....welcome to my blog on writing, reading and living in London ......

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Searching for Witches in the 16th century

As part of research for a historical novel, I had the fascinating experience recently of going on a guided tour around Knole House in Kent while it was closed for refurbishments. The reason for the tour was to see some marks allegedly made during the 1500s to ward off witches. The house was to be visited by King James, a paranoid monarch (which Monarchs weren't in those times!) who wrote a book on hunting down witches and was responsible for much of the escalation in the persecution of hundreds of men and women. The day was freezing cold and the whole area, deserted and eerie, extremely atmospheric. The National trust which has preserved the building superbly (though part of it is still lived in by the Sackville family) have been checking electrics and had taken the floorboards up in a room which had been reserved for the King's visit. The mysterious marks like a complex W were placed on a floor board which would have been to the left side of the bed (left being known to be the more sinister direction than the right-hand). It is thought they were scored into the oak beams by the carpenter work in the bedroom that was to be the King's and they have remained hidden all this time. You can see the under floor board marks on the National Trust's website. There were other marks such as circular ones I photographed (see above) in the great hall downstairs carved into a fireplace. Fireplaces were generally reckoned to be weak points where witches could gain access to a dwelling. I also photographed these ones carved into a stone fireplace. The marks were thought to tangle the witches up in the circles and the W's preventing them working their way into the house. Other things that we take for granted today, such as the placing of bay trees either side of a front door were all designed to deter witches. It is difficult for us to understand such paranoia but there was huge persecution of witches during this time, not least by the self appointed witch finder general, Matthew Hopkins in the next century in England. I will shortly visit East Anglia to trace some of his rather hideous footsteps. The BBC programme 'In our time' with Melvin Bragg has a fascinating programme downloadable from iplayer on how the Reformation affected people's views on witches and led to the old magick which was primarily folklore and herbalism being feared and reviled as the times grew ever more uncertain during the period before, during and after the Civil War.

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Accent Press - new anthologies

I feel very guilty at having not blogged in so long. Mainly though this is due to spending time writing, the result being short stories in two new anthologies by Accent Press. The latest anthology from Accent, 'Shiver', is due out early October. It is a collection of terrific, spine chilling Halloween stories. I love Halloween and remember one particularly brilliant party when I was around nine years old. There was the usual apple bobbing, cakes shaped like little ghosts and jellies set with plastic spiders inside. But the best bit was the storytelling. We were at the house of a girl called Camilla Bains (Camilla, if you're out there somewhere do get in touch). Her mum had sat us all in a circle in the dark while she told us the spookiest of stories. The best bit was that she passed around props. So, as she told of the tapping of the dead man's finger at the window we passed between us in the pitch dark, a cold sausage. I remember the clammy digit being thrown up in the air only to land on the head of another terrified kid who probably has nightmares to this day. The dead man's heart was a sopping peeled and squishy peach. At that age, I was both scared out of my wits and enthralled at the story, which is the sort of reaction we all hope to get from the best horror stories. They should be like a car crash - awful but compelling. My story in the Shiver collection, 'Your Number's Up', is a tale of be-careful-what-you-wish for when the unappealing and mean minded Kevin buys a lottery ticket, a series of (as Lemony Snicket would say) unfortunate events ignites his normally dull life in ways he could never have expected. Finally, my move into crime has been sealed with Accent's 'A Case of Crime' which is a collection of short stories of murder and mayhem. 'Goodbye My Darling' is my offering where a woman who thinks she's found the perfect mate learns to her cost that perfection can be hard to find in a marriage partner. I do hope people enjoy these, I'm now going to have a go at a Christmas story which may or may not be dark, dark, dark.......

