Wednesday, 13 March 2019

Always something to think about

On Tuesday I had a fabulous day.
I got out of the house and away from the second word war for a whole day.
I spent it in the company of the lovely and talented writers from the Romantic Novelists' Association Marcher Chapter.
The amazing ladies from Liberta aka Sophie and Joanna put on a terrific workshop for us on adding bling to your work.
It was great to talk books and writing for a day.
It was great to have the opportunity and the stimulation to think about the nuts and bolts of writing - the chance to step back and absorb
It was interesting to see how six different writers tackled the short exercises, and yes, we all produced very different results from the same prompts, but we all went for the dark side when it came to choosing three atmospheric words. Maybe it was Storm Gareth and torrential rain what did it.
It was worth leaving and arriving home again in the dark.
And now ... back to the war. I have some fascinating stuff on the Ministry of Home Security ...

Wednesday, 6 March 2019

On not reading serious books

Anyone who knows me knows that the part of my brain that doesn't do the academic stuff is mostly full of feathers. Actually, I suspect the feathers are trying to invade the academic bit, but that's a story for another day.

The feathery bit of me doesn't read serious book unless absolutely necessary. Like research or something. I have lots of samples of books on my Kindle - Marlowe and Shakespeare, labyrinths and mazes, Queen Guinevere, various guide books, railways, grimoires and other spooky stuff, - all research which I will turn into full scale books when the time is right. Or maybe write. At the moment they are marking the place, as it were. Otherwise I only read trashy books. Nothing that is going to teach me anything, preferably as far away from real life as possible. I can get plenty of real life at home, thanks.

Which makes it rather a surprise that I am currently reading Phillip Pullman's Daemon Voices, which is a books of essays (yes, essays) on storytelling. It's a serious book, made up of lectures and short articles and programme notes and other odds and ends, with an index and everything, and I am enjoying it. I think the last time I read essays was Orwell and that was in school, but this is about telling stories, and about being a writer, and what sort of writer and where do you get your ideas from and all that kind of thing.

I don't do book reviews either, and this isn't one, but I think a reader would be interested and a writer fascinated by a lot of what Pullman has to say. I am.

Wednesday, 27 February 2019

Changing the weather

One of the advantages of being a writer  - amongst other things, you get to control the weather. If you want to have a long hot summer in the book, you got it. Need a convenient storm, fog, deluge of rain, all you have to do is call it up. Most writers try to keep within the bounds of possibility though, just. The idea that the UK has long hot summers as a matter of course, can be a bit hard to swallow sometimes, but it looks as if truth is beginning to look stranger than fiction, and making the unlikely a lot more plausible.

When I was writing What Happened at Christmas, I wrote a freak snow storm with my tongue slightly in my cheek. And then the Beast from  the East  arrived and a sudden amount of heavy snow didn't look quite so much like something a writer might invent. I must admit that the snow in the book did disappear conveniently quickly, but you can't have everything.

And now we have record temperature in February. I must say that I have often taken a picnic lunch to the beach in February, but it's usually been eaten with my coat on. In the last couple of days in the middle of the day it's been like summer. Still frosty at night though, which is an interesting contrast. Apparently it is going back to 'normal' later in the week, but the precedent for unseasonable weather has been set. And don't get me started on the garden. Daffodils, jasmine, bees. In February.

There are some things that don't change though, sunrise and sunset are fixed points and one of my pet 'things'. I get annoyed if I'm reading and other authors don't take note of them, and I've had to change planned scenes in my own books when I've realised it would be too dark, or too light for what I had in mind.

Not everything is in the writer's control. You still have to work with nature sometimes.   

Wednesday, 20 February 2019

Not quite research

Authors make jokes about research, Everything is research - even chocolate. This week I did some research in reverse. Stocking up on ideas in advance, as it were. It's not inspiration, because I don't have a story out of it. It's just a bit of information, that I might be able to use, and it came from a visit to the exhibition of Leonardo da Vinci drawings in Bristol. They are from the Royal Collection and there are small exhibits of about a dozen pieces in each, in various galleries all over the country. There's one in Cardiff, which is on the agenda for later in the year.

The Bristol display was fascinating. Drawings and sketches from da Vinci's note books - horses, cats, skeletons. A bit like an author's collection of post it notes, only a lot more elegant. And older. I enjoyed the exhibition, and there was one little nugget of information that I stored away for future use. Maybe. There was a lovely sketch of a woman's head that may have been have been for a picture of the Madonna, but not one that is known about. The exhibit mentioned several Madonnas and Child that da Vinci was working on towards the end of his life that have completely disappeared.

Now my friends know I collect missing pictures - not the real thing, unfortunately - but little snippets about paintings that have dropped out of sight for one reason or another. It has become  'a thing', to the extent that they collect anecdotes for me. I'm so predictable. So I now have the possibility of an unknown da Vinci to play with, if I ever want it, and I know what she will look like. I just have to  wait for a story to go with it.

