Monday, December 27, 2010

The Inner Child

I was going to write a blog post in praise of snow since I thought that would be seasonal and I normally love the way it transforms even the dreariest street into something magical. However, in view of all the trouble the white stuff caused here in the UK before Christmas, that doesn’t seem appropriate any more. But even though we’re all sick of it now and want it to go away, the reaction it caused when it first started falling stuck in my mind and made me think.

What is it about snow that brings out the inner child in us so completely? On the day the snow began, I listened to a continuous stream of shrieks and laughter outside my window. Later, when walking the dogs, I came across at least a dozen snowmen of varying quality and just about every car had swipe marks where snow had been scraped off to make a snowball with. It’s obviously irresistible, whether you’re an adult or a child!

I have to admit it usually has the same effect on me. I have an urge to throw myself down and make snow angels the way I did as a child. I want to build a snowman, a snow fort and even a snow lantern (see photo – love those, so pretty!) And although I’m usually too lazy to go skiing, I suddenly detect a flicker of interest in the skiing brochures which I normally ignore. (Don’t worry though, it passes and I go back to couch potato mode fairly quickly.)

Whatever the cause, I think rediscovering our inner child from time to time like this is great for an author. As we grow older, more worldly wise and often jaded and disillusioned, it’s wonderful to be reminded of how we felt when we were younger. The sheer zest for life, being carefree and happy, doing something just because it feels good or is fun – those are all qualities we might need for our heroes and heroines, and perhaps other characters too.

What other things bring out the inner child in us? Well, I’m childishly partial to cartoons – I watched Disney’s Beauty and the Beast yesterday for the umpteenth time and thoroughly enjoyed it. I’m eagerly awaiting their new release Tangled early next year based on my favourite fairy tale Rapunzel and if I have nothing better to do, I’ll happily surf the children’s channels and watch things like the Road Runner or Foghorn Leghorn.

For me, it can also be simple things like for example baking, when I always leave some of the batter or dough in the bowl for tasting after I’ve put the rest in the oven. Or how about jumping on frozen puddles to hear the ice crack. Standing with your toes sinking into the sand at the edge of the sea while waves lap around your feet. Building sandcastles. Going on a fairground ride. The list is endless, but the moments of being carefree and just enjoying life are precious. And although the snow was the villain of the piece this year, I know that next time we’ll all be rushing outside again to join in the fun.

What brings out the inner child in you?

Please come back on Sunday to hear from Liz.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Casting the Characters

To continue the theme started two posts back by Liz, with her thoughts on sexy heroes (and we're all very grateful for THAT photo of Hugh Jackman, Liz!), which led rather beautifully into Biddy's discussion of heroines, I'd like to talk about casting, as well.

I've actually just been asked by an interviewer, as part of my "virtual tour" for the American release of The Winter Sea (Sophia's Secret in the UK), to tell whom I would cast in the character roles if the book were made into a movie, and to be honest it was one of the more difficult questions to answer.

For one thing, I don't see my heroine clearly when I'm writing her. I don't know why. It might have something to do with the fact that I'm usually writing in the first person, so I'm paying more attention to the things she sees than what she looks like. Whatever the reason, when a cover designer asks me to describe my heroine, I often can't manage much more than her age and her hair colour, if that. (It was probably one of my own cover designers who started the whole trend of headless women on book covers, from pure frustration!)

And I'm really no better with heroes. Movie buff that I am, I'll admit that I do sometimes find inspiration in actors, but they're usually not the matinee idols of the moment, so even if I wanted to reveal who they were (and as Jane Lovering pointed out in her comment on Liz's post, that's not always a good thing to do for the reader) most people probably wouldn't be able to call to mind an immediate image anyway. Besides, since I often go by what an actor looks like in a certain film role, there's a good chance that the actor if he's still alive looks very different now.

It's more common, though, for me to do things the other way round: not to base my character on an actor, but to see an actor afterwards who closely embodies the character I've written.

This happens most often with those in supporting roles. These are the characters I can see vividly, their faces so distinct I find it easier to match an actor to their features.

Brian Cox, for example, a truly great character actor, reminds me a lot of one of my favourite men in The Winter Sea – Colonel Patrick Graeme – and I can easily imagine Mr. Cox in the role, striding round in his cloak and his boots and teaching my heroine how to play chess from a soldier's perspective.

A second Scottish actor, Dougray Scott, is very much in looks and bearing like another of the Jacobites, Captain Thomas Gordon, who was from all accounts a very charming, handsome man, and who in my book does his best to charm my heroine.

And Vanessa Redgrave, with her strength and sense of humour, is the image (to me) of Anne Drummond, the Countess of Erroll.

Which is it for you, if you write?

Do the actors inspire your characters, or do the characters form themselves first, leaving you to find actors to play them?

And what's the best bit of casting you've ever seen done in a film or TV show?

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Who's That Girl?

As Liz said in the previous post we spent a few wonderful hours/days discussing who we would cast in our books. She nabbed talking about the Heroes but a hero needs a strong heroine. And with a blog called 'The Heroine Addicts' we need to look at them.

Now what makes a great heroine for you? Is it her looks? Is it her sparkiness? Is she who we want to be? And when you see the heroine in your head does she look like a famous person?

One of my first heroines is a girl called Allie, in 'The One Before The One' (and yes I know there is now a book of that name but I started mine 6 years ago!). In my head she was a feisty and stubborn (and had to go head to head with a hero played by Jamie Bamber). Allie is the bridesmaid at her ex's wedding and is the prime suspect when he is found dead in the Orangery on his wedding night.

I chose the singer songwriter Allison Moorer. I loved her music and in this picture she said Allie to me.
The next heroine that I wrote about was Zoe. Her hero was Jack (Hugh Jackman) and she was a singer songwriter. Zoe and Jack's story was 'Dream Date' and was the first book I ever finished and it was requested by Mills & Boon but sadly got no further. Zoe wanted to follow her dream of going to Nashville and I wanted someone who looked quirky and determined.

I chose Lori McKenna who is a singer songwriter who followed her dream. Her songs have been recorded by Faith Hill.