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

PART TWO of my Recipe For Writing a Serial

Different writers approach the beginning of their work in different ways. I know very few who write to a perfect formula. A good place to start is: what would you do if....? My Woman's Weekly serial, Finders Keepers had centred around a question I'd asked myself a million times. What would I do if.... I found a stash of money, buried. Now, knowing me, I'd be so terrified of the consequences of keeping it, I would give it in just to avoid all the anxiety of benefitting from ill gotten gains. But I wondered what if, a previously upstanding member of the community, my scientist heroine Erica had a very pressing need for some cash at just the time she discovered some buried money. I then worked this through with my heroine, in exactly the way I think I would myself if the same situation arose in real life. My heroine's daughter had been dumped by her husband who had been managing his business badly and not paying their mortgage. That was a good start, but I wanted to heap more pain on my heroine, I wanted to give her motivation to do something totally out of character - that was, to be dishonest. I made her daughter very pregnant (ie near to her time) then I gave her pre-eclampsia so she was rushed into hospital in a terrible state and couldn't do anything about the impending threat to her house. My heroine mother is a total giver, she loves her daughter to bits and always wants to make the world right for her. Given this sort of scenario, I justified her position in eventually stealing the money. But, I had just read Therese Raquin. Zola's fabulous study of guilt is a tale in which two people who commit a crime are practically driven insane by their joint guilt. They are also torn apart by it when their original plan in committing the crime was to allow them to spend their lives together. I was able to play out a little bit of the heavy consequences of guilt in my serial. Thinking of my next one, I'm going to try and throw out a few of the what would you do if....? scenarios to see if anything sparks. This part of the creative process I find incredibly difficult. It's alchemy isn't it? It's creating something out of nothing. So, here goes. What would you do if the one person who had ruined your life by their deception or evil disappeared - and then came back? Maybe they falsely accused your mother or father and as a result your parent, the one person who cared for you was imprisoned or ruined. Hmmm, okay, not a bad start. But it needs ratchetting up. So, what if you were very lowly in life and the person who had done you wrong was very high up the pecking order, pretty much untouchable in fact? Recent cases in the press about rich and famous people who have done bad things to powerless people resonate here. How would you bring them down and get your revenge? Now THIS is looking more like a story. The reason that is the case is that the idea now contains a solid element of conflict and conflict as any author knows is the lifeblood of stories from Romeo and Juliet, to Atonement, to Cinderella, to Sleeping Beauty. Haven't they just made a film about Maleficent the evil fairy, you see, those conflicts run and run. That idea also ticks the odd box from my earlier Recipe post which concentrated on character rather than plot. In this plot idea, the main character is someone who has suffered misfortune through no fault of their own. We already feel sorry for them and we want them to triumph so, already our story has a journey and what are stories, if they are not journeys from a beginning, through conflict to a satisfactory resolution or end? Finally, as ratchetting up helps one build a story, lets tighten the plot a bit by saying that the revenge has to be had within a given timeframe. Maybe our rich/powerful/influential baddie is leaving the country (or the planet if this is a sci fi story) and going away somewhere else where they might be untouchable. Maybe they are ill and dying and our hero/heroine needs to elicit revenge before the baddie dies. Maybe our baddie who is rich and powerful is about to become even more rich and powerful by taking over a company, or becoming Prime Minister/President or .... whatever. Now we have a clear goal (see my earlier Recipe post) and we have a tight time frame so we have built tension into the plot. At last a story is beginning to emerge. I now have an idea of my characters and my plot. I know how the story is going to end. The revenge will be had - it is the three episodes in the middle I haven't worked out, but at least some of the ingredients for my recipe are now obvious and I even have a setting (I fancy ancient Britain as it is an unusual setting and I have done a bit of research). I also have a more specific setting because it is near where I live - the River Thames which has fascinated me for years. The river has been settled since prehistoric times and I recently went mudlarking on the Thames, where history is all around. You can literally pick it up, hold it in your hands and take a piece home. Finally, finally, my serial is taking shape..... It's got a long way yet but I may shortly put pen to paper. Finally, many thanks to my wonderful daughter for taking the snap of me that appears in this article in the latest Writers' Forum. I'm there with fellow serial writers Jennie Bohnet and Wendy Clarke with more tips about the craft of writing serials, and a plug from me for the Woman's Weekly fiction workshops which if you can get there are great fun.