If it's meant to be, it will happen.

If you are interested in the exhibition, this is the link Bristol Exhibition

Wednesday, 13 February 2019

Write what you know - or write what you like?

One of the received wisdoms that new writers are handed as sage advice is 'Write what you know.' Which is yet another of the seemingly impossible things you are supposed to do, along with figuring out where to put the commas and wrestling a story arc. And it's all very fine, if you have an exciting day job, or home life. But if you are just an ordinary Jill, or Joe? That's hard. But when you think about it, how many of those stories you like to read start with the protagonist at a point of change, very often moving away from the ordinary to something new and scary?

I finally came to the conclusion that, like a lot of advice, you had to moderate it to suit. If you start thinking in terms of what you like, love, are interested in, are prepared to find out about i.e. research, and we all know about writers and research ...

If you are curious, then you can go on the journey with your protagonist. And of course the Internet is a boon - which is one of the reasons you should never look at a writer's browsing history, if they write crime. There's a hint in that too - write what you know - but I don't think that any of my crime writer friends are serial killers in real life. I hope not!!! But they can tap into imagination and emotion. We've probably all had times when we have felt we wanted to murder someone.  Thankfully it usually lasts only a few seconds, but in those seconds it's there. And your imagination does the rest. And all the other human emotions too - love, envy, home-sickness, regret, jealousy, contentment ...

I've reached the conclusion that the mantra needs to be 'Write something that interests you - preferably something that excites you.' And this may not be something from everyday life. As an historian, I should probably be writing historicals, but that's never been what really attracted me.

Except ... I have a new idea, and disconcertingly it is playing into lots of things that I actually know - or think I do. It's not in any danger of being written any time soon, or even ever, but it's always fun to day dream.   

Wednesday, 6 February 2019

Which comes first - the cover or the title?

Cover reveals are an important event in the life of a book - the first time it gets to appear on the world's stage. A cover sums up the contents of the book, so it's quite exciting. But I have been wondering lately about the relationship between cover and title. On a paperback book the way it looks on the shelf is probably more important, but with e-books? I know that a cover is meant to look good as a thumb nail - but a thumb nail is a very small area. Can you really make out too much detail, except for the colours? 

And such a lot of covers look rather like each other. Thrillers with a indistinct but colourful background and the title in large letters, often with a strap line as well, or even more than one. The title - words, being the thing that stands out. And all those historicals with an interchangable, partly dressed heroine in a succession of pretty, colourful gowns. It really can be difficult telling one from another.  And the cookery and self help books with the picture of the chef or the guru. And the thrillers that are all about some sort of quest, that have a vaguely historical looking scene, often with the back view of a figure in it. Sometime running. And sagas with a group of girls or a group of children or one child, looking woebegone in period costume. And the drawing of a cottage on a village green for romantic comedy. And snow scenes at Christmas and beach scenes for holiday reading. And we won't mention all those guys who have managed to lose their shirt somewhere along the way. All those covers do their job - they immediately tell you what the genre is - but it seems to me that lately it's the title that makes the difference.  Which is rather gratifying, because a title is words, and books are about words. 

But,of course, the author often doesn't get to choose the title ... 

Wednesday, 30 January 2019

From the Archive

Rambling around the further reaches of the blog and looking at old posts, I found this one on a perennial subject - the setting of books. It also talks about one of my great influences - Mary Stewart. In the current grey end-of-January weather, I thought it would be good to give it another airing.

Location. Location. Location

Whenever romance authors get together and begin talking about early influences on their writing, the name Mary Stewart invariably comes up, particularly amongst those who write romantic suspense. Her books have the classic ingredients - ambiguous alpha hero, who may be a good guy, or maybe not, independent heroines who are more than a match for the tough guy and European settings which, at the time they were written, must have seemed impossibly exotic - the Greek Islands, the south of France, Austria, Spain, the Isle of Skye (before they built the road). The impact on readers in post war Britain, ten years after the war, but with rationing only just ended and the package holiday still many years into the future was surely exactly what a good romance novel must be - an escape into another world. 

And location is still a key ingredient in books and films. Reviews of so many books talk of the location as a character in its own right. Films like The Tourist have ravishing settings - in that case Venice - which give the stars a run for their money in drool appeal. (Although I must say that a cameo appearance by Rufus Sewell brightened the screen considerably for me, and diverted me from rampant palazzo envy.)
I still like books which take me to places I consider to be glamorous - with plenty of sunshine please. And those are the books I like to write. Being in a foreign place is an added layer to the uncertainty felt by the hero and heroine - essential stuff for thrillers/suspense. And it throws them together - essential stuff for the romance. And I get to enjoy the sunshine, even if it is only in my head.

It wasn't until I began thinking about this piece that I realised how much my teenage reading of Mary Stewart had shaped what I now like to write. The power of early influence?  All the ingredients are there - particularly the settings.