Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Nine in November

I read nine books in November.

The Hourglass Factory by Lucy Ribchester
Read on Kindle, for book group. This is a debut novel, set in London at the height of suffragette movement. The main character, Frankie, is a tomboy reporter who lives hand to mouth, always with an eye for a big story. The plot has many twists and turns, possibly too many, but the period feel is excellent – shades of Sarah Waters, and Frankie is a great character; I hope there will be more books about her. Most of the book group had been to see the film Suffragettes, so there was a good discussion about the subject; both the book and the film got a thumbs-up.

Read on Kindle. Sounds as if it’s set somewhere hot and steamy but no – although steaminess in other forms does come in to the story. The Jacaranda is the venue for a speed-dating event in London and the book then follows each of the participants as they meet up afterwards. This meant that there were a lot of characters – I found it hard to care very much about any of them.

An intriguing strapline – What happens when you can fly, but you just can’t hide?

Jessica Pearson starts a new job flying an air ambulance in and out of Coorah Creek in the Australian outback – a position that suits her as she’s running away from a very difficult situation. The resident doctor Adam Gilmore has his own secrets. Throw another runaway, Ellen, and her children, into the town on the edge of nowhere; eventually all the secrets emerge. 

A flying doctor romance – what’s not to like?

This was the first book to subvert the Ladybird brand;  the Ladybird publishers were not pleased but then took up the idea themselves – a hoot.

I blogged here about books I liked in which patchwork is a theme. I’ve just discovered Sandra Dallas so a lot more ‘patchwork books’ are going to be added to that list. Also, most of her books are set during the American Depression, an era I find fascinating to read about.

Prayers for Sale by Sandra Dallas
Set in the mountains of Colorado. Hennie is eighty-seven and can – just – remember the Civil War, but her age doesn’t prevent her living very independently in an inhospitable terrain, helping her neighbours, and always having a bit of patchwork on the go. There’s also an old score to think about – how is she going to settle it?

The Persian Pickle Club by Sandra Dallas
I liked Prayers for Sale but I loved The Persian Pickle Club

It is Harveyville, Kansas in the 1930s, where the crops are shrivelling and there are no jobs. For Queenie Bean, the highlight of each week is the gathering of the Persian Pickle Club, a group of ladies dedicated to improving their minds. Then along comes Rita, newly wed and decidedly glamorous.’

‘Persian pickle’ is another name for Paisley pattern – isn't that great? As the group of ladies gossip, or are read aloud to, they make quilts. A story of hardship and friendship – with a murder mystery thrown in.

New Mercies by Sandra Dallas
This one does not actually feature patchwork despite the cover. Set in the Deep South decades after the Civil War – but the legacy of slavery lives on:

Nora Bondurant is running away—from her husband’s death, from his secrets, … When she receives a telegram informing her that she has an inheritance, Nora suddenly has somewhere to run to: a house named Avoca in Natchez, Mississippi. … she’s inherited a mystery. Nora’s aunt, Amalia Bondurant, was killed in a murder/suicide, and the locals are saying nothing … ’

Wonderful Marian never lets you down and this is her in grand form with a story set in Ireland and in the hilariously awful cut-throat world of American publishing. Terrific – but my favourite MK’s will always be a couple of her early ones: Lucy Sullivan is Getting Married, and Rachel’s Holiday.

Nora Webster by Colm Toibin
I loved his Brooklyn (and the recent film was brilliantly faithful to it) so was keen to read this one. Nora, widowed relatively young, with a family of four to look after, is trying to adjust to life without her husband. In small-town Ireland, in the 1960s, this is particularly difficult as everyone has an opinion on how Nora should behave. She isn’t as lovable a character as Eilis in Brooklyn but she leaps off the page in the same way.

Friday, 11 December 2015

The Palace of Complete Happiness

The Palace of Complete Happiness

Sounds blissful, doesn’t it? Although in the building thus called in the Forbidden City in Beijing it didn’t mean rooms of books and all the time in the world to read them, with pit-stops to eat toast and cheese and apples, which would be my idea of complete happiness.

