Tuesday, 15 August 2017

The Bronze Age

I'm loving all this research into the distant past. having been camping in our tiny caravan recently, I'm very conscious of the basic human needs of shelter and water, access to food and other people. Our society has become increasingly reliant on wholesalers and retailers, communication technology and manufactured housing. I know this isn't all a bad thing, obviously we're not all squatting in roundhouses in the dark after a day of trying to harvest enough food to keep us alive for the whole winter. Life is potentially enormously better (although I'm aware I'm not speaking about everyone's life here - abject poverty still haunts large swathes of the world's population, as we know).

But imagining my character's journey through actual cold and hunger has made me very grateful for what we have what we take for granted. Our ancestors may have had bronze technology but most people relied on stone tools, the familiar animals we use now for food were lean, half wild creatures whose needs we had to place alongside our own. Dogs were only recently tamed from wolves, as wild and dangerous as gold rush huskies. All strangers were potential enemies. The woods were literally full of wolves and bears. We had to tread a fine line between high levels of vigilance and being paralysed with terror. The only thing between us and predators were spears and fire. There's evidence that if we did kill a predator, we ate it. Ate every part of a bear including its bone marrow and rendered fat. Winter was profoundly dangerous, and a lot of the work of the year was about filling that hunger gap and ensuring enough shelter, clothing and wood for burning. Life was short and incredibly hard work.

Meanwhile I find a tiny shiver of the past sitting outside until the light goes, the cold already creeping into me, the dew dropping onto my face. If I get my clothes damp or get too cold I won't be able to sleep, I'm so pampered. Sitting out in the dark of a campsite miles from a town brings out millions of stars, but every sound seems magnified. We don't have predatory animals anyway, just the odd human. But I'm scared of the cold, damp, dark, it's hardwired into me. I long for a warm hut, a wood fire, a couple of guard dogs and spear carrying hunters. This is the view of a roundhouse at Lower Merripit, where Russell did a workshop. When the fire is lit the smoke fills the roof so you have to sit down.




Tuesday, 8 August 2017

Green gatherings

I've just come back from the Green Gathering, a solar powered gathering of people who want to live a bit lighter. The food was mostly vegan (although the grill cheese stand and wood fired pizza places did a brisk trade) and all veggie. Recycling was amazing, they had places for everything. There wasn't a piece of litter from start to finish, no drunks, few drugs, lots of happy, co-operating people. We needed help moving our caravan to help our neighbours, four stewards appeared and sorted it. The medical tent had staff herbalists. There were more than enough loos (always a potential bugbear) and they were well kept. Without cars, kids ran free and clambered through trees, enjoyed all the music, fell asleep to the sound of great music. Two mini thunderstorms entertained. We heard new music, new poets. We enjoyed art and dance, there was every kind of free workshop from campaigns to laughter yoga. We watched the sun go down, we talked about the world and our impact on it, we shared stories and songs. I can recommend it. Sometimes your soul needs feeding more than your mind or your body. Music for fourteen hours a day and the odd plate of bhajis (courtesy of Lalita's South Indian Street Food), heaven. We fell in love with a  new singer/songwriter (Bea Everett) and an amazing didge player (Sika). We laughed at the Antipoet. I met up with a writer friend, Russell with songwriting ones. 

The architect of this new freedom is our elderly, tiny caravan, which we have lovingly painted with left over turquoise emulsion and made curtains from old upholstery fabric, dyed deep orange and fuchsia pink. We've padded the beds, created a tiny bathroom, filled the lockers with essentials like tea bags and hot chocolate and put a tow bar on the car (which nearly cost as much as the caravan). So far, it's enabled my elderly lumbar spine to enjoy camping four times, and it's been lovely. Russell installed a solar panel and a 12V circuit of lights and chargers (for laptop and phones) so I can camp away from the campervans with their satellite TVs and wetrooms. Instead, we can sit on the edge of a field, under a hedge, by the stream. Lovely. I look forward to more Green Gatherings. 

Thursday, 27 July 2017

Strange Stories

It's been a long time since I updated my blog but only because I've been working pretty constantly. Having a two book deal with Titan books meant writing the first draft as quickly as possible. the way I work is to write write write like mad, flaws, mistakes and cock ups as I go. Then I leave it until i forget about it. then I take it out and read it.

