Past and present

Most of my writing thus far could be labelled ‘Historical Fantasy’, I would say. I have had lots of fun and inspiration from visiting the settings of my stories and looking around.  I try to get a sense of how that place came to be that way- the story before mine, how the geography evolved, the way it might have been governed – as much physical, political and social background as I can imagine.

But until relatively recently, I couldn’t really deal with the people. I’d go early morning or wait to catch shots without people in them . I avoided them a bit if I’m honest – be a bit shy or perhaps wary.

I had some idea that people then were different – different in a way I could only access through period images and accounts. And there’s clearly a great deal of validity in reading contemporary voices, and looking at what they saw – especially for ‘true’ historical writers.

But I take liberties.

I don’t think there were any selkie colonies between Scarborough and Robin Hood’s Bay in the 60s nor a girl who could talk to stone on the south coast of Sussex in Jane Austen’s time. Yet there can be in my head – and through the page – in my readers’ heads.

Understanding this, and accepting that we can only imagine people through what we experience now, has made me much happier to move characters about in time. Years ago as a schoolgirl,  I remember seeing some of Holbein the Younger’s drawings. I’ve never been a fan of the Tudors – but those drawings fascinated me. They were  ‘just like real people in Tudor costumes!’ I recall thinking.

Mary, Lady Guildford, by Hans Holbein the Younger

So now, if I’m in Chichester and I see a huge bloke walking with his legs wide apart to accommodate the movement of his belly like draymen used to roll beer barrels to pub cellars – well, I think ‘you’d fit in well in Selchester’s less reputable streets’. Or I see a girl waiting, shifting her weight from one foot to another, making a pattern on the flagstones like choreography – I wonder if she might anticipate the quadrilles at the Solstice Ball if I slide her back to the winter season 1809.

I reckon it could work the other way too.

Could this woman fit in a contemporary drama?

Perhaps not – but how about this one?

(If you like this pair, there are more here on the Telegraph website – I am indebted to Caroline Lawrence and The History Girls for this)

So what do you think – am I right to mash-up people from different eras – or are people so shaped by the period they live in, it’s just plain wrong?

Rescuing the Heroine

This post has been partly inspired by the excellent Katherine Langrish and her post Fairytale Princesses: tougher than you think. I can only agree: what I  learned from traditional stories was that kindness and effort brought you more success than vanity and pride. So I don’t want to rescue any of those heroines myself – just the term.

That’s why I winced when I read Kate Mosse refer to ” female action heroes.” In fairness it was in a perfectly reasonable piece asking for more active central characters to be female. I am unlikely to disagree with that. (But oh, the irony – if you read the piece via Mail Online there is article after article defining women by their looks down the side bar.)

There needs to be equality. There needs to be a balance of protagonists who are girls or women. Have a look at picture books. Really look at them. The apparently gender neutral use of animals often masks the presumption that the lead is male.

Out of ten picture books reviewed, only two had female leads.

I think the word ‘hero’ does that – assumes male is the only important way to be.

Not books, I know, but in an idle moment at Budapest airport  I took a look at some toddler toys (British by the way). Lovely primary colours, diggers and dumpers tractors and so forth (some of my favourite things). Out of twenty named characters, three were female.

We seem to have end up back at the Smurfette Principle – if something is marketed at boys, or meant to be unisex, girls will have only a token representation. Girls are ghettoised. In pink.

You’re not supposed to create with this stuff.

And don’t get me started on pink Lego.

1981 Why have we gone backwards?

So it really is important that half our central characters are female – with lots of agency. I would also argue it’s important you make sure your secondary and minor characters are balanced too. I’ve found myself putting too many males.

But our heroines should not just be blokes with breasts.

Lara Croft won’t do. She’s just eye-candy for boys.

Katniss Everdeen is better. Though I wish the trilogy hadn’t dwindled to that defeatist ending – this is the Katniss I wanted:

(It gets me every time)

We will always need more Lyra Belacquas, more Jane Eyres, more Pippi Longstockings, more Tiffany Achings – and my colleagues provide some amazing female central characters. Some full of gusto and yet feminine.

A black belt in Arnis – Philipino Stick & Sword fighting

Just don’t call them ‘heroes’.



Rather wince than die

“Will you tell me my fault, frankly as to yourself, for I had rather wince, than die. Men do not call the surgeon to commend the bone, but to set it, Sir.”

