Category Archives: writing

Bringing back the bodies… *

I was delving into the BBC’s website the other day and came across one of my favourite authors, Barbara Trapido, on the Book Club programme. She and the audience were discussing The Travelling Hornplayer. Trapido has written seven novels and four of them are linked. By linked, I mean that characters return and live on in different stories. They’re not sequels exactly, or at least not in the standard way that we expect, if only because I’m not sure if Trapido envisioned writing them all like that when she started out. From the way she describes it on the programme, it sounds a more organic process, that by thinking about a situation she also considers “Who do we know that would do this?” and sometimes that answer is a character that already lives in her head, or on her pages.

I have a complicated relationship with sequels, in that I find most of them invariably spoil the original for me. Jo’s Boys and Little Men, for example, are awful, and EM Forster wrote a brief sequel to A Room With a View, included in my paperback version as an extra ‘treat’ for the reader (every reader except me that is.) Successful sequels, when done well, can bring more to the originals, can enhance and continue the characters and answer some of the readers’ questions. The best example of this I can think of are the sequels to Rebecca – Mrs de Winter by Susan Hill and Rebecca’s Tale by Sally Beauman. They both continue the best aspects of the original while staying true to it (for example, neither of them name the main character, indeed I doubt any reader would find a name satisfactory).

Series are different, since they aren’t sequels in the true sense. But you can still find yourself disconcerted if the author does something unexpected. I still haven’t finished Michael Tolliver Lives just because I was so thrown by the sudden switch to the first person narrative after six books told in the third person.

Trapido’s approach is rather fun. Having just dug my copy of The Travelling Hornplayer out, I found a family tree and connections map that I must have drawn years ago when I first read the books.

2017-05-12-14-18-49.jpgIsn’t it sweet? But complicated and messy in a way that suggests that a) I’m rubbish at drawing family trees or b) Trapido ended up with a set of coincidences that are as messy as life itself.

With these interactions between books, Trapido says in Book Club that she was reprimanded and “not forgiven” by some readers who didn’t like the direction that character had taken. I do understand this. My favourite Trapido book is her debut Brother of the More Famous Jack, and I love the main character Katherine so much that I am disappointed by her overbearing smothering (yet completely understandable) mothering of her second child Stella, which has such damaging consequences later. All of this comes out in The Travelling Hornplayer where, it also transpires that Katherine’s husband Jonathan has been having affairs. Of course he has. I forgive Jonathan’s transgression because it’s in character but I have trouble reconciling myself to him and his family isolating Katherine – although she chooses to travel to Ireland with him at the end of BOTMFJ, she has had a shocking bereavement and a spell of mental illness and the last thing she needs is to be alone with a baby while he writes books and philanders. Her concentration on the baby is understandable but I wonder if she would have been like this had she had a closer physical network of family and friends nearby who could have helped and lessened the focus.

What makes people feel resentful about characters changing in this way is that when you read, you accompany people through their story and, in many cases, get to a happy ending.  A later volume means you’re not allowed to let them go on living happily ever after. As a reader, you’re powerless to stop the mistakes they make and this can be worse when you thought you got safely with them to the end of their first book.

As a writer though, there is an attraction to this approach. Getting to know a character can often mean that you think of them in certain situations, so why not put them through the wringer all over again? The convenience of having a ready-made philanderer on hand must have been helpful and gives you a chance to pop back and say hello to those you haven’t quite done with.

This makes it sound like the answer for a lazy writer and that’s not the case at all. Trapido’s books are intricate weavings of characters and situations, with literary references thrown into the mix. If you’ve not read her before, why not give her a try? You won’t regret it.

*with apologies to Hilary Mantel

Competition time! Win an author’s kit

I’m celebrating. And to have you join in my celebrations I’m giving away everything you need to be a writer. Everything, except the sheer bloody mindedness, which I’m afraid you’ll have to cultivate yourself.

Would you like to win: coffee, biscuits, writing maps, notebooks and pen? You would? Great, read on.

Your prizeYour ultimate writer’s kit includes:

Four Writing Maps! Containing prompts, illustrations and suggested reading on a theme, these pocket sized beauties are perfect for when you need a bit of inspiration. Each map has at least 12 prompts and these can be used anywhere, in groups or alone, and can give you an idea to transform your surroundings, observations and memories into stories. In your prize are: The Writing Over the Top Map, Writing with Fabulous Trees Map, Writing People Map and My Writing Life Map

Two pocket/ handbag sized lined notebooks, just perfect to carry around for when you need to jot something down

A Pilot G-Tec C4 pen, in a fetching coppery brown colour

A bag of freshly roasted coffee from Nottingham’s own Roasting House, to bring on that period of intense productivity we all need once in a while

A box of superior Elsa’s Story lemon butter cookies to munch while editing

How to enter

You have a number of different ways to enter the competition and each one will give you extra chances to win.