When I finally looked at the first draft of  A Shroud of Leaves, I realised it was a) better than I thought and b) very, very far from finished. The whole historical strand is raw and light, and doesn't really explore the main themes at all. So I've been knocking the historical strand into shape and finding bits that need to go into the contemporary strand. I've also realised how satisfying it was to write the previous sequel, partly because no-one else had to look at it! It's definitely more fun writing for yourself but it seems less urgent, you're not letting anyone down.

Meanwhile, I've had a couple of small publishers have a look at The Asylum Sisters, after I spent the first half of the summer encouraging new writers to put books out to have people have a look at them. I've been promoting the Mslexia Indie Presses Guide:


This little gem has a lot of great information in it about lots of small publishers. Don't let the name put you off, this is not a 'indie' publisher in the sens of self publishing. As I've said before, I'm still not convinced about self publishing, but I'd be very happy to be published by some of these houses. It was scary sending off the submissions - most accept chapters etc. by email - but enlightening. I've had the most generous feedback, giving me that invaluable resource - a first reaction to a read of the book. It's made me wonder if i can strengthen the book by concentrating on one of the characters, leaving her to observe the twins behaviour. Which would create more mystery, more suspense. Incredibly helpful feedback and all it cost me was a bit of nail-biting and a bit of confidence. I know self publishing seems like an easy option but I've read some fantastic books by local writers that would have been better exposed to a structural edit from an editor. It seems people are afraid to exhaust all the publishing avenues before resorting to self publishing, with all its disappointments. 

So I urge my friends and writing colleagues: I wouldn't give up until every agent, every editor and every competition is tried. 

Friday, 10 February 2017

Writing a PLAN - a new skill.

I hate being bad at something. If I sign up for a course I tend to do a lot of preliminary research first so i don't appear stupid, which when you think about it, is stupid as I've now signed up to do a course about something I already know a lot about. I find it really hard to sign up for something I'm naturally bad at like - languages. You won;t see me struggling with basic French any time soon. But here I am signed up to a new publisher (yay!) with a great new editor (yay!) who wants me to write a book plan. What's the anti-yay? Help? Howl like a wolf stuck in a hole? 

Like a lot of writers (surveys suggest about half) I start out with an idea and write and it sort of - happens. Then I run out of ideas and it's really nerve-racking, sweating in from the the keyboard in case it doesn't come back. So far, it always comes back but the new bits won't fit with the first bits and then a nasty feeling character C shouldn't come into the story at the beginning after all creeps in - writing like this means a lot of rewriting and restructuring in the second, third and ninth draft. It's downright inefficient.   

Writing a plan makes perfect, brilliant sense. I should definitely do it. Only now I've written A Baby's Bones and now I have to write a plan for the sequel, I'm finding it really hard. I have a story (the easy bit for me) but structuring it in advance has been a real challenge but I think I've done it. It's not a good outline and I have had a lot of help (thank you so much to Ruth and Jane and others who have helped) and I know it sort of meets the basic requirement for an outline - it runs linearly from the discovery of a body to the solving of the crime via some interesting chapters. 

Now my worry is - what happens if an even more fun idea occurs during the writing of the book? What happens if it veers wildly off course into the nettles of improvisation? I do have an editor and agent to run ideas past, of course, but I don't want to bother them all the time. 

On the very plus side - I can get on and write any part of the book - I could make a list of chapters and scenes and draft them out of sequence. That really appeals, I could write the scary bits when I'm sitting at a sunlit desk  - rather than sit up at two in the morning next to a window with no curtains and write the dark stuff until I can't sleep. I just wonder if they would be as creepy!

It's been a positive experience and I hope that in future I will be one of those half planned, half go-with-the-flow writers who plan islands of plot to aim for - I think that would be helpful. 

On that note, I recently wrote the first half of a book called I Will Find You and I actually did have a bit of a plan for that. I'm getting the hang of this writing business - about time.
Picture of my sunlit desk.

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Research into werewolves and monsters

Yesterday, A Baby's Bones was sent off to my new editor. Today, I'm free to fall into research for book 2. Editing is a creative process, of course, but new stories are yummy to come up with. One of the places I love (after the Island, which will always be special) is the New Forest, and I'm planning a 'research' trip to find some puzzle/crime for Sage to work on. It helps that it's close to her university and it's a very ancient bit of landscape. It has the highest concentration of really old trees of any woodland in Britain or even Western Europe, with oaks up to 600 years old and hollies over 300 years. 


