expected buy it at full price. Chances are they won’t buy it at all, maybe not even online unless it’s discounted deeply. On the other hand, if your book is stocked by the supermarket then you might get good sales, but your royalty from each sale will be so small you’d do better buying them yourself and selling a few at your local school gates after marking them up by fifty pence or so.

There has to be something wrong when the discount given to supermarkets – or any other mainstream bookseller for that matter – is larger than the discount allowed to authors in their contracts for buying their own books without a royalty. I don’t know the actual figures (they are not easy to find out), but I can tell you my author discount has never been greater than 50%, with a proviso that I am not allowed to sell such books to the trade myself (presumably because this would mean lost profits for my publisher). And yet I’ve heard rumours of discounts MUCH bigger than this being given to supermarkets as a matter of routine. So how do these figures work out?

To my mind, the real threat to authors’ incomes is not Google or e-books or any other alternative technological format. It’s the supermarkets, who already dictate our diet, and have the power to control our reading choices and impoverish authors in the same way as they have impoverished farmers. Fair trade books, anyone? Or is that a dirty word?

Thursday, 11 February 2010

Like Smoke into the Air - Dianne Hofmeyr

Yesterday, after 6 weeks away, I was catching up with ABBA and discovered your poems. Coincidently I’d written Like Smoke into the Air in the early hours of the plane journey home.
Like Smoke into the Air
Up the steps to the harbour wall fish scales trail.
Gills and gut clot.
They stand – a small group – four figures against a steely sky.
Two daughters, two granddaughters and now I
the youngest sister walking the long aisle
to where the port light guards the swell,
clutching a scarf that reflects the sky.
They’ve brought flowers. Well chosen.
Crimson, fuchsia, purple,

set off against sunflowers
made iridescent by the filtered light.
The box is simple. Plain cardboard.
The packet plastic.
Humble containers for so fragile a mix.
We dip our fingers. Lightly at first.
As if in holy water, or soft palm ash to daub a forehead.
But this is dry.
Flecked. Gritty.

We take fistfuls.
Our fingers grow familiar with the touch.
Cast it like smoke into the air
where it glides and is taken on the breeze.
There is no rhythm. No plan.
Flowers fall where they fall.
Ash drifts. Dissolves. Disappears.
The sea, liquid pewter, rises to receive.
A vast sighing swell that dips and lifts and breathes.
My own breath dips.
Lifts. Catches.

The flowers are borne Millais-like.

A raft. A bier.
At the port light they slow
as if to gather strength,
then slipstream a silver current
to trail across the bay.
Two oyster-catchers salute,
sharp against the sky.
And we… two daughters, two granddaughters and I…
walk back along the wall.
Hands darkened. Nails stained.
Whorls ingrained.

Dianne Hofmeyr 10.02. 2010

How I was arrogant and became more humble by teaching creative writing - Meg Harper

One of the things I have done today is think about what I might do with my creative writing class which meets once a month – haven’t quite decided yet but I have a vague idea and I’m looking forward to it. The class lasts for 2 hours and we always over-run.
A few years ago I would have vowed I would never teach creative writing. I would never be part of a writing group. What? Go back to English teaching after discovering the liberation of drama teaching? No way! Sit around listening to wannabes read their dire stuff and be part of a back-scratching circle that hasn’t got the guts to say please go away and take up crotchet instead? Gosh, I was arrogant! Now I love both the teaching and the listening, I have started another (very tiny) writing group for people who want to write their autobiographies (thank you, Leslie Wilson for that lovely idea) and I am awe-struck by the talent of some of the writers and their dedication. Not only that, I am humbled by being part of a group, the bedrock of which is people who will graciously accept criticism and apply it and also give it where necessary with gentleness and sensitivity.
So how did I get from there (arrogant and dismissive) to here? (impressed and humbled)
Like a lot of the bits of my work portfolio, this happened by chance. The creative writing tutor at The Mill Arts Centre where I run the Youth Theatre, resigned suddenly. There was a gap. You write books, don’t you Meg? You’re a qualified teacher? Could you possibly.....? That was nearly three years ago. In the intervening summers I’ve run 2 intensive 3 days workshops where a tiny group has written and self-published an anthology of their work via lovely (if clunky at times) (Incidentally, is it just me but has the P&P multiplied a hundred-fold?) And what a learning curve that has been! For me, a spin-off looks like a new publication with A&C Black but I’ve yet to sign the contract so I’m not holding my breath!
It’s not all awe and wonder, of course! One aspect I didn’t anticipate is that whilst members come and go, I have two members who have been with me from the start and two other long-standing members – and there’s an overlap between the creative writing group and the autobiography group – so each session has to be new and original. There’s no re-cycling of old lessons! The downside of this is that every so often it does my head in and panic ensues! I’m primarily a children’s fiction writer – so what gives me any qualification whatsoever to teach poetry, travel writing, crime fiction, etc etc etc? The upside is that I have to jolly well find out! And it is very interesting and good for me. Last time we were dwelling on an idea culled from the Myslexia short story competition that a satisfying story is one in which change takes place, preferably within an intriguing context. It turned out to be quite a contraversial idea and led to an interesting discussion, not to mention some very original story plans.
So what will Saturday’s class hold? I don’t know yet – but the hour we devote to reading and commenting on what the members have brought along will be fascinating. Some will have taken what we did last time and worked on that. Others have on-going projects and they’ll share the next bit. I’m really hoping Stewart will have written the next instalment of his Sci-Fi novel and that Rebecca’s children’s novel is as funny as last time. But the best bit for me will be John’s poetry. I am gradually making a collection of his stunning poems. I am very happy to write the stuff I write – fluent, readable, light, accessible. But I cannot help being envious of those who can write poetry well. I will never write like John Vickers. Let me introduce you to his work. Those of you who are my Facebook friends may have already encountered this which is my favourite.
The Caravan and the Curlews