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Recipe for writing a serial

Hi - I am in the process of writing another serial aimed at Women's Weekly. It's been tough conjuring up the essence of what it was which got the last one accepted. As I plan my next one, I thought I'd share the thought processes which worked last time and at the end of this posting I've shown how I applied my thoughts to come up with the serial that WW accepted. For a pantster rather than a plotter, any sort of planning is difficult. However, I have tried to get myself in the mode which I did last time in order to try and wave that magic wand, and apply the same principles to this latest attempt. So, here goes. Hero(s)and heroines I am going to have two possible love interests in this serial and both must contain some or all of the elements which make a hero. I've just watched Gladiator and think Russell Crowe's character Maximus is totally a hero whereas Commodus is an archetypal villain. Don't we love to hate villains! Note to self - there was no villain in my last serial, perhaps one this time would be good. So my hero(s) and my heroine will have some of the following characteristics: People like/respect them. Maximus is shown after an epic battle which has knocked the stuffing out of him, congratulating his troops, spending time with them. Beforehand he was doing the same - he thinks of others before himself. He is loyal to the failing emperor who tells us that Maximus is the son he should have had, he has more virtues than his own flawed flesh and blood. Maximus is modest, he doesn't want the glory of ruling Rome, he just wants to go back to his wife and family. Here is another hero trait, he honours his own, he is faithful and constant. We are shown him repeatedly kissing the little clay models of his family - show don't tell is personified here. Maximus is an expert (this is a fascinating characteristic in a main character) in warfare and fighting, you know with experts that there is certainty. We are fascinated by them, entranced by the abilities they have to understand the world. We are drawn to them. This quality is true even if they are expert criminals, many taless have been told about expert criminals and while they would not make true solid gold heroes, they are compelling. A wounded hero is a sort of gold star hero because we feel sorry for him. Maximus is wounded internally/psychologically by the evil Commodus's actions and of course externally - who could forget the final fight scene where Commodus has stuck a knife in Maximus before they even enter the gladiatorial arena. Here is another trait which makes us care for a leading character - someone who through no fault of their own experiences misfortune. In fact, Maximus has done everything possible to attract good fortune and still, he is beaten down by life. We want him to succeed, he's challenged constantly by life - here is a universal truth with which we can all identify. Finally a main character has to have a goal, clearly defined, and if that goal has a time limit, that ratchets up the suspense element of a story. With Maximus his goal initially is to go home. Then, once his wife and child have been murdered, it is to go home having avenged their killings. Goals can and do change along the way, in Gladiator, his home eventually is Elysium or heaven as that is where his family is and we even see an image of him being welcomed by them. So in summary my hero(s) and my heroine will have at least some of these traits: Be liked/respected by others Be modest Be faithful and constant Be brave (Jennifer Lawrence as Catniss is the personification of the brave heroine - she does NOT let things happen to her, she makes them happen. She's also an expert with her hunting skills) Be an expert Be wounded internally/psychologically and possibly externally ie. bearing the visible memory of a wounding in the form of a scar or limp possibly (I love Jake Gyllenhaal as the hero of the film Prisoners - his twitch, blinking too hard, displays so much inner turmoil!) Have a clear goal, ideally time limited (eg. with the lovely Jake, it is to save the kidnapped girls before the crazy kidnapper murders them) In my serial Finders Keepers, the heroine, Erica is a scientist (there's her expert trait) whose daughter loves and depends upon her (ie. liked and respected by others). She finds a pile of banknotes buried and is tormented by whether to turn them in to the police or use them to help her daughter who is in hospital about to give birth and is in dire financial trouble. Erica takes matters into her own hands (so she is brave) and she acts to help her daughter who at one point says 'you always make things right' (faithful and constant). She has a broken marriage behind her (wounded internally) so she sort of ticks most of those boxes. Her goal is clear - to help her daughter. The hero, Logan Kershaw is very wounded as a soldier invalided out of the army. He doesn't have many friends, but this is okay, he still ticks the hero box as it's not because he's not likeable but because he is withdrawn. Part of his character arc, his changing character throughout the serial is that he gathers friends and a family to him in that he is eventually welcomed into Erica's family and one of the last scenes is of him with her daughter and grandchild. The fact that he befriends Erica and she takes to him is evidence of his ability to fulfil the first of the character traits above - to be liked/respected. He is modest about his bravery in the army and we know he's an expert from his past career. His goal is clear - he wants to stop Erica doing the wrong thing with the money and to catch the bad people who secreted it, before they catch her to get it back. Well, sorry this has been such a long post, but it has really helped me to get my head around what I need to plan in my new serial. If it contributes to anyone else's writing, so much the better! These are not all my ideas, I've rarely had an original idea in my life, but I am indebted to the two books Save the Cat by Blake Snyder and Michael Hauge's 'Writing Screenplays that Sell' - they're the guys with the analytical brains, and the big ideas! Woman's Weekly are still running their fiction courses which I can recommend, just Google them. Happy writing all!!!

