Monday, 12 February 2018

My Top Tips For New Writers

I tend to stick to the genre of my current WIP so I feel absorbed in the atmosphere of that era. I must have read 30 novels that are set during WW2 during the last eighteen months. Having said that, it’s helpful to see how other authors plot and construct their books so read whatever takes your fancy. Don’t just stick to fiction, either. There are some wonderful factual books that will guide you through the writing process.

Join a writing group.
I'm a member of Nottingham Writers' Studio and the friendship, support, encouragement and workshops I’ve attended have been an invaluable help to me as a writer. A small group of us have formed Ellipses and Ampersands, a critique group who meet once a month to give advice, praise and constructive criticism of each other’s work. I have no doubt that they have helped to improve my chapters.

Build an online presence.
It’s important to make connections so open a twitter account, a Facebook page, join Instagram and Goodreads, and most importantly, build a professional website/blog. Readers want to ‘meet’ you online. They want to know about your novel, what inspired you to write it, how you achieved publication, and where they can buy your book.

Writing your book is the easy part! New writers think their work is of a publishable quality when it isn’t, at least not yet. Read through your novel and you’ll gasp at the spelling, continuity and grammar mistakes you’ve made. You’ll see glaring gaps in your storyline, character inconsistencies, weak resolutions, repetitions and numerous other errors that will have you saying to yourself, ‘What made me think I could be a writer?’
Take a deep breath.
This is perfectly normal for a new writer. You’re learning, after all. By following the above three suggestions you’ll discover, through friends, reading and workshops, how to correct your early mistakes.

Get a professional critique.
Getting a professional critique of your writing is essential. Typos and continuity issues become invisible to us when we’ve read and edited our work ten times. Not only will it help when it comes to finding an agent/publisher, but you will be amazed at the improvement of your work. Take suggestions seriously and learn from them. I chose the Romantic Novelists’ Association. They have a New Writers’ Scheme that I have used for three of my novels. They are brilliant!

Before you submit.
There are many excellent online examples of how to write a submission letter and the dreaded synopsis. Both of these are extremely important communication documents. If a busy agent reads a rushed introductory letter that contains grammar or spelling mistakes, they will be far too busy to give you the benefit of the doubt that there won’t be similar careless mistakes in your book. If your synopsis hints at what might happen to your characters in order to keep an agent intrigued – he/she won’t be the slightest bit intrigued and your MS will be set aside. A synopsis is a concise, clear summary of your entire book, including the ending.

Now what?
So you’ve sent off your manuscript to an agent or publisher. Great! Now what?
You start writing your next novel/article/short story – whatever your inclination, but keep writing. Don’t sit around waiting to hear back because it could take months and statistically, your first novel won’t be your first published book. Keep writing, continue attending workshops, persevere at learning your craft and maintain contact with writer friends and your writing group.

Develop a thick skin.
Your writing will be rejected.
It’s a fact - but it’s not personal. Different agents and publishers are looking for different things. They may have a full client list. They may be looking for historical women’s fiction and you’ve sent them a fantasy novel. They may not like your writing style. There are endless reasons, but develop a thick skin (moisturize it regularly) and keep writing!

Good luck.

Sunday, 28 January 2018

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

Vianne Mauriac lives in the quiet village of Carriveau, in France. Vianne’s husband, Antoine, heads for the Front leaving her alone with her young daughter. She finds it implausible that the Nazis will invade France, so when the country is occupied and she is forced to take in a German soldier as a lodger, her life becomes one of fear and anxiety. However, it appears that this soldier has a conscience and occasionally supplies wood for the fire or food for the table. When he is replaced by a sadistic, high-ranking German who must share their house, life becomes so much worse for Vianne.

Vianne’s sister, Isabelle, is eighteen, rebellious and trying to prove that’s she’s as capable as any man. With Paris overrun with Germans creating terror, Isabelle meets a compelling and intriguing partisan called Gäetan and falls in love with him. But he’s passionate about fighting for France and leaves to continue his fight alone. Feeling betrayed, Isabelle races headlong into danger and joins the Resistance, seemingly unconcerned about the life-threatening situations she is placing herself in.