The wind heaves, a door rattles, the floor creaks.
we always come here in late September
where dad searches the mudflats for curlews.

The tin roof sags and bends and sinks and leaks
and dad woke at dawn cursing my mother -
the wind heaves, a door rattles, the floor creaks.

I want to pursue what my dad pursues,
I've been stuck in here with mam forever
and dad searches the mudflats for curlews.

Is it really the long curved bill he seeks,
or has he found here something lovelier?
The wind heaves, a door rattles, the floor creaks,

and dad listens to the shoreline calls, clues
as to redshank, godwit, oystercatcher
but dad searches the mudflats for curlews

he's been thinking of little else for weeks.
Yet I wish we could bird-watch together.
The wind heaves, a door rattles, the floor creaks
and dad searches the mudflats for curlews.

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

On Worrying - Andrew Strong

I am a naturally anxious person. I worry about everything. When I was fourteen I worried about losing my hair. Years later, still with plenty of hair, I worry about going grey. I have had just about every illness there is, or rather, I have convinced myself, at some point, that I've had every disease know to medicine and a few known only to veterinary science.

Worrying is the ultimate distraction. It's what I do when I'm not hungry, or cold, or wet, or tired.

I worry about my going deaf, going blind and losing my mind. I am not a passive worrier though - I will read medical text books, trawl every internet site to confirm my worries. I will eat the right things, drink the right things, exercise, cleanse my body of toxins and fill it with anti-oxidants.

I worry about leaks, bills, missing appointments, rusty hinges, people, mice, loose tiles, my collapsing shed, the central heating, getting up, going to sleep, tomorrow, next week and next year.

I am a sceptic too. I may worry about eating the right foods but won't believe the people who are telling me what I should eat. I won't listen to experts.

And so it is with global warming, the future energy crisis, and the end of the universe. The sceptical me will deny anyone can know anything for sure.

Worrying passes the time. It gives the wide awake brain something to do. Hating Sudoku and all other forms of solitary amusement, worrying is a great time waster.

Working is a good time waster too. Do it for long enough and you can make money out of it. I've looked for employment as a worrier, but there aren't that many openings. Instead I would find any job, turn up at nine, settle in and worry about doing the job properly until it was time to go home.

Now I am worrying about my book. I used to worry that I would never be published. I found a publisher. Then I worried that my publisher would change their mind. They didn't. Then I worried my book wouldn’t appear in the shops.

Worrying is quite productive, though. I channel it into writing, or sketching out new ideas for books. I don't just sit around and worry. I'm not a slacker. I am an industrious worrier.

Between worrying I've been reading "The User Illusion" - a wonderful, rambling book about consciousness. And it makes this point: if we compare the amount of information going into our brains with the amount we can hold in our consciousness at any one time, it is about a million to one. A million times more information flows into our senses than we know what to do with. Our little wide awake selves spend all our time trying to decide which tiny bits of information to deal with. And yet, meanwhile, our unconscious self deals with the rest.

So here's my solution: I'm going to let my unconscious deal with everything. I'm going to let it do the worrying. My conscious mind is going to get all the fun. I'm going to fill it with colour and music and tastes and smells. There won't be any bandwidth left to worry.

I just hope I will still manage to get things done. Do you think I will? Do you? Will I?