Once I had brushed myself down after my rejection I started on another M&B.

My heroine was called Jo, she is the younger curvier sister of a top model. She works as a project manager in the construction industry and she wants to prove to her family that she is successful. She is someone who lives in her head. Her hero Lucas (Gerard Butler) is a reclusive artist with a penchant for picking up waifs and strays. He also hasn't painted in years. Until he takes one look at Jo and her curves. In my head there was only one woman with the fierceness and softness for this job.

Step forward Super Nanny, Jo Frost.

That story didn't last long and I moved onto 'Bah Humbug!' also known as 'The Wedding Carol'. Now I struggled with casting Edie Dickens. The story is based on 'A Christmas Carol' but is based around weddings. Edie is a divorce lawyer and she is visited by Ghosts of Weddings Past, Present and Future. I needed someone who could do uptight and end up soft and in the arms of ex-rugby international, Jack Twist.

I cast Emily Deschanel.

But as we all know I have moved on to the world of YA. Casting for 'The Stone Voice' (also known as 'Henges & Hormones') was easy when it came to the men. Quin is somewhat like RPattz and Lord Eden is Sam West. But Alexa was difficult.

Alexa is almost sixteen. And pretty bloody annoyed with life. At the beginning she is overly concerned with appearances. I struggled for ages to work out who she was. In fact I realise I don't give much of a description of her until well into the book. But then I realised who she was. Someone familiar. Ok so the person she is based on is well over twice her age (physically, not mentally) but really there was only one person it could be.....


Who are your heroines?

Don't forget to come back on Sunday to hear from Susanna

Sunday, December 12, 2010

What is Sexy or More Exactly...What Makes A Hero Sexy?

This question has been on my mind a great deal recently – no comments please! As a writer I have to think about what is sexy for my heroine, which may or may not be the same as me. Biddy wrote about crushes here and I certainly have loads of them which helps. I was speaking with DD,11, about our latest heart throbs as we share many to see if it was just a genetic pull or was sexy something that could be declared universal.

So for the sake of research I hunted out pictures...

I’ll start with one of my first and lasting crushes...Cary Grant. Now DD and I watched TO CATCH A THIEF not long ago and she agreed that he was gorgeous, but ahem wore his trousers too high however she could look past the wardrobe problem...(I told her styles change but sexy men don't...)

Next up a picture of Richard Armitage....

Then Hugh Jackman...(strangely enough I found this photo on fellow addict Julie’s blog????)

Then DD’s favourites of the moment Rob Pattison and Taylor Launter

So looking at the array above I wonder what is sexy...tall dark and handsome? 

Possibly... Is it the hair? The eyes? The humour? The intelligence?

While Biddy was in Dubai last week we spoke about who we would cast as the heroes in our books...

So it is no surprise that Mark in a Cornish House is Hugh Jackman, Tristan in August Rock is Matthew Macfayden, and at the request of DD the twins in Penderown are Rob Paterson, older hero is Jeremy Irons. 

However as I'm finishing off my NaNoWriMo project The Summer of the Black Hare I have developed an unhealthy obsession for Jake Gyllenhaal who is Alex....

So back to the beginning...what is sexy? I certainly have found men in real life sexy who were far from tall dark and handsome. Normally it was the wit that captured me in seconds and it has to be said that the smile is so important and let's not forget the backside... In my youth I had a thing for blonds despite the Cary Grant obsession. What do you find sexy and if you are a writer does your heroine agree with you or does she stick to her own ideas? Oh and do you enjoy research as much as I do?

Don't forget to come back on Thursday to see what Biddy has to say...

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Naming Patterns

Like many other authors, I find names endlessly fascinating – the way they sound, how they fit together and what they mean – and it’s been that way for as long as I can remember. As a child, I spent ages thinking up names for my dolls and stuffed toys. I also fantasised about changing my own name since I didn’t like the one I’d been given and wanted something better. Why couldn’t my parents have called me Selena or Madeleine, for example, which sounded very romantic to me, or maybe Athena or Jezebel? I would have loved those.

Lately, I’ve been indulging in my favourite hobby (apart from reading that is) of genealogy, which means looking at an endless stream of names. Apart from being a fun way to relax, it also gives me inspiration since some of them trigger story ideas. In my family tree I’ve come across a few interesting names, but also lots of boring ones. Actually, the names themselves are never boring, but the naming patterns of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries were. Parents would insist on giving several babies the same one until a child finally survived. You’d think that after the fourth baby John or William died, the parents would realise the name was jinxed and move on to another, but no such luck. Makes life very difficult for anyone wanting to draw up a family tree and you wish they'd had more imagination.

Among my ancestors who did think outside the box there’s Mahala, Love, Fanny Frances (why two versions of the same name?), Tryphena and Vita Pura, all ladies with uncommon names, plus Garibaldi, Onslow, Royston and Warwick among the men. If only there were more like them!

Some are even more intriguing. Take my great-grandmother, for example – her maiden name was Martha Tombs. Sounds like the perfect character for a modern day vampire tale or something Gothic, doesn’t it? And yet in the one photo I have of her, she looks like your average cuddly grandmother. I really must name a heroine after her one day!

Names are so important to writers and I know most of us can’t get on with a story until we know what the hero and heroine are going to be called. I’m like that too, although most of the time the name just comes to me at the same time as the “spark” for the book. Sometimes finding the perfect name can be almost impossible though. I have one story I’ve rewritten three times with different names and it STILL doesn’t sound right – I’m hoping I’ll find out who the heroine is eventually.

There are some names I would never use – perhaps because they have bad connotations for me in some way – whereas others just feel right. What’s your favourite name for a heroine and why? Mine is Winter in Shadow of the Moon by M M Kaye, I think that’s so evocative and beautiful.

Do certain names have a special meaning for you and which ones would you never use? And have you ever come across a name you’ve never heard before and suddenly find a hero or heroine come alive in your mind almost instantly? That happened to me with my current one and it was wonderful!

Please come back on Sunday when Liz will be posting.

Saturday, December 4, 2010


Julie's right, of course. I'm a definite Snape fan - for all of the reasons she gives, plus that shiveringly sensual delivery of the speech where we first meet the character in the film... Mmmmm. And yes, I'll admit to a shameful lech at some of the younger characters (Ron has caught my eye, but I'll have to watch out for the twins...) Although when I watch the DVDs of the earlier Harry Potter films, it makes me feel terribly old!

Cedric Diggory.... no. He was just too perfect!

I can't comment on the latest HP - I haven't seen it yet. And since I make a point of not reading the books until I've seen the movie, I don't know what I'll be facing, either.

But I like it that way. Given the choice, I'll always watch an adaptation first, and then read the book. The other way round is so often a road to disappointment. Our expectations are too high, maybe?

Sometimes, though, if it's a much-loved book, you can't escape seeing an TV or big screen adaptation after you've read (and re-read and re-read) the book. The Narnia books are one example. I think I've seen three adaptations of those now, and happily they've never disappointed. Those books are so much a part of my childhood it's almost painful to go to the cinema to see the latest, I'm always so afraid they'll somehow murder the soul of the story. But although the newest versions have certainly changed the story, they've left the beauty of that soul untouched.

I always remember how shocked I was with an otherwise lovely TV version of Ellis Peters' Cadfael stories. Derek Jacobi was, of course, brilliant in the role. But there was one character - a recurring character in the books - who was a shining beacon of goodness and humility. He was miraculously healed of lameness in the book which introduced him, then went on to take holy orders, be ordained, and run a charitable hospital. For all his goodness, he understood the frailties of humanity, and never judged. Everyone who knew him was in some small way blessed and restored.

In the adaptation they made him a scheming confidence trickster and thief.

I understand that perhaps they thought the modern audience wouldn't accept a miracle. But did they have to turn the character into the complete opposite of himself? It was such a shame.

But at least I can read the book again, and meet him as he was first written.

What adaptations have caught your eye for being brilliantly done, or perhaps for changing too much? Do you read the books first, or after, given the choice?

Don't forget to venture back on Thursday, when Christina will be sharing her thoughts.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

In Praise of Snape

I’m refilling the well at the moment, which means I get to do things like go out for coffee and the latest Harry Potter movie. My muse is fed by decaff lattes and boy wizards. Well, actually, to tell you the truth, I’m not so into Harry himself. The HP franchise has given me lots of scope for odd crushes through the years. I’ve gone on record saying I fancy the Weasley twins. (Double yum, though by the way Bill Weasley is really seriously super-hot in the latest film.) I have also fancied Robert Pattinson as Cedric Diggory (before he was Edward Cullen) and David Tennant as Barty Crouch (before he was Dr Who). I have also suddenly discovered a whole new appreciation of Lucius Malfoy, now that he’s an alcoholic ex-con.

But when I get right down to it, the Harry Potter experience is all about Professor Severus Snape. (Warning—there are some Snape spoilers to follow, if you haven’t read all the books yet.)

Quite aside from the fact that Alan Rickman is sex on legs, it’s the character of Snape who gets me, especially in the last few novels of the series. I love the underdog. I love the bad guy who is really a good guy. I love the tormented genius struggling between his good and evil natures, the honourable man who keeps his word no matter how he’s tempted—and for Snape, keeping his word means that he has to do some truly horrible things. He has to be hounded and villainised by everyone he respects. He has to protect the boy who by nature, he should despise. He has to take the gravest risks of not only his life, but his soul. He has to keep his true thoughts and feelings hidden from absolutely everyone in the world.

And he does it all for love. Unrequited love.

Yup. Snape rules. He’s even better than Dumbledore, in my opinion, because Dumbledore manipulates Harry and everyone else. Snape just does what he has to do. He gets the job done. And he hates it, he moans and broods and gives out detentions, but he does it because he knows it’s right.

I never found the Harry Potter books to be particularly subtle in their plotting or characterisation. But Snape is the exception. Re-reading the penultimate book in the series this week, I could really appreciate how J. K. Rowling leads Harry, and therefore the reader, to believe the worst of Snape, when in fact his actions have another, wholly different interpretation. And though Alan Rickman is hardly in the first part of The Deathly Hallows, the ambiguity is written all over his face.

What does this have to do with romance? Well, I’m always interested in what makes a hero. And Snape is a certain kind of hero, a kind that appeals to me a lot. In a romantic novel he’d wash his hair more frequently, of course, and he’d get the girl in the end. Or maybe not. Because a tragic hero is wonderful, too.

(And having taught school for ten years, I can also really identify with grumpy teachers.)

Come back on Sunday to chat with Anna Louise Lucia, who also has an unhealthy obsession with Severus Snape, though I'm not sure how she feels about the Weasley twins.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Night Writing

I cannot claim the genius of George Sand (nor even that of Judy Davis, who played Sand in the film Impromptu, pictured above), but like her, I love to write at night.

I hardly ever get to do it now, but a couple of weeks ago when I was interviewing Robert J. Wiersema, he mentioned that he always gets up at four in the morning to start his day's writing, because he works best in a liminal state. (That became the hit word of the whole evening: "liminal". Everyone at the event seemed to relish the sound of it...)

And that reminded me what I loved best about writing at night, when I wasn't asleep yet but wasn't quite fully awake, either, and the whole flow of the narrative seemed to come easier, somehow. I used to love the quiet, and the solitude; the sense of satisfaction that would come from closing off a chapter in the small dark hours before the sun came up.

My schedule changed, of course, when I had children. Though I did, I'll admit, seem to spend my first few years of motherhood in a continual liminal state, I was too tired when night came to put it to use! My writing time was fitted to the children's naps and meals, at first, and later to their hours at school, and writing through the night is not the wisest thing to do, I've learned, when you have to get up sharp at 6 to make breakfasts...

Which is fine. I have learned to adapt, and I don't think my writing has suffered at all for it. But this past Friday a deadline did keep me up half the night writing, till almost 4:30 a.m., and it felt...well, exhausting, but wonderful.

What time do you like to write?

