Monday, May 18, 2015

A Different Point of View



Each time I sit down to begin a new novel, I find myself facing at least one new challenge that scares me; that forces me out of my comfort zone.

I don’t always know what it’s going to be till I get to that place in the manuscript where I think: “[Insert your favourite swear word here], I have to write a whole battle scene/write as a woman with Asperger’s/have someone speaking the Doric.”

In this latest book I’ve started writing, BELLEWETHER, I’ve already hit three such places – but the latest one, because it happened just last week, is freshest in my mind, and seems the kind of thing to get a good discussion going.

I’ve discovered that I’ll have to write at least half of the past scenes from the hero’s point of view.

My first thought was: “[insert your favourite swear word here], I can NOT write the hero’s point of view. I don’t know how to do it!”

Which, once I had calmed myself with coffee, proved to be not wholly true. In fact, my first book, UNDERTOW (long out of print, and rightly so), had alternating points of view between the two main characters, and in my thriller EVERY SECRET THING some of the people who narrate what they remember to my heroine (a journalist) are men.

But I was 25 years old when I wrote UNDERTOW. I really didn’t know what I was doing, and the book was short. And in my thriller those male voices were still filtered somewhat through my heroine’s first-person voice.

So, yeah. This definitely puts me past the boundary of my comfort zone.

So reassure me. Tell me why you think the hero's voice deserves a place in a romantic novel. What do you enjoy (or not) about reading his point of view?

Monday, April 27, 2015

Funny Twists of Fate

Today I’m signing copies of A Cornish Affair for some high school students. Back in March I gave a seminar on point of view. I had a great time and I hope they did too.

One of the students asked me to write down my favourite quote in the book when I signed it. I had to think long and hard about it and then for a completely different reason I went into an old journal. There on the front page - was the opening lines of a poem by Alexander Pope…

True Ease in Writing comes from Art, not Chance,
As those move easiest who have learn'd to dance,

And the words hit me again…but this time I really understood the meaning. Last week A Cornish Stranger came out in paperback and on the 7th of May Under A Cornish Sky comes out in trade paperback and I'm struggling with the research and writing of the next book, The Returning Tide. Back then I dreamt of being a novelist. I had no idea what it really entailed. I was just then learning to dance. Now with four books under my belt I'm still learning - always trying to become better at the old steps while learning new ones. I think I was meant to see this quote today. I needed to be reminded that good fiction, good art, well – good anything takes a lot of practice. I just didn’t know when I  began the journal back on the 11th of July 1984 in Oxford that it would take me quite so long to learn….


We won’t comment on the disturbing purple squiggles and what that says about me or my mind at the time…but I did spent that summer working on my writing and learning a little bit about life.