The author, Kristin Hannah, tells this epic story of WWII from women’s points of view. Women had to fight to save their children and their friends. They had to made decisions that could either mean execution or perhaps reducing their suffering to a small degree. The Nightingale tells the stories of two sisters at war – with each other and the enemy. They share the grief of losing their mother and anguish of seeing the psychological effects that war has had on their neglectful father, but they are also separated by their ideals and circumstances. Each sister embarks on her own treacherous path towards survival, love and freedom in German-occupied France. Kristin Hannah has written a powerful, thought-provoking novel showing how the ordinary woman faces danger and what they are prepared to endure in order to keep their loved-ones safe. This book tells of the resilience of the human spirit and of the mental strength of women.

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

When Germany Changed The Clocks

With the sun’s rays pinching her skin, Matilde turned a corner onto the Boulevard Saint-Germain on her way to the butcher’s. Paris smelled different. It looked different. She surveyed the length of the road, its buildings scarred with blood-red swastikas and its pavements clattering to the sound of German jackboots and the shrill ringing of bicycle bells. Street signs were painted in bold Germanic words and even the church clocks chimed to German time, having all been moved on two hours by the enemy. She noticed that yet another shop had been boarded up as she stepped into the road.

At this month's monthly fiction group at Nottingham Writers' Studio, I had my latest chapter critiqued. Members asked what I meant when I wrote in the paragraph above, that clocks chimed to German time, so I thought I'd explain with a blog post. They also mentioned that small facts gained from research are not only interesting but also strengthen the story and makes the imagination see more vividly.

Before the 17th Century, people in the French countryside used to time their lives by the sun – even after the invention of clocks. They got up with the sun and went to bed with the moon. Whatever the time was in Paris or other major cities had little to do with their lives. It was the coming of the railways that started the move towards standardization of time.

It became apparent that the use of solar time became inefficient and even disruptive as communication improved. In 1891, France adopted Paris Mean Time (called this to avoid using the word, Greenwich) as its standard national time. It seems comical now, but train timetables and railway clocks were set five minutes late to prevent passengers missing their trains! Naturally it didn’t take long before people realized this and allowed a few extra minutes for their journey – and occasionally missing their trains!

During the Occupation of France in World War 2, the era my latest novel is set in, German time was introduced. ‘La France à l’heure Allemande,’ – France on German time. As you can imagine this caused resentment and unrest. The Germans had not only taken their country and liberty, but now re-set their time. German time was introduced in May 1940 which was GMT plus one hour in winter and GMT plus two hours in summer.

There’s an interesting article written by Yvonne Poulle that can be found online. According to her research there was no official order at the beginning of the war about the time change. The occupying army simply arranged the time change with the local French authorities and it was later confirmed in the local press or by word of mouth. Unbelievably, for a while, the Occupied Zone of Paris and Northern France were two hours ahead of the Unoccupied Zone in the south (Vichy France). The difficulties this produced are not difficult to imagine, especially on the railways. Eventually the SNFC (the French railway authority) suggested that both zones should observe the same time. On March 9th 1942, Vichy France was required to change to GMT plus two hours to bring it into line with the rest of France and Germany.

Many French people resisted this order. As a gesture of defiance, they stubbornly refused to change their clocks at home and kept to the old French time. In Jean Anglade’s novel, La Soupe à La Fourchette, set in the south-central Cantal region of France, one of the story’s main characters insists on keeping the family clock on ‘old French time’ – two hours behind as an act of resistance. This clock is hit by a stray bullet in July 1944 during a skirmish between Germans and the Resistance.

After liberation, France returned to GMT plus one hour all year round with no seasonal change, and so it remains.

Monday, 9 October 2017

Choc Lit's new imprint - Ruby Fiction

I’ve dreamed of writing this particular post for so many years that it’s difficult to believe I’m actually typing it. Earlier this summer I submitted my latest novel, A Hill In France, to Choc Lit; a multi-award winning British independent publisher. Although A Hill In France isn’t a traditional romance (the storyline includes a horrific, factual event), I’m beyond delighted to reveal that three of my books have been accepted for publication. Ruby Fiction is Choc Lit’s new imprint and where my books will belong.

I’ve admired Choc Lit Publishing for many years after becoming online friends with several of their authors. I’m always impressed by how fabulous their book covers look, the support the authors give to one another and how often Choc Lit’s name crops up in competition shortlists and winning books. I’m overwhelmed to be joining their team of authors and am looking forward to meeting them and working alongside them.