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

The Death of Reading - Elen Caldecott

I have heard from two different people this week that reading is in decline. One was a friend on a writing forum who just had a feeling he was right. The second was in the Guardian, so I took it slightly more seriously... for about two seconds.

The theory is, that there are so many other forms of entertainment these days, the internet, video games, text messages, Sky plus boxes, bionic arms... that there’s no time left for books. We are all assaulted from every direction by things that yearn to amuse us. Our time is no longer our own and that like-it-or-not we will find ourselves playing Resident Evil 4 for three hours a night before switching on Celebrity Come Dining on Ice. The world has gone to hell in an electronic handcart.

But, it’s not true, is it?
For a number of reasons.

First of all, I’m not convinced that there ever was a time when we spent all our leisure time reading. Yes, sure, maybe some Victorian families read to each other after dinner, but only the ones who weren’t working shifts down in the cotton mines. Certainly, when I was growing up in the 1980s in Wales, the idea that we should sit down and read aloud to each other after a meal would have been met with disbelief, then laughter. After all, Coronation Street was on.

And, even if we did have leisure time for reading, I’m not sure how many people read for fun. My guess is that it has always been a minority interest. I was definitely the only one in my junior school who did. Admittedly, it was a very small school; there were 10 people in my year. So, 10% of us (me) read for fun; All the other kids had BMXs and He-man figures and Mr Frostys and there was one wondrous day when even I put down my book because Hayley got a ZX-Spectrum and we could play Space Invaders. I never saw anyone else in my street read anything other than the Beano for fun.

Finally, most crucially, just because we have Facebook and Avatar and iPads doesn’t mean you have to surround yourself with them. If you want to read a book, well, what’s stopping you? The digital world isn’t being beamed onto the back of our eyeballs just yet! As another of my favourites shows from the 80s said, ‘why don’t you just switch off your TV set and go out and do something less boring instead?’

Like read a book.
Elen's Facebook Page

Monday, 8 February 2010

You Know That Saying 'I Couldn't Get Arrested'?: Gillian Philip

I can’t think what to write about this month (‘can’t think what to write about’ being a near-pathological condition I really should be able to dissect in detail). So I’m just going to pass on a couple of cautionary tales about research.

I'll be honest, I don’t like research. It’s the one displacement activity – apart from cleaning the loos – that I don’t enjoy. I resent it for keeping me away from the story (whereas Facebook and Twitter: I don’t resent them for the same thing. It’s an innate laziness).

I tend to do detailed research after the fact, and not just because of idleness. The one time I did get into historical background in a big way, it was for a book with a background of the 16th century Scottish witch hunts (obligatory plug: FIREBRAND, published in August 2010 by Strident). I got so into my subject, I was so pleased with the depth of my research, that every syllable of it got shoehorned into the story, thereby bringing said story to a screeching halt. So, out it all came again. Just because I knew it, I didn’t have to inflict it on the reader. To paraphrase Russell T Davies, it doesn’t really matter why meteorites would miraculously burn in a vacuum; for the purposes of the story they JUST DO.

Sometimes, though, I have to know before I start writing that the whole plot or setting is actually going to work. Which is why I caught myself on the phone to the British Embassy in Paris one day, asking how far back it was set from the road and was it possible to drive a car up to the front door? The official was very polite in the circumstances, told me to forget it (in the nicest possible way), sent me a smart brochure about the Ambassador’s house and suggested I use that instead.

Impetuous is a Bad Thing to be, because after this experience, I should have known better. No, a few months later a plot occurred to me in all its perfect glory (as they do, hem hem). But no! What if my heroine had bodyguards? That would ruin everything.

So I got onto the net, found the phone number for the Cabinet Office, dialled without a second thought and asked a nice lady about security arrangements for the families of cabinet ministers. After about ten seconds I realised what a bad idea this was, but I didn't want to just, you know, hang up...

Well, at least I must have sounded reassuringly incompetent.

So there you go: a few ways not to handle your research. And what is my point? Well, I don’t really have one. But it’s an excuse for a picture of Richard Armitage.

(Above: Ros and Lucas marvel at the idiocy of authors, then go for a drink)

Saturday, 6 February 2010

Publication Day - the biggest myth going Karen Ball

There are lots of myths that surround the life of a writer. That we earn lots of money. That we have lived every experience we write about. That ideas are easy or that we are kind and friendly people who pat children on the head and have a stash of chocolate in our pockets to hand out whenever meeting a new fan. All wrong. (Well, in my case at least. I give chocolate to no one.)

