Tuesday, 15 June 2021

Two steps forward, one plotline back - by Rowena House

Two steps forward this past month with – potentially – big implications for the seventeenth century work-in-progress.

One step was serendipitous, the other came during to a two-hour Zoom discussion with a great writing friend about Maggie O’Farrell’s prize-winning and best-selling Hamnet, a story inspired by the childhood death of Shakespeare’s son.

Naturally, with Hamnet, we talked about the story as readers first, sharing our favourite bits and which scenes we found to be less successful. The breakthrough came after we analysed Chapter 2 as writers: what had the author done with this text; how did she do it, and what could we learn from it as historical fiction writers?

I’ll add two caveats here: a) I haven’t yet finished the book, though my friend has, and b) we’re going to continue our discussion, analysing a favourite scene each, therefore these observations are both broad and tentative.

Please do add your comments; it would be lovely to widen the discussion.

Anyway. Our first big takeaway was is how light Hamnet is on historical context compared with (for want of a better term) mainstream historical fiction. 


In not naming William Shakespeare, who is variously ‘the husband’, ‘the father’ or ‘the Latin tutor’ etc., O’Farrell boldly and explicitly puts his wife, whom she calls Agnes, centre stage.

This is a domestic story about complex family relationships, rich in history but not the familiar sort about events, particularly events that involve kings and queens, battles and dates.

Apparently, O’Farrell never even names the location of the story as Stratford, though she names streets and describes Shakespeare’s house in great detail. The historical event at its heart is a private tragedy: devastating yet commonplace.

The boldness of this exclusive, penetrating focus on the personal felt remarkable as I re-read Chapter 2 with an analytical, writerly hat on.

As a technique, it is effective and genre-bending. Indeed, reading the whole opening again reminded me of the first time I came across Gabriel Garcia Marquez: a slow burn, then boom! And I got it.

It may be that this sense of surprise reflects a dearth of recent historical fiction reading, which has suffered from the amount of non-fiction research I’ve done in the past few years, plus life’s demands in general.

If anyone can point out contemporary examples of novels like Hamnet, I’d love to hear about them.

The other big thing that struck me from the Zoom discussion was the ease with which my friend accepted Agnes’s powers of fortune telling and mind reading as a natural part of her character, without seeing them necessarily as magical.

Like Hilary Mantel’s ghosts, O’Farrell’s use of the supernatural seems to glide by reviewers and readers alike. [I accept this is a huge generalisation, but these are preliminary thoughts yet to be tested.]

Both these observations have relevance to my tale about a witch trial.

First, how much ‘history’ do I include beyond the immediate events of the story?

For example, I have been trying to develop a secondary plot which is heavy on historical context, with a viewpoint character who spans the social divide from my protagonist, a courtroom clerk, all the way to the Courts of James I and VI and his Queen Consort, Anne of Denmark.

I’ve grown very fond of this viewpoint character, Lady Beth Knyvet, in the year or so I have spent researching her life, and plotting her goals and motivation etc. But I have a horrible feeling she is tangential to the core story, so [deep breath] I have decided [for now at least] to ditch her storyline.

Bloomin heck.

The second point about Hamnet relates to my ghost. I haven’t begun to write her yet but I know she’s got to be there.

Whether she is an actual ghost or the projection of a disturbed mind remains moot. Maybe it will remain moot in the story. I don’t yet know. But Hamnet and the Cromwell trilogy, among others, suggest that historical fiction readers are willing to accept a certain amount of magic if it is done in the right way.

Fingers crossed.

So what about serendipity?

Before I had set Beth Knyvet’s story aside, a root around the National Archives, as part of an online training course run by archivists and historians at the Public Records Office, threw up a few tantalizing glimpses into the life of another character in the WIP: the judge at the witch trial.

It then turned out that the judge’s wife was a much more interesting woman than I had imagined her to be. Hurrah! As one door closes, a new one opens.

Where it will lead, I have no clue. But instinct and inclination agree that there should be a role in this tale for a powerful, intelligent woman, one who isn't a victim.