  1. Follow this blog and leave a comment below
  2. Follow my Facebook page and leave a greeting on my wall
  3. Follow me on Twitter and RT my pinned tweet for this competition

The competition will close on 31 March and the winner will be announced on 2 April.

*Open to UK and RoI residents only

On audiobooks

In a fit of enthusiasm, I told a work colleague last week that I was doing so well with my running that I would be working up to doing regular 10ks. (This is true, though I thought I’d give myself a few more weeks to make sure I’ve really nailed the 5k but still.)

Her advice was to download audiobooks to listen to while I run. Music will only get me so far, she advised. You need to get stuck into something to take your mind off the running and the boring bits.

I’m not good at audiobooks. Sometimes I listen to podcasts at work but that’s it. No stories. In my mind I think I equate them with radio drama which in general I dislike. But I can see her point and I thought I should probably try it out. But what to listen to? I don’t want to download something I already have in book form, much of which isn’t necessarily strong on plot. I also don’t want thrillers, mainly as I’m weedy and running alone while listening to creepy things will freak me out.

I’m a little wary of audiobooks also, as I run along the ring road which is pretty noisy with traffic. I may not hear very much – you don’t get that trouble with AC/DC. As a backup I’ve got the Hamilton soundtrack which combines story with song so I figured that might work for me.

But I’m open to audiobook suggestions so if anyone has anything they’d like to recommend please get in touch!

A Whitelaw Christmas Carol

December 1932

“Mum says don’t forget Christmas dinner,” said Daniel as he left The Whitelaw that afternoon, having safely delivered the account books. “Any time, she said, but we’ll probably eat about two or three-ish.”

“I already told her there was no need,” said Tip. “I’ll be perfectly fine by myself. I’m not a charity case.”

“She said you’d say that,” Daniel grinned. “I’m to tell you to not be silly, Ebenezer, we want to see you.” He did an impression of his mother as he did so, the tone stern but affectionate. He nodded at Tip as he went out the door and repeated, “Dinner at two,” as he went through it. Tip sat back at his desk and considered how much the boy resembled his father George, Tip’s business partner. He smiled and shook his head, returning to that evening’s performance.

Christmas Eve was always fun at a variety theatre. The atmosphere being festive anyway, the performers would rouse themselves at the prospect of an extra day off to pull something special out for the short time they had on stage. For many of the audience, this was the beginning of their seasonal celebrations, and they were ready to shout, laugh, howl or whatever the occasion demanded. Money may be short in these hard times but somehow this just made the wintry celebration more important. Performances had to be perfect. Lew, the stage manager, would manage – he always did – but Tip liked to be on hand, just in case.

A hectic night, full of laughter, applause and rushing about, and it was past midnight when Tip made his final round of the theatre, making sure as he always did that it was left ship shape. Folding back a corner of a loose poster, picking up a dropped ticket stub, needlessly rearranging something in a dressing room, it was part of his daily ritual. He left by the stage door, bidding a goodnight to the theatre’s mouser, Tilley.

It was a clear night, with a bite to the air. There would be a frost tomorrow. Across the city the bells that, at midnight, had rung in the special day had finished and churchgoers were all on their way home. Despite this, he met no one as he strolled through the dark streets.

On one dark corner, he heard a mewing noise. It sounded familiar and for a moment he thought maybe Tilley had followed him home. “Don’t be silly,” he said to himself and carried on but the noise came again, louder this time and with a piercing tone that made him realise it wasn’t a cat. He headed down the alleyway to see. Was there something at the end?

The nearby church struck one. As it did so, Tip saw the shape huddled in the corner. He reached a hand down to touch it.

A man had curled up against the wall, to find some shelter in the bitter air. He was wrapped in a black woollen hooded cloak and as Tip shook his shoulder, the man’s hood dropped back revealing his face. He was dead but in his arms was a tiny baby, an angelic mix of blonde curls and blue eyes. She looked up at him, as if expecting something.

“Bloody hell,” said Tip. “The ghosts of Christmas past and future, together.” He sighed and rubbed a weary hand over his eyes before he picked her up, checked her over and went to find a police station.

The policeman on the front desk didn’t seem surprised at Tip’s story.

“That’s the second this week,” he said. “Bitter cold it is, and with folk not having much, it’s not uncommon. Now I’ll have to get a few details and then I’ll let you get on your merry way this Christmas Eve. How did you find the gent?”

“I heard the baby crying and went to investigate. The man had already passed on,” said Tip.

“The gentleman was dead to begin with,” said the policeman winking at Tip. Tip rolled his eyes and inwardly cursed Dickens.

“What will happen to the girl?” he said.

“We’ll take her along to the orphanage in a bit,” said the policeman. “While we see if there’s any other kin.”

“No.”

“Sir?”

“Could I take her? Just for now? Those places are dreadful, no place for her,” he said. “Come on, constable, think what day it is. I’ll give you my address and,” he said thinking of Charlotte’s invitation, “I’ll be here tomorrow. We’ll take care of her.” He wrote the addresses down on a scrap of paper and held it out. The policeman hesitated.

“It’s not procedure…” he started to say but something stopped him going any further and he reached out for the paper. “Get on with you then,” he said. “Quickly.”

Tip took the girl and headed home to his tiny flat. As he walked in the door, the rashness of his decision struck him. An orphanage couldn’t be worse than this dingy hole he called home. But he looked at her and resolved to make the best of it. He lay her in a drawer from the chest that stood to one side of the room, with an old jumper as her mattress. Arms freed, he set about lighting the fire to banish the cold and damp from the place. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d done this; he’d just have to hope the chimney wasn’t blocked. His usual routine was to come home from the theatre, grab a drink if he fancied one but many nights he simply fell into bed, washing and changing clothes the following morning before heading back into the theatre. The Whitelaw was more his home than here. Hell, even the café around the corner where he got his breakfast was more home than here.

He went into the kitchen and found some bread and cheese and a glass of wine for himself and then heated up some milk on the stove. Improvising, he dripped this into the baby’s mouth with a teaspoon, the process taking a while but she drank it down, all the while staring at him with her big blue eyes.

When she’d finished, he wrapped her up in her blanket and cuddled her for a while. She fell asleep emitting only occasional snores. At four o’clock, by the ding of his carriage clock, he placed her back down in the drawer, curled under a blanket on the sofa and watched the fire die down. His thoughts were of times past, absent friends and old lost love.

She woke him at seven precisely, the mewling noise the closest she got to crying. The fug of sleep lay on his eyes, and he couldn’t remember where he was or what he was or what that noise was but she was persistent, and she was joined by the Christmas bells outside.

“Good morning, little one,” said Tip, sounding merrier than he felt. And yet there was something about her presence that made his spirit cheer, even as he relit the fire and let the warmth spread through the small room.

He picked her up and prepared the milk as he had last night, taking her to the window to look at the festive day outside. Frost sparkled on the window, and had sprinkled the trees and fallen leaves with a sparkling dust that glittered in the morning sun.

“A beautiful day!” said Tip, turning to look at his rooms. “And a dismal room. We can’t spend Christmas here, you and I. Thank heavens for Charlotte.”

He wrapped her in the jumper she’d laid on all night, had a quick change himself and the two of them headed out of the door.

Tip stopped off to pick up some wine, mince pies and small gifts and with these tucked in a bag over one arm and the baby under the other, he hailed a cab to Dulwich. Ringing the doorbell at number 28 Woodwarde Road, he stood back and burst into song as the door opened.

“We wish you a merry Christmas, we wish you a merry Christmas, we wish you a merry Christmas and a happy new year!”

Daniel stood behind the door, and smiled and beckoned them inside. Charlotte appeared in the hallway, wiping her hands on her apron. A not unpleasant bread-like smell filled the house, mixed faintly with the greenery hung in a wreath on the door.

“Tip, how lovely to see you!” She reached in for a hug and a kiss but stopped as she spotted what he was carrying. “Tip? Who’s this?”

“Temporary guest,” he said and began to explain the previous night. As he spoke Charlotte reached instinctively for the child, her face transformed from the swollen disfigured sight she had hidden from the world these last two years, and instead shone with joy at the child. Both Tip and George, her husband, who stood in the doorway to the living room, noted her brief return to the Charlotte of old.

“Oh Tip, how awful! Is she alright? Not hurt? But how have you been feeding her?”

“Teaspoon. She’s drunk enough. She seems absolutely fine, a lovely calm little thing.”

“Daniel, run next door and see if Mrs Barclay can spare a bottle for us. Tip, come through, sit down, you must be worn out. Can I get you anything?”

“I’m fine, thank you Charlotte.”

“Nonsense. A drink? Have you had breakfast? We’ve some sausage left over from ours. I can fry it up, make you a sandwich?”

“That would be lovely. But what I’d really like is a cup of tea.”

“I’ll get it,” said George. Charlotte was reluctant to put the baby down. She wasn’t too besotted to note Tip’s tiredness in sitting down on the sofa nor spot the dark circles beneath his eyes. But he was determined to be sociable and, once his breakfast was eaten, he and the boys sat and played games on the floor. Charlotte had fed the baby again with the bottle this time, bathed and changed her with the help of the kind lady next door who had provided some spare clothes and napkins. Now the child sat on the floor, watching and laughing at the men and boys who entertained her with their singing and nonsense.

“What do you think her name is?” asked Charlotte as they sat at lunch. The turkey was dry, the sprouts were soft and the potatoes were a little too well done, but if you covered it with enough gravy it was at least edible which wasn’t always the case with Charlotte’s cooking. The baby was asleep on the sofa.

“Now, don’t go down that path,” said George. “It will be harder for you to part with her if you start giving her names or imagining a fate.”

“I hadn’t…” Charlotte started to say when she was interrupted by the doorbell. George got up to answer it and found a rotund bearded policeman on the doorstep.

“Good afternoon sir,” he said with a beaming smile. “And a Merry Christmas to you! Are you Mr Harding by any chance?”

“I’m not,” said George. “But he’s through here. Come in, officer.” The policeman stepped through the door, bringing a burst of fresh crisp air to the house. George led him through to the living room and indicated the baby, still asleep on the sofa. “You’re here about her, I suppose?” he said.

“That’s right sir,” said the policeman. “I’m sorry to have interrupted your lunch ma’am,” he said to Charlotte.

“No matter,” she murmured. “Have you found her family?”

“We have yes. The gentleman you found her with last night was her father, I’m afraid to say. Her mother seems to have passed away, records suggest in childbirth, and the gentleman was taking her to his parents, who live in Buckinghamshire. He was having trouble making ends meet, having lost his job and couldn’t look after her very well. There’s no evidence to suggest any foul play, just a poor man and a cold night.”

Tip looked down at the child and remembered how the man’s arm was curled protectively around her, wrapped up in whatever he’d been able to find. The child was loved. He shook his head.

“What happens now?” he asked.

“The man’s parents are happy to take the child in,” said the policeman. “They’re travelling down to collect her, should be here later today. I’ve come to take her back with me so they can take her home.”

“What are their circumstances?” asked Charlotte. “Can we do anything to help?”

“They’re managing, respectable enough by all accounts,” said the policeman. “Just the son who’d fallen on hard times. Happens to many these days.”

“Well, could we send a gift?” Charlotte cast about for something to include with the baby. For a moment her eyes settled on the plate of mince pies on the table.

“Not anything you’ve cooked, Ma,” said Daniel.

“They’ve suffered enough,” joked George. He winked at his wife. “Sorry love.” She made a face in reply and moved to the fireplace instead, gathering down some of the greenery hanging there. With a few deft twists she made it into a bouquet and tied some bon bons from the tree onto the branches.

“Here,” she said, holding it out to the policeman, who was still beaming at them. “And would you like a mince pie, officer? They’re not as bad as you may have been led to suggest.”

“Thank you ma’am, that would be kind,” he replied and twinkled his thanks as he ate it down. Gathering the baby in one enormous hand, and the bouquet in the other he was about to make his way to the door when he turned. “Would you like to say your goodbyes?” he said, and there was something about his face which seemed older and more worn than when he’d walked inside earlier. The afternoon sky was darkening and the crisp day was fading.

Charlotte bent her head over the baby’s and kissed it. “Stay safe, little one,” she whispered. “Thank you for your visit.”

Tip was scribbling a note in his notebook and, when he was done, he ripped it out and tucked it into the baby’s jumper. “Keep this safe for her, when she’s grown,” he said to the policeman. The man nodded.

“Thank you for your help and cooperation, Mr Harding,” he said. “It was much appreciated, I’m sure. A merry Christmas to you all!” And with that, he and the baby faded into the night, leaving nothing behind them but the faint jingle of bells.

Tip and the family gathered at the front door to watch the departure and Tip felt Charlotte suppress a sob.

“That poor darling,” she said. “God bless her.”

It was left to Tip to provide the inevitable reply.

“God bless us, every one.”