There's another myth that does the rounds, but one that is possibly less discussed. Publication day. You know that all important day when your book hits the shelves in a riot of publicity and promotion? Your publisher takes you out for a champagne dinner, fans queue up around the block, your parents weep with pride and the first editions become immediately priceless. That's the way it works, right? Possibly for some people. My publication days have always been quiet. I know several of you enjoy 24 hours that are full of flowers, interviews, attention, joy and activity, but I hazard a guess that even then there is something uniquely isolating about being the only person at the eye of the storm.

So, what is publication day? Usually in the middle of the month, but it could be one of any number between 1 and 31. It doesn't really matter to me, as not much happens. I get up, have some breakfast, get on with the day. If I'm feeling reckless, I'll wander into a bookshop to see if I can spot a copy of my book, but I know that's a dangerous dance with the devil. There might be a card from the publisher. But often, the day continues much as any other. This momentous event that has been creeping up on me for months and months turns out to be ... well, not so very momentous after all.

I have similair issues with the day you find out your book is going to be published. That phone call or email after an acquisitions meeting is possibly one of the moments of purest delight I've ever known. But then what happens? When I took the call saying my first novel was going to be published, I was cycling home. I pulled over, wrestled my mobile to my ear with sweaty palms, tried to sound like a Professional Author rather than harassed cyclist, then when the phone call was over, I... Did a dance? Pulled strangers to me and kissed them? Threw my bike aside and went out for an evening of debauchery? No, I put my feet back on the pedals, cycled the rest of the way home, made a few phone calls and watched Eastenders. This really big moment in my career remained caught up with the mundane details of my workaday life. I am certain I was tucked up in bed by 10.30pm, ready for the next day in the office.

Is this one of a writer's biggest secrets? There's a hole in the middle of the polo. A writer's world exists largely in the mind, and never is that more obvious than when real, concrete things are happening - somewhere else. In a meeting or a warehouse or a bookshop but not in my home and not in front of me. 'What does it feel like to be published?' people ask. I don't know. Publication is what happens somewhere, out there, in the ether. Perhaps it's all a big dupe. Perhaps none of us are really published at all? Perhaps... Oh no, I'm veering into conspiracy theory territory. No one would do that to us, would they? Kid us, I mean?

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Friday, 5 February 2010

Stitchin' n Bitchin' by Penny Dolan

About a week ago I suddenly “saw” that an early scene in Tome Two could work in another way. However – and maybe that’s why the new vision struck me – I was on a run of trains, meetings, researches, visits, storytelling workshops and mightily sore feet.

I just couldn’t wait to get back to the unpicking. Started on it a day or two ago, and ooh blooming blimey! My very own Column of Infamy has raised itself before my eyes!

You see, back there on the train, the changes went so swiftly and easily. Pick up this person here and put them down there. Put these two together and let them have a really big falling out about something major, something that will drive the book along. Add this and that rather interesting incident. . . No, I won’t reveal more. It was all there in my mind, and wonderful.

So how come the actual Tome-work is so difficult? Think I’d forgotten just how much I had worked over and over the scenes before. Now the thread of the unravelled story seems full of kinks and twists. The colors in the wool look a little re-used, and unusual holes keep appearing where the story once went in another direction.

I keep working on, writing on, wanting to return to my once smooth and seamless surface. Occasionally I think I’ve almost made it, but then up comes a bit of pattern I’d once put in and that I really rather love. How am I going to manage this? It’s very much a head-down, keep-going sort of writing time.

In fact, there have been moments when I wish my bright idea hadn’t revealed itself. I’ve also – sssh! – had moments of being really rather glad that this is a renamed version, and the old document is still there waiting. Just in case I end up with an ugly lump of sows ear from my once silken purse.

Hope all of you writers out there are having a much better time!

You can also find me on my new blog, THE YEAR OF MOUSE.

Thursday, 4 February 2010

Stranger than Fiction – Michelle Lovric

I’m scarcely writing at the moment. I’m doing something stranger than fiction. I’m trying to drag a 700-year-old piece of marble out of the moist bowels of the Doges Palace in Venice.

It is that fascinating object, a Column of Infamy. It was erected to the eternal dishonour of one Bajamonte Tiepolo, Venetian nobleman.

Bajamonte’s plot to murder Doge Pietro Gradenigo dissolved into a bloody comedy of savagely ironic errors. A last-minute betrayal cost him the element of surprise. Then the heavens opened, drowning in wind and rain all Bajamonte’s plans for simultaneous strikes on San Marco from three different directions. The whole grandiose conspiracy was finally quashed after an old lady dropped a stone mortar-and-pestle on the head of Bajamonte’s standard-bearer, scattering brains and blood. When it was all over, Bajamonte Tiepolo’s palazzo at Sant’Agostin was razed, his family crest suppressed, the man himself consigned to perpetual exile, a kind of living death, the worst possible punishment for a Venetian. Except …

Except knowing that on the site of your destroyed home, your vengeful vanquisher, Doge Gradenigo, has erected a colonna d’infamia, a metre-tall column of white marble with an inscription to keep your name in perpetual odium. ‘For ever’, says the column, one of the earliest examples of stone script in Venice.