Meanwhile, a wholesale edit of the various synopses and texts beckons, with my protagonist morphing from an empathetic young man into a more jaded, worldly, nuanced and less likeable character.

Without wishing to jinx the whole thing, I’ll admit to feeling a bit more optimistic about this project than I have for a while. Happy writing!

Twitter: @HouseRowena

Facebook: Rowena House Author

Website: rowenahouse.com

Monday, 14 June 2021

If at first you don't succeed... by Lynne Benton


All writers get rejections, right?  They are never nice, but we just have to get used to them.  But does getting a rejection from a publisher mean our work is no good?

Not necessarily.

I recently came across a list of famous books which had originally been rejected by publishers, and found it quite fascinating.  For example, how could anyone have decided that Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows wasn’t good enough?

Originally Grahame made up stories of Mole, Ratty, Badger and Toad for his four-year-old son as bedtime stories, but when he took early retirement from his job at the Bank of England, he used these bedtime stories as a basis for The Wind in the Willows.  However, a number of publishers rejected the manuscript before it was finally accepted and published in 1908. 

The public, of course, loved it, and The Wind in the Willows was subsequently listed as one of the Top Ten Books of All Time!

Another book which nearly didn’t make it was Agatha Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles.  This was the first of her many crime novels featuring the indomitable Hercule Poirot, inspired by an influx of Belgian refugees into the UK after the First World War.  The manuscript was rejected by two publishers before being accepted by a third, after she’d agreed to making slight changes to the ending.  It was finally published in the US in October 1920, and in the UK in 1921, and this and many of her subsequent Poirot novels have been filmed and televised numerous times.  In fact, David Suchet has filmed every one of the Poirot stories for television.  Imagine if Agatha Christie hadn’t persisted with her first book in the series, maybe  nobody would have ever heard of Hercule Poirot!

Given the difficulties faced by women doing anything outside the home in the early 19th century, it is good to know that at least Jane Austen’s family believed in her work.  In 1793 her father thought enough of Pride and Prejudice, which she’d read aloud to the family, to ask a publisher if he would like to publish it.  It was, however, firmly rejected by return, and was only published in 1813, after the success of Sense and Sensibility

Later, in 1803, her brother Henry offered the ms of Northanger Abbey to Crosby & Company, a London publisher, who paid £10 for the copyright and promised early publication, but did nothing more with it.  In 1809 Jane wrote an angry letter to Richard Crosby, offering him a rewritten version of the novel if needed to secure its immediate publication.  If he didn’t want it, she requested the return of the original so she could find another publisher. Crosby loftily replied that he had not agreed to publish the book by any particular time, or at all, and that she could repurchase the manuscript for the £10 he had paid her brother, and then she could find another publisher. Sadly she couldn’t afford to buy it back until 1816, so it wasn’t finally published, along with Persuasion, until after her death in 1817.

And these are not the only examples of famous books initially rejected.  Who can forget the story of a young orphaned wizard at boarding school, which was rejected several times before a brave publisher took a chance on it…

All of which I find immensely cheering.  The main message seems to be, “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again!”  So good luck to all writers out there, keep sending your work out, and just remember those best-sellers which were initially rejected!

Visit my website: www.lynnebenton.com

Latest book:

Hansel and Gretel, published Hachette

Saturday, 12 June 2021

Black and British: A short, essential history by David Olusoga, review by Lynda Waterhouse


In the Afterword, Lavinya Stennett, CEO of the Black Curriculum, sums up the value of this book perfectly, ‘This book is a testimony to the rich experiences of Black people of Britain in different periods of our history, and a reminder of the dearth of Black history in our curriculums.’

This revised edition, adapted from David Olusoga’s 2016 bestselling adult version adapted for secondary and upper primary school children, has a striking blue cover and accessible font that caught my eye immediately when I walked into a bookshop. 

