Friday, 7 October 2016

Hemingway, Research and the Bull Sh*t Detector.

It was Ernest Hemingway who said that writers should develop a built-in bullsh*t detector. Perhaps because he knew that readers have their own BS indicators. They can tell when writers are either winging it or finding convenient ways for protagonists to escape from hardships. For example, your hero wins the lottery which sorts out all his financial problems, or somebody else steps in to give your characters a hand. Readers have to feel satisfied and although they don’t have to believe the story really happened, they do need to believe it could have happened. Planning and research for fiction is paramount; here are a few thoughts on the subject.

1) There's no such thing as too much research. In the military, it's often said that time spent gathering intelligence is seldom wasted. The same concept applies when writing a novel. You never know what little detail will give a scene the ring of authenticity. I've been researching about life in Paris during WW2. Only yesterday I discovered that the glass covers on street lamps were painted blue in order to aid the blackout. Adding these little pieces of information takes a reader deeper into a storyline and the world you're creating.

2) All writers are told to write about what they know. (I agree with this to a certain extent, but I do believe imagination is a fantastic tool for any writer.) Experience is often the purest form of research. I've visited Paris several times, so describing buildings, street scenes and French customs makes conveying them in my book, more accurate. Things you’ve done in life can enrich your writing in surprising ways, even if your characters aren’t doing those same things.

3) You can do research on the cheap. If you can’t travel abroad, you can pick up the phone and ask questions. What's the worst that can happen? They hang up. Then you just call somebody else. It's amazing the number of people who are more than happy to answer your questions. You can visit a museums, museums' website or libraries. Develop an eye for small details. These details aren't padding your story, they're enhancing it.

4) You can find anything on the internet. I've watched some wonderful reels of film from the Pathé News archives. These collections of news films and movies are fully digitised and available online. To actually see the invading German army marching down the Avenue des Champs-Élysées as it occupies Paris, makes writing about it, incredibly realistic and richer for the description.

5) You can find information or ideas from anywhere. You’re a writer, so keep something to record your thoughts close by, be it the good old pen and paper, or like I do, use the notes app on your phone. You might get an idea from a news story on television, a song on the radio, or just need to record a thought that occurs to you. I watched a film last night and wrote down a line from the theme song. I liked the words. I thought that perhaps it could be changed to be a book title or perhaps something one of my characters could say. Of course no one wants accusations of plagiarism, so build on an idea or change the wording.

6) You can use your senses. During the war, the citizens of France ate meagre, tasteless rations; as did the rest of Europe. We've all eaten bland cabbage occasionally and I'm sure we could all find a few choice words to describe it! We all know the smell of bonfires and garlic. The sight of blood and devastation. The sound of waves, thunder and gunfire. We've all felt the hug from a loved one and know how it feels to miss someone. As you write a scene, include your character's senses and you'll add more depth to your scene and make your writing sound more authentic.

7) Avoid information dumps. As my grandmother used to say, 'Don't over-egg the pudding.' As vital as research is, you’ll find more material than you need and no reader wants a history lesson. In my own writing, I could bore you to death with the details of aircraft, weapons, German uniforms, curfews, ways of sabotaging German vehicles and methods of Gestapo torture. Sometimes less is more. Let the reader use some of their imagination after you've given a taste of what's happening.

I started my blog post with a literary quote so I’ll end it with another. Ezra Pound, the American poet and critic (and Hemingway's friend) said that literature is 'news that stays news'. He believed that a novelist has almost the same obligation for accuracy as a news writer. Writers' fictional worlds must ring true. Even fantasy writers can't completely escape reality; the old Star Trek episodes sometimes referred to real science, which made them more believable within their context. Though we invent stories that didn’t really happen, we must drape them over a framework of real-life facts.

Friday, 27 May 2016

Me Before You by Jojo Moyes

Everyone is talking about the book and the film is about to be released with huge media attention. If you haven't read the book yet, here is my review of Jojo Moyes' latest bestseller. This post doesn't contain any spoilers.

Me Before You is a story about Louisa Clark, a bright young woman who is growing bored of her fitness-obsessed boyfriend and is fed up when the café in which she's worked for years, closes down. Reluctantly she accepts a temporary six month post as a carer to a young man who has been left in a quadriplegic state following a road accident two years earlier. It was either that, or work at a local chicken factory!

Will Traynor used to have an exciting well paid job, buying and selling businesses. He’s travelled the world, skiing, parachuting, diving and climbing. In the blink of an eye, his life was turned up-side down one morning as he crossed the road to hail a taxi. Will is bitter and angry, especially when his glamorous girlfriend moves on and dates a mutual friend of theirs. His family are at the end of their tether and shortly after Louisa is taken on as his carer, she hatches a desperate plan to try to convince Will that his life is worth living.

This storyline may sound a bit grim and depressing - I thought the same when I read the blurb, but I’m so pleased I overlooked my initial misgivings. Jojo Moyes writes with sensitivity and humour. She tackles the subject of quadriplegia and the rights of disabled people with great perception and compassion. The descriptions of Will's day to day existence which involves relying on others for almost every aspect of his personal care, was written with warmth and understanding.

Jojo Moyes has written a novel which has left me emotionally exhausted, inspired and incredibly impressed. Me Before You gripped me like a spiny teasel clings to clothing. I resented being drawn away from the story by household chores and the necessity of sleep and work. I frowned at the dogs as I sensed the hues outside the window become darker because a dog walk would tear me from Will and Lou. It took three days to finish Me Before You due to daily commitments, but even at work or trudging around the village green, with my spaniels, the story never left my thoughts. I found myself grinning inanely at a page one minute and wiping tears from my cheeks the next. It was an emotional, uplifting, life-affirming read. I became emotionally involved with the characters and in the storyline.

Jojo Moyes has written a book which will stay with me for a long time.

Tuesday, 10 May 2016

The London Book Fair 2016 And Meeting An Agent

Every New Year I start counting down the weeks until I visit The London Book Fair in the Spring and this year I spent two days at the fair's 45th anniversary event. Although Olympia is more difficult to get to than Earl's Court (where the fair used to be held), its natural lighting and a balcony view of events and stands, make it an altogether more pleasant internal space. There's always a huge amount to be discovered at the fair. There were companies that could convert your book to digital, seminars that showed different approaches to marketing and the exciting thing is, you just might have a chance meeting that could lead to future success. Publishing professionals from around the world meet each year, to learn, network and do business. The London Book Fair is the leading global marketplace for rights negotiation and the sale and distribution of content across print, audio, TV, film and digital channels. The fair is a unique opportunity to explore, understand and capitalise on the innovations shaping the publishing world of the future.

On Tuesday 12th April I saw some of the industry’s leading names, including acclaimed British novelist, screenwriter, director and actor, Julian Fellowes and Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, John Whittingdale. Jeffrey Archer was also spotted in the English PEN Literary Salon where he shared his thoughts on all things publishing.

Tuesday’s Author of the Day was Marian Keyes. Marian is one of the most successful Irish novelists of all time. Storming into print in 1995 with Watermelon, Marian created a genre that she has dominated and redefined ever since. What a lovely lady with a delicious sense of humour.

Wednesday was a Shakespearian experience which was apt as it was the eve of the four hundred year anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. There was a full line-up of inspired readings, talks and appearances about and written by the Bard of Avon. The London Book Fair 2016 welcomed renowned writers to the stage in his honor. I listened to Tracy Chevalier at the English PEN Literary Salon, where she told a packed audience about her upcoming Hogarth Shakespeare project.

Wednesday’s Fair was also visited by prolific cookery book authors, Si and Dave. (Maybe you know them as the Hairy Bikers.) They visited their publisher Orion, at the Hachette stand.