Set your watches for Thursday, when Julie's next post will be up.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

NO! - seems to be the hardest word

Hello, my name is Brigid. And I have a problem. I can't seem to say 'no'. I can hear you sniggering at the back! Well that is true too but that is the topic for a different blog. But you know what I mean... every time someone asks me to do something my automatic response is 'yes' or 'of course' or 'no problem'. Even if it is a problem. Even if it means staying late, or adding an hour on my commute or giving up precious writing time. Even then I still find my knee jerk response is 'yes'.

I have been thinking about this... why is 'no' such a hard thing to say? It is two letters, one letter less than 'yes'. Ok so it can be a tad blunt when said outright, but sometimes for one's own sanity it must be said.

I am thinking of setting up a support group where we role play saying 'no' so it becomes more reflexive. Scenarios will include when your parents/relatives/annoying acquaintances want to come and stay. When your boss asks you "could you just...". When the person on the end of the phone is trying to sell you something you don't need. Scenarios we can add to ad infinitum. We would pour wine (this is the only time you have to say yes) and try and say 'no' without apologising (advanced class only). But what would we call ourselves? Acquiescence Anonymous?? Agreers Anonymous?? The Yes Men? Or The No Bodies (showing our non-affirmative action)??

So who is with me? Who is willing to stand up and say 'NO!'?*

*except when it comes to a really nice bottle of wine, or some chocolate or that REALLY hot guy, you know the one... or of course my book. These scenarios will NEVER be a part of the group**
** unless of course you are an alcoholic, on a diet or married

Come back on Sunday to find out what Susanna has to say (hopefully she won't say no)

Monday, November 22, 2010

I Can't Find The Word

(Sorry about the delay in this post - technical glitch....or computer had jet lag)

Word Choice...finding the exact word to express, say, demonstrate what you need to say is something that can put me at a standstill. When DH is writing a press release we can spend hours on because he is writing for a global market where some of the subtlety of word choice is lost. English is a language of nuances, which change not only from English ‘English’ but to North American ‘English’ to Irish ‘English’ and so on. It was a minefield I had walked through when I moved to the UK in 1989.

Take the word fulfil. What does it mean? What could you use instead? Straightforward, not entirely...
1.       1.Achieve something
2.       2.Carry out order
3.       3.Satisfy something
4.       4.Complete something
5.       5. Supply something
6.       6.Realize ambitions

Above are six subtly different meanings for the same word. At what point do you lose the easily understood accepted meaning and move on to one that a reader might not grasp immediately....
Having lived in the UK on and off since 1989 and been married to an Englishman since 1991 I don’t know where I fall anymore on the use of language anymore, but I still recall one of my sister-in-law’s asking me if I meant ‘quite’ in the English way or the American. I looked blankly at her unaware of the difference...quite.

So my question for you is – where do you fall in the language camp? UK? US? Globish? And finally do think about your reader when you are choosing your words?

Please come back on Thursday to see what Biddy has to say...

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Left Hanging or ...?

A couple of weeks ago, Susanna was talking about bit players – secondary characters who stand out in some way, the ones who clamour to have their own story told. In other words, a sequel. So are sequels a good thing or not?

Personally, I love them if they’re well done. It can be like putting on your favourite pair of old shoes. You slip comfortably into a world you know and love and you get to revisit what feels like old friends. There’s less effort needed to acquaint yourself with a new environment and you can just sit back and enjoy.

There’s nothing more satisfying than to follow a group of characters through several volumes and at the end of the series, it all finishes exactly the way you wanted it to. Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael series was like that for me. I think there were twenty books in all, but the final one ended with the kind of scene that just made you go “aaahh…” And although I was sad that there wouldn’t be any more, I was happy at the same time because it felt complete.

However, I prefer it if sequels can stand alone too. Each one should be able to be enjoyed on its own, without actually needing the others. Sure, it’s a bonus if you already know and love this world, but if you happen to pick up a book somewhere in the middle of a series, it should be possible to read that without getting confused.

For some years I organised a literary award, and the thing I received most complaints about were sequels. The readers said they couldn’t understand some of them because they hadn’t read the previous book. They were also sometimes left hanging, with a few of the plot strands left unresolved for the next novel in the series. That’s not very satisfying. It’s like being teased when you can’t retaliate for some reason.

I recently followed a drama series on TV for weeks on end, only to find that almost all the plot strands have been left unresolved and “there will be another series next year”. I’m sorry, but that’s not good enough! I felt cheated – I’d invested a lot of time in catching every episode, I deserved better. Readers of sequels do to.

We’ve discussed endings before on this blog, and I think we all agreed that it’s an author’s job to leave their readers satisfied (or viewers if you’re writing for the screen). Even if the ending of a book isn’t completely happy, it has to be satisfying. Being teased isn’t, that’s just annoying. I appreciate the fact that the author (and publisher) wants to sell more books. Fair enough. You want to keep the readers coming back for more. But there are ways of doing it so that it still feels right.

Take the recent Sherlock Holmes film, for instance (starring the lovely Robert Downey Jr). It ends with him saving the day, but then at the very last minute the viewers find out that the man he’s been chasing just got his hands on a vital invention and he’s called Moriarty. For any Sherlock Holmes fan, that’s a clear signal that Moriarty will be Holmes’s next opponent and although for the moment, Moriarty is not a threat, he will be at some time in the near future. In other words, there’s a sequel in the offing, but the ending of this film still felt good. I left the cinema content that Holmes had won the day. That’s how books should be too, I think.

Cliff-hangers are all well and good, but only at the end of a chapter, not the whole book, I think. How about you, do you mind being left hanging or is it just me being impatient?

Please come back on Sunday to see what Liz has to say.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Gentle Touch

Earlier this week, at work, I had a headache. Not a terrible one, it's true, but it was starting to get me down. I was on my way to the Annual General Meeting of the organisation I used to work for, and wondering if I was going to last the day.

Within five minutes of arriving, I'd given an received three hugs with former colleagues of TWO organisations in my former employment history (it occured to me later that this isn't a bad track record, to be on hugging terms with all your previous employers....) and my headache was definitely lifting.

I was back in the bosom of friendly like-minds and their touch was simply healing.