1,800 years of history from the Romans to the twentieth century and up to 2020 are covered. Each chapter contains maps, bite sized facts, paintings, photographs and personal stories including John Blanke, Olaudah Equiano and Sarah Forbes Bonetta. It has a glossary and a useful list of picture credits so that you can view the images more clearly online, visit a gallery, and undertake further research.

The book is crammed full of information that can be dipped in and out of or read as a narrative in one sitting. It demonstrates the great financial gains that drove the slave trade from Tudor buccaneers to slave powered colonies in Virginia and Barbados and illustrates how Britain’s great wealth and power was built upon it. The book shows that despite the abolition of slavery the Victorians were still investing and profiting from slave powered commerce and creating their own racist theories to justify their actions.

The narrative style is clear, evidence-based, and delivered in a calm and measured tone which has a powerful effect particularly in the retelling of shameful episodes and ideologies. The description of ‘new racism’ – racism that appeared in the second half of the nineteenth century which used science to justify racism - is chilling.

As someone who lives in the borough, I was particularly interested to read about Sam King, the first Black mayor of Southwark in 1983 and a man who had first came to Britain to serve in the RAF during the Second World War and returned again on the Windrush.

 David Olusoga says ’Black history helps explain how national history is intertwined with family histories. It helps us make sense of the country we are today.’

A must read for children and adults alike.

Macmillan Children’s Books will donate 50p for every copy sold to The Black Curriculum.

ISBN 13 978-1529063394



Wednesday, 9 June 2021

Where even IS 'here'? - by Anne Rooney

Two days ago, Dawn Finch started a fascinating thread, picked up yesterday by Keren David, on where we (writers) go from here ('here' being pandemic-land). I'd like to turn this around and look at 'here' and 'where' from the point of view of young readers. Dawn and Keren are writing fiction for older readers. I'm writing fiction and non-fiction for much younger readers. The fiction, currently, is entirely animal-based so the pandemic is not an issue overtly. But the lack of interaction with anyone outside the immediate family translates easily into animal behaviour. It perhaps won't look at all alien (even be qute comforting, perhaps) to the current generation of pre-schoolers and early years readers.

For young readers, picture-book scenes in playgrounds and other crowded spaces, people without masks, these are quite alien. My grand-daughter, MB, is seven. She looks at a playground and judges if it's too crowded to feel safe and will ask to go home if she thinks it is. She's not the most cautious of her cohort. I saw one of her friends yesterday, a girl MB is with every day now school is open, and who I know well. She hid behind her grandmother because she's now scared of other adults. By the start of Year 3 in September, more than half of MB's schooling will have been during the pandemic. 

The regular depictions in picture books of children visiting friends' houses and playing close together, casually touching each other, look odd. They even look a bit exotic, and 'other', like all those books set in boarding schools and large houses did in my childhood. There's an obvious comparison to make with small readers from under-represented groups who don't see their lives reflected in books, but now it applies to everyone. We need to work, as an industry, to get into the minds of those children as they grow and make sure that even if our books don't feature the pandemic, they acknowledge its impact on them. They have 'lost' (a lazy word, they experienced differently) a large chunk of their young lives. It's rather like, perhaps, the impact of evacuation on my parents' generation. My father's entire adult life is in some ways defined by his experiences of being a small child in the Second World War. He was evacuated for a year and a half — about as long as (with luck) the pandemic will affect this generation of children. Perhaps some of those evacauation and war novels, like Goodnight Mr Tom, will have special resonance for today's seven-year-olds. I've already noticed more interest in The Secret Garden, though not with any explicit link to illness and isolation, but it feels a bit zeitgeisty. 