A literary weekend

I’ve been trying to get to Haworth to visit the Charlotte Bronte exhibition all year. It finishes this month. I was going to go up on July but went to look after my mum after an op instead. Then I went to some workshops and events in Haworth in September but they overran and I got there too late. Finally the Mr said, “Book a hotel, we’ll go up for the weekend.” And so it came to pass that on the last Saturday of November I stood on the doorstep of Bronte Parsonage, excited and expectant, and heard the guide say “I’m afraid we’ve had a power cut and everything’s in darkness. We may have to close.” I explained that I was clearly destined never to see it and he let us in for free, alongside the lady behind us who had “come a long way” and then closed to everyone else.

Charlotte's writing desk
Charlotte’s writing desk

Once your eyes had adjusted to the light, it wasn’t actually too bad. We could still see the exhibitions – the tiny clothes, the tinier books, the miniscule writing – as well as each room, and the art and displays produced for Charlotte’s 200 anniversary. I feasted my eyes. We went backwards to the normal route round and so ended at the dining room where they wrote their books. By now, we were the last people in there and as we approached the room, the same guide appeared and told us they were going to do something even the guides hadn’t seen before. They opened the blinds in the dining room and revealed it by natural light. (Normally the blinds are down and it’s lit electronically.) It’s a charming room and I felt the same kind of frisson I had when I stood in the Motown studio that Marvin Gaye had used.

The shop where Branwell bought his opium
The shop where Branwell bought his opium

We had a lovely chat with the guide (after we’d all gone they were going to open a box of chocolates so he could have been excused for not talking) about the dreadful conditions of Haworth at the time the Brontes were living there – S was struck by the fact that 40% people never made it past their sixth year – and then the guide asked if E had been named after any of the Brontes. I felt terrible telling him she was named after an Austen character instead. “Ah, well it’s the next best thing,” he said breezily.

Haworth by fading Christmas light
Haworth by fading Christmas light

The church was closed when we emerged so no chance to visit their graves but we ambled through the town instead and pottered in the shops. There was a Victorian Christmas parade on, with carol singers, lights and a fairy scattering sparkly dust on the streets. It was all very jolly and didn’t feel too fake, considering most of the people there must have been visitors.

Proper Yorkshire pudding
Proper Yorkshire pudding

A stay at the Robin Hood Inn at Peckett Well, near Hebden Bridge for our evening meal and sleep. A lovely inn, really nice people but damn, that room was hot. E loves staying in hotels and was excited the whole weekend about it, waving goodbye to the building when we left. We travelled into Hebden Bridge and parked, deciding to clamber up the hill to visit Heptonstall. This was a recommendation from a Twitter friend and I didn’t know it was going to be such a steep hill, up cobbles covered with wet leaves. For some reason I thought Heptonstall would be a few houses but it was larger than expected, with two pubs and a Christmas craft fair. In days of yore it was a Cromwellian stronghold and saw off the Royalists in the Civil War but we were there because it’s the burial spot of Sylvia Plath.

The old yard has the higgledy piggledy charm of wonky stones sinking in towards each other, as well as the ruins of an older church to one side. I love a good graveyard anyway and we found many families with similar names (lots of Sutcliffes, and many women who spelled their name Susy. Why this should be, I don’t know.) Across the lane from the church is the new graveyard, where the plots are in straight lines and being slowly filled up with modern stones. It was less charming to look at but still very peaceful with lots of birdsong, a really lovely spot to spend eternity.

I first encountered Plath as a 13-year old with a male teacher who taught us her poetry for a short time. He described everything as the result of hysteria and terrible illness, never picking out the beauty or examining the female viewpoint, which as a teacher in a girls’ school was pretty unpardonable. As a result I never gave her a thought until I found The Bell Jar at the university book fair, devoured it, loved it and have treasured her ever since.

The quote is from the Bhagavad Gita
The quote is from the Bhagavad Gita

I found the grave and drew in to look at it. There were coins on the stone and at the foot of the grave, visitors had planted pens in the earth. I wasn’t expecting to be so moved by the sight of it, and wiped away a few tears before finding a few scattered oak leaves and arranged them.

We slid and slipped down the hill to lunch in Hebden Bridge before making our way home.

I hope E carries on enjoying reading. I hope she loves Jane Eyre. I hope she finds something important in The Bell Jar. I hope people continue to make little pilgrimages like this to celebrate our women writers.

Thank you, Haworth Parsonage, for letting me in.

52 dates for writers: a review

Part of the myth of writing is the amount of time spent in front of a screen. Or a notebook. Or however you do it. Time away from tapping away on that keyboard is time wasted, we think, and sit and try to get something, anything, down on the page.