Many congratulations to Caroline James and Carol Thomas who have also joined Choc Lit’s Ruby Fiction.

Sunday, 17 September 2017


Nobody likes conflict or confrontation. I tell a lie. Some people thrive on it - but they don't have many friends.

However if you're a writer and you avoid conflict, your story will be a pretty boring read. Nothing spectacular needs to happen. Chapter One doesn't have to start with a terrible car accident or a fight, but we do need to introduce conflict as early as possible in order to grab our reader's attention. It can be external, brought about by other people or a situation that affects our protagonist, or it can be internal due to our character's thoughts. Conflict can simply arise from having different values. For example, Pride & Prejudice's Elizabeth Bennet valued her family, honesty, humility, intelligence and kindness. Her conflict with Mr. Darcy was based on her values. She believed him to be dishonest, prideful, rude, and as she says, he “ruined the happiness of a most beloved sister.”

Just to confuse matters, your antagonist shouldn't be all bad. My first novel, Lies and Linguine, was critiqued by the Romantic Novelists' Association's New Writers' Scheme. My reader highlighted that my 'baddy' had no redeeming qualities to make him appear human. He had almost become a caricature of a rogue. I've now revised my first book and given him some virtues which hopefully counterbalance his villainous tendencies.

I endeavour to introduce conflict to my opening few paragraphs but find myself re-visiting my first page many times while writing my books because although people read the blurb on the back before buying, many also read the first page of Chapter One. Like me, they want to discover the voice of the author and establish whether the story grabs them sufficiently to want to buy the book. Here are a few examples of the opening paragraphs of three of my novels. I really hope they make you want to read on, so please leave a comment. I value constructive criticism so don't be afraid to say if you think something needs improving. (Unfortunately Blogspot doesn't allow me to set out my writing correctly.)

A Hill In France.
‘Wait! Stop!’
Arlette turned towards the voice. She saw her friend, Francine, running up Montverre Hill with her hair swinging from side to side and her clogs scuffing the parched ground. As Arlette was leading a cow from the farmyard to the field, the rhythmical choff-choff sound of hooves meant that she couldn’t hear what Francine was now shouting.
Her friend hurried across the farm entrance, scattering a cluster of chickens before stopping and leaning forwards with hands on her hips, trying to catch her breath.
Qu’est-ce qui se passe?’ asked Arlette.
C’est Pétain.’
‘Pétain? What about him?’
Arlette knew that when their fathers talked about the French leader, usually over a glass of pastis, the conversation usually became heated and resulted in insults being directed towards the man.
‘He’s abandoned Paris to the Germans.’
Arlette gave a high-pitched laugh and continued to lead the beast across the lane, its huge bulk swaying and slewing as it walked. ‘Don’t be silly.’
Francine followed. ‘It’s true.’
‘No one gives away a city as if it were a bag of apples.’
‘Pétain has, and not just Paris. Maman heard it on the wireless.’
Arlette’s smile wavered. ‘When?’
‘Just before she’d finished cleaning the mayor’s office.’
‘No. I mean when was Pétain supposed to have done this?’
‘This morning.’
‘But, why?’
Francine held out her hands, palms upturned. ‘I’ve no idea. Papa says he’s a coward.’
Arlette reached the gate to the field and unhooked the lock before slipping the cord from the cow’s neck. ‘Allez!’ She slapped its rump and watched it amble towards the herd. Holding on to the top bar of the sun-warmed gate in a daze, her eyes scanned the landscape, half expecting to see a line of German soldiers marching across its fields. The war. That vague, far off entity that was spoken of in hushed tones for fear of it becoming a reality for them, had arrived.

Magnolia House.
Rowan Forrester believed that she’d never see Catherine again, so with the gentle strains of Bing Crosby’s White Christmas playing in the background and a batch of mince pies in the oven, she answered the knock on the apartment door still humming to herself. Caught off-guard at seeing her standing there, Rowan quickly composed herself, hoping that Catherine hadn’t noticed that she’d gripped her coffee cup a little tighter.
‘I’ve got nothing to say to you,’ said Rowan, and began to push the door to.
Catherine pressed her palm flat against the glossed paintwork. ‘There’s something you need to know.’
The sweet spicy aroma of baking wafted from the kitchen and Rowan didn’t know whether to check on the mince pies or listen to what Catherine had to say.
‘You have one minute to apologise, then I never want to see you again,’ said Rowan.