As adults we can put the pandemic behind us if we want to. I'm not sure that's healthy, but we probably will, at least until the next one. Historically, we haven't dealt with widespread devastating illness in books. You can count the great pandemic literature on the fingers of one hand: Procopius's Secret History, Boccaccio's Decameron, Defoe's Journal of the Plague Year, Mann's Death in Venice (borderline — epidemic rather than pandemic), Porter's Pale Horse, Pale Rider. (I'm excluding AIDS because most of the population didn't feel threatened or change how they lived.) The early flu epidemics don't feature in literature, smallpox is barely there except as a reference to scars or people who have died. Syphillis gets a lot of coverage in the 1700s, but as a background threat, which is quite possibly what covid-19 will become. It will be interesting to see if it disappears from public consciousness as thoroughly as 1918 flu did. And it will be interesting to see what the current generation of small children grow up to write. Because for them it's not just a year or two out of action, but a significant chunk of their formative years remodelled. MB and the friend-who-hid both tell me they want to be writers. I wonder what they will write?


Anne Rooney


Salariya, 2020

Tuesday, 8 June 2021

Where I've gone from here, by Keren David

 Where do we go from here, asked Dawn Finch yesterday, and it was a good question. For those of us who write contemporary fiction -  do we include the pandemic in our thinking? Or do we jump from 2019 straight to some vague time in the future when things are normal again. Will there be a normal again?  As Dawn put it: Write your story. Let the story unfold just as it should. If it is a Pandemic story then there is a good chance that there may be even more of an appetite for them the further down the line we get. If it is not a Pandemic novel, don’t feel as if you have to change your whole plot to incorporate virus references. Just write the thing and if you need to add references later to ground the novel in a certain period, so be it.

Well, I have started writing a new book -  and it is very much not a pandemic story. It's in some ways an anti pandemic story. It's about parties and celebrations and shopping and social events. It's -  I hope -  fun and funny, and full of life -  yes, there are serious aspects, but they aren't about illness or epidemics or isolation. It's a blessed relief to be thinking about a world that can party again. 

And yet.

As I started to write, I realised that the framing of the story would somehow be easier if it were a post pandemic story. If the main character hadn't seen family members for months on end. If she were emerging from a period of lockdown...especially lockdown biscuit-munching. My story is 100% not about the pandemic, but somehow it had woven itself into the story anyway. That tends to be the case, I find with contemporary fiction. It sucks in the world around me, whether I like it or not.

So, the book I am writing is a post pandemic book. I have permission from my editor to touch on lockdown, without dwelling on it too much. So far it has made the writing easier. It has brought my main character Miri into focus, made her more real, given her a context. 

And of course, if it doesn't work...well, 2019 wasn't all that long ago. 

Monday, 7 June 2021

Where do we go from here? By Dawn Finch

The only writing some of us have managed

I noticed a thing yesterday. I was chatting in the market and someone said, “we had a lovely time here last year”, but they didn’t mean last year. They, like many of us, had simply eradicated a year from their thoughts. It got me thinking about where we go from here. I have been working on a manuscript for adults and I started writing it in November 2019. It is set in a mobile library in the present day and it was going well right up until March 2020 when everything changed. My novel set in the present day suddenly had an unwelcome new character – Covid 19.

I know I’m not alone in wondering what we do with Covid 19 and our fiction. The Pandemic occupied almost all our thoughts and conversations for well over a year and that is going to leave an indelible mark our memories, but do we want that mark on our fiction too?

I had a chat to some bookseller and library friends and asked what they thought about the Pandemic and fiction. The consensus is that people are split between those who want to read books centering on the disastrous impact of the virus, and those (like my market friends) who want to simply skip 2020 and not think about it.

In terms of fiction, it is a difficult decision to make. Do we reference the Pandemic in our books set in the Real World, or do we not? Do we move our books either backwards to the Time Before, or forward to the Time After? How can we possibly write a book set in the time of the Pandemic that is not a Pandemic novel?

I think that it is an exceptionally fine balancing act and I’ll be interested to see how people manage to adapt. The first Pandemic novels were already on our shelves last summer and booksellers reported a huge upsurge in people seeking out books set in times of socially isolation and virus outbreaks, but will that continue? We have no way of knowing, but there is a long and solid history of disaster and disease fiction and there’s no reason that popularity won’t continue.

