Get ACTIVE with your research
I’ve been fortunate to have enjoyed a few days away from home recently and apart from some much-needed r’n’r, I was able to get back on track with my writing. There’s something about being away from regular routines, shopping, cooking and all the other ‘stuff’ that just needs doing.
One of the things that I realised early on was that I was taking NOTICE of so much more than when I’m at home. Familiarity may not always breed contempt but it does, I think, breed a certain detachment from or a passive acceptance of one’s usual surroundings.
Out on Dartmoor, I could appreciate the big skies, the wonderful vistas, the stunning scenery (see above) and the joy of more exercise than I usually get at home! And thanks to other people, there was a lot more for me to notice. I have some great friends in Devon who are bird-watchers and it was quite wonderful when one of them identified a Skylark by its song. It took a while before we could actually see and watch the bird but it was well worth the effort (thank you, Helen).
Visiting new places always gets my imagination going. I only have to see a castle or a church or a timbered building and I’m already plotting a story of what happened there years ago! I take pictures for future reference, buy guidebooks and visit museums. I spent a fascinating hour at the museum in the attractive seaside town of Teignmouth. I learned that back in the 1770s, during the summer when the men were away fishing in Newfoundland, the town had a team of women rowers who would compete in regattas against a women’s team from Shaldon, the village on the opposite side of the estuary. An interesting titbit to store away for possible future use.
And I loved this old typewriter – with a complete set of keys just for uppercase letters!
I’m currently working on the sequel to my historical novel set in Oman, with about 20,000 words to go. But I’ve already had an idea for a complete change of scene and time for my next project: 12th century England when Stephen and Matilda were fighting over the crown. So I’ve visited a couple of motte and bailey castles of the period and was delighted to find another, similar, castle at Lydford on the edge of Dartmoor. This was built post-Norman invasion and the keep subsequently became a notorious prison. The ruins are open to the skies so a fair bit of imagination is required. But I just loved climbing the steps that 12th-century knights and ladies might have climbed, touching the walls where tapestries would have hung, looking out of the windows at the bailey where a pig would be roasting and travelling merchants would be selling their wares.
So, my advice this month: get out there and do some ACTIVE research. Even if it’s just going to a supermarket, try to NOTICE something different, something unusual, something out of the ordinary that you can use in your writing. It’s the little details that count, that make your reader feel at home, even in an environment they’ve never visited.
Have you been to your local museum recently? Or are you near a city that has a museum? If so, please don’t try to do it all in one go! I went to the Museum of London last month and just walked around the medieval section. That was enough for me for a morning! And I came away with a lingering image of a lady’s comb made out of animal bone and two strings of amber jewellery – just enough to get my imagination going.
Prompts and competitions are now back on their usual pages, see the Menu.
What, exactly, is Literary Fiction?
This month, I thought I would look at the subject of Literary Fiction. When I was on a Creative Writing MA course a few years ago, I canvassed opinion from lecturers, guest speakers, authors and fellow students on what they considered to be Literary Fiction.
“Oh, you know it when you read it,” was one helpful response.
“Anything that’s not a genre,” was another.
“Really good writing,” yet another.
“Writing where character is more important than plot,” said someone else and
“A thousand fewer copies sold,” said a disillusioned author.
Even a quick Google hardly comes up with anything more enlightening:
Anything that doesn’t fit into a genre; fiction that has literary merit; fiction that has value and merit in the social world; literary fiction is an artificial luxury brand that doesn’t sell.
Well, there you are!
I’ve certainly read so-called Literary Fiction that I have enjoyed and, equally, some that I haven’t, much the same as any genre fiction. But who’s to say that one type of writing has more merit than another? A very subjective judgement, I would suggest.
For me, and please feel free to disagree, I think that Literary Fiction has more fine detail than genre fiction: descriptions of places, people, thoughts and feelings, with less dialogue and less action than other genres. It also uses more literary devices than may be found in, say, crime thrillers or romances, such as metaphors, similes and imagery, and stories can often be allegories, incorporating one or more themes.
The Arts Council of England (ACE) suggests that literary fiction is definitely on a downward spiral: print sales of literary fiction are significantly below that of 12-13 years ago. And even fewer authors than before are making a full-time living from literary writing.
Sarah Crown, ACEs literature director: “It would have been obviously unnecessary in the early 90s for the Arts Council to consider making an intervention in the literary sector, but a lot has changed since then – the internet, Amazon, the demise of the net book agreement – ongoing changes which have had a massive effect.
“It’s a much more unforgiving ecosystem for authors of literary fiction today. We inevitably end up with a situation where the people best positioned to write literary fiction are those for whom making a living isn’t an imperative. That has an effect on the diversity of who is writing – we are losing voices, and we don’t want to be in that position.”
The report suggests that the decline in literary sales could be down to the recession happening at the same time as the rise of cheap and easy entertainment.
Some of the ideas that ACE is considering:
- 1) To support more individual writers through grants;
- 2) To prioritise funding of diverse organisations, particularly outside London; and
- 3) To increase support for independent literary fiction publishers
Among the “literary fiction” million sellers that I’ve read and enjoyed, you too probably, are The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger and Life of Pi by Yann Martel. Last year’s bestselling literary novel was Kate Atkinson’s A God in Ruins, which sold 187,000 copies – roughly half the 360,000 copies of Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey, the bestseller of 2015 which I thought was a really good, thought-provoking read.