Tomorrow's Not Promised.
Paris had fallen. It was unthinkable. It was terrifying.
Matilde Pascal leant out of her second floor apartment window, the stone lintel grazing her elbows as she leant forwards to get a better view. She looked at the sky. The weather was showing its allegiance to the citizens of Paris by offering an equally cold reception to the German troops. She watched squat black tanks roll into view, grumbling along the Rue de Rivoli, followed by a line of armoured trucks and motorbikes with sidecars. Along the avenue she could see people watching in silence as the enemy paraded into their capital city. The reverberation of the slow, deliberate invasion made a knot of anxiety tighten in her stomach.
A pall of black smoke had hung over the rooftops for days. Although people spoke openly about civil servants destroying records so that the Germans didn’t have access to them, she had been told that it wasn’t the burning of paperwork that was causing the dark cloud. It came from oil depots that had been set alight by retreating French troops. If the people of France were unable to make use of the fuel, then they’d make sure the Germans wouldn’t get their hands on it either.
Matilde chewed her bottom lip and decided that the darkened skies seemed like a fitting apocalyptic note for Paris as the city prepared to receive the invaders. She felt her husband’s breath on her neck as he leant over her shoulder. Xavier had said he wouldn’t give the filthy Boches the satisfaction of an audience, but his curiosity must have proven too strong. They heard a pulse of rhythmical footfall as row upon row of soldiers marched beneath their window. Matilde swallowed hard. France was occupied by a foreign power. It was appalling, yet fascinating to watch.
She squashed an ant on the stone mullion ledge with her forefinger.

Saturday, 5 August 2017

Sarah's Key - A Book Review

Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay is a dual narrative containing both factual history and fiction. I found it to be a heart-wrenching, absorbing, emotional and informative book about the darkest time in France’s history - the Holocaust.

Paris, July 1942. Sarah Starzynski is ten years old when she and her parents are arrested by the French police. Before leaving, Sarah secretly locks her younger brother, Michel, in their childhood hiding place, a cupboard in the family's apartment. She pockets the key and promises him that he will be safe and she will return in a few hours to let him out. They are then taken to the Vélodrome d'Hiver as part of the Jewish roundup.

Paris, May 2002. Julia Jarmond is a journalist and on 60th anniversary of the Vel’ d’Hiv roundup, she is asked to write an article about this bleak event in France's history. Shockingly she discovers that this cruelty is mainly carried out by the French police. Through her investigations, she stumbles upon a trail of long-hidden family secrets that connect her to Sarah. Julia is compelled to retrace the girl's ordeal, from the atrocity of the Vel’ d'Hiv roundup, to the camps. Julia probes into Sarah's past, travelling from France to America and Italy searching for answers. Her search for answers leads her to question her own place in France and to reassess both her marriage and her life.

Sarah's Key is a disturbing, enlightening and touching, with well-developed characters. Tatiana de Rosnay offers her readers a subtle yet compelling portrait of France under occupation during WW2 and she reveals the taboos and silence that surround this painful episode.

Sunday, 28 May 2017

Hiding the Evidence

Unfortunately Blogger doesn't enable me to set out my chapter in the correct format, but here is what happens immediately after Kommandant Steiner takes a step backwards while attempting to assault Arlette and falls down the stone staircase of her house.