But of course, it doesn’t really work like that. Interviews with well known writers see them discussing the habits that take them away from actually getting something down – running, walking the dog, baking and so on. Perhaps for those of us writing between working, commuting, looking after the family and so on, doing anything other than sitting at your desk seems like a luxury – or a procrastination technique.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Claire Wingfield’s book 52 Dates for Writers gives you 52 chances to do something that will help develop your writing, explore your characters, find a setting, and generally have a bit of fun with your writing, as well as getting you up and about – literally or figuratively.

Divided into 12 chapters, each covering aspects such as mastering point of view, problem-solving, and timelines, the suggestions ask you to go out and do something different that can then be applied to your writing – a work in progress or maybe something new. While you may not think these themes are new – and you’d be right – the get up and go aspect renders them fresh. Examples of activities include: ride a tandem, go geocaching, take tour of your hometown, and go house hunting. Each subject suggests ways in which you can use the new experience, and how you can shape your thinking or try out a new idea on your WiP.

I take any ideas and assistance I can get and the ideas here were fun and thought provoking. So here’s my tip – get up off your bum and get writing!

 

Bronte Festival of Women’s Writing

There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.* At least not in Nottingham. But as I drove up the M1 the rain cleared and a sliver of blue sky appeared through the clouds.

I was on my way to Haworth, or to the Bronte Festival of Women’s writing, put on by the Bronte Parsonage Museum and sponsored by Mslexia magazine. Both my workshops were held at Ponden Hall, reportedly the inspiration for Thurshcross Grange in Wuthering Heights. My plan was:

  • Arrive with half an hour to spare and amble around the moors briefly
  • Workshop 1
  • Hotfoot it to the Parsonage for a look around
  • Workshop 2
  • Dinner in pub
  • Evening talk
  • Drive home

It was possible. In reality…

2016-09-10-14-23-36The journey was going fine and with half an hour to go I had 3.5 miles on the sat nav. Then it recalculated and suddenly added 11 miles to the route on a whim. I only realised this when it had taken me out on a single road across the moors (v bleak, v Bronte) for 5 or so miles. It got so far, turned a u-turn and sent me back the way I’d come. Bloody machine.

I parked, flustered and was shown in, not the last but it was only once I sat at the table that I realised I had no idea which workshop this was.

It turned out to be Writing a Synopsis with Debbie Taylor, editor of Mslexia and resplendent in scarves, a jeweled necklace and glasses on a string. I could never pull of that look.

2016-09-10-14-09-10Being a querying author I have a synopsis but this workshop made it clear mine is not specific enough. I also think I need to change the focus of my elevator pitch, I’ve led with the wrong character and it’s confusing. The workshop was very good and thought provoking but its major flaw was that it overran. By an hour. Partly because there were 13 people who all had feedback and discussion, and partly from the time it took to eat the cake on offer. But an hour! So my plans to see the Parsonage were scuppered – too stressful to get there, park, buy a ticket and race round taking in nothing. 2016-09-10-14-16-11So I went for a walk instead. Ponden Hall is by a reservoir, in a valley and up a rough track in the middle of the moors. Horses grazed, cows made alarming high pitched mooing noises and the river trickled through. On my return climb I stopped to peep over the wall as Cathy and Heathcliff did as children.

Ponden Hall itself is lovely,it’s a family home run as a bed and breakfast and if you get a chance to stay there, you really should. I recommend it, if only for the lemon cake which was SUPERB. The building itself is all thick walls, large fireplaces and intriguing corridors and lintels. I was sorely tempted to poke about and explore but managed to restrain myself. 2016-09-10-12-21-54 2016-09-10-12-21-35

The day had turned very pleasant and I was seized with a desire to sack off the second workshop and walk to the Parsonage but it would have been a waste of a ticket and there’s always something to learn.

Jane Rogers took the second workshop on writing an arresting first page, and was as thought provoking as the first workshop, though more disciplined on timings (no cake which may have helped).

2016-09-10-17-26-07Afterwards I parked at the Parsonage, knowing I’d missed last entry but hoped at least the shop was open. Alas no. Not even a postcard for my mum. The church, where they’re mostly all buried, was also closed and a wedding party were eating in the schoolroom and hall where Charlotte got married. I walked the streets instead and found a pub for dinner.