Monday, April 20, 2015

The Crossdale Church

Pure fiction, but inspired by my Mum, and the Crossthwaite Church.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The Crossdale Church
The black iron hinges in the great old door didn't creak, to Catherine's surprise.  The church door swung open noiselessly, swapping the spring-tasting freshness of the churchyard for cold, musty air.  She stepped inside and closed the door again, waiting for her eyes to adjust to the dimness. 
She was conscious that she didn't want to look, didn't want to be disappointed.  She kept her eyes averted from the nave and the chancel, taking in the backs of old, oak pews, and scattered red rugs on the smooth-worn stone floors, while her stomach curled in nerves and uncertainty.
"Well," she said, "I'm here."
"That's a fact."
The soft voice made her jump.  She saw a smaller door in the opposite wall, through which soft light and a sturdy figure were emerging.  It was an older woman, short and mostly shapeless, with hair cut short and no make up.
"I'm sorry," Catherine said.  "I didn't know someone was here.  I don't mean to interrupt–"
But the other woman did.  "Here to look around?  Just help yourself, chick, don't mind me."  As she gestured, Catherine saw she held a bunch of carnations in one hand, and a pair of secateurs in the other.
Catherine nodded.  "Thank you," she said, and turned to the aisle.
Except now that she was here, for Mum, she didn't really want to do the things Mum would have done.  Didn't want to read through the history leaflet and guide to the church, study the stained-glass, examine the font.  Unsure, she went and sat in one of the pews, looking without seeing.  She breathed deep of the cold air, and this time she realised the mustiness had faded, and she could smell furniture polish and more exotic blooms than the bulbs outside.
It was chilly, but it was calm.
Nothing in the last few weeks had been calm.  Mum's funeral had been a matter of endless letters and phone calls and arrangements, of synthetic carpet and strip lighting and plastic chairs.  And, in spite of it all, the strong, binding thread of a whole community of people who had thought the world of Catherine's Mum, and shared her grief.
But it hadn't been calm.
Her gaze focussed on the big glowing window behind the altar.  A solemn figure in russet and white stood there, staring down.  His eyes seemed to know everything, but communicate nothing.
"Are you alright?"
It was the flower woman, easing down into the pew next to her with a little grunt of effort.  In the quietness of the Crossdale Church, Catherine found she wanted to explain.  "My... my Mum died recently."
"Ah."  The syllable was warm with no-nonsense sympathy, the sort that would hand over a cup of tea and tissues, and refrain from mouthing pointless words.
"There was this... this sort of running joke in the family," Catherine went on, "that each time we came here on holiday – most of our childhood holidays were here, you see – that Mum never got a chance to visit the Crossdale Church."  Catherine gestured at the serene beauty around them, still-life in stone, then clutched her hands in her lap again.  "It was just the sort of thing she loved to do, poking around in old churches.  Even when Dad died, she would still come here, but she never visited the church.  She said once that she liked to leave something undone for next time, so that she'd never done it all, so that there was always something to look forward to."
The woman had turned slightly on the pew, watching her.  Catherine closed her eyes for the moment, swallowing against the tightness in her throat.  "Only.... she never had the chance to... "  She gave up. 
The woman slid her hand over and gripped Catherine's.  It was a broad, short-nailed hand, and Catherine could feel the calluses on the palm and fingers.  The distant chattering of swallows filtered through the windows.
"So I thought I'd come and do it for her," she continued eventually.  "I thought... it would be a... a chance to think, to do something in her memory.  But now I'm not sure.  Was that the right thing to do?  Did Mum mean for it to be a... an eternally uncompleted thing?"
"It's big questions you have, there," the woman said, mildly.  "Bigger, I think, than a church.  And a mother."
Catherine sagged.  "Yes."
The woman took back her hand and settled a little more, folding her arms, tipping her head up as if examining the vaults of the soaring ceiling.  "So what are the real questions, I'm wondering?"
It was St Peter in the window, Catherine realised.  She could see the key in his hand.  "Should we always complete everything?  Are there some things that are better left as... as a potential than a real thing?  Are there things that are best just as they are without being pursued?  Should we leave things undone, or try and get... resolution to everything?"
"Unfinished business."
"Yes."
The woman shrugged.  "Everyone has some.  Don't you?"
Catherine nodded.  "Oh yes.  And I'm almost sure I know what to do about that, but...  What about you?  Do you have unfinished business anywhere?"
She gave Catherine a wry look.  "With sixty and more years in my dish, it would be a wonderful thing if I hadn't.  But yes."
The pause stretched out too long, and Catherine gathered herself, meaning to go.  "Well, thank you for listening to me, I–"
"His name was Michael Maguire."
Catherine said nothing.
"I didn't marry him.  I married the other one, but I knew Michael would have liked fine to be the one.  He was a teacher, in the other valley.  And my husband a farmer in this.  And then my husband died, and the bairn with him."
It was Catherine's turn to reach for the other woman's hand, clutching it tightly.  The woman smiled and patted the back of Catherine's hand with her free one.  "It was a long time ago, chick.  They went swimming.  It was a lovely day.  But then there I was, a widow and a farm to run, all broken inside, and even knowing that Michael was fond of me, even not seeing him, felt like some kind of evil insult. I sent him packing.  Then, a couple of years later, I lifted my head and felt like I saw the horizon for the first time.  But then he'd upped and married.  She was a good girl, and good for him."
"But you wonder... what if?" Catherine prompted.
"Ah, no.  I don't wonder or what-if my life, chick.  But Michael's wife's been dead these five years and I... never re-married.  So his phone number's been burning a hole in my head a while now."
"What are you going to do?"
The woman grimaced.  "Well, how about you tell me what you think.  About unfinished business, your Mum, and the Crossdale Church?"
"I think..." Catherine breathed in the polish and the flowers, the stone and the peaceful centuries.  "I think Mum was crazy.  It's beautiful here, and she missed that.  And if she had crossed the Crossdale Church off her list, there would always be something else beautiful and real and possible around the corner."
"So unfinished business?" prompted the woman.
Catherine spoke with certainty.  "Should be finished or crossed off.  But not left unfinished as some sort of protection against finishing a life.  Life isn't finished when you've done everything or loved everyone or been down every road, because life isn't a competition or an itinerary.  It's a dance."  She turned to face the woman, looking into the pale eyes, seeing an outdoor life stamped on her unashamed skin.  "And sometimes in the dance you separate.  And sometimes you join hands again."
The other woman's lips pursed.  It wasn't quite a smile.  She set her callused hands on her knees.  "Well, I have these flowers to finish."
"May I help?"
"Surely."
Catherine set out arrangements and vases, and they talked.  Not philosophy, not this time.  This time they talked about lily pollen and gladioli, about ultrasound scanning of ewes and over-grazing.  It was a perfect blessing not to be talking about casket wreaths and whether anyone had asked Uncle John to contribute to the eulogy.
"There," the woman said, wiping her hands.  "I'll finish up here.  Get you gone, chick."
Catherine smiled at her.  "I–"
"Shoo," she said, flapping her hands.
"Alright, alright," Catherine said, laughing.  "Thank you."
The woman slipped into the vestry.  There had been merry hell when the vicar insisted on having a phone line put in, but now she picked it up and dialled without hesitation.  "Michael," she said, when he picked up.  "Yes.  It's me."  She looked up at the notice board, unusually lost for words.  A snippet of a quote caught her eye, scrawled in the vicar's left-handed writing on a scrap of pale blue paper, skewered with a scarlet-tipped pin.  It was something of Christina Rossetti's.  Can anything be sadder than work left unfinished? Yes, work never begun.
"Michael?" she said.  "We have unfinished business."
It was warm in the sunshine.  Catherine filled her lungs with the narcissi-scented air and thumbed her phone on, waiting for it to connect to the real world.  She opened her contacts and scrolled through, searching for.... there.  Scott Benton.  Her finger hovered over the entry for a moment, then she smiled.  And pressed delete.
On the stone wall a thrush flicked its tail at her, then leaped into flight, singing its joy at the bright sky.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