Arlette couldn’t move Kommandant Steiner by herself but she knew that he would eventually be missed at German headquarters. She strode back and forth in despair, waiting until Grandma Blaise returned from Saint Pierre’s. She shouldn't be long now. It was nearly curfew.
A few minutes later, she lit the lamp on hearing the trap and stepped outside into the yard. Her fear of attracting the attention of a passing German patrol had prevented her from doing so until now.
‘Woah, girl,’ said Grandma Blaise.
Their horse, Mimi, shook her thick neck and whinnied as she came to a standstill.
‘Thank you for coming out with the lamp, my dear. It’s getting dark, isn’t it? I’m sure I can smell snow in the air. It’s definitely cold enough for it.’
Arlette held up the lamp so her grandmother could climb down safely.
‘What’s the matter? Have you been crying?’
‘Something terrible has happened.’
‘You’re shaking. Is Estelle alright?’
Arlette began to cry. ‘He came and tried to…he tried to…’
‘Come inside.’ Grandma Blaise held Arlette’s elbow and guided her granddaughter across the yard. They stepped inside the kitchen. Shutting the door, the old lady took the lamp from Arlette’s trembling hands. ‘What’s happened? Who’s been here?’
‘Oh grandma, he’s dead. I don’t know what to do. They’re going to hang me in the square.’
Grandma Blaise set the lamp to one side and grasped Arlette firmly by her upper arms. She urged her to calm down. ‘Now explain slowly what has happened.’
Despite hyperventilating, Arlette managed to tell her what had happened. ‘But he fell, grandma. I swear I didn’t push him.’
‘By the sound of things I shouldn’t think anyone would blame you if you had. Stay here for a moment. I’ll take the lamp and check if he’s just unconscious.’ After a few minutes the old lady returned. ‘He’s dead. We don’t have long. By the morning there’ll be a search party looking for him.’
‘He’s too heavy. What shall we do?’
‘I want you to take the lamp and carefully dig up the winter kale.’
‘Do as I say. Protect the roots and don’t damage the leaves because we’re going to replant them.’
‘I don’t understand.’
‘Just do as I say and do it quickly.’
Outside, the strengthening wind bit her skin. She grasped the winter kale by its stalks and pulled both the leaves and root balls from the vegetable plot. The absurdity of the present moment struck Arlette as she stacked bunches of kale in the darkness. The weak glow of the lamp seemed to transform their curly green leaves into hideous black blossoms.
Arlette continued to dig. Nausea overwhelmed her, making her throat sting with stomach acid. She heaved into the soil, spitting bitter bile into a hole where she’d dug up the vegetables. They would kill her. They wouldn’t believe her story. What would happen to Estelle? She wiped hot tears from her cold cheeks with the back of her hand. The earth smelt sweet and acrid, like a forgotten jar of perfume. Grey flakes floated around the lamp. It had started to snow.
Klara wagged her tail and sniffed around the fresh holes before squatting to leave her scent. Arlette shooed her away and when she’d dug up the kale, stood up and went to find her grandmother. Inside the kitchen, she found her unravelling a large skein of string.
‘I’ve done it. What are you doing?’ asked Arlette.
‘By using this thick twine and Mimi’s strength, we’ll be able to move the body.’
Arlette recognised the ball of string as the one that had brought the breech calf into the world when she’d first met Saul. Now, instead of helping bring life into the world it was helping to drag a dead body. She followed her grandmother through the sitting room and into the hall where Kommandant Steiner lay in a fetid state, dark blood coagulating around a head wound. A shadow of liquid circled his underwear where his bladder had emptied after he’d fallen. His trousers still lay crumpled around his knees revealing his pale twisted thighs.
‘We must be quick. His body hasn’t stiffened yet but it won’t be long. Here, your fingers are younger than mine. Tie this around his ankles.’
Arlette looked horrified and didn’t move.
‘Come along. He can’t hurt you now. Think of Estelle.’
Arlette took the twine and edged closer to the Kommandant’s body. Her fingers shook. She tied it around his ankles and secured it with a knot.
‘Tie it tightly,’ said Grandma Blaise.
Arlette stood up. ‘I’ve done it.’
‘Right, now listen. I’m going to fetch Mimi and bring her round to the front door so she can drag the body to the vegetable garden. I want you to take a shovel from the front of the barn and dig a hole where the kale was growing. A big hole. Do you understand?’
Arlette nodded.
‘Take the lamp with you because I need to move the body in darkness. Be as quick and quiet as you can.’