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

My Writing Process #2

Many thanks to Christina Hollis for kindly asking me on her blog to take part in the blog hop about 'My Writing Process'. Christina is a very busy and successful author who writes wonderful romance for Harlequin and also tweets @ChristinaBooks. Thanks for this opportunity Christina. So, here goes. What am I working on? A number of things at the moment which I hope will make good summer reads (hence the gratuitous pic of a beach in Varadero Cuba where I will shortly be setting a crime story). I like to work on two or three things at once so that if I get into problems with one thing, I can go on to another. I do that in my reading too, I suppose I have a butterfly mind. At present one of my works in progress is a romantic suspense set in New England (very different from Cuba, that's one of the joys of writing, being able to jet away at a moment's notice, in your imagination of course). How does my work differ from others in the genre? I have chosen a hero who is a search and rescue officer working up in the mountains but who has also been to war zones and disasters such as collapsed buildings. He is everything I would want a hero to be, sensitive, courageous, sometimes bull-headed but always with the right motives. I've fallen for him so I hope my readers will too. The heroine is a total opposite. Office based, a city girl with a very cerebral career. It's always productive putting opposites together and seeing them a) attract and b) deal with all the differences being, well.... different, can lead to. Why do I write what I do? Total and utter escapism. I'd love to go New England but despite many trips to the West Coast, I've never been there.... yet. That's one of the glorious things about writing. You have the ability to visit places you've never been and also the ability to go back and revisit places you love. I often write about places I've been to on holiday such as Italy (the Lemon Grove) and Croatia where I am setting a current serial for People's Friend which will be titled 'The Lavender Field'. How does my writing process work? I'm afraid I'm a messy writer and my desk is testament to that. I leap in, fearlessly, with all the bravado of a total fool. I have an idea, a beginning and an end, I know what my protagonists' conflicts are but not how they will overcome them. Then, starts the magic. As the story unfolds, there come revelations, things I never thought would happen. Then, inevitably come the plot tangles which you get when you don't plan. I have tried planning and it just doesn't work for me. I have to get the first draft down and then undo the knots. In the end I get there though, but blood, sweat, tears and coffee are all involved. It's been great fun chatting about my writing process and reading about others' different ways of writing. I'm now handing the baton on to Kitti Bernetti who writes for Xcite and will blog next week.

Sunday, 4 May 2014

My Main Character Blog Hop

I have been tagged by Kate Blackadder (thank you Kate!) to write about my main character. Here is Kate's take on this challenge, and Rachel Thomas's. What is the name of your main character is she real or fictitious? My main character is a real character whose story I am fictionalising and giving a different twist to. I don't want to give away too much (mainly because I've only written one chapter) and it's taking time to develop but this will be a mystery involving Elizabeth Pepys, wife of the famous diarist. When and where is the story set? It's set in London in the mid 1600's which has been great fun researching (and has involved eating a lot of pies!) What should we know about her? Elizabeth was a fantastic character because we actually know a lot about her and her marital relations with her husband Samuelfrom the diary he kept for ten years. We know that she was educated and kept her own in a male dominated household and was not cowed by her very successful husband who thank goodness, loved her very much even though on occasions they fought like cat and dog. What is the main conflict, what messes up her life? Elizabeth and Samuel desperately wanted children, but, possibly due to their health problems they never had any. This may be one of the reasons Samuel had a roving eye and one of Elizabeth's main tasks was to maintain her position as the woman he really loved. Samuel had a roving eye which was constantly aware of beautiful women at the court of Charles II where he was very highly regarded and was able often to glimpse the King's mistress's such as the beautiful Barbara Villiers. What is Elizabeth's goal? I think Elizabeth wanted to be a good wife, a good sister to her feckless brother Balty and a good mistress to the servants in the household who she tried hard to educate and treat well, although she could be ruthless in demanding their removal particularly if Samuel became too keen on them, as he did with some of the girl servants who he would dally with when he got them to brush his hair at bed time. What is the book's title? Oh, I wish I knew, I often struggle with titles. But one will come to me, when I least expect it...... Now, I'm passing the challenge on to the wonderful Rosie Dean, here's a link to her blog. Rosie writes lovely and very funny romances and has just published 'Vicki's Work of Heart', which tells the tale of Vicki stranded at the altar and left with a pile of debts by her fiance. Her first book, 'Millie's Game Plan', is the story of Millie and her long journey to find Mr Right, here's the blurb. 'Does your life lack fun and love? Does work consume your time? Does your mother try to fix you up with her priest's middle-aged nephew? Millie's does – so she takes a grip on her own future and draws up a plan to find Mr Right.'