It's easy to meet fellow writers in the cafes and become engrossed in conversation, swapping notes and simply enjoying the company of other writers who'd come to explore. This year a handful of writers had been given the chance to secure a one-to-one chat with a literary agent by submitting a chapter and synopsis, weeks before The London Book Fair started. I was delighted to have my work chosen and I was emailed by Midas PR and given a time to meet the agent. I met another lady who had also been selected to speak with a different agent, and I was delighted to have a chat with her and ease our nerves before our meetings. Sadly it wasn’t a pitch with an agent, but I had an interesting talk in the Author HQ theatre with Ed Victor Limited’s, Charlie Brotherstone. We discussed Vichy France, the continued popularity of war novels and the publishing industry in general. I did wonder why we'd been asked to submit sample work, but I imagine it’s because they wanted agents to meet with writers who were serious about their craft and had written complete novels.

Now it's back to work by continuing to write my fourth novel. I have until the end of August to send my manuscript to the Romantic Novelists' Association's New Writers' Scheme, so I'd better get writing...

Thursday, 25 February 2016

Bromley House Library

'If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.'
Marcus Tullus Cicero (106-43 BC)

I've lived in Nottingham for most of my life. I thought I knew every park, every bookshop, every corner and every alleyway. So it was with astonishment and delight that I was introduced to Bromley House Library. Hidden away between two uninspiring shops, stood the large wooden door to Bromley House, a Grade 2 listed town house, built in 1752.

As I climbed the stone stairs I wondered how many thousands of people had walked up this stairwell, each searching for escape into another world through the port hole of a book. I reached the library's door and what a treasure trove lay behind it. Rooms full of Georgian features, shelves groaning under the weight of books old and new, a reading room with armchairs ready to cushion weary thighs, an old spiral staircase leading to a gallery of more delicious bookshelves, a meridian line sparkling gold on the floor in the midday sun and outside - an original walled garden.

Bromley House had an amazing atmosphere too; a sense of history, knowledge, friendships past and present, sanctuary, contemplation and peace. I took a few photographs so I can share with you all, this remarkable building.

The reading room full of books, oil paintings and comfortable furniture in which to relax and read, and a large table for studying at.

Oil paintings, a grandfather clock and a very old ornate wrought iron spiral staircase leading to a gallery and further rooms.

An operational meridian line which runs through one of the reading rooms.

The library has been operating continuously since 1816. It has a collection of 40,000 books with new acquisitions each month.

The library is a rich resource for research, whether you want to study history or just read a contemporary novel or non-fiction book.

There's also a room available for making refreshments where a variety of newspapers are available to read. Bromley House is also a venue for talks, book launches and exhibitions. It was here that the first photographic studio in Nottingham operated from 1841.

If you'd like to find out more about the library or arrange a visit, you'll find more information here.

Thursday, 18 February 2016

It's All About The Story at Choc Lit

I've been known to hang around Choc Lit's hot-pink stand at the London Book Fair in the past, trying hard not to look like a crazed fan. What I love about their submission process, is that submitted manuscripts are read by genuine readers and they only publish books their readers want to see in print. What better recommendation is there than that?

Choc Lit was established in 2009 and I've seen them grown into a highly respected independent publisher of quality women’s romantic fiction. They've won eleven awards, including the 2012 and 2013 Publisher of the Year and the 2012 Romantic Novel of the Year. Their books are available as ebooks and paperbacks and are distributed world-wide.

Last Monday I was sitting in bed at the end of a busy day, scrolling through my twitter notifications. I was confused to see lots of tweets congratulating me along with several other writers. After a little investigating, I discovered that I'd been shortlisted for Choc Lit's Search for a Star competition. Who'd have thought it? I shrieked for my husband to come out of the bathroom. My brave hero came out clutching a fist of scrunched up tissue thinking I'd seen a spider, because I tend to shriek when I see one. Who doesn't? Okay, lots of people, but I do.
I've been thrilled to bits all week and if I was more agile, I'd jump from the kitchen table and click my heels together.

My writing story began eight years ago when my three children became more independent and I discovered that I had more time to devote to my passion of storytelling. I soon realised that an imagination wasn't quite enough. I needed to learn the craft of novel writing.
I joined Nottingham Writers' Studio and an off-shoot fiction group attached to the studio. Here a small group of writers critique each other's work every month. I know my writing and my editing has benefitted hugely from these meetings. Slowly my first novel began to develop. I would urge new writers to join a group in their area. As well as a great social scene with like-minded people, there's also so much to learn from speakers and workshops. I also took the opportunity of attending writing masterclasses in Nottingham, London and at local libraries. I read constantly, entered competitions, visited both local and London book fairs and began this blog. However, nothing beats shutting myself in my writing room in the garden (a present for a special anniversary from my husband) and having imaginary conversations with my characters. It's a sanctuary of peace and quiet.

My writing room.

My writing gradually improved over the years and to my delight and surprise, I began to win local competitions. I joined the Romantic Novelists' Association's New Writers' Scheme and had my manuscript professionally critiqued. With revisions made, I entered another competition, this time a national one where writers were asked to submit the first chapter of an unpublished novel. To coin a phrase, you could have knocked me down with a feather when I discovered I'd won with the first chapter of Lies and Linguine, my first novel. Since then I've written another contemporary novel set in London and also one telling the story of a farmer's daughter living in a small village in France, during World War 2. (Of course there is a love interest threaded throughout the story despite the subject matter.) At the moment I'm writing my fourth book, also during in World War 2 but this time in occupied Paris.

In November 2015 my third book, All Is Fair, was shortlisted for the Love Stories 2015 New Talent Award held in London, by the Festival Of Romance. I didn't win, but wow, what a wonderful day out I had at Jewell, Piccadilly, with prosecco flowing and cup cakes laid out on the tables. I met several authors I'd spoken to on twitter and what a lovely bunch of ladies they were.

There's no doubt that rejections are hard to take and like many writers, I sometimes wonder if I'm good enough. Doubt has a habit of creeping up unexpectedly before I remind myself that I love the actual process of writing books. Whether or not I'm ever published, I know I'll continue telling stories because it's my favourite thing in the world to do.

A speaker once said at Earl's Court, that every writer must take a turn in the cold shower of rejection. I'd like to thank all the team at Choc Lit and their readers for turning the thermostat up a notch for me.

Sunday, 10 January 2016

My Latest Chapter

It's may be against her will, but a sudden realisation that she's a collaborator, shocks Matilde. Things are going to change...

Matilde was late for work. She hurried along garden pathways of the Tuileries’ having lingered in Xavier’s arms a little too long before rising. As she approached the museum, she noticed yet more red and black flags adorning the building. They snapped and flicked in the wind, their cords rattling against their flagstaffs. It seemed to her that the number of banners in the city had doubled as the population diminished. It was as if the Germans were replacing each fleeing French citizen with a swastika. The Parisians that remained were forbidden to use public spaces; the same parks and squares where they had grown up. Matilde felt that the Germans had multiplied the oppressive effect of being occupied. Buildings had grown tyrannical, days longer and the Seine, blacker.
It was Monday and the beginning of her fifth week. Matilde’s shoes click-clacked along the museum’s corridors, yellowed with subdued lighting, before setting about her morning routine in her windowless office. At least she didn’t have to sit with Gertrude. Small blessings. She turned on an electric heater and heard it begin to click as the elements heated up. She knew from experience that it would be half an hour before the room was warm enough to remove her coat.
Matilde laid out a suede mat for examining each piece of jewelry, removed the cover of her typewriter and polished her magnifying glass. She breathed on the glass and rubbed it against the hem of her skirt. Just as she was about to leave and collect another box to be sifted through, Kommandant Beitel and another man walked into her office. She hadn’t seen the Kommandant since their first meeting and she silently berated herself for blushing in surprise.
He looked at her, his features showing no emotion. His back was straight and his chin was raised. ‘Good morning, Madame Guillon. I trust you are well?’
Matilde laid the magnifying glass on her desk. ‘Very well, thank you, Herr Beitel.’
The Kommandant gave a quick nod. ‘The amount of valuables we’ve received has risen significantly. This is Officer Meyer. He’s been assigned to assist you.’
She looked at the taller man at the Kommandant’s side and smiled in simple reflex. Immediately she felt ashamed. In that instant of introduction, she had been transported back to her life before war, where manners and smiles were commonplace. She had dropped her guard; lost her concentration. Officer Meyer didn’t return her smile. His hair was fair and pushed to one side at the front, like the wing of a gull. He was young, but an ageing v-shaped frown sat between his blue-grey eyes. He wore a look of resignation about him, as if working alongside her wasn’t his idea of a substantial enough contribution for the German war effort. She blinked when he suddenly bowed his head and brought his heels together. Something jangled in the worn leather bag he was holding.
‘I have a busy morning, so I will leave Officer Meyer to show you where you will both be working for the time being. Good morning, Madame Guillon.’
Matilde watched the Kommandant leave her office. His footsteps receded down the corridor, leaving an uncomfortable silence hanging in the air.
‘Well…’ began Matilde, trying to make an effort at polite conversation. Ingrained good manners were a difficult habit to break.
Officer Meyer interrupted her. ‘This way.’ He turned and left the room.
She hurried to catch up with him as he marched down the corridor in the opposite direction to the Kommandant. On reaching a staircase, he shoved the leather bag beneath his arm and took a crumpled packet of cigarettes out of his pocket, removed one and lit it. Matilde followed him downstairs. Her body was turned slightly to one side because her restrictive brown pencil skirt was making movement difficult on the steps. She held on to the handrail, sliding her fingers down the smooth wood and praying he wouldn’t look back at her because the hem of her tight skirt was riding above her knees as she descended. She inhaled the bitter smoke left in the officer’s wake. Three floors below, he paused and waited for her to catch up. She saw him pinch a speck of tobacco from his tongue with his thumb and forefinger before sucking once more on his cigarette’s diminishing length.
Despite working at the museum for over a month, Matilde still felt out of her depth. It wasn’t that she couldn’t organize an inventory, but surely she was expected to understand what she was recording. Apart from the obvious red rubies and blue sapphires, she couldn’t recognize one cut stone from another. Her mornings were spent sifting through jewelry: rings, bracelets, necklaces, earrings and watches. She made use of a measuring gauge, a Zeiss Ikon camera and a book filled with photographs of gems and precious stones for ease of identification. Inevitably she would come across a stone she couldn’t find pictured on any page. These pieces were placed inside a velveteen bag that was collected daily; she had no idea where they were destined. Presumably to be examined by a more qualified eye. It didn’t stop her puzzling over where they’d come from, especially when she prized open lockets with a fingernail to reveal sepia photographs of family members. Perhaps their owners had sold them in order to feed their families.
Every afternoon she would type up the inventory that she had scribbled on sheets of paper and at the end of each day, Gertrude Loup would collect these typed lists. Occasionally Matilde would make her wait in front of her desk, as she herself had been made to wait on her first day. It amused her to see Gertrude’s jaw tighten with annoyance, her lips pursing and stretching as if she was sucking sherbet.
At the bottom of the staircase, two guards opened double doors and stood to attention, arms extended and palms straight. ‘Heil Hitler.’ They spoke in unison. Officer Meyer responded. She prayed that she wouldn’t be spending too much time with this ill-disposed German. He marched ahead, lithe and square-shouldered. His uniform fit him well and was pressed sharply, with just a frown of wrinkles puckered behind the knees of his trousers, disclosing the fact that he’d been sitting earlier.
They walked along a corridor lined with empty display cases and shelves covered in layers of dust. The walls were studded with oblong smudges of accumulated grime; ghosts of missing paintings. Eventually the passage widened into a foyer where more armed soldiers stood at intervals around the tiled space. Officer Meyer walked towards a solid mahogany desk, behind which sat a double-chinned soldier lost in his own cloud of tobacco smoke. The walrus of a soldier coughed and the two men exchanged a few sentences in German.
Officer Meyer turned and beckoned to her. She followed him to a wide, metal door. Two armed men moved aside as he removed the bag from beneath his arm and retrieved a ring of keys from inside. He inserted one in the keyhole and turned it. There was a loud click. He pushed open the door and walked inside, turning to look at her by way of asking her to follow. She stepped through the doorway. An aroma of beeswax, old books and damp material hung in the air as her eyes slowly adjusted to the dim light. Officer Meyer’s footsteps echoed with each stride, leading her to believe that this was a large room, but when he pressed several switches and light flooded the space, Matilde caught her breath. The room was vast. It was even bigger than Monsieur Lombard’s main saleroom at the auction house. It was two stories high and as wide the Vue du Jardin where she lived. Makeshift shelving and storage racks had been erected in long rows, each one laden with objects.
‘What is this place?’ she asked.
The German spread his arms wide. ‘This is one of many storage facilities ordered by the Führer.’
‘One of many?’ She took a few steps further, stopping at an ornate table with barley twist legs. A huge swastika flag had been draped over its surface, but much of its colour was hidden beneath a pile of glistening valuables: gold fountain pens, silver cutlery, goblets, watches, picture frames, candlesticks and oddly, spectacles. She turned to the German. ‘Where has all this come from?’
He gave her a look that she couldn’t decipher.
‘Your job is to log everything, not ask questions.’
‘Everything? All of it?’
‘Are we keeping you from something more important, Madame Guillon?’
Matilde picked at a cuticle with a fingernail and shook her head. ‘Of course not. I just didn’t imagine the scale of the job.’
He began walking towards one side of the room. ‘This way.’
Matilde hugged her arms against the chill and followed him. She could hear grit scrape beneath his soles. He stopped in front of different sized boxes, each draped with thick sacking. He pulled a length of hessian away with a flourish, as if wielding a bullfighter’s cloak. They weren’t boxes. They were paintings stacked against each other. Some had ornate frames of polished wood or feathered with gold leaf. Others were frameless, paint exposed on naked canvas.
Wherever would she begin?

Later that day, Matilde had been ordered to leave work early due to a last minute visit by a high-ranking member of the Gestapo. She supposed they didn’t want the possibility of a Parisian eavesdropping on their secret plans; and that was fine by her. She’d much rather escape the claustrophobic atmosphere of the museum’s basement and the hostile eyes of Herr Meyer.
Outside the sky was the colour of watered-down milk and a breeze carried scents of woodsmoke and rotting leaves. Before the war Matilde had loved autumn with its glow of streetlights reflecting on rain-drenched boulevards and the promise of Christmas; but now Paris appeared insipid and dirty. Windows wore a coat of neglect and paintwork was dulled with grime. Even the railings of the Tuileries reminded her of ribs instead of ornate metalwork. Perhaps this time next year the war would be over. Maybe festive lights would illuminate the avenues with colour once again.
Matilde wrapped her coat tightly around her body and hurried home with thoughts of Xavier and hot onion soup cheering her mood. But as she approached the entrance to the Vue du Jardin, she slowed her pace. Across the road, saw a French gendarme salute a German officer with submissive servility. Stiff and mechanical - already infused with German traits. It hadn’t taken that Frenchman long to surrender. With her next breath, a creeping realization made her stop and clutch a railing. Who was she to condemn this French policeman? Didn’t she work for the Germans? She was as bad as him. Yes, it was against her will, but she was still collaborating. France must fight back. She would fight back. If everyone relied on each other to retaliate, nothing would change. France would willingly succumb to the enemy, one person at a time. She vowed to support Xavier more actively from now on.
A shout. Her head shot up. Sharp, guttural commands were being barked nearby. The sound of an engine grew louder. She pressed her back against the railings. A truck sped past and braked sharply outside the entrance door to the building where she lived. Raised voices echoed inside the doorway. Matilde’s breath came in gasps and she could feel her heart thumping as she pressed her knuckles to her lips. The French policeman and the German officer ran across the road towards the noise. So, their meeting hadn’t been a coincidence; they were working alongside each other. She stayed where she was, partly hidden behind a large evergreen shrub and skeletal branches of an arched tree that hung over the metal fencing. What was happening inside the Vue du Jardin? Had someone run inside the building to hide and had been discovered?
She watched wide-eyed as several Germans scuffled with a man. They’d found who they were looking for. The man was hunched forwards. He stumbled despite being grasped by uniformed men. They dragged him to his feet. Blood covered his shirt. The French policeman opened the back door to the truck. Traitor! The prisoner gave one final attempt to retaliate and as he did so, he raised his head.