Inevitably, I started thinking about this in terms of writing and reading. Is this the habit of the blogger or the novelists, I wonder? I immediately wanted to check that the latest work-in-progress had comforting, caring touches between the heroine and hero, as well as sexual, passionate ones.

There's a fantastic YA historical fantasy called The Blue Sword, by Robin McKinley (find this book, read this book, keep this book forever). It's romance and an adventure, and I remember its battles, magic, conflict and the fierceness of the heroine's battle for identity in the face of overwhelming destiny. The romance is fantastic, I love the hero, and there is plenty of sexual tension, but the touch that I remember of that much-read book is when the heroine, Harry (short for Angharad), recently kidnapped by a strange people and their king, Corlath, and trying to come to terms with her awakening power, has a vision:-

"... out of the firelight came a figure, wavering with the leap and flicker of the flames, and with hair that was fire itself.... Harry stared until her eyes felt as dry as sand, and then the figure's face swam into focus, and it was a woman's face, and it smiled at her. But it didn't smile, it grinned, the wry affectionate grin of an elder sister; and Harry's head swam with love and despair. Then the woman shook her head gently, and her aureole of hair flamed and rippled about her, and she reached out her empty left hand, and Harry found herself on her hands and knees, reaching her hand back. But a gust of wind came from nowhere and whipped the fire as though it were an unruly dog, and the figure vanished. Harry fell where she had knelt, and pressed her face to the eary. One real dog sat up and howled.

Corlath picked her up as gently as she were a baby, fallen down after its first steps; and she found there were tears running down her face. He stood up, holding her in his arms, and she cared nothing but that Lady Aerin, Firehair and Dragon-Killer, had come to her and then left her again, more alone than she had ever been before."

It's that gentle touch I remember, more than the rest. Now I need to make sure there are gentle touches in my stories, too, comfort without an agenda.

What do you think?

And don't forget to visit us again on Thursday, to see what Christina has to say.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Best Gift

For those of you expecting Julie here today, sorry, you're stuck with me again, while Julie gives her hands a needed rest. She'll be back soon.

In the meantime, I spent this past Monday night doing an onstage chat with the multi-talented Robert J Wiersema, a bestselling author who's also, in his own words, a "promiscuous reviewer" and, for the past twenty years, a dedicated bookseller. We were meant to be promoting his new novel, Bedtime Story, but as writers will do, we strayed slightly off topic, and ended up talking about what his job in the bookstore has taught him, and how he's observed that there's often a very great difference between what book someone will choose as a gift for a person they don't know that well (this is when, Robert says, people go for the prize-winning novels, the big books that everyone's talking about), and the book that same person would buy as a gift for an intimate friend.

For our friends, he's noticed, we choose to give books that have meant something to us; have touched us, perhaps even changed us. We're giving, in essence, a bit of ourselves, neatly bound between covers.

I know this is certainly true when I buy for my children. I wander away from the "New and Hot" table and search out the Little House books and The Wind in the Willows, or Owls in the Family, all bits of my own happy childhood.

When it comes to my grown-up friends, I tend to tailor the book to the person as much as I can, so it's arguably more a little piece of them that I'm trying to give, to show how much I value them and understand and love them. For instance, I might buy my husband a book that I know he's been longing to have, even though it might be one I'd never read myself.

But I do squirrel away extra copies of my best-loved books: Mary Stewart's classics, Nevil Shute's A Town Like Alice and The Chequerboard, and Gregory Clark's May Your First Love Be Your Last, among others. And when I give them to people, I actually do feel I'm sharing a bit of myself.

With the holidays swiftly approaching, I know I'll be spending a lot of time combing the bookstores for gifts; only now, thanks to Robert, I'll also be sneaking a glance at what others are buying, and trying to guess from their choice of book whether they're buying for people they work with, or people they love.

Come back Sunday, when Anna will be posting (unless she gets waylaid and winds up drinking wine and watching Robert Downey, Jr. movies with our Julie...)

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Bit Players

Two weekends ago, I took my daughter and her best friend to Toronto to see Wicked, the musical they'd both been dreaming of seeing since the first time they'd stumbled across clips of the Broadway performance on YouTube a year ago. To make it extra-special for them both, I got us tickets for a private box, with polished brass railings and real chairs and curtains to shut ourselves off from the rest of the theatre. The girls, at the front of the box, had a marvellous view of the stage. Unfortunately for me, the designers of the set for Wicked, gifted though they were, had elected to hang their speakers, not to the side of the stage, but within the proscenium arch, so whenever the lead actors moved upstage left I lost sight of them.
After a while I stopped minding so much, though, because I had noticed a curious thing: when my view of the main scene was blocked, all the actors who were playing at the fringes of the scene came into sudden, sharper focus.

Which set me musing on the role of minor characters in fiction who, like those actors downstage right in Wicked, tend to go about their business in the shadows just beyond the spotlight.

If not for them, the fictional worlds we create would be so much less interesting. How could we write something set in a village without any villagers? Or write a scene in a restaurant without any servers or customers? Cameos, bit parts and walk-ons add life to a story.

And sometimes they add even more. I learned this long ago while writing Mariana, when a very minor character – a woman by the name of Mrs. Hutherson – showed up early on with a plate of Bath buns to welcome my heroine to the village, resisted my attempts to write her out again, established herself as the housekeeper up at the manor house, and proceeded to change the whole course of the story.

Still, any lesson learned can always be forgotten, so I'm grateful to that inconvenient speaker in the set design of Wicked, because it helped me to rediscover just how vital every player is, upon the stage.

Who is your favourite minor character?

(And don't forget to come back Thursday. Julie will be posting).

Thursday, November 4, 2010


Last time I was talking about first kisses so I thought I would go back, back before the kisses and go to the prelude to a kiss…

The Crush

Ahhh crushes… I'd love to say how I miss them but whether you are seven or ninety-five we all have crushes.

Crushes get you up in the morning and put a spring in your step. They make you smile and gasp and turn bright red and stutter.

They are the bubble in your blood, the fizz in your fibre. Writing the crush Alexa has on Quin, I didn't need to go too far back to remember what it felt like.