For the thousands of people who lived in it, especially the Royal Family, the City was a golden cage. There would have been riches beyond the dreams of avarice there but the place would have been stiff with protocols and quarrelling eunuchs and women hobbling on bound feet and cruel punishments for small transgressions. And a cage is a cage whatever colour it is. Extremely fascinating to read about though.

Ever since I visited China in 2011 I’ve wanted to set stories there. A few months ago I was looking at a map of the Forbidden City and thought The Palace of Complete Happiness would make a great title.

This is in Woman’s Weekly Fiction Special dated January 2016.

It's contemporary – a teacher is escorting a party of teenagers around the City and finds an uncomfortable parallel between part of its history and her own life. 

Oh, and if you're looking for some Christmassy stories (and why wouldn't you be?) I have one in this anthology, called Molly's Christmas Candle.

Wednesday, 2 December 2015

The Ferryboat

My second People’s Friend serial, The Ferryboat, was published in the magazine last year.

Now The Ferryboat is available as a large-print book in libraries. It’s been published by Ulverscroft in their Linford Library Romance series.

I really like the cover. I wasn’t consulted over it but they obviously gave a good brief to their designer/artist.

This is the blurb on the back:

When Judy and Tom Jeffreys are asked by their daughter Holly and her Scottish chef husband Corin if they will join them in buying The Ferryboat hotel in the West Highlands, they take the plunge and move north.

The rundown hotel needs much expensive upgrading – and what with local opposition to some of their plans, and worrying about their younger daughter, left down south with her flighty grandma, Judy begins to wonder if they’ve made a terrible mistake.

When Shirley Blair at The People’s Friend asked me to come up with a couple of ideas for a new serial I thought a hotel would be a good setting. As a student I had two holiday jobs working in hotels so had some knowledge of behind the scenes (and some experiences completely unsuitable for sharing with People’s Friend readers … ) My mother’s father had an inn and I heard lots of stories about it. And of course I’ve stayed in various hotels.

So, thinking of all of these, I brainstormed on paper anything and everything that might be useful. The lovely West Highland setting was clear in my mind. So then all I had to do was conjure up the characters … and some plot … and write it …

My first serial, since you ask, was The Family at Farrshore and it is available in large-print too.

So off you go to the library – I do hope there is still one near you.

Friday, 27 November 2015

Interview with Mairi Wilson

I am very pleased to have fellow Edinburgh Writers’ Club member Mairi Wilson on my blog to answer questions about her debut novel Ursula’s Secret which was published in November 2015 by Black and White Publishing.

In just a few heartbreaking days, Lexy Shaw’s world has fallen apart. After her mother is killed in a tragic hit-and-run, her mother’s childhood guardian, Ursula, also dies suddenly, leaving everything to Lexy. But as Lexy reads through Ursula’s hidden papers, what she discovers raises doubts about her own identity and if she really is now all alone in the world.

Desperate to find out if she has any surviving family, Lexy travels to Africa hoping she can unravel the mystery she’s now tormented by, only to find that she’s stumbled into a past full of lies and deceit and that her life is in grave danger.

Mairi I think Ursula’s Secret is a thrilling read and beautifully written – congratulations on its publication.

Thanks, Kate! Thanks too for inviting me to your blog – lovely to be here.

And congratulations on winning the Sunday Mail Fiction Prize which led to the publication of Ursula’s Secret! Could you tell us more about that? Was your manuscript complete when you submitted it?

And thanks again, Kate. I don’t think anyone could have been more surprised than I was to win the prize – it was an unbelievable piece of luck and I couldn’t be more grateful to those judges. And actually, a big thank you to you too, as I seem to remember that it was from one of your Club updates that I first heard about the competition.  
I’d been away on a writers’ retreat in Spain at Casa Ana which I’d first discovered through another EWC member (thanks, San) and for the first time, after three years of writing scenes out of sequence and tinkering with the same bits over and over to avoid moving on to the scenes I knew would be difficult to write, I’d finally cobbled together a rough but full draft. The deadline was just a day or two after I returned so I entered on impulse, with no expectation at all of winning, but in part to justify having had the time away and also because Black and White Publishing had undertaken to read every manuscript. I hoped eventually that might give me a way in when I had a final draft ready to submit.
When I was shortlisted and asked if I had a full manuscript the answer was of course yes – and I spent all that night going through stripping out all the ‘notes to self’ about needing more description here, rewriting this, changing that, and deleting my dozens of footnotes. Each one was deleted individually because by the time I got to those I was so tired I’d completely forgotten about the ‘delete all’ option.

How did you come up with the story? And what came first – the characters or the plot?

Characters are usually first for me and so it was with Ursula’s Secret. The story started to percolate years ago when I was living in London and my elderly neighbour, who had been Matron at the local hospital, ended up back there as a patient in the geriatric ward. Even given the little I knew of her, if she’d had any awareness of what was happening to her, I was sure that would have been the final humiliation. 
          The story started because I was thinking about what she must have been like in her prime. I was doing an OU creative writing course at the time and had to do a memoir assignment so I wrote about her (she’d become convinced I was spying on her and trying to murder her so sadly I had plenty of material). From there, I developed a short story and then that grew into the idea for the novel, which in its final incarnation bears no resemblance to any of the above, but that’s fiction for you.
            I started off with a basic idea for a romance but it’s not a genre I read often and, I’ve discovered, it’s a genre that’s much harder than it looks to write. I read family sagas and most commercial women’s fiction but have a particular soft spot for thrillers and crime so no real surprise that the story started to take a more sinister turn. I was probably about 75% of the way through when it all stalled, though. I thought at first I’d just become bored with it so should keep pushing through, but the plot felt incomplete.  And then, bingo! Another character turned up late in the day and it all started to slot into place.

There’s a great sense of place in the book – both when Lexy is in Scotland and when she’s in Malawi. I understand that you’ve never been in Africa so how did you manage to evoke it so brilliantly?

No, I haven’t been to Africa and that worried me. I’d thought I might go this autumn but then the book was about to be published and there was no time so I had to use guide and history books and the internet. There’s an amazing amount of information tucked away online - ornithologists’ blogs, newspaper archives, botanical societies. Clues and details came from all sorts of unlikely sources. I would still like to visit Malawi one of these days but am slightly concerned that I’ll find I’ve got some details wrong, although no doubt someone will point out my mistakes before that. My defence is...it’s fiction!

I don’t want to give too much away – but there’s a heart-stopping scene when Lexy gets up close to a scary creature in Malawi … I’m wondering if you acted that out in your kitchen to try and follow her movements?!

I don’t think my kitchen table would take the strain so no, I didn’t act that particular scene out. I drew instead on memories of playing ‘round the world’ at school – we had to get round the room without touching the floor and to make it more challenging we’d push desks further apart – and I also used that sensation of leaning back on two legs of a chair until it almost falls over. It was that feeling of being right at the tipping point that I was trying to capture in that scene. It was very hard to write, though, and probably the scene I least enjoyed researching. I prefer my wildlife cute and fluffy.

The book is set in Scotland and Malawi, and in two time frames, plus you spin things out so that the reader is kept on their toes with new revelations right to the end. It must have been a challenge to work out the structure – how did you go about it?

Yes, it was a challenge, and I’d no idea when I started out just how much tricky it was going to be. I wanted to make both the present and the past equally interesting and compelling so it was like writing two novels in one. I did consider only writing the story that takes place in the 1950s but quickly dismissed that as what interested me most was how something in the past could have such huge repercussions generations later. 
        I didn’t work out the structure in advance and experimented with different options as I went, getting increasingly frustrated with it all. The breakthrough came when I realised it was Lexy’s story, so the narrative thread had to stay with her. That meant following Lexy’s quest for truth so the reader discovers things as she does, feels the frustration and confusion she feels when first bombarded with names, dates and no answers, and then gradually the reader begins to make sense of it all just as Lexy does. 
      One advantage of two time frames was that when one storyline needed a ‘breather’ I could switch to the other, although that brought its own problems. How do you show the reader that the scene that’s happening ‘live’ on the page in the past is being shared with Lexy? Finding credible ways to segue from present to past was one of the hardest parts of writing this novel, but I think it would have become tedious to have had Lexy discover everything simply by reading Ursula’s papers.

How have you enjoyed all the publicity and promotion associated with winning the prize and the publication of Ursula’s Secret?

Well, mixed response to that, really. Like most writers, I’d probably prefer to keep my head down but that’s just not an option if I want to give the book the best chance it can possibly have to get into readers’ hands.  I’ve given myself a talking to about ‘getting over myself’ and it’s becoming more enjoyable now. The launch event itself, once we got underway, was great. I knew most of the people there so it was like having an extended conversation with friends, and after the first time, of course it gets easier.
When publication was just a distant dream, I’d considered hiding behind a pseudonym but winning the competition meant things moved very quickly and I’d done an interview for the Sunday Mail in my own name before I could do anything about that. With hindsight I’m glad; it’s much simpler to be myself and not pretend to be someone or something I’m not. I’m fortunate too that in a previous life I had to do a lot of presentations and so on, so I’ve become quite good at concealing my nerves. They don’t ever go away but it helps if you can tell yourself other people probably don’t realise how nervous you are.

Who are your favourite authors and have any of them influenced your own writing?

Every single book I’ve ever read must have influenced me, but of course I have favourite authors like Kate Atkinson, Maggie O’Farrell, Jessie Burton, Lesley Glaister, Ken Follett, Carlos Ruiz Zaf√≥n, and on and on through to Ian Rankin, Ann Cleeves and a whole slew of crime and thriller writers, and for years essential summer holiday reading was always the latest Robert Goddard. I’m not aware of direct influence from any one particular author but inevitably I’ll have absorbed something from all of them.

Do you have a writing routine and what are you working on now?

No, no writing routine. I work better late in the day - I’m a wonderful procrastinator so maybe that’s why – and I don’t write every day, although most days I’ll try to think about the story at least, even if only fleetingly. I’ve discovered it’s really important to keep it alive in your head. Otherwise one day away becomes two, then three and before I know it weeks might have passed and getting back into the story then becomes a daunting prospect, and that’s why Ursula’s Secret took me three years to write. 
      For the novel I’m working on now, I started with a very clear idea of three of the characters and a very vague idea for a plot so I sketched an outline and set to work with the objective of getting the story down as quickly as possible. I got through to about 70000 words and then stopped, By then I knew the story I wanted to tell so needed to recap and refine storylines and characters. I’ll probably end up cutting the first 15-20000 words as the story has evolved into something very different along the way, but I’m happy to do this as it feels right. I sometimes don’t know what I’m going to write until it’s written and that inevitably means there will be some degree of ‘wastage’ but then, who was it who said all writing is really rewriting?
     This next one is set in Spain – a county I know well and which is a lot easier to visit for research than Malawi . The story centres on two women who meet and become friends when they both go there to study the language and to leave difficult pasts behind. When one of them disappears the other sets out to find her and gets caught up in an underworld of flamenco, crime and revenge. I’m really enjoying working on it and, purely in the interests of research, I’ve started flamenco classes and feel compelled to consume tapas and Spanish wine as often as possible.

Do hurry up and finish it! Thank you for answering my questions. 

Buy Ursula's Secret here
Find out more about Mairi:
(with links to some YouTube interviews)


Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Four and a bit in October

 I only read four and a bit books in October because – well, hang on, I’ll tell you in a minute.

Close Range by Annie Proulx
Short stories by the author of The Shipping News, all set in ‘the harsh and unforgiving landscape of Wyoming’.
One of them, Brokeback Mountain, was turned into a film with Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal. But so good are all of these stories – dense with detail, yet with never a wasted word – that any of them could be given the Hollywood treatment.

A writing masterclass.

See Now Then by Jamaica Kincaid
‘See now then, the dear Mrs. Sweet who lived with her husband Mr. Sweet and their two children, the beautiful Persephone and the young Heracles in the Shirley Jackson house, which was in a small village in New England.’
This is the story of the acrimonious breakdown of a marriage, told in an oblique and lyrical style and believed to be a novelised version of her own marriage – in which case the style is just right, to give the author distance eg always referring to the characters as Mr. Sweet and Mrs. Sweet.

The wonderfully named Jamaica Kincaid has written half a dozen other novels which I shall now seek out.