John Christopher's children's novel about a world where a virus kills thousands of adults but leaves children largely unaffected. Published over 40 years ago this excellent work received some well deserved extra interest in 2020

That said, if our books are specifically set in the last year or so we can’t NOT reference the virus for fear of our Real-World fiction feeling less…well… real. It isn’t possible to ignore it completely – or is it? Is it possible to write a Real-World novel that makes no reference to the Pandemic at all? I have recently read a few brand-new YA novels and I didn’t find it jarring at all to not see references to the virus, my brain simply slipped into a pre-covid mindset. In fact, I found it comforting to dwell for a while in a place where the virus hadn’t shaped every conversation and social interaction.

I wondered what the bookselling world thought and had a chat with an agent friend. She said there was a “current hunger” in the commercial industry for virus books, but she was very cautious. We agreed that we’d both seen the industry obsessively seek out specific genre or theme books before. We've all seen how the publishing world gets hooked on a thing and snaps up everything they can, floods the market, eventually drowns it and then moves on. She says that no matter what the trends and fashions are in publishing what really matters is “the strength and quality of the story and the writing”.

Okay, so maybe there is no way we can set a novel specifically in 2020 without mentioning the Pandemic, but people shouldn’t feel as if they have to reference it. Perhaps we shouldn’t rush to write THE Covid novel. The pace of publishing is so slow it’s positively glacial and if you are writing a novel now even with everything lined up (contract and deadline already in place etc), the chances are that you are not going to see it on the shelves until 2022. Who knows where we’ll be in 2022!

Write your story. Let the story unfold just as it should. If it is a Pandemic story then there is a good chance that there may be even more of an appetite for them the further down the line we get. If it is not a Pandemic novel, don’t feel as if you have to change your whole plot to incorporate virus references. Just write the thing and if you need to add references later to ground the novel in a certain period, so be it.

For writers we are in yet another period of uncertainty - but that's nothing new for authors! Frankly, I’m impressed anyone has managed to write anything in the last 18 months so you've already impressed me if you have. We have no choice but to go with the flow and I’m very optimistic about the future and looking forward to seeing what everyone comes up with.

Dawn Finch is the current chair of the Children’s Writers and Illustrators Group at the Society of Authors. She is currently hoping for enough brain-space to do some actual writing.

Sunday, 6 June 2021

A Gorilla in the Garden by Paul May

Many years before Anthony Browne began his wonderful love affair with gorillas and other apes, Lucy M Boston produced a passionate, moving and surprising novel about an escaped gorilla finding refuge in the garden of Green Knowe, her lightly-fictionalised ancient home on the edge of the fens. The real house is The Manor at Hemingford Grey in Cambridgeshire, and you can visit the house and garden.

If you haven't read A Stranger at Green Knowe yet (it won the Carnegie Medal in 1961), here is your spoiler alert. I can't really say what I want to say without revealing the ending.

The first section of the book is written from the point of view of the young gorilla, describing its everyday life as a member of a family of gorillas in the wild. I can't say how accurate it is, but I found it completely convincing. It is also genuinely frightening as a ring of hunters closes in on the gorillas, killing most of them and capturing one, whom they name 'Hanno'. Anthony Browne doesn't mention A Stranger at Green Knowe in his account of how he came to create his picture book Gorilla, but he did name the little girl who is the protagonist of his story Hannah, which is quite a neat coincidence.

Illustration by Peter Boston

From the African bush we cut to London Zoo, where the young Chinese refugee, Ping, who has appeared already in The River at Green Knowe, is transfixed by the sight of Hanno in his cage. Like Hanno's, all Ping's family have been killed and he's been confined in places very like prisons, a parallel which is brilliantly brought out by the image of concrete. Ping sees Hanno constrained by his cage:

'The cage was just big enough for him to take a bound from corner to corner, or he could stretch to his full height on the platform and touch the ceiling. It was as if Ping were shut up for life in a bathroom. The walls were tiled and the floor concrete. He had a horror of concrete. It was one of his nightmares. He had lived on it in refugee camps that were often warehouses or railway sheds. That was where he had come to know and loathe it. It was either deathly cold or mercilessly hot and had a hateful feeling under one's fingers, like rust. Every time his hands or the soles of his feet came in contact with it, they remembered the warm boulders, the live turf, the leafy forest tracks . . .'