Emily Dickinson to mentor Thomas Wentworth Higginson

Drawers of Fortune at the Senso-ji temple in Asakusa, Tokyo, Japan.

I have been thinking a great deal about editing this last week. My story has had its requisite six weeks in a metaphorical drawer and now I am writing with the door open (see Stephen King’s marvellous ‘On Writing‘).

It makes me anxious.

I am fortunate enough to be working with a well-established editor with a great reputation. As a relative beginner, that both helps and worries me. Honesty makes me admit I am shy of letting anyone see what a hash I’ve made on my own. I’m back at school, covering up my misspellings, crossings-out and rubber smudges.

I’ve been advised to focus on what children will respond to most, to plunge the reader straight into a key event, so they know immediately something that I had held back.. This bothers me: I want to shy away from showing my ‘best bit’ too soon, I want to lead up to that ‘ta-daah’ moment. Perhaps I think I can’t follow the reveal, that I will have spent all my dramatic capital.

Also I worry that the reader won’t have had time to get to know Georgiana. Why should they care about her and her strange powers over stone if they haven’t spent time with her to begin with?

In my more dismal moments, I imagine my romping girl morphing into a Lara Croft form, albeit in Regency costume. She becomes a figure in a game-play, dodging over the rooftops of Selchester, whom the reader inhabits but doesn’t engage with.

Would this be such a bad thing? (Jane Austen’s Emma by Strawberry Singh)

But I fret that I could end up with a story with too much action, too much attention to design detail (I do know the City-on-the-Sea awfully well) and too many special effects – and not enough depth. I see it with layers, like those cut-away drawings of what’s beneath your feet – can I convey those layers and keep the narrative drive?

My more sensible side says listen to the industry professional, go with what is suggested and trust you can do it.  You’re most likely to be imagining half of these concerns. And after all, it’s much better to be published and be read than not.

The upshot of all this wibbling* has been to make me think really hard about my non-negotiables. I made myself jot down which aspects of the original draft were essential from memory – to see what sticks. These are the core DNA of Georgiana’s story, but I have to accept that someone else might know better how to bring it out into the world. After all, midwives know more than first-time mothers about birth.

Does anyone care to share their advice with me on this process?

* I am indebted to Jon Mayhew for this delightful word.


Ravens & Writing Desks

I have no good answer to Lewis Carroll’s riddle ‘Why is a raven like a writing desk?’ – but I’ve always thought there must be some connection with trees.

I love trees. I am an unashamed tree-hugger. I have gazed in wonder at giant redwoods and stroked their strange fire-proof bark, stood enchanted by the mysterious Dragon Tree in Tenerife, ridden amongst the cork forests near Tarifa with delight and I hold an undying affection for the poor old Crouch Oak, Addlestone.

The Crouch Oak marked the boundary of Windsor Great Park and is said to date from the 11th Century

And in books – oh so many to treasure. The apple tree that grew immediately in the brand-new Narnia & made that wardrobe, The Whomping Willow, the Mallorns and all the wondrous Ents. I have wept for the fate of the Entwives.

So it’s not surprising that I can be moved by bonsai. A really well-executed one can take me into another world. The bonsai creator tries to mimic the natural beauty of the  yamadori – a tree shaped by its surroundings into a sculpture reflecting its struggle and survival. The ceation of bonsai is, of course, artifice: a simulation of effects that occur organically into a pleasing, portable form.

Like a book.

All writing is like that: reality shaped into a pleasing form, however minute or contorted. We might have to bend the truth to make it fit, snip and constrain to make the very best work – but our readership still responds to something like the yamadori. 

And I think there’s more to this analogy – it lies with the writers themselves. Writers need to put down roots, spread them out into the humus of our culture : we need to read, watch, listen. Some of us may have a tap-root of deep knowledge in one area, others may go in for a mat of widespread understanding – and every convoluted variant in-between.

J. R. R. Tolkien in his natural habitat?

We have to develop a trunk to support us – the heartwood of experience. In bonsai, the most damaged be can be the most resilient and the most prized. I believe that can be true of writers.

And then comes the crown, a canopy of photosynthesising leaves that nurtures us first before providing shelter and pleasure and food for others. Creativity takes the up-coming sap of ideas and dreams and magically turns it into new, beautiful things. How mysterious is that?