Who hasn't had a crush recently? A crush on that movie star, or that singer. Maybe the person who serves you coffee on the way to work. The cute girl on the bus. Or even the guy you sit next to at work.

We've all been there and very recently I'm sure:


I couldn’t help it I sighed out loud. Sam looked at me strangely. But instead of his solid ruddy face, I saw Quin. All heavy brows and kissable mouth. I could see him as if I had seen him yesterday and not two weeks ago.

How was it possible I remembered someone I had met only once so well? But it seemed that as soon as I thought of him, and I thought about him a lot, I saw him. Not the fuzzy ‘I think I remember your features but I’m not sure’ remember but as if there was a computer in my brain that brought up his photo on demand."

When I wrote this I was channelling every crush I've ever had, and a few that I borrowed from other people. Crushes on that actor I made a prat of myself in front of (read here). That son of a family friend who never knew why I babbled when he was around. The bloke at that conference who must have wondered why I blushed and ran away as soon as he sat down next to me in the bar. And who can forget that work colleague whose voice messages I'd save to listen to… he had a very sexy voice!

So who have you been crushing on?

Come back on Sunday when Susanna will be posting

Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Animal World

I'm just back from safari in Tanzania in the Selous Game Reserve at Beho Beho....amazing. But I won't tell you about that here as I'll be posting about that over at Just Keep Writing and Other Thoughts soon.

During the course of the trip we studied the animal world and its interaction within their own species and with others. This of course as a writer is something I do everyday and many days without even noticing that I do. You know what I the checkout queue - half your mind is what you may have forgotten, but the other part is noting what the girl behind the till is wearing in her ears, the conversation taking place in front of you and the one behind while the mother with the toddler in the other queue negotiates the way past the chocolate.... You go for a drink with a friend and you spend most of the time watching the casual and not so casual interactions at the bar...

On an afternoon walk through the bush after we had sat still for a half hour watching a pack of wild dogs, I was encouraging our guide Sacha to write. (You know when you meet someone who is a natural writer, but they haven't figured it out yet...) He shook his head and said no, but then I pointed out that he was a passionate reader, spent his days studying animal behavior and had a huge urge to share this with others.... I could then see him thinking this through.

He said he didn't see how his knowledge of animals could help him to write....I said just look at the Fenwick pack - look at the dynamics that he had seen all week. We were on safari to celebrate DH's 50th, DS1's 18th and DS2's 16th....the young continuously vied for top/alpha position, but stopped just short because they are still financially dependent. Sacha laughed as he, of course, had noticed the gentle jibing that had taken place at every meal.

I think Sacha will see his vocation..probably either in the non-fiction arena with his passion for the disappearing art of bush skills (he showed us the local form of basil which is used to make a poultice for coughs among the native population) or I think as a children's author. Time will of course tell...

My hours spent observing the animal world will certainly add to my understanding of the human world. Have you ever applied animal knowledge to people or the other way around?

Please come back on Thursday to see what Biddy has to say...

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Houses with Character

My DH and I are in the process of doing up an old house and as we paint, plaster and wallpaper each room, I feel its true character is emerging and this is giving me ideas for stories. Halfway up a ladder I realised that’s happened to me a lot. Whenever I visit a house, it has some effect on me and more often than not it results in a novel. Sometimes it’s almost as if the buildings are a living, breathing entity, but although they may not play an actual part, they’re always there in the background, watching the events that unfold.

I’ve always been fascinated by old houses. Modern ones don’t do anything for me – it’s like they know they haven’t seen anything of life yet and have no stories to tell. Their walls are silent, uniform, boring, whereas old buildings seem to ooze history from every crooked wall and uneven floor board. If only they could talk, they’d be able to divulge any number of secrets. They’ve seen it all – love and laughter, misery and ecstasy, tears and grief. There are whispers and shadows in every corner.

When I say old houses, I don’t mean just castles and famous buildings (although I do love those), but also ordinary ones or those built for slightly less prominent members of society. Whenever I walk into a building like that, I feel each one has a different atmosphere. Some are welcoming and happy places, some brooding, and sometimes they even feel menacing, as if you’re trespassing and shouldn’t be there.

Take the Merchant’s House in Plymouth for example (see photo above). I found my way there a couple of years ago while doing research for a historical novel set during the English Civil War and as soon as I stepped inside, I immediately felt enveloped by the past. You enter through a dark stone-flagged passage and it’s like stepping back in time. It’s a house that has clearly experienced a lot and it proved the perfect setting for my story. Seeing that house gave me lots of new ideas, it's almost as if it was helping me out, giving me advice.

Another house that virtually cried out to be part of a story was a small Elizabethan manor house I used to visit regularly. For some reason it always made me uneasy. Although it was a beautiful building, I was terrified of being alone there. It didn’t help that the owners told me the house was haunted by a benign ghost, who loved to play pranks and delighted in wrecking anything modern or mechanical (he obviously didn’t think such things fit in there). It was clear to me the ghost didn’t want me in his house either, but it was the perfect setting for a story and I just had to write a novel about it (which I hope to sell one day). In it, I described the house like this:-

Approached through a pair of wrought iron gates, the old manor house nestled in a hollow, as if it had burrowed into the ground for comfort. Picture perfect, it was built of weathered timber and orange red bricks, with tiny leaded windows and tall chimney stacks. The colour gave an impression of warmth, reinforced by the sunlight reflected off the myriad of windowpanes. A short drive led to a yew hedge which surrounded a small flower garden immediately in front of the house. The hedge had been trimmed to velvety perfection and grew thick and deep. A profusion of snowdrops peeped out from underneath the bushes, looking as if they were wondering whether it was safe to come out yet ...

Which is your favourite house? And have you ever been so inspired by a building that you just had to write a story set there? If so, I’d love to read a description of it!

Please come back on Sunday when Liz will be posting.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Mercenaries with Jet Packs and Laser Guns

Husband is a great supporter of my writing.

He's bought DVDs for research (like the Bourne series), never moans if I don't get round to things I ought to, stoically eats beans on toast and gets on with the laundry while I'm wrestling with a book. He never raises an eyebrow when my little office turns into the Godforsaken Hell Pit of Despond (which it is now - clearing it up feels too much like procrastination away from the book).

He doesn't read manuscripts - which might explain our continuing marital harmony - but he does help me out with brainstorming, with detail, with questions.

But if I ever think the book I'm working on needs just that little something extra, Husband always makes the same suggestion, uttered with glee and anticipation.

"You should put in mercenaries with jet packs and laser guns."

Now, let's face it, this is a good suggestion. There's not many a work of fiction that couldn't be improved with the addition of some jet-packing mercenary las-guns. Imagine Elizabeth Bennett calling them to her aid when Lady Catherine de Bourgh comes to visit. Or, hey, how about simply having Fitzwilliam Darcy packing a laser canon?

I'll leave you with that thought for a moment.


It's not even as if I can use the excuse that I don't write Sci-Fi - after all, jet packs and laser guns are pretty much science fact these days.

All these things notwithstanding, I am yet to include mercenaries with jet packs and laser guns in any of my books. I am clearly a woman of little sense.

Happily, Husband's imagination is not limited to aerial hired soldiers - he also gave me the false wall in the laboratory in my current work-in-progress.

So what's the worst (and the best) plot idea anyone's ever suggested to you?

Visit us again on Thursday, when Christina will be here!

Thursday, October 21, 2010


On Tuesday I finished working on the book I’ve been writing for the past ten months. I did a final check, I printed it out, I put it in an envelope and I posted it to my agent. She says she’s going to read it this weekend and let me know what she thinks. That gives me five days, at minimum, during which I don’t have to work on it.

I have neglected my family for this book. I’ve let my husband and kid go off and play without me. I’ve spent mornings during my holiday writing, when everyone else was at the beach. I’ve let the house get absolutely filthy, I’ve had an empty refrigerator for weeks, I’ve gone off on weekend-long research trips or writing marathons, I’ve turned down invitations from friends. I’ve hardly left the house. I’ve dreamed of the book, thought of the book constantly, stayed up late working on the book, got up early to start work again. For the last two weeks, during my last intense push to revise the huge manuscript into something readable, I’ve been popping ibuprofen every four hours and wearing a wrist brace, to stop me from suffering too much from typing-related repetitive strain injury.

One of the first things I did after posting the manuscript (after going for a little lie down) was to go out with a friend for dinner. We had a glass of champagne to celebrate my achievement, and then she told me about what she’s been doing. She has crazy six-month deadlines to finish up writing a big trilogy, and at the same time she’s going on a promotional tour for the first book, interacting with her growing army of fans, and doing copy edits for a different publisher. She hardly has time to eat or sleep or talk with her husband. She is constantly in the world of her trilogy. Whatever we were talking about, the conversation slid back to her characters, and the look on her face was priceless: the look of a woman in love.

I was wildly jealous of her. Not of her success, which is well-deserved; certainly not of her lack of sleep or social contact, which I’ve got plenty of myself, thank you very much.

I was jealous of the book-love.

For me, the crazy obsession takes a little bit of time to wear off. I send the book, and then I dwell on all the things I could have changed. I think about the characters and their story almost as much as when I was writing. But then the reality sinks in. It’s over. My love affair is done. It’s no longer just me and the book. It’s time for someone else to read the story, and judge it.

Don’t get me wrong; it’s incredible to send off a book and have it read. I await my agent’s judgement with fear and crazy anticipation. But there’s a wearing-off period when I feel sad that it’s over, that it’s not my entire life any more. It's time for me to fall out of love. I feel exhausted, inadequate, at a loose end, and really lonely.

Obsessively working on your novel is bad for your health, it’s bad for your social life, it’s bad for your family. It can’t be doing your sanity any favours. And it leads to a consumption of wine and chocolate which is truly disgusting by any civilised standards. But it is wonderful. Just wonderful.

I miss it.

Come back on Sunday, when Anna Louise Lucia will be posting.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Rules

"There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are."
-W. Somerset Maugham

Last weekend, I had the very great pleasure of listening to Kelley Armstrong talk about the craft.

For those who don't know, I'm a great fan of Kelley's. I've probably handsold as many copies of her novels as our local bookstore has, just because I enjoy them so much and because I think everyone needs to read Bitten.

But anyway, there I was last week at breakfast, and Kelley was giving a speech about The Rules. You know...the rules that Every Writer Needs to Know, the ones we're told and told again from the moment we pick up our pens:

Don't use prologues. Don't use adverbs. And for heaven's sake, don't use the passive voice. Et cetera, et cetera. A laundry list of things we shouldn't do. And Kelley's comment was that rules on getting published are most often quoted, she's observed, by those who aren't yet published, and that writing rules are rather like the Pirate Code: They're more like guidelines, really.

Not only was I happy to discover she and I were kindred spirits on that point, but I was pleased to see that many in the audience for Kelley's speech were writers who were just beginning, still in search of that first contract, still discovering their voices, because they're the ones who really need our reassurance that The Rules aren't absolute.

They have a place, The Rules. As with grammar, it's probably best that one knows the rules first, before breaking them. If I split an infinitive, for example, I know I'm splitting an infinitive. Or using a fragment. But I've chosen, whether for style or cadence or emphasis, to be ungrammatical at that moment, just as I often ignore what the writing books tell me to do, and use adverbs, or start a book slowly. I know that I'm doing it, and that it's not the accepted thing, but for the sake of the story I've chosen to do it.

And that's what new writers deserve to be told: that it's OK to break The Rules, because there aren't any. There are as many "right" ways to write as there are writers, and part of your path as a writer is finding the way that's your own, that works best for you.

What's the rule that you find most constricting? Mine is "always use the active voice". It's terribly exhausting, for my characters...

Come back Thursday, to read Julie Cohen's post.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

First Kiss

There is nothing more important or memorable than a first kiss. In life and in fiction. I am writing for teens at the moment so some of the first kisses I am writing are FIRST KISSES. You know that first ever kiss that some of us had earlier than others. The first kiss of which every subsequent first kiss is a reflection of.