This month I read the last few chapters of this book –which I blogged separately about here 

The closing chapters update the history of the secretary with the coming of new office machinery such electric typewriters and calculators in the 1960s – and gives examples of some unbelievable (or, sadly, all-too-believable) ads.

One shows a blonde ‘Olivetti girl’, hands flying over a keyboard, with the tagline: ‘The typewriter that’s so smart she doesn’t have to be.’

Then there was this little charmer:

 But there was a lovely story about Mike Nesmith of Monkees fame – or at least about his mum. She was a divorced single mother in 1946. She had some secretarial skills and at home she loved to do art projects. She combined these two when she invented and patented ‘Liquid Paper’ (Tippex), and in 1979 she sold her company to Gillette for $47.5 million.

Ursula’s Secret by Mairi Wilson
This book won the Sunday Mail Fiction award and I am delighted to say that my next blog post will be an interview with the author. I’ll tell you what it’s about now – and you could read it before the end of next week … and then I hope I’ll have asked Mairi questions you would like an answer to:

 In just a few heartbreaking days, Lexy Shaw’s world has fallen apart. After her mother is killed in a tragic hit-and-run, her mother’s childhood guardian, Ursula, also dies suddenly, leaving everything to Lexy. But as Lexy reads through Ursula’s hidden papers, what she discovers raises doubts about her own identity and if she really is now all alone in the world.

Desperate to find out if she has any surviving family, Lexy travels to Africa hoping she can unravel the mystery she’s now tormented by, only to find that she’s stumbled into a past full of lies and deceit and that her life is in grave danger.

Okay, this is part of the reason why I only read four and a bit books this month. This one is 490 pages and I read it slowly so I didn’t miss anything.  I’m a bit obsessed with China since I visited it in 2011 and blogged about it here.

 I’d read Peter Hessler’s other two books on China: River Town, about his experiences of teaching in a town on the Yangtze with the American Peace Corps, and Country Driving, about when he had been in China for several years as correspondent for the New Yorker and decided to see more of the country that is changing so quickly in the 21st century. Country Driving is one of my favourite books ever, staggering in its information and very funny.

Oracle Bones was published in between these two and here Peter Hessler looks at the migration of young Chinese from the traditional countryside to the new boom towns, and along the way he give us many lessons on the history of this fascinating country ...

… so fascinating to me that I signed up for a (free) online course with FutureLearn (part of the Open University) on the European Discovery of China. So what with tutorials, quizzes, an essay and now a test looming at the end of this week … A test! Never thought I’d have to swot for one of those again.

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Are you sitting comfortably?

I was brought up in rural Scotland in the 1950s/60s. We didn’t have television until I was 15 but I wasn’t entirely deprived of popular culture – a neighbour had my sister and brother and I in for Penguin biscuits and ‘It’s Friday, it’s five o’ clock, it’s CRACKERJAAACK’, a time of the week I still associate fondly with Leslie Crowther, Peter Glaze and our kind friend.

You can keep your flowerpot men and wooden tops and perky pigs though – I am thankful now for the time not spent watching them, when I read, read, read … and attempted to write stories for girls as I said in an earlier post.

Of course, when I had children of my own …

… there was a television and many other distractions undreamt of thirty-odd years earlier but I was determined that whatever else was happening they would have a bedtime story, and I read to them every night until they were around thirteen. They are a boy and a girl, four years apart in age, so different books were required and they each listened to the other’s.

I wanted them to know stories and characters I’d loved as a child …

… and I was thrilled to discover brilliant new books and writers.

OK, so – off the top of my head we read <deep breath> 

Judith Kerr, Mairi Hedderwick, Shirley Hughes, Beatrix Potter, Mike Ingpen, Andy Pandy, Rosie and Jim, Postman Pat (and the Greendale Bus every night for a week as I recall), the adorable Teddy Robinson, Six-Dinner Sid, Milly-Molly-Mandy and Jane Hissey.