Arlette hurried back outside. Snowflakes melted on her face. She retrieved a shovel and returned to the vegetable garden. She began to dig, thankful that the well-tended soil wasn’t too hard to cut into with the blade of the spade. Klara began to dig too, nose down and paws scraping soil behind her. The irony of the situation didn’t escape her. She remembered that the Kommandant had sanctioned the return of their horse at her own request. Due to that decision, they now had a way of disposing of his body.
After ten minutes of digging and with sweat sticking her undergarments to her clammy back, Arlette heard a noise. She stopped shovelling and listened. There was a hushing sound. Something was scraping. She strained her ears in the darkness to hear above the gusting wind. Klara growled deep inside her throat. The noise grew louder. Then Mimi’s outline lumbered around the corner of the house. Her hooves were clomping on the gravel as she dragged the Kommadant’s body behind her.
She heard her grandmother order the horse to stop. Grandma Blaise appeared beside her and they both continued to dig. After twenty minutes, they stopped.
‘We’re going to have to drag him ourselves now. You can do this, Arlette. Think of Saul and Estelle. We need to do this to survive. Are you listening to me?’
‘Good girl. Come and help me then.’
They walked around Mimi’s huge frame and looked down at the Kommandant’s body lying outstretched on the ground. His legs were raised because the twine tied to his ankles had been attached to a strap across the mare’s flanks. His arms had splayed out behind his body, raised above his head as if in surrender.
‘I’ll cut the string,’ said Grandma Blaise, ‘and you lead Mimi out the way.’
The body was released and the mare was led inside the barn. They began to drag the German’s dead weight towards the vegetable plot. Arlette grasped at his shirt. It ripped under the pressure.
‘His arm. Grab his arm,’ said the old lady. ‘I’ll grab the other one.’
Arlette shuddered and reached for the Kommandant’s wrist. It felt like cold wax but she grasped it and pulled. He didn’t move until her grandmother told her to pull at the same time as she did.
‘One, two, pull. One, two, pull.’
Slowly the body inched closer to the hole but Klara began to yap loudly. She growled and barked, snapping at the body’s clothing. She snarled, pulling at the material with her teeth.
‘She’ll disturb everyone in the manor. Put her in the kitchen,’ said Grandma Blaise.
With Klara inside the farmhouse and her barking muffled by the thick walls, they continued to drag the corpse until they reached the vegetable garden. They leant the Kommandant against the low wall. The wind abated for a few seconds and a low groan emanated from his body.
Arlette let out a shriek and took several steps back. ‘He’s alive. My God. He’s alive.’
Grandma Blaise put her finger to her lips. ‘Shhhh! He’s not. Calm down. He’s not. We’ve just dislodged some air in his body. It’s normal for dead bodies to make sounds when they’re disturbed.’
‘Are you sure? Are you sure? I don’t like it.’
‘Arlette! Calm down.’ Grandma Blaise was beside her now. ‘Stop making a noise. Do you want an entire manor of Germans to come and find out what all the noise is about? He’s dead. He can’t hurt you any more, but those men over there certainly can, so come along.’
Breathing through her open mouth, Arlette helped her grandmother drag the body over the low wall of the vegetable garden and lay it beside the hole.
‘We haven’t made it long enough,’ said Arlette.
‘It’ll do. It’s deep,’ answered her grandmother. ‘We’ll have to fold the body into it.’
Together they pushed his upper body into the void head first, leaving his legs lying flat on the soil. By pulling and pushing in turn, they folded his legs into the hole and stood up gasping for breath. Snowflakes danced and swirled on top of his crumpled uniform.
‘We can’t stop yet,’ said Grandma Blaise. ‘We’ve got to fill it in now.’
‘The gun!’
‘What gun?’
‘He took off his gun and belt off upstairs.’
‘Fetch them. Be quick.’
Arlette ran inside and through the kitchen. She skirted the congealed pool of blood and hurried upstairs. Once she’d picked up his belongings she sidled downstairs, carefully cradling the cold heavy gun in her palms. She feared that a sudden movement might make it fire. Back outside, she threw them in to the hole and the women began to dig the soil back over the body. When half the soil had been evenly spread over his body they replanted the kale on top of the makeshift grave.
‘What shall we do with the soil that’s left over?’ asked Arlette. ‘We need to move it.’
‘It needs distributing. Spread it everywhere. Like this.’
Grandma Blaise dug a spade into the remaining earth and walked to the back of the vegetable plot. She scattered it evenly. Arlette joined her until the pile eventually disappeared. Standing back, she held the lamp at shoulder height to view where they’d been. Small drifts of snow were already banking against one side of the kale stems, slowly hiding any evidence of disturbed earth.
‘We have some cleaning to do now and we need to get our story straight,' said Grandma Blaise. 'Neither of us have seen the Kommandant in several days, do you understand?’