Monday, 24 February 2014

Cuba - an adventure

One of the things I always do when I travel is to have in mind how I can turn my visit into a book, a magazine serial or a short story. Cuba where I visited this January is a fascinating place and I've already written the first chapter of a mystery. The country is one of excesses, not the sort of excesses we have in the Western world, for ours are all about having too much. Too much pollution, too much to spend our money on, too much consumerism. Cuba's excesses are quite different. Here is a quick photo trip so you can see what I mean. They are about excessively beautiful beaches (this one at Varadero, just 2 hours drive from Havana)
Of wildlife in its many forms, this frog somehow managed to get up to our second floor balcony in order to bask on our damp washing!
Of people who still use horses and carts for travel and transporting goods on a daily basis
Of the most fabulous hills over which you can ride for hours and hours along sugar cane plantations and acres of hills where you won't spot another person - we rode from 9am until 4pm from our Casa Particular in Trinidad. There was no health and safety check, no helmets or complicated instructions. Just a horse, with a pommel on the saddle to hang on to. The only question our cowboy Miguel (and he was a cowboy with a Stetson and the most wonderful kind manner, helping me on and off) asked, was 'do you have a bottle of water,' and that was it, we were off
But it wasn't all hard slog up those hills for our horses, or our backs and bottoms, as we broke the ride with a swim in a mountain stream under a waterfall
Cuba is also a country which has very few goods, hardly any shops and real deprivation, not least this sad little dog who desperately needed a home
I'm pleased to say, other dogs who live in Havana, in the big city had been taken in by a rescue home which feeds the lucky dogs and treats them for mange etc as well as sterilising them to avoid producing more dogs like you see in the country who live as strays and desperately need to be looked after. All the rescue dogs have labels on them identifying the district where they live. They are clean and flea free and belong to everyone and no one. Unlike this enormous rodent who was kept as a pet. I have no idea what it is, but it had extraordinary coarse fur and was very gentle. Fortunately we didn't see its teeth or we'd probably have been scared off!!
Havana is an amazing city, perched on a magnificent Bay looking towards the US which still has embargoes which cause much of the lack of goods in Cuba. There aren't even plastic bags when you go shopping and there is very little to buy. This photograph courtesy of a friend (thanks Colin!) shows the scene after a train derailment at Matanzas. Even sugar cane is scarce in Cuba which is absurd as they produce tons of it every year. It is however sent off to China to be processed and bought back in but there is still a huge shortage and a shortage of cash with which to buy it. Cuba is a communist country and shortages are something the people live with, being grateful for anything they can get. So, when a load of sugar was spilt on the track after the derailment word went out and immediately people came to sweep it up.
If you go to Cuba please take extra money with you and tip generously. For many people on a peppercorn wage, tips are a lifeline. I gave the lady who manned the loos at Cuba airport, my last 10 CUC note and I hope it made her day. Many people earn less than $15 dollars a month and CUC's which are the currency which foreigners use are particularly useful to the people. Everything is in such short supply that you often see people carrying cardboard boxes to utilise in fixing, for example, the roofs of the little bici taxis, or as here, newspaper used to make paperchains. Nothing is wasted and there is very little rubbish - we could certainly learn a lesson from them in that respect.
Finally we stayed in Havana, a beautiful city with amazing contrasts, buildings like this, which are virtually derelict, where you can see the sky through the roof. Amazingly though, people still live in them. You have to see Cuba to even begin to understand its many contrasts and anachronisms. Here, you might think is a country of many poor people but they seem blissfully happy. They are very close to their families, both geographically and emotionally, not having a huge amount of 'things' means I believe that they invest more time in the important stuff.
There are also, the amazing vintage fifties Oldsmobiles and Chevrolets which we rode along the Malecon. The Malecon is the sea wall where young and old in Havana meet, flirt, chew the fat, kiss and cuddle, go walkabout and enjoy the pleasant Caribbean breeze freshening the city.
But the best thing about Cuba is its wonderful people who are endlessly friendly, good natured, welcoming, happy and kind. So, Cuba is a country of excesses, but not the sort of excesses we know. It can be frustrating, particularly if you have booked a ferry or coach and the thing just doesn't turn up and all you get is a shrug of the shoulders when you ask when on earth it is due to arrive. Nevertheless it is a fascinating, vibrant and friendly place. Do go and see it if you can, preferably before it becomes commercial, like the rest of the world..... And look out for the book, once I've written it, that is!