(1) I’ve chosen four picture prompts this month, starting with the one I chose for the masthead this month – the pirate ship! Where could this be? The Caribbean? Africa? A Pacific Island? No! This was the sight that greeted me and a friend as we took a cold, brisk walk recently around Ruislip Lido to the west of London! The ship is still in the construction stage so I’m dying to see what it looks like finished, full of little pirates and perhaps Johnny Dep too! There’s definitely a story there!
(2) I’m writing this looking out onto a snow blizzard so I thought I’d stick to just one wintry picture! Why is this person out in such weather? Where are they going? Did they want to go out or is this a reluctant journey?
(3) What’s the look on this young woman’s face – apprehension, puzzlement, concern? What’s the building she’s leaving? What does the day hold for her?
(4) And just who are these flowers for? A bride? A funeral? A birthday? Is that the giver or the recipient? How will they be received?
These three pictures are from Unsplash – one of my favourite websites for an inspirational break in writing!
(1) I came across this interesting article about what the good thriller writer needs to know. Even if thrillers aren’t particularly your genre, this piece has plenty of good advice. Click here.
(2) If you want a short break from your own writing, take a look at this website – optimistic ways of looking at rejection plus some hard-hitting advice from famous authors.
I’ve recently read two novels that I might have easily glossed over had they not been given or loaned to me. But I am really grateful for the gift and the loan because they took me to authors and genres that I didn’t think I had time for.
Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood is a modern take on The Tempest. The director of a drama festival is cruelly sacked on the eve of what should be his greatest triumph. He plans his revenge. (Thank you, June)
I am, I am, I am by Maggie O’Farrell is her beautifully written story of the 17 times death brushed past her, so close she could feel its touch. (Thank you, Angela)
I’ll try to update the competition page later this month after I get my boiler to provide heating and hot water!
Stay warm and happy writing!
February 2018 blog
There’s just one word that sums up January 2018 for me – flu!
I was completely and utterly kiboshed by the virus that bypassed the latest jabs and attacked so many people here in the UK. With a cold, most of us are able to carry on in some way or another. With flu? Just not possible. So I spent a lot of time sleeping and when awake, day-time TV and box sets kept me as entertained as my brain needed. As I began to feel better, I started noticing things about the programmes I was watching, relating them to writing. One aspect that struck me above all others was:
The use of STATUS and POWER
Watch any drama on television and you will soon realise that the characters are all part of one or more hierarchies: it may be the most basic of all ie a family. Or it could be a business, or a school, or a social group, or a situation. Each person will be a member of different groups and will, probably, have a different status in each of the groups they belong to.
Status and power are determined by a number of different factors, including class, race, sex, gender, religion, wealth, age, education, employment, fame, experience and marital status.
Whenever we talk about status, and in particular whether someone is of high or low status, we are making a judgement. Some people regard doctors as a higher status than footballers – others may disagree. The oldest child in a family might consider him/herself to be of a higher status than their siblings. A younger sibling may disagree because the eldest has a quick temper and bad judgement.
When two characters are up against each other, they will each will have their own agenda: each trying to raise their own status in relation to the other person. To change their own status, one character must bring about a change in someone else’s. For one person to rise, another has to fall, even if they don’t admit or show it.
Power can shift for many reasons: a policeman may have the upper hand when he goes to arrest a burglar he has caught red-handed; the power changes when the burglar produces a gun.
If you watch a television series for long enough (and flu will definitely let you do that!) you’ll see that the status between any two characters will change many times over the course of a number of episodes. And it is often the quest for power, for a higher status, that is at the heart of a lot of drama.
Thinking of your story in terms of change of power and/or status is another way of planning your writing and a good way of introducing that absolutely vital ingredient – conflict.
Have a look at the story you are currently working on. Can you make changes in the status and power of your main characters more apparent to emphasise the conflict?
And if you’re wondering which particular box set I got hooked on, then I’ll confess: it was Suits. I thought I’d watch one episode, just to see Meghan Markle. And I got hooked. I’m now onto Series 5 and I’m beginning to think it’s almost as good as The Good Wife. If you like American law dramas, then I definitely recommend it.
I’ve two to recommend this month:
Firstly, Sue Healy’s here
Sue and I met on a mentorship programme back in 2013 and even then I was impressed with the amount and variety of her work. If you look at her website, you’ll see just how successful she’s been, particular in recent years. Her play Imaginationship is currently on at the Finborough Theatre in London. Her latest blog gives some really good advice about building a character profile: don’t ask yourself the usual questions, think outside the box. Thank you, Sue, and best wishes for the play.
Secondly, writer and blogger Jerry Jenkins collected the thoughts of 41 writers on what advice they would have given to themselves when they were starting out. A good read and some interesting ideas. Click here
Writing prompts for February
- On February 14th, everyone in the office/class/group/retirement home receives a Valentine’s card! But who’s sending them and what’s their motive?
- What is your favourite perfume? I don’t necessarily mean the ones that come out of an expensive bottle. But they can be included. What are the aromas that please you: newly-mown grass, hot chocolate, Irish peat fields (that’s mine), bonfires, vanilla cakes, lavender, roses, babies? Try to describe the smell and why it appeals so much to you.
- Write about a character who decides to spring-clean one particular room and finds something – weird, frightening, mystifying or just plain strange.
- Gardens are looking a little bare at this time of year although a few bulbs are beginning to break through. Imagine the flowers, shrubs, trees, bushes are in competