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?’

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

My Own Little Writing Retreat in Cornwall

Day 1. Easter Sunday

What a beautiful sunny day. Sunglasses a must and no need for a coat on Harlyn Bay. Brook and Harlyn love this beach – we named Harlyn after it thirteen years ago. She’s an old lady now but you wouldn't know it watching her running on the sand. Look at her smiling in this photograph!

Back to the rental cottage for a day of writing. Only 1,500 words written because I was reading through my research and plotting my next chapter. I’m writing a dual narrative called Tomorrow's Not Promised. My first protagonist is Matilde Pascal, a French woman who works at the Jeu de Paume museum in the Tuileries, in Paris during WW2. My other main character is Corporal Hans Engel, a German soldier who has been assigned to work alongside Matilde.

Day 2.

Sunshine and bare blue skies. I’ve made friends with two donkeys in the adjacent field and enjoyed a cream tea in the garden.

I read through yesterday’s writing and edited a little. I like to know my chapters are acceptable before continuing with the next chapter. (I’ll be doing two or three edits of the whole book at a later date.) 2,500 words completed today with Matilde making an unexpected decision and Reichsmarshall Hermann Göring arriving at the museum.

Day 3.

Is it really the middle of April? Where are the April’s showers and cool winds? This weather is amazing, just look at the blue sky! My hairy daughters and I are loving being here.

I had lunch in Padstow at the amazing Burgers and Fish and noticed that a bookshop had opened in town. Everyone knows I'd rather spend an hour in a bookshop than a clothes shop so I bought a book - A Country Road, A Tree. I’ve been reading as well as writing this afternoon. 2,300 words written.

Day 4.

I explored a new beach called Hawkers’ Cove. How have I been visiting this part of Cornwall for twenty years and never discovered it? It’s a beautiful small bay between Harlyn and Padstow. I collected some stones for painting when I get back home. Here are two I’ve done, but as you can see, I need practice to make the lavender feel less rigid. (See my blog about our lavender field at I visited a wonderful farm shop on the way back from Hawkers' Cove and bought too much! If you're ever down in the south-west, it's well worth a visit. Even the hens wander in from the yard - look!

The hens are shopping - wonder if they're looking for eggs?

Almost 3,000 words written today and lots of research about Jewish art galleries being raided by the Nazis. I also made notes about the catacombs beneath Paris. (There are hundreds of miles of them with thousands of bodies buried down there.)

Day 5.

My daughter, her fiancé and my 3 year old twin granddaughters are visiting Harlyn next week, so I bought 5 x 2 gifts and buried them on Harlyn Bay, took photographs and made a map of where to find them. The treasure hunt is ready – I only hope they’re not discovered by other little fingers first!

2,800 words written this afternoon. Matilde has been evicted which came as a surprise to me! She’s now working for the Resistance as well as the Jeu de Paume museum, which is full of the enemy. I know what’s going to happen a few chapters on, but I can’t warn her!

Day 6.

The sun is still shining and my coat is still being left behind at the cottage! I took a long walk on the beach with Harlyn and Brook followed by a wander round Padstow. The buried treasure looks untouched, but it is very well hidden!

Padstow harbour

3,000 words written this afternoon helped along by Turkish delight bought this morning. It's my last day as I'm travelling home tomorrow after another morning dog walk.

Here's an excerpt from the opening chapter of Tomorrow's Not Promised. It sets the scene at the beginning of my book, but a huge amount has happened since then and where I am now, writing Chapter 17. (I know it's not set out correctly, but blogger won't enable me to indent etc.)

June 1940

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 edged 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.

Monday, 27 March 2017

Writing East Midlands Conference 2017

A bare blue sky, a carpet of daffodils and bright sunshine greeted visitors to this year's WEM conference. It took place in the beautiful Portland Building in Nottingham University's campus on Saturday 25th March 2017. Writing East Midlands is a charitable, not-for-profit organisation that promotes and supports writing and reading both locally and further afield. It runs programmes that help to improve writers' work, brings the writing community together, improves their skills and provides opportunities for professional writers to be paid for their work. This one-day conference gave local writers access to leading professionals from the industry. There were fifteen events, debates, workshops and seminars that ranged from The Role of the Writer in Times of Change, A Hero's Journey, Pitching to an Agent, Writing the Personal and many more. Later in this post I've written in more detail about the classes I attended.

The conference was hosted by journalist and East Midlands Today broadcaster, Geeta Pendse. She gave a warm welcome talk and introduced the lovely Alison Moore who was the keynote speaker of the day.
Geeta Pendse

Alison Moore's first novel, The Lighthouse, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Awards (New Writer of the Year), winning the McKitterick Prize. Alison gave a warm and personal talk about her road to success which included rejections and insecurities before entering competitions and slowly climbing the ladder of achievement.
Alison Moore

The first slot I attended was Writing for the Commercial Romance Market. The panel included, writer Judith Allnatt, who I've met several times before, Caroline Bell Foster and Tracy Bloom. Tracy defined romantic fiction as two people who love each other but there are barriers. She also said that there didn't have to be a happy ending which bought gasps of horror from the audience! She gave examples of successful romantic novels such as One Day and Me Before You that didn't include happy endings. We were asked to consider if our protagonist had earned her/his happy ending. Characters should evolve but be real, like Bridget Jones. Your reader wants to feel as if they are friends with your protagonist, making them care how your character's story unfolds.

Now to the important bit of a romantic novel - the hero! Caroline said that we should make our hero into someone we would be attracted to. I'm sure we all do this anyway, as it makes writing about him/her so much easier. We want to fall in love with our heroes and unlike the real world, we want thousands of other people to fall in love with them too!

A good tip was to write about what we'd like to read. It was also suggested that a protagonist should write a letter to the author in her/his own 'voice,' saying what they want, their likes and dislikes, their fears etc. From this letter, your main character's personality should arise.
Tracy Bloom, Caroline Bell Foster, Judith Allnatt

The second slot was entitled, The Role of the Writer in Times of Change. The panel were Nikesh Shukla, Kerry Young, Femi Oyebode and Henderson Mullin. Femi spoke about emotional truth and words being everything. Kerry said she didn't believe that writers had a role, but that we should write about what we care about: our passions, our values and messages we want to convey. She believes that writers do have a responsibility though. We should educate, amuse, challenge, entertain, encourage questions etc. Kerry gave an example about how times change and writers must change with them. The Archers began as a farmers' educational programme following rationing during wartime. It's evolved over time to become something very different.

Decades ago, Lady Chatterley's Lover was in court.

Today, Fifty Shades of Grey is in Asda!

Nikesh believes that the role of a writer is to answer questions that trouble people. We are social commentators. (I like that idea) He gave a passionate talk about the danger of accepting the single story. A story will be different seen by different eyes. Writers shouldn't be labelled as gay writers, black writers, Asian writers, white middle-class writers. I agree with him whole-heartedly and believe that we all come under the same banner - storytellers and communicators.

Nikesh Shukla, Kerry Young, Femi Oyebode, Henderson Mullin

Before lunch I spent twenty minutes talking with literary agent, Nelle Andrew from PFD agency, about one of my books. As well as discussing my writing, we included the wider topic of the publishing industry, fictional characters mixing with real world events and first chapter do's and don'ts, (to be included in another blog post).

We all had an hour for a networking lunch so I caught up with writers from Nottingham Writers' Studio, learned more about Mslexia from Debbie Taylor and chatted to the delightful Caroline Bell Foster. It was great to see Five Leaves Bookshop with a table full of diverse and exciting books which made it difficult to buy just one! After a walk in the glorious sunshine to take a few photographs, it was time for the afternoon sessions to begin.

I chose to go to Independent Presses: How Could They Work For You? for the third slot. On the panel were Teika Bellamy, (Mother's Milk Books) Debby Taylor (Mslexia) and Anne Holloway (Big White Shed). Teika shared her story about her independent press and how it benefits writers. She works very closely with her writers and happily dedicates a lot of time to creating a wonderful book with them. Anne explained how she had received very favourable comments and reviews about her writing but found it so difficult to secure traditional publishing. What better way than to create your own press...and that's what she did. I say huge congratulations to both of you.

The common thread that ran throughout the discussion was that the independent publisher generally has more time to dedicate to their writers. They have the freedom to publish diverse, exciting authors, whereas traditional publishers tend to specialise in certain genres. It was reassuring to hear that editors scrutinise work before publishing it, just as traditional publishers would do. They want each book to be the very best it can be. Here comes the caution - don't be tempted to go with vanity publishers. They ask you for money up front and the quality can be quite poor.
Debbie spoke about the diversity of Mslexia Magazine and the wonderful opportunities that can be found between the pages for its 24,000 readers. (Note: Their novel competition is now open!) Debbie has also worked with Françoise Harvey to create a wealth of information about independent publishes called, mslexia, Indie Presses 2016/17. It's a thoroughly researched book containing information on more than 400 independent literary presses in the UK and the Republic of Ireland.

Teika Bellamy, Anne Holloway, Debbie Taylor

Following a coffee break, my final choice of the day was Pitching To An Agent. Alex Davis chaired the panel, who included, Oli Munson, Julia Kingsford, Davinia Andrew-Lynch and Nelle Andrew. Questions were welcomed from the audience and I've included some here.

Question: Must a writer's manuscript be professionally critiqued before submitting to an agent?
Oli: If you have the resources, it's a good idea but if not, don't worry. Ask several people to read it first as a different eye picks up mistakes that have been over looked.

Question: What do you want to receive in a submission?
Oli: Every agent has a different criteria but the norm is a covering letter, a synopsis and three chapters.
Julia: Research your agents. Look at their list of clients and think whether your book will fit. Research which genres each agents request.

Question: What would you like someone to call you as in a covering letter?
*sniggers from the audience*
Nelle: By her name! Although she isn't too impressed when she receives letters beginning with, Dear Neil! Spell it correctly.

Question: How much do you like to get involved with changes in a book?
Oli: He would have a conversation with the writer first. He's aware that he's the editor and not the author. His suggestions don't have to be acted on every time.

Question: After agent representation, how important is public speaking at events?
Davinia: If an author is particularly uncomfortable with public speaking, she would personally find another way around the situation. Public speaking and reading helps to increase your public profile, but no one is forced into doing it.

Question: If a writer enjoys creating work in different genres, can they submit a range of work?
Oli: Submit your strongest work and submit that.
Nelle: Specialise in one particular genre to make it stronger, but enjoy working in as many as you wish.
Julia: If it's good, she'll look at it. She represents someone who writes fiction and non-fiction.

Question: Do you read every manuscript and do you prefer email or hard copies?
Davinia: No and email.
Nelle: No. If you can't write a letter, you can't write a manuscript. Email.
Oli: No, but always the letter. If his taste in fiction is different to the submission, he won't read on. Email.
Julia: She dives in and reads the first page before the covering letter. If it's good, she'll read the letter. Email.

After several more questions, the panel gave a final word on pitching. Here are some bullet points.
* Make it the best it can be.
* No typos.
* Be confident - but not arrogant.
* Have an assured and clear sense of voice.
* Don't be too personal.
* Don't use gimmicks to present your work. *puts clown outfit back in the cupboard*
* Don't use bribery. *puts chocolates back in the cupboard*

A covering letter should show how serious a writer is about writing. How have they developed their writing? What is the essence of their book? Do they have a clarity of vision? Mention some like-minded authors and what books are similar to yours? Who is your market? Why are you different and original?

Julia, Oli, Nelle, Davinia

"There is a certain amount of luck involved. A best seller is not destined to be a best seller. It's about the right people, the right time and the right place."

Nikesh Shukla gave the farewell keynote speech and storyteller, Shonaleigh, shared an extraordinary story that she'd created during the day.


Huge thanks to Writing East Midlands for another wonderfully inspiring conference - and as someone said on the day,


Friday, 24 February 2017

The Art Of A One Sentence Pitch

Yes, there's an art to the one sentence pitch and it's something I don't find easy. Writing a synopsis is difficult but I prefer it to the one-liner. With a synopsis, I can pick the most important developments from each chapter and condense them into one or two pages. (See how easy I made that sound?) But why do writers need a single sentence pitch and how do we encapsulate a whole book into a single sentence?

If a friend, stranger, agent, publisher or nosey neighbour asks you what your book is about, you need to explain clearly while engaging your enquirer and keeping them interested (and awake). We must endeavour to pick out the highlights of our novel so that whoever we're speaking to wants to buy or represent our hard work.

I've discovered that there are three basic elements to a good one sentence pitch.

- The opening conflict
- The obstacle
- The quest

The opening conflict is the hook, the first step that leads to a quest. The obstacle is a situation/s that prevents your protagonist from overcoming their difficulty. It could be a person, an illness, a lack of courage, a lack of money etc. The quest can be a physical or spiritual journey, but it describes how your story and most importantly, your protagonist, develops between the plot's beginning and ending.

The resulting basic pitch is: When OPENING CONFLICT happens to CHARACTER(s), they OVERCOME CONFLICT to COMPLETE QUEST. There are lots different ways of structuring these basic elements, but each should be included. The important thing to remember is that a good one sentence pitch is a description of the plot, not the theme.

The danger of describing the theme in your one sentence pitch, instead of the actual plot, is that it will sound generic. The pitch for Eat Pray Love, is not A recently divorced woman seeks love and happiness. That sounds like many romantic books on our shelves. A more accurate pitch would be, A recently divorced woman flies to Italy for pleasure, India for spirituality, and Bali for balance, but discovers love instead. Because that's what actually happens.

If your final sentence isn't already half a page long by now, try to add some details that will give a sense of the character of your novel; is it humorous, tense, sad, etc. This will help to give your sentence individuality.

There! Easy! *swallows hard and scratches head*

Good luck...and please wish me luck too!

Tuesday, 31 January 2017

A Review of The Tobacconist by Robert Seethaler

I must mention that the delightful front cover of this book is what first attracted me. The white-washed buildings and terracotta rooftops of a hillside town reminded me of a wonderful visit to atmospheric Prague.

Robert Seethaler’s, The Tobacconist, is a coming of age story about seventeen year old Franz Huchel. It’s 1937 in pre-war Austria and Franz leaves his mother on the calm shores of the Attersee for an apprenticeship with a Viennese tobacconist. People are wearing swastikas on their clothing and there are Nazis on the Ringstrasse. However, Franz soon settles into a monotonous routine with the one-legged tobacconist, Otto Trsnyek. Before long, he falls in love with a Bohemian showgirl called Anezka, whose erratic behaviour leaves him excited, exhausted and eventually, heartbroken. Who better to befriend than an ageing professor who’s a regular customer to the shop - Sigmund Freud. As fanciful as this sounds, Robert Seethaler creates an engaging and credible friendship between the two and as a reader, I quickly accepted this incongruous camaraderie. Suffering from homesickness and heartache and in exchange for a couple of good cigars, Franz receives regular, informal therapy sessions from the father of psychoanalysis, even as the Anschluss* is declared and war looms.

If I were to highlight something that didn’t ring true, it would be that Franz appears to be strangely unaware of what’s happening to the Jews under Nazi rule, or at least oddly detached from it. He is made to read newspapers every day from cover to cover as part of his apprenticeship, so I imagine he would be up to date with all wartime developments.