The evening talk was hosted by Tracy Chevalier as part of her tenure for the Bronte200 project, and she interviewed two further authors Jessie Burton and Grace McCleen about their novels, both of which feature miniature scenes, and the links and significance of the Bronte’s miniature works, especially the tiny books they produced. There was a small but appreciative, and I think quite scholarly, audience.
2016-09-10-19-00-59 2016-09-10-19-01-04I drove home and got home just before 11. It was quite a way but I have a strong yearning to return before the Charlotte exhibitions finish. The setting on Saturday was wonderful but it felt more Emily and it’s Charlotte I love most. A combined trip to Haworth and to the Railway Children’s station at Oakworth may be just the thing for a family outing.

*Apologies to Charlotte Bronte but I couldn’t resist this opening.

 

Word up

The Oxford English Dictionary is asking for people the world over to vote for their most disliked word. It’s an interesting exercise as I imagine more people will be able to come together over what they don’t like than what they do. But after thinking and discussing this a little, I think people select words they don’t like for broader reasons than for words they do like.

Here. OED have already put forward some frontrunners. ‘Moist’ is one. In New Zealand, ‘phlegm’ is another. I don’t mind either but it’s clear they are disliked because of the wider context they’re used in. OED predict ‘cancer’ will be up there, for obvious reasons.

I examined my own disliked words. Aside from corporate jargon (action as a verb, going forward and so on) I cited ‘awesome’, ‘guys’, ‘zeitgeist’, and ‘gifting’. I immediately offended a friend who uses three of those regularly. But when I explained my reasons, it was clear it wasn’t the words that was the problem, it was the context I objected to.

‘Awesome’ is overused and overwhelmingly signals a state of mind I cannot get on with. It often sounds false to me, a marketing trick. The Lego movie made this point well for me. Everything was not awesome.

‘Guys’ is something you often hear when being herded in a crowd, security guards at gigs, people asking you to queue differently. It’s chummy. It’s used when they want to appear approachable but firm. It’s like those adverts where they encourage you to find out more about the product by calling their salesperson, who only has a first name and mobile number. They think it’s informal and friendly. I’m an introvert and I will barely call people I know on their mobile. There is no way I’ll call a complete stranger and call them by their first name on their mobile. Referring to me as ‘guys’ is part of this. I think it’s also my middle aged curmudgeonliness that dislikes it. My offended friend is younger than me, and nicer.

‘Zeitgeist’ I only dislike because a colleague I disliked in a previous job used it a lot in an attempt to appear more intellectual than he really was. It’s a good word. He was a wanker.

‘Gifting’ is a corporate hangover from working at Waterstone’s. The early gifting period, they said, or as normal people know it, October.

Conversely when I thought of words I do like, I like them in the main because of the way they sound. ‘Twilight’, ‘beguiling’, ‘haberdashery’. They all sound beautiful. There is no word I like because of its context and none that I dislike because of the sound.

It’s our usage that we dislike, the context and meaning. Liking things gives us more luxury to listen without the baggage. Or it does for me, anyway.

Writing as catharsis

Do you view your writing as somehow cathartic? I’ve been pondering  this subject in the last few days. A lot of people use writing to deal with the world, especially though journalling or writing therapy. And some of those writing tip memes that you see flashed around the internet often talk of living life first, experiencing pain and frustration and emotions, in order to write better.

How does this manifest itself? I was thinking about this with relation to trauma. Without wishing to sound melodramatic, last week my 4-year old daughter choked on some food, went into cardiac arrest and had to be rushed to hospital where we stayed for two nights. She’s now absolutely fine, but I’ve had to take a few days to try and adjust. I feel very much like I was plucked up by fate’s fingers last week, spun round and round and flung back into my life with no time to take stock.
I’m normally introverted and work stuff out in my head first. I’m used to looking at situations and working out in my head how to describe them – for journals, blog posts or for any fiction I write. And I did the same last week. I watched her lying on the pavement, on the gurney, in the bed and thought about how I could share this in words. It occupied my mind while we waited by her bedside for her to wake. The blog post I wrote after the event was very matter of fact but since then, since that clear recitation of facts, I’ve been swimming in numbness.
I think it’s fairly standard to react to trauma in a different way to how you might deal with other things. But I do normally write for most other events, or through other events. Not for this. I went blank, forgot where I’d got to with the WIP sat on my computer, the notes, research, ideas and flashes that I was working on. I know, you’re thinking “it’s just too soon, it will come.” And you’re probably right.
The novel I’m currently querying contains a scene that was directly written from my experience of my father’s death. It’s taken me 21 years since the event to write something that wasn’t full of teenage angst and pain. I quite like the scene, the observations noted, the quiet emotion. (At least that’s what I hope is in there.)
It may well take me another 21 years before I write something about E’s experience last week. But I’d be interested to hear what you do to deal with real life events – in journals, blogs or fiction – or if you do nothing at all.