This bonsai was being trained when Charles I had his coronation in 1626

That’s my alternative to the much-used journey metaphor: growth. I think we each have to find the right place to thrive. Sometimes that might be barren and constricted – and what makes us fruitful.

It’s all to do with maturity – and that’s a wide-ranging thing. Trees vary – like us. Willows can be at their prime in their twenties, beeches barely begun at sixty and the yew is still adolescent at one hundred. But whatever their life story, trees never stop growing.

Bristlecone pines can be thousands of years old and still growing.

I am much encouraged that the ‘early ancient to senescent, or Veteran Stage’ :

for trees with a strong defense system such as oaks, … may be the longest life stage.

(Tree Care Primer – Christopher Roddick)

I take heart in that. My time for blossoming could be now. I may only get rooks and ravens hanging about in my branches – or be felled to make someone else’s writing desk – but thus far, I’m still growing.

Spring Clean

When I returned from my wonderfully stimulating and exhausting weekend in Frome at the Golden Egg Academy, I started work immediately – on preparing my house for bed-and-breakfast guests. I had a photo-shoot scheduled for Tuesday morning courtesy of Airbnb.

What, you might well ask, has that got to do with writing?

Mug shot courtesy of The Literary Gift Company

More than I thought at first.

One task was clearing out the clutter. Getting shot of the bits and bobs that got in the way so that the potential guests could see what they were getting easily. It needed to be clear and clean and suited to the people who liked that sort of thing.

Of course, it was hard to wang stuff out. I am temperamentally averse to disposal. Ideologically too – though handing stuff over to charity shops soothed those qualms. I had to get over some of my sentimentality and clingishness. I can’t say I have entirely triumphed – there are cupboards upstairs bursting with that-which-might-come-in-useful-one-day.

But I had to steel myself, to try and look at my rooms with a dispassionate eye. The tired and the sad had to go – because they got in the way of what I was trying to do. Likewise, I arranged things to make it look good in the photographs. There’s an element of the stage set here, the use of props to suggest the atmosphere I wish to convey – a little cynical, perhaps.

Some rather ‘placed’ tulips – for March.

You can see the parallel, I suspect.

The crucial, though not the only, learning point of my time at Imogen Cooper’s lovely house was identifying the core of my novel that would appeal to my intended readership. That is what I have to de-clutter. I need to strip away all the extraneous tat – and even the really lovely writing – that doesn’t make it clear, clean and suited to readers who like that sort of thing. I have to chuck out the verbal chintz.

To use an old Yorkshire expression, my novel needs a ‘good bottoming’ – it needs sorting out – or ‘fettling’ from the bottom up. And it’s no good being half-arsed about it (pun intended). I shall have give it a proper seeing-to.

Perhaps an exaggeration?

On with the metaphorical rubber gloves, then.

Chuck chuck chuck chuck chicken…

…lay a little egg for me.

Tomorrow finds me on a train to Frome in Dorset before I attend a Golden Egg Academy workshop on Saturday & Sunday. I’m making a day of it and intend to explore a wee bit. Changes of scenery can often lead to new inspirations – not that I’m short of anything to write about but a little prompt whilst between major works-in-progress keeps the creativity ticking over nicely.

I’ll be sharing accommodation with my pal Claudia Myatt – so an exchange of sea yarns will be going on, I suspect. It will be great fun to meet up with other writers for young people too – if nothing else, I will find that stimulating.

However the biggie is help sorting out the stack of tamboured muslin, talking gargoyles and civic corruption which is Georgiana & the Municipal Moon. I think you’d have to envisage my first draft as a cabin trunk jammed full of grubby little scene oddments, faded images of neo-Regency life, salt-stained maps of Selchester, the City-on-the-Sea, and the odd transcript of curious dialogue. It seems as if it should all fit together somehow – but I need some serious help putting my scrapbook together.

I am both nervous and thrilled to have Imogen Cooper take my story seriously. I want all the help I can get to make it work the best I can. There is a core, like the spine formed early on in an embryo that I can’t or won’t change, but otherwise: whatever it takes to tell the story.

To be continued…

Bolstering my faith

(A much more cheery post than the last.)

I am reflecting on the comments of my book champion (God bless her) who got ‘The Selkies of Scoresby Nab’ onto the Times/Chicken House Children’s Fiction long-list for 2012

How I imagine a book champion might look.

Reasons to be cheerful – what the reader said that validated my writing:

  • well-written and moving – the MA was well worth it, then
  • narrative voice is incredibly strong jump and down with delight – isn’t that what everyone say they want from a writer?
  • a convincing Northern dialectwell, it is pretty much my own 
  • distinctive and attractive sense of place and periodI spent a lot of time there and then imaginatively at least – you won’t quite find Scoresby on a map
  • Mattie undergoes a true journey of self-discovery, finding out not only who and what he is, but also what he is made of. The story has told itself well then – and that’s what makes it ‘moving’. I still can’t read a certain bit without sniffling.

Points to ponder – I’m not sure yet where these will lead me – here are some immediate thoughts:

  • The lyrical, poetic quality of the writing and story may work better for girl readersI am deeply uncomfortable with the idea of gendered books. 
  • With this in mind, it may be worth considering if Mattie could perhaps work better as a girl – although that could have too much of a knock-on effect on other plot points, and the relationships/friendships. She is so right about the consequences of such a change. He has been Mattie Henshaw, complete with name, from the off. I did try doing a girl version at one point – but it felt wrong. Mmmm.
  • Does the period-feel work for a contemporary reader? The current challenges of selling period fiction in the children’s market would need to be considered. Sorry, but that’s not my problem. I can no more write contemporary fiction than fly. Besides, what about the sales of steampunk & gas-lamp fantasy?
  • Is the story and the writing unique enough? Now that’s a biggie.
Final thoughts
  • She usedcharmingtwice – aaargh – I shall have to get grittier!
  • I really love the feel, pace and detail in this manuscript. – I could hug her.
  • The author can really write. Huzzah!
So all-in-all with all those lovely things said, I’m slightly at a loss how 

there might be possible scope for working editorially with the author to make this book the best it can be.

Ah well. I’m always up for developing my skills.

Let’s see what I can do with ‘Georgiana and the Municipal Moon‘ at The Golden Egg Academy 23rd & 24th March, then.


Why I hate Mother’s Day

Yes I know it’s properly called Mothering Sunday in the UK – but that’s not the reason I loathe it.

It’s not the treacly sentimentalism and the cynicism of commerce – a lot of love is expressed through those pink sparkly bits of card and naff bouquets. Many people will share genuine affection in pub chain dining rooms – and I respect that.

It’s the assertion that mother-love is universal, a given, something natural and always to be found.

It’s not.

And when your relationship with your mother is different to this cross-cultural narrative, then the stream of tweets and posts on Facebook and the happy smiling families out to enjoy the day erode the scar tissue over your heart.

The memories of lost mums who were loving are worst. Especially if they are her age. Time is passing – soon there will be no chance to be reconciled, they say. And yet I am helpless. I cannot do anything to change this most fundamental of connections: she will not speak to me.

I’ve tried. Over twenty years I have tried. I do not know what I have done wrong – therefore I can never put it right.

Now people who come from normal families will assume I am partly to blame. Quite possibly I am. But I cannot do anything to heal a relationship with someone who never wants to see me again. You can’t say sorry to a closed door.

I gave up trying on my 50th birthday. I found out she was giving my father grief over it, so out of respect for him and sheer weariness, I stopped..

Just at this time of year stupid, callous hope flares up. I get glimpses of what it would have been like to have a normal mum. I’ve been lucky with both my mother-in-law and my husband’s step-mother. Both loving, ordinary mums – not faultless but kind and affectionate in their own individual ways.

For years, I’ve dreaded this time of year – and inevitably, like catching the inside of your mouth you’ve already bitten, as a teacher my class always did the Mother’s Day Assembly. I know and painfully love the things that normal mums do, that are truly worthy of celebration. I don’t want anyone to cancel Mother’s Day – I just wish it didn’t hurt so much.

There are many things I can thank her for. The love of reading comes first. I was safe when I read. It was an activity she approved of, and a vital means of escape. Then there’s music – a curious mixture: Mozart, Tom Lehrer,  and Hollywood Musicals. I know far too many Rodgers and Hammerstein songs still. Shared enthusiasms for the Russian Revolution, Richard III and St Francis too. There’s Scrabble and crossword puzzles, and all the time spent with various relatives which widened my experience of Yorkshire. My deep, abiding love of the sea comes from all my trips to Scarborough.

I suspect I am still trying to please her, to do well enough that she will be proud of me. I can’t stop my mind’s eye flashing up the image of her coming to  book launch or a prize or something. She never will – she wasn’t exactly known for coming to things even when I was little.

Yet still I have her to thank for being a writer. She won’t read this or even know about it – but still –


My Fountain Overflows

…with apologies to Rebecca West’s many admirers.

I could précis Ali Sparkes’ talk. I took enough notes, for goodness’ sake, but I’d advise you go listen to her yourself. Nothing beats coming up close and personal with a ‘real author’.

Best Boots in Show – Hay on Wye

But I will pick up on a few points. Her story as a writer included ‘a stack of the loveliest rejections’. What mad profession is it that we value the ‘unfortunately...’ responses?  I hope and trust that it is because our driving force is always to write better stories – and that rejections with a hint of encouragement egg us on to try harder.

Ali was nothing if not realistic. Her recount made us well aware how hard she has worked for her success – brain-frazzlingly hard at times.Yet her liveliness and engagement with her work meant this was not off-putting, more reassuring. The same goes when I see my published colleagues’ amazing spread of work.

There were far more of my friends’ books – but I am a rubbish photographer. This is the only vaguely decent snap.

Not only was she rather purple – she was practical. Here are few of the tips I picked up on:

  • self-edit as you go
  • if you’re lucky, you’ll make a living – just
  • hit deadlines
  • do not throw a hissy fit – ever
  • read your work aloud
  • allow plenty of time for marketing
  • consider a professional editor
  • don’t underestimate the time and effort involved in self-publishing
  • fake it !

Not actually from our event – but you get the idea.

Plenty of food for thought – and plenty of food for the tummy too

Now my main purpose in going to this event was to ‘refill my well’. A couple of disappointments had left me feeling less than passionately motivated about my own work. I try to find something inspiring at least once a month to keep me going. Oh, did I get a bumper topping-up at The Fountain.

Not only did I see my  lovely Scoobie chums – but they waxed lyrical about books they had brought to swap. Few things give me more of a boost than the love of readers for books – and the sheer joyous diversity of literature. It helps me believe there could be a curious little corner for my kind of history-with-magical-realism told in a distinctly Northern voice.

What a fascinating list:

  • Things my mother never told me – Blake Morrison
  • Private Peaceful – Michael Morpurgo
  • Trash – Andy Mulligan
  • Paranormalcy – Kiersten White
  • Midnight is a Place – Joan Aiken
  • A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens
  • Double Shadow – Sally Gardner
  • The Knife of Never Letting Go – Patrick Ness
  • Once – Maurice Gleitzman
  • Room – Emma Donoghue
  • Framed! -Frank Cottrelll Boyce
  • The Animals of Farthing Wood – Colin Dann
  • Sky Hawk – Gill Lewis
  • The Girl who fell Beneath Fairyland and led the Revels there – Catherynne M. Valente

So in short I’m full to the brim – thanks Ali, Kathryn, Mariam,  Zella, Denyse, Julie, Penny, Jill, Jane, Jan, Jeanette, and Colin from Hayling Island Bookshop.

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Bubbling up

Tonight, Thursday 7th February 2013, Chi-SCBWI is having its first public event -organised by the lovely Kathryn Evans & Mariam Vossough . I’m really looking forward to it.

I love books.

The theme is the romance of books – originally conceived as a retort to that over-commercialised festival later on this month. Certainly, all the people I know that are attending do love books in whatever form they are presented.

We are holding the event in The Fountain. This old inn dating from 1798 in Chichester’s Southgate has a suitable pedigree for all things literary. There are ghosts – a Roman soldier (to go with the bits of Roman wall inside), and a man and his dog.

I wonder if they will like our bookish chatter?

The inn was once kept by George and Sarah Neal – the grandparents of H.G.Wells (his mother was in service at Uppark not so very far away). In my researches for Georgiana and the Municipal Moon  – the city of Selchester not being entirely unlike Chichester I found The Fountain was originally run by one Lucy Ladkin. Further nosiness led me to discover she lived till at least 83 in retirement at Fishbourne. Glorious.

He looks like a jolly soul.

Who knows what further literary triumphs will spring up from this event?

If nothing else it should be fun, as we are having the lovely Ali Sparkes to talk to us, we are swapping books we love (so tricky to choose!) and eating cake.

Ali with her old biology teacher and a blow-up turtle. As you do.

I may even partake of a little Tanglefoot as the bus is my taxi.

Now there’s a source of inspiration!

There may be to follow…