Otto is arrested and killed by the Gestapo and then Freud and his family leave Vienna and escape the country. Franz is alone and for a while runs the tobacconist by himself. Eventually he perpetrates an act of rebellion against the state, which seems more personal than political. He seems motivated by a sense of injustice at the circumstances of one particular event rather than by disgust at the brutal system that caused it. In my opinion, if you’re looking for an enjoyable book or deeper understanding of the early years of the 20th century, The Tobacconist is a great read.

* The joining of Austria with Nazi Germany.

Sunday, 29 January 2017

The Story Arc.

Every story must have an arc. It rises to a high point and then slopes back down again. This is a must. A story arc has several headings, all of which must be included.

1. Exposition (Setting the scene.)
This is the every day life in which the story is set. Introduce your main character/s. Where are they? What do they want to achieve? What is stopping them from getting what they want?

2. Conflict (The hook that grabs your readers’ attention.)
Something beyond the control of the protagonist (hero/heroine) is the hook that grabs your readers’ attention. Something must make your story arc rise.

The beginning of your novel matters; every page matters, but you only have so long to interest an agent or reader in the first few pages. It doesn’t matter if, later on, the book is filled with gorgeous prose and heart-stopping suspense. Someone browsing in a bookstore or using the ‘look inside’ feature online, is looking for something to make them take your book to the till. If the beginning isn’t strong enough, if it doesn’t grab your reader’s attention, down the book goes, back on the shelf. (Not that it would have made the shelf, because your agent wouldn’t have allowed it to go out to publishing without a gripping beginning.) It pays to think carefully about the beginning, and spend an outsized amount working on it. The beginning doesn’t have to contain fireworks in order to captivate. But it does have to captivate. It might not be clear what the beginning ought to be until the book is nearly finished, so don’t worry about it right away. Get it written, then go back to figure out where it should begin. An agent will read a few paragraphs, and if they’re not ‘hooked,’ they’ll set your manuscript aside and move on to the next submission.

3. Rising Action (The story grows more exciting, frightening or dangerous for your main character.)
The conflict results in a quest – a long, hard search for something. It can be a person, love, an object or peace of mind. It can be anything you choose. Your protagonist must be given a challenge or conflict that they must overcome, and in doing so, they will become a stronger person. They must resolve whatever problem is put in front of them. If Harry Potter asked one of his teachers to wave a magic wand and sort out all his problems, J. K. Rowling would still be living in a bedsit wondering how to pay her next bill! It was a great success because Harry had to fight every inch of the way through exciting adventures. Give your protagonist an adventure.

4. Surprise or Climax
Your main character needs to make a crucial decision - a critical choice. The choice(s) made by your protagonist need to result in the climax. This is the highest peak of drama in your story and when your book should be ‘unputdownable.’ This is often when we find out exactly who a character is, as real personalities are revealed at moments of high stress. This must be a decision made by your protagonist. Whatever path your hero/heroine chooses it cannot be something that happens by chance. This should bring us to the top of the arc because it makes up most of the middle part of the story. Surprise, or the climax of the story doesn’t mean pleasant events. It means placing the biggest obstacle, complication, conflict or trouble in front of your character, and only they can get themselves out of trouble.
To complicate matters, surprises shouldn’t be too random or too predictable. They need to be unexpected, but believable. Readers like to be surprised and think, ‘I should have seen that coming!’

5. Falling Action.
The reversal should be the outcome of the choice that your protagonist made and it should change the status of your characters – especially your protagonist. Your story’s reversal should be probable. Nothing should happen without a reason.
Changes can’t happen without your main character making them happen.
Your story should unfold leaving your readers feeling satisfied and not short-changed.
Remember that your readers must be on your protagonist’s side, so your main character must be likable.

6. Resolution.
The resolution is a return to calm and satisfaction. Your protagonist should be changed in some way through her own actions; wiser, braver, happier or more confident having achieved something. Your reader puts down your book feeling pleased and a little sad that the story has ended.