For this writer, the idea of a Column of Infamy has an irresistible appeal. What can compare with it by way of an insult? A libellous roman-a-clef? A spiteful scrawl of graffiti? A rancid blog? A perpetual icon at the top of every Google search? A malicious character assassination in a national newspaper? I don’t think so. This is an insult that becomes part of the fabric of the city: a phantasmagorical white effigy by moonlight, a harsh reality by day. It’s a urinal for the dogs, and for humans with some dog in their nature. (And don’t think Doge Gradenigo didn’t think of that when he put up the column.)

And it turns out that Bajamonte Tiepolo’s Column of Infamy has a story of its own, something stranger and perhaps sadder than even a novelist could invent.

For even in exile, Bajamonte Tiepolo could not bear the thought of it. One of his henchmen was sent in the night to destroy the column. He succeeded in breaking it in three pieces before he was caught in the act. The henchman was deprived of a hand and his eyes were put out. The column was repaired and re-erected. For a while.

Also implicated in the Tiepolo conspiracy were members of the Querini clan, one of whom was Bajamonte’s father-in-law, Marco. Family counts in Italy. Memories are long. It seems that in 1785, one Angelo Maria Querini asked the city if he could buy the column. No-one paid too much attention, it seems, when the shameful object was quietly sold off and a humble stone plaque embedded in the pavement. Loc. Col. Bai. The. MCCCX. says the broken slab, which almost seems designed to obfuscate all but those who speak abbreviated Latin and know fourteenth-century Venetian history.

Strangely, however, Querini did not destroy the column. Instead, he sent it to his villa in Altichiero on the mainland. Then it passed into the hands of the antiquarian Antonio Sanquirico, and finally to the heir of the Duke of Melzi, who used it as a garden ornament at a mansion on Lake Como. It was returned to Venice in 1838 by the last inhabitant of the villa, Duchess Joséphine Melzi-d'Eril Barbò, and it was briefly put on display in a courtyard of the Correr Museum. But some time, at least a hundred years ago, it was carried down to a depository of the Doges Palace, and never seen again.

Never seen again: the Column of Infamy that was supposed to stand ‘for ever’.

I have talked to many Venetians and to organizations that find the column fascinating and compelling, both as an object and as a symbol. 2010 is the 700th anniversary of Bajamonte’s plot. Even Venice doesn’t have many seven-hundredth anniversaries! Yet the conspiracy’s most important and tangible relic languishes unseen. The column is not fragile, and it’s not massive. Why can't it be brought out of the depository and placed where Venetians can see it? Even inside the Correr Museum, if stone conservation is an issue. The clock is ticking. On the day of posting this blog, it will be four months and ten days until the 700th anniversary of Bajamonte’s fall.

Now Venice forgets her past at her peril. In some ways, it is all she has left. So far, I have attempted some consciousness-raising in the form of my novel, The Undrowned Child. That shaming Column of Infamy gives Bajamonte a visceral reason hate Venice: his vengeful ghost serves nicely as a highly motivated villain. In my story, when he’s vanquished, Bajamonte’s lost column magically reappears where it always should have been.

And I haven’t renounced hope. For my sins, I’m offering myself up at a press conference in Venice later this month. I’m presenting a paper (The Novelist’s Bajamonte Tiepolo – the Lure of a Column of Infamy) at a conference in Venice in April. I’ve been honoured with an invitation to deliver the Venice in Peril Summer Lecture on June 1: The Night Venice Nearly Died - The Conspiracy of Bajamonte Tiepolo 1310 - 2010. All this from someone who would rather chew off her big toe than do personal publicity (see my previous blog on the Golem).

I’m working with some locals on the idea of a small, dignified and quiet symbolic gesture on the night of June 14th, the eve of the anniversary. Since the Fondazione controls all the images of the column, I’ve commissioned an evocative painting by Kaitlin Zorah McDonough that shows la colonna d'infamia not in a warehouse but in the campo of Sant’Agostin, where it should be.

Anyone got any other ideas?

I appeal to the creative and subversive imaginations of all those who read this blog.

Venice, and her languishing Column of Infamy, need you.

Michelle Lovric’s website
Venice in Peril
Painting of the Column of Infamy by Kaitlin Zorah McDonough.