One for All, All for One


(Photo courtesy of iMDb.com)

Can you tell I’m still just slightly obsessed with musketeers at the moment?  The Musketeers to be exact, which for those of you who don’t live in the UK is a BBC TV series loosely based on Alexandre Dumas’s original story.  It’s absolutely brilliant and I love the way they’ve taken the basic story and just run away with it!  Having the four musketeers clad in leather (albeit still looking more or less true to the fashions of that era) is also genius, as is the way they’re allowing the women in the series to be very much part of the action and not just decorative.  Okay, I’ll admit I just like everything about it.

I’ve loved the concept of “one for all, all for one” ever since I first read The Three Musketeers – the fact that if you do things together, always standing by your friends, life can be so much easier.  I have found that to be true in every way – here with my fellow Heroine Addicts; when working with the other authors published by the same publisher as myself; in various organisations and recently with a group of friends who all wanted to do the same thing: to self-publish a Young Adult novel.

I’m supremely un-techie so although everyone kept saying self-publishing was 'a doddle' and ‘anyone can do it’, I didn’t quite believe them.  I could have paid for someone to help me with it, of course, but that would have felt like giving in, being feeble, and I didn’t want to be so easily defeated.  Still, it was very daunting and I kept putting it off until I found out that some of my friends had been thinking along the same lines.

Claire Watts, Gill-Marie Stewart and me
Four of us – myself, Katy Haye, Gill-Marie Stewart and Claire Watts – decided to get together and do it as a group.  Not just holding each others’ hands while going through the publishing process and doing the techie bits, but promoting the books together, doing events/talks as a group.  Suddenly, it all seemed doable and it was the kick up the backside I’d needed.  Funny how things are so much easier when you’re not alone!

We’ve each self-published a book now and are working on number two.  It’s been a steep learning curve, but also great fun.  Thinking up a collective name – Paisley Piranha (yes, I know it’s weird, but we liked it :-D) – setting up a website, blog and Twitter account etc.  And just knowing there’s someone you can bounce ideas off is brilliant.