Writing East Midlands conference

I spent Saturday in Loughborough. Not words I’m usually happy to utter but this was different – I attended Writing East Midlands’ Writers’ Conference at Loughborough University.

It was a cold grey morning as we arrived and troughed down the refreshments, all clutching our cream and blue goody bags and piling into the auditorium. I had no idea what to expect really, though I’d picked seminars to attend and things to find out about. I had thought about coming along last year but felt fraudulent without a completed manuscript so I didn’t. This year I felt more like a writer with a finished, albeit unpublished, product.

Author Judith Allnatt welcomed us to the conference and then Mike Gayle gave the first keynote address. I worked in a branch of Waterstone’s when Gayle’s first few books came out and I remember their distinctive bright covers and how they got put second place to the unfathomable phenomenon that was Tony Parsons’ early novels. Having now seen both men speak, I can only fervently wish that Gayle continues to do great things – he was very funny, self-deprecating and gave good advice. (Incidentally, MG told us that reading Tess of the D’Urbervilles was one of the seminal experiences that encouraged him to be a writer. Sometimes you read those hand-wringing articles about boys not reading and how they need different books, and then you hear something like that. How amazing.) Anyway, his advice was: read a lot. And as well as the classics, read terrible books for confidence that you can do better. Finish your first draft! Don’t edit when you hit the 30,000 word mark – “Some authors aren’t the best writers n the world but they’re the people who finished the thing they were writing.” And be steely. It’s the last one I need help with the most.

I stayed in the theatre for the next two sessions – the writer at work, and the authentic voice. These were panel sessions with authors discussing a certain topic – The Writer at Work: What Happens to the Day Job? touched on the topical subject of how much you do for free to gain exposure. All the panel urged us to do something for free to build a bod of work but on the whole the subject is a massive grey area that I feel deserves a conference all its own. The Authentic Voice, and the panel session I took after lunch – Research for Writers – felt linked and I enjoyed both of them but will blog separately about my reactions and thoughts about the subjects.

Following coffee I had my agent one-to-one. A series of slots were available to delegates for one to ones with agents and with authors – depending on how far you were with your writing. You had to apply by sending in a few chapters and a synopsis, which were judged by two readers and then awarded a slot according to what they thought. The agent read what you wrote and gave you feedback. I spotted the agent I was seeing having tea during the coffee break and inexplicably had a panic attack. DO NOT DO THIS (see above note for steeliness). These are not meant to be intimidating, they are an opportunity for useful feedback. I had a friend send helpful tweets until I got it together. In the event, the session was useful. There was one point of clarity I should fix in the opening chapters, he said, but otherwise it was well written. He gave some pointers as to who I could try, we discussed the term “commercial women’s fiction” as opposed to “commercial fiction” and the term “saga.” I was slightly distracted spotting some of my university textbooks on a shelf above his head but in general it went well.

And then I popped back to catch much of Carole Blake’s talk. Carole is a legend in literary agent circles and her frank, funny advice was shot through with experience and straight talking. She passed on tips for authors in finding and maintaining a relationship with an agent as well as with a publicist and publisher which were useful, and she took questions. Interestingly, in the “should you work for free” debate she advised at least finding out how much magazines charge for a page advert and trying to get at least that much from them. Like I said, a topic worthy of further discussion.

The final keynote speech was from Sophie Hannah, who passed on advice that you shouldn’t take, or not take in the spirit that it was intended. She too was very funny, and in her line “I’d been through childbirth (5 days!) and now felt I had a harrowing life experience to write crime fiction.” Respect.

So what did I learn? That I’m still rubbish at networking, that I need to stop panicking about my writing, that other people are impressed about those of us who write with jobs and small children, and that sometimes you are going to need to drop your agent. This last piece of advice came across several times throughout the day and may have been concerning to those of us agent-less authors. But we’ll get there. I also learned that I felt more like a writer than I had previously. It’s a state of mind, and the fact that there are so many ‘inspirational’ quotes telling you about being a writer suggests that no one feels completely clear on it. But listening to others talking, I started to think about my own ‘writing journey’ and realised that I knew about these things too.

I should end by thanking Writing East Midlands for putting on the conference, which I did enjoy very much, and for granting me an agent one to one. And now I need to go and polish that manuscript and research my agents…