I know that one of the reasons I read and write romance is to remember that feeling of excitement and discovery at the beginning of a relationship. To shiver with the memory of hands touching, those careful looks from the corner of eyes, feeling dry mouthed, my heart thumping and stomach churning before that first kiss.

I have been trying to recreate that feeling in my current book. I have a sixteen year old heroine who is enamoured with THAT boy, you know the one… mysterious, dangerous and completely gorgeous.

"His other hand came up and held my face still. There was nothing gentle in the way he held it. As his mouth was millimetres from mine I heard him say,
“This doesn’t change a thing.”
And then he was kissing me.
Except kissing didn’t do it justice.
His lips touched mine and all the stone left in me leapt to the surface and span. His lips were hard against mine until my mouth opened on my gasp of astonishment.
He was kissing me.
And then it changed, warm wet air exchanged and his lips softened. As he tasted me, my head held up by him. My body held safe by him as I leant against him my legs rubbery.
Sparks exploded in my head.
He was kissing me.
An incandescent trail warmed its way from my lips down through my chest into my stomach, which was lurching and churning and dropping.
He was kissing me.
My eyes had closed as he had got closer. I flickered them open briefly to see him looking at me. His hazel eyes still open and dark as he looked at me.
Was he kissing me?"

When I wrote this and the second kiss (which is the really the first TRUE kiss) I thought back to all my first kisses (and being a single woman of a certain age there have been a few). Some have been memorable for all the right reasons and some for all the wrong.

My very first kiss was when I was sixteen and at a school dance, like my heroine. Sadly that is all there is in common. So I thought to some other first kisses. Standing under a lamppost in Leeds in the snow stealing kisses every time we got to a curb or lamppost. On a river bank with me nervously talking and him kissing me to shut me up. At a Christmas party with a guy I had liked for a long time. On the bus after a night out at a ski resort, having held hands under the table all night. On my birthday on a sofa after having been cooked a beautiful lunch. Coming out of a pub on a cold night giggling because the brim of my hat was in the way and then afterwards being left breathless and stunned. Each kiss was as different as the person it was with and this is what I have to remember when I'm writing. Each hero and heroine are different and so their first kisses need to be to.

What do you remember about first kisses?

Come back on Sunday when Susanna will be posting

Sunday, October 10, 2010


This past week was national poetry week, but that is not why I have chosen to write about poetry – although it would be a good reason. No, what set me onto this topic was in all probability age – forgetting things…I had fragments of an Emily Dickinson poem snapping at the edges of my memory. All week I had been reworking A CORNISH HOUSE and one of the key themes is faith and I was overwhelmed by so many thoughts during the solemn sung mass at Westminster Cathedral last Sunday.

A few weeks ago Biddy, here, asked how do you refill the well and recently another writer friend asked the question what do you do when you get stuck and another when do your best writing ideas come….be patient I will pull all of this together, I promise.

So sitting in the beautiful cathedral my senses were beginning stimulated in many ways – visually – I love the unfinished church and the way the massive crucifix pulls the eye while the morning lights streams in behind it; olfactorily (yes, it is a word – I had to check) the mix of incense and candles and people; auditorily the exquisite voices of the choir – all the while being on autopilot through the order of the mass which is simply a part of me. So my mind in the face of extreme stimulation yet relaxation picked up the words of the opening antiphon …

All things are submitted to your will, O Lord, and no one can resist your decisions; you have made all things, heaven and earth, and all that is contained under the vault of the sky; you are the master of the universe…Blessed are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the Lord.

This was further echoed in the readings…

Hab 1:2-3
How long, O LORD? I cry for help
but you do not listen
2 TM 1:6-8, 13-14
I remind you, to stir into flame

the gift of God that you have through the imposition of my hands. 
For God did not give us a spirit of cowardice
but rather of power and love and self-control.
So do not be ashamed of your testimony to our Lord,
nor of me, a prisoner for his sake;
but bear your share of hardship for the gospel
with the strength that comes from God.
Take as your norm the sound words that you heard from me,
in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.
Guard this rich trust with the help of the Holy Spirit
that dwells within us.
Lk 17:5-10
The apostles said to the Lord, "Increase our faith." 
The Lord replied,
"If you have faith the size of a mustard seed,
you would say to this mulberry tree,
'Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.

I came out of church buzzing with ideas for the book – excellent. (the well refreshed – who would have thought…but the music and beauty and the autopilot did the trick) The well had been refilled and the difficulty I had in progressing with the rewrite was reduced to surmountable obstacles.

Now fast forward to the end of last week. I was within thirty pages of the end of the rewrite and all I could think about was Emily Dickinson. I had been a good girl so I allowed myself to do a little research…

You see, in my final year at Mount Holyoke (where Emily herself spent time – although in those days it was labelled a women’s seminary), I did a fabulous senior seminar on her poetry. I won’t say we read all her poems, but I may have done it (something of a fan girl back then)….somewhere I knew there was poem of her struggling with her faith that I knew would tap into my heroine’s feelings…but could I find it – no.

However I did while away a happy hour or three rereading her work, which reminded me how important poetry used to be in my life. Call it my Irish roots and grandfather reciting bits of verse to me as I sat on his lap, or my teenage need to express all that was trapped in me…poetry spoke to me and to my soul.

It saddens me to say that with the odd exception I haven’t read poetry with diligence since I was twenty-five (this is of course discounting nursery rhymes). This is a mistake, a huge one….

So, poetry…where each word is weighed and measured and given forth almost reluctantly…do you read poetry? Did you read poetry? Do or did you write it? And if you do, do you share it? (Challenge – if you do post a link in the comments)

I just stumbled across my journal from my time studying the great poet….I can clearly see the influence of studying her work on thoughts and my words. I shall leave you with one of my favourite poems of hers:

You constituted Time –
I deemed Eternity
A Revelation of Yourself-
‘Twas therefore Deity

The Absolute – removed
The Relative away –
That I unto Himself adjust
My slow idolatry –

(Apologies if I have transcribed this incorrectly as I working from my old journal …underneath it I had added the comment ‘scalding prayer’)