It's got a lot of history, too, since William the Conqueror established it as a royal forest. I love walking in the forest, you can very easily feel like you're alone, just the sounds of forest birds or deer and ponies spooking you. It's my favourite bit of the drive down to the Island, too, as we head for Lymington and the ferry. 

So I'm looking at bronze age barrows in the forest, known locally as 'butts'. 

http://www.newforestexplorersguide.co.uk/heritage/history-in-the-landscape/bronze-age-barrows.html
I'm sure Sage would have loved to get her trowel on an unexcavated, unknown version. I'm going to play around with the idea until I have a plot, then see what the editor thinks. Should be fun!




Thursday, 8 December 2016

A challenging, difficult and wonderful year

It's been six months since I blogged, which by my standards is forever. But it's been a strange year, a challenging year, and it's challenges aren't quite over.

In April, I went to the doctor with a peculiar problem retrieving words. I don't mean not being able to find the right word, I mean the inability to find any word, or come up with totally inappropriate words. It came and went, between bouts my vocabulary and recall were normal - as was my writing. For long periods at a time I struggled to have anything like a normal conversation - but wrote 115k words. When I looked back at the words - they were as fluent as usual and I couldn't understand it. I was sent for tests at the memory clinic, under the shadow of the word 'dementia'. There was a long, long wait. They ruled out brain tumour, stroke and since I aced the dementia test it wasn't that either. A psychiatrist took me aside and suggested I might be suffering from 'extreme stress'. I pointed out that waiting for three months hadn't helped.

It's funny how you can see other people's strengths and weaknesses and not your own. It's amazing how we reach out to help, forgive and understand people we can see are struggling, while we can't forgive ourselves for the smallest slip. 

I've moved house twice in two years, I've coped with my husband's cancer and lack of certainty around the future, my biological children essentially left home, my precious step-children moved away, the health of both my in-laws declined, I wrote five books in three years and had two published, signed another deal and have just seen my first grandchild born. I didn't have a very good experience of my own grandparents, they offered little support to my parents. In their turn, when I became a parent neither set of grandparents were really engaged with the children. The prospect of becoming a grandparent - and maybe not bonding - was painfully real for a while in the summer. 

So I stepped back for a while. I disengaged from moving house and let Russell do most of the legal stuff. I gave myself time off being a wife and mother and moved some of my life down to the cottage. I trimmed back commitments, concentrated on what relaxes me, makes me better, stronger. I fell back in love with writing, which had never been a problem, and took time (and a course of antidepressants) to get better. And I fell in love with being a grandmother. Lily Alison (8lb 3oz) made me a grandmother and watching / helping / supporting my daughter through her labour reconnected me with being a mother. Although we're approaching the end of the year with my husband's parents facing change and illness, although we're only just settling in to our new home and I'm not all better yet, things are definitely on the up.

This is my beautiful, kind, smart and loving child. And her child. It has been a good year.

Friday, 10 June 2016

Off to the Island

We go to the isle of Wight a couple of times a year, mostly to catch up with friends and family but also to reconnect with the memories of the past. Living on an island is different, there is a love-hate relationship with the ferries, for a start. There is a love-hate relationship with the tourists, too, but that is common to all seaside/holiday resorts. For me, it's the extra cars on the roads, which are potholed and tatty. 

So we try and go in June or September. The weather is usually lovely, the tourists are at a sensible level, and everything is open and flourishing. then we remember why we love the Island (I can't help capitalising it) and why we miss it. We also have a lot of happy memories, especially with friends who shared our choice to home educate our children. there are sad memories too. We usually fit in a visit to the woodland cemetery where Maya, Russell's wife and my friend, is buried amongst newly planted trees.




Then there will be favourite places (Culver Down, Bembridge foreshore, Compton and too many more to name) to visit, a few shops we like in Newport or Yarmouth. But my favourite thing to do is still the ferry. I get a huge rush of affection for it - now I don't have to do it all the time - and a sense of 'going home'. Only now, I get the same feeling each way, which is lovely, because North Devon is also home. 


Meanwhile, my publishing career wanders on. The Secrets of Time and Fate is out and I will be at the Winchester Writers' Festival on Saturday and Sunday. I have two different books being read and commented on by different editors, with one delightfully complimentary refusal so far. Who minds someone coming back to you and saying sorry we can't take your book but uses the word knockout? Not me.