Enid Blyton (Five Find-Outers/Famous Five/Malory Towers stood the test of time for me as did The Boy Next Door; I was never a fan of the Secret Seven though so skipped those), all of The Little House on the Prairie (they both loved the series), Black Beauty, The Animals of Farthing Wood, The Owl Who Was Afraid Of The Dark, Jill Murphy, Miss Wiz, Alice in Wonderland, Paddington Bear, Hilary Mackay, Jacqueline Wilson, Katherine Paterson, Heidi, Harry Potter, Gillian Cross, Philip Ridley, Animal Ark series, and anthologies of stories and poems.

<another deep breath>

 Eoin Colfer, Roald Dahl, Philippa Pearce, Jennings (made me laugh second time around too), A Hundred and One Dalmations (the original, wonderful, non-Disney version), plus Dodie Smith’s The Midnight Kittens and The Starlight Barking, Dick King Smith,  Charlotte’s Web, The Velveteen Rabbit (‘Muum, are you crying?’ – actually that happened a lot), the Lionboy series, Kate DiCamillo (Because of Winn Dixie highly recommended), The Secret Garden and A Little Princess.

Sharon Creech, some of The Chalet School series, A Christmas Carol, Sherlock Holmes short stories, Treasure Island, Kidnapped, The Thirty-Nine Steps, Rocket Boys (by Homer Hickam –brilliant; made into a film they called October Sky (why? sounds like geriatric romance) which is the name the book now appears to go by), a couple by Paul Theroux we enjoyed every Christmas, Frank Cottrell Boyce, and … and … and   I wish I’d kept a list.

Oh, and we read an unabridged Robinson Crusoe (several hundred tedious pages before we finally got to Man Friday’s footprint), and struggled through an abridged Ivanhoe.

The only ones I refused to continue with were the Goosebumps, and Ninja Turtles series, so badly written, agony to read aloud. And I could have done without Thomas the Tank Engine – unless you are a four-year-old boy they are reeely boooring.

I didn’t read them Just William – because Martin Jarvis could do it so much better.

I made up stories. Not from scratch – I retold their favourites replacing themselves with the main characters – because despite my very youthful ambition to be a children’s writer I can’t do it. I’ve tried, but my voice sounds patronising and authorial, my plot ideas derivative.

So I’m thankful for all those terrific writers and the stories which brought my children to heel at bedtime and (I hope) are still there inside their heads.

Saturday, 24 October 2015

Never too late

The photo below was taken at The People’s Friend story-writing workshop in York on 22 October, once again a thoroughly enjoyable experience for the guest author.

I was a bit of a late starter in the writing game so being asked to be a ‘guest author’ seems a little surreal …

 … but it is never too late to take up writing stories.

The lovely lady at the front, far right, when asked to say something about herself, told us that seventy-two years ago she had gone into the building we could see on the other side of the road to be interviewed for the Wrens.

Isn’t that amazing?

There were others on the course who said they’d never been so busy since retiring.

And that neatly illustrated a point PF Fiction Editor Shirley Blair made about writing for the magazine.

Many of the stories she receives portray people in their sixties and seventies as if they were much older. Folk of that age these days tend to be out and about, travelling, taking up new interests, attending writing workshops … They’re not sitting at home telling their school-age grandchildren what they did in the war – because they’re not old enough to remember it. Do the maths.

Thursday, 15 October 2015

Writerly goings-on

Various writerly goings-on.

Edinburgh Writers’ Club session 2015-16 got off to a cracking start on 22 September with opening speaker Elaine diRollo. She gave us a very frank insight into her publishing experiences and her writing and research methods. I had read and loved her quirky historical novel A Proper Education for Girls. Her third novel, Beloved Poison (she is now publishing under the name Elaine Thomson), is due from Constable and Robinson (an imprint of Little, Brown) in March 1916. 

The second meeting was a ‘speed-chat’ arranged just like a speed-dating event (so I’m told …) except that you didn’t have to give anyone marks out of ten. As there were four new potential members that night, as well as members ranging from one to thirty years standing, it was an excellent way to get to find out what everyone was working on, what their writing goals were, and generally find out more about them.

Not one but two fellow EWC members are having novels published in the next few weeks.

See my interview with Victoria Hendry here about her first novel A Capital Union. Her second The Last Tour of Archie Forbes is being launched at Blackwell’s Bookshop, Southbridge, Edinburgh on 29 October, 6.30.