I’ve just come back from Scotland where we held a launch party for our first novels.  One of them was based on movie themes, so we rented a bijou cinema – the Robert Burns Centre in Dumfries – and had a special showing of The Princess Bride, surely one of the best movies of all time!  And there were snacks and books of course.  All in all, a lovely afternoon.  So if anyone else is thinking of self-publishing (or doing anything else for that matter) but you don’t quite dare, I’d definitely recommend the “all for one” approach!  If it worked for the musketeers …
 

Monday, March 23, 2015

Writers Running!

Greetings from a sore and sunburned Brigid.

Someone forgot the sunscreen and is a little miserable

Yesterday saw Julie and I running the Reading Half-Marathon. This was Julie's first half-marathon and she was running for the Berkshire literacy charity ABC to Read, of which she is a patron. She was running to raise money for the wonderful work they do in schools, teaching the joy of reading to children. In 2014 ABC to Read was awarded the prestigious Queen's Award for Voluntary Service and they are an amazing group of volunteers and charity workers who are passionate about the importance of reading and books.

I decided that I'd keep her company and also help my sister run her first half-marathon (or because I was drunk when she asked) so I signed up to.

It was a brilliant weekend full of running, sunshine, carbs and alcohol at the end. Please give generously to Julie's fundraising page. She ran it in the fabulous time of 2:04 (I took it slow and clocked in at 2:40).

Obligatory Pre-Race Selfie
Obligatory Post-Race Selfie

Post Race Re-hydration
Always Re-hydrate



If you want to donate to ABC to Read then go here:


Monday, March 16, 2015

Romantic Novelists' Association Awards...

Just back *hic* from the Romantic Novelists' Association RoNas where we celebrated Julie's nomination and toasted the winners. It was fabulous to be with the fellow Heroine Addicts and as the amazing Barbara Taylor Bradford put it...'be with our tribe'. As always it was a great time but as it's late I'll let the pictures do the talking...
Liz, Brigid, Julie and Pia
Brigid and Julie
Liz, Brigid, Julie and Pia
The fabulous library
Les, Sue, John and Alison

Brigid with barber Erskine and Carole Blake


Monday, March 9, 2015

Starting On The Ground Floor





A while back I did a post here on my love of the-map-in-the-front-of-the-book, and my own mapping habits while writing. And much in the same way that Winnie-the-Pooh books inspired me to map, I can credit Dame Agatha Christie for one of my other odd habits: the drawing of floor plans.

I think I own every book Agatha Christie wrote, and I loved when she put in the floor plans of houses to show us what rooms were where, and how impossible it was for anyone to have committed the murder in question.

My own stories didn’t really call for such elaborate measures, but the more I wrote the more I saw the advantage of using a floor plan as a writing tool. As clearly as I saw some scenes and settings in my mind, I could get turned around sometimes, so I got into the habit of sketching out rough plans of houses my characters lived in. Just a few lines on a page, really, so I didn’t have someone walking into a cupboard when they were supposed to be in the kitchen.

In the photo above you can see, on the right, the rough floor plan of Greywethers I drew when I started work on Mariana, back in 1990. 

I’ve done this for all my books since. Like my maps, these are just for myself, to refer to while writing (although I included a floor plan in Season of Storms, because that house was like an insane warren—as you can see from the picture here—and I knew readers would have a hard time keeping track of the rooms).

Nearly all the houses that I’ve set my books in have actually existed. Sometimes, as in the case of “Crofton Hall” in Mariana—Avebury Manor in real life—the floor plans already exist, and a very nice person at the National Trust will send them to you. And sometimes you have to create them. 

Either way, I begin with photographs. If I can get inside, I sketch the layout of the rooms, keeping in mind I may have to change things around a bit for my own story. If I can't get inside, I do an internet hunt for similar houses of the period and look for floor plans, then cobble those together to make my own.

I’ve done a bit of both for the other floor plan at the top of this post, on the left, which is for the new book I’m now working on: Bellewether. The house I’m using for this book is based on Raynham Hall, a museum on Long Island, and after visiting the house and taking photographs and notes, I went online to search for other saltbox houses of the period to find out how to put the central chimney stack where it would be (Raynham Hall lost its chimney to a Victorian makeover, which also rearranged the entrance hall).

The result is a floor plan that perfectly fits what I need for my story. Not only does it give me a visual reference for the movements of my characters, but it shows me where the windows are and when the sun comes in, and what view would be.

If nothing else, my floor plans give me something I can work on when the words are slow in coming, so I can fool myself into thinking I’m being productive.

What’s your opinion of floor plans in novels? Have you ever done one yourself?