Ping is invited to stay for the holidays at Green Knowe, and then Hanno escapes from the zoo and stows away on a truck returning to the fens from Covent Garden market. On a small island attached to the Green Knowe garden by a narrow bridge, Hanno finds a refuge among Mrs Oldknow's bamboo thickets, and it's there that Ping finds him, and has the wonderful, if scary, experience of taking on the rôle, first of the gorilla's keeper, and then of his child for a few days, as the hunt closes in. (Anthony Browne has a great and scary story about his own first encounter with a live gorilla. See below for the reference.)

As the book reaches its climax Hanno sees Ping threatened by a maddened cow and intervenes to save the boy. Then he sees in front of him the man who killed his father and his family — Major Blair, the animal collector and gorilla 'expert' who's been called in to help the hunt. Hanno charges, and is killed. Lucy Boston says that she makes her gorilla 'choose the risk of death over captivity', and that this is the most anthropomorphic thing she makes him do. She goes on to say that 'this is something that countless animals have done. Often when caged they simply cease to live, though with all the material necessities of life around them.' Disputing the idea that it is 'the knowledge of the certainty of death,' that separates men from the animals, she says '. . . animals fear it, and every moment of their lives they take action to avoid it. They know it when they see it and howl for their dead. What child of five believes in death more than that, or who but the rarest of us, after sixty years of consciously trying, can accept the impossible concept; Death means me'?'

This mention of 'a child of five' references Boston's earlier statement, and, again, I don't know how true this is, that 'in mental development a young gorilla brought up in a human family outstrips a child in intelligence up to the age of five.' She makes clear her intention in the book: to show children that 'a world in which all living things are sentient is of course even more painful to consider than one in which mysteriously only we suffer. But it has also the grandeur and comfort of a comprehensible wholeness to which a total response is possible.'

This all makes the book sound very serious, which it is. But it's also a tremendous read. I was apprehensive when I came to it because I'd just read The Children of Green Knowe for the first time, and I'd been a little disappointed. After a terrific start, with its description of a small boy arriving at Green Knowe through a flooded landscape, the supernatural elements of the story didn't really grip me and the climax was not as strong as it might have been. But of course, The Children of Green Knowe was Lucy Boston's first children's book, written when she was only 62. She was 69 when she won the Carnegie Medal with A Stranger at Green Knowe and had learned a thing or two.

You might think that a 69-year-old winner would have attracted some awe and respect from the Library Association who had, after all, bestowed the award on her. Not so! Lucy Boston describes the shoddy treatment she received in her book Memory in a House, in a chapter called 'A Snub to Success'. After taking lessons in public speaking and memorising her twenty-minute speech she took a long train journey to Aberystwyth where she was put up by the Library Association in a very shabby hotel (no curtains in her room!), only to discover on the day of the conference that no speech was required. 'She was made to feel 'unwelcome and unimportant.' I learned about this from Ruth Allen's excellent book about children's book awards, Winning Books, in which she says: 'Mrs Boston's experience, and her vivid account of it, has gone down in the annals of children's librarians ever since.'

I've now been reading these Carnegie Medal winners for more than a year, and I've managed 24 so far. Some of them I've struggled to finish, but then along comes a book like A Stranger at Green Knowe that is completely absorbing and that I will definitely read again. I'll also read the rest of Lucy Boston's books, and visit her house and look at her remarkable patchwork quilts. Books like this make the whole project worthwhile. I started because I knew there were writers on the list I had never read, and some I'd never heard of. There are more than 50 still to go, though I've yet to decide whether to re-read some of them that I know well, and I'm hoping that the exciting surprises will continue to outweigh the disappointments.

Anthony Browne (with Joe Browne) talks about Gorilla and many other things in Playing the Shape Game, Doubleday, 2011

Paul May's website is here.