The book tells the story of a traumatised Afghanistan veteran fending for himself in Austerity Britain. The publisher (Saraband) describe it as 'A dazzling, empathetic and darkly funny portrayal of the hostile home front' and novelist Manda Scott says it's 'One of the most engaging, powerful, original, heartbreaking books I've ever read.'

And Mairi Wilson’s first book Ursula’s Secret, which won the Sunday Mail Fiction Prize, is being launched at Waterstone’s West End, Edinburgh on 4 November, 6pm. Here's Mairi (on Facebook) talking about it. The paperback will be out for the launch; the Kindle version is available now for 59p.

A former EWC member has a book launch this very evening. Margaret Skea's first novel Turn of the Tide won all sorts of awards and is a brilliant read so I have high hopes of her new one A House Divided.

What inspiring company to be in!

As for me, I am really looking forward to judging the Scholarship Award at the Scottish Association of Writers Conference (SAW) in March. This is for a story aimed at a woman’s magazine and the winner will have their expenses paid to attend the conference. (NB The competition is open only to members of writers’ clubs affiliated to SAW.) I should be getting a pile of manuscripts around 23 November so that will keep me very busy for a couple of months.

I was delighted to be guest author again at a People’s Friend workshop on 10 October in Dundee. There were twenty delegates and as before it was great to listen to the advice from PF Fiction Editor Shirley Blair and her team, and to hear what delegates made of the various exercises. I always learn something myself from these events. Looking forward to the York workshop later this month (fully booked) – and to the train journey down when I can read, write or stare gormlessly out of the window.

Sunday, 4 October 2015

Six and a bit in September

I read six and a bit books in September.

In August I fell for Paris in Love by Eloisa James (aka Professor Mary Bly, Professor of English Literature, Fordham University, New York), a work of non-fiction that made me want to try her Regency romances. The heroine of An Affair Before Christmas, part of her Desperate Duchesses series, is Lady Perdita Selby, known to her friends as Poppy. Poppy is madly in love with – her own husband, the Duke of Fletcher, but all is not well in their four-year marriage. A good read – will find out sometime why the other duchesses were desperate.

Slow Road to Brownsville by David Reynolds
I saw David Reynolds at the Book Festival, attracted by the premise of his book – an account of the trip he took a couple of years ago, driving by himself from Winnipeg, in the south of Manitoba, Canada, down Highway 83 to Brownsville, Texas.

He’d made the trip to Winnipeg a few years earlier to track down what happened to his grandfather (a story he told in his book Swan River: Memoir of a Family Mystery). It was then that he heard of Highway 83, and was astonished to find out that the road went all the way through North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma to Brownsville – 2271 miles.

Whereas interstates are new, American highways, I learnt, more or less all follow the former buffalo trails so his travels were through the old Wild West. He’s a wonderful writer and I’m grateful to him for doing this road trip for me to enjoy vicariously very much indeed.

House of Silence by Linda Gilliard
This is one of the books I mentioned in a previous post Patchwork Pieces.

Orphaned by drink, drugs and rock n’ roll, Gwen Rowland is invited to spend Christmas at her boyfriend Alfie’s family home, Creake Hall – a ramshackle Tudor manor in Norfolk. Soon after she arrives, Gwen senses something’s wrong. Alfie acts strangely towards his family and is reluctant to talk about the past. … When Gwen discovers fragments of forgotten family letters sewn into an old patchwork quilt, she starts to piece together the jigsaw of the past.’

Very intriguing. I liked the way this was told – sometimes by Gwen in the first person and sometimes it’s her in third; Rae, matriarch of Alfie’s family, also has a voice. The family secret is rather weird and wonderful, although with the brooding sky on the cover and an ancient manor house called Creake Hall I expected the story to be more gothicky.

The Carriage House by Louisa Hall
Set in Philadelphia now and described as being Jane Austen meets John Cheever. Didn't agree. Didn’t get past chapter 4. Nuff said.

The Bookstore by Deborah Meyler
Esme Garland is an English girl in Manhattan, a student of art history at Columbia University. Under the terms of her scholarship she’s not supposed to work but circumstances render her in need of extra dollars and she gets a part-time job in a second-hand bookstore – a wonderful shop, sadly one of the few remaining in New York (this was published in 2013). Elegantly written and with great characters – I loved it.

Made me wonder though. Esme’s erstwhile lover, Mitchell, is from one of those rich American families who live in NY and have a weekend ‘cottage’ (ie another massive house) in Long Island. They’re all screwed-up, manipulative and unhappy. Is this how such families are in real life or just in fiction? If anyone knows of a modern novel with a rich American (or any nationality) family who are cheery and appreciative of their lot do let me know.

Took it into my head to reread two school stories (which is why my TBR pile will never get smaller): Lucy Brown’s Schooldays by Dorothy Vicary and The New Girls of Netherby by Judith Carr. Neither stood the test of time.

I was sorry that TNGoN hadn’t because I remember reading it over and over when I was about nine, so much so that I wrote in the back ‘This is one of the best books I’ve got.’ But this time round I couldn’t help noticing the ‘bad writing’: how the point of view jumped around; how the characters never ‘said’ anything – they ‘retorted pertly’, ‘protested indignantly’, ‘returned evasively’, ‘sighed solemnly’, ‘echoed impulsively’ etc. Etc. And the two girls from Ireland were more Oirish than the Oirish (‘’tis a wonderful sight you are, mavourneen … ’).

But I certainly didn’t notice all that when I was nine – what I wanted was to be the heroine, Sally Nicol, because she won a writing competition which led to her being offered a full scholarship to boarding school, to Netherby Hall. That appealed to me because I was not just the only girl in my class in my rural primary at the time, but the only pupil – the thought of boarding school fills me with horror now though.

I did learn a small piece of social history from Lucy Brown (first published 1951) – apparently you could take laddered stockings to be ‘invisibly mended’ in ‘an invisible mending place’. Who knew?

Friday, 25 September 2015

Toot, toot

I’ll give a little toot on my trumpet if I may.

I submitted six stories over the last couple of months, three each to Woman’s Weekly and The People’s Friend; five were accepted, of which two have now been published; I’ve been asked to tweak the end of the sixth one.

Usually when I start a story I have a destination for it in mind, and that works – some of the time. An exact science this writing lark ain’t.

The two published stories were in Woman’s Weekly, one a couple of weeks ago and one this (issue dated 29 September 2015).

Both of them were inspired by prompts in my weekly creative writing class. Neither was written with the magazine in mind but with the goal of using them as competition entries.

As far as I remember the prompt for Lucky Tatties was the memories that are conjured up by taste. Maybe you called them lucky potatoes or maybe you’ve never heard of them – they were a hard flat sweetie about the size of an old penny, dusted in cinnamon and with a little plastic toy inside. You had to be careful not to swallow it.

Like my heroine, Anne, I never liked them very much.

The feedback from one competition I entered it was to chop the story off two-thirds of the way through. I didn’t want to do that; it was short enough as it was. I could tell the adjudicator didn’t like the rest of it much either, and I can see that it isn’t the easiest of stories as it flies in the face of various received wisdoms – it tells rather than shows (a deliberate decision on my part) and there is no dialogue.

Increasingly, Woman’s Weekly (in their weekly magazine and monthly fiction specials) publish stories in a variety of styles so I thought I’d nothing to lose by sending it to them. And everything to gain as it turned out.

Pittenweem did win a competition, the General Short Story competition at the Scottish Association of Writers’ conference, judged by novelist, short story writer and playwright Catherine Czerkawska. After WW accepted Lucky Tatties I thought, well, maybe there’s a chance to see Pittenweem in print there too.

I think the original prompt for the story was when we were looking at character in the class and I thought I’d have an office as the setting. (Said office is not in Pittenweem (a fishing village on the east coast of Scotland) but a postcard of it becomes a kind of talisman for my main character.)

In other writing-related news, my People's Friend serial The Ferryboat, which was published in the magazine last year is now the 'daily serial' on the PF website. Catch up with it here.

And I am delighted to be doing two more People’s Friend story-writing workshops, with fiction editor Shirley Blair, in Dundee on 8 October, and York on 22 October; and judging the Woman’s Short Story competition at the Scottish Association of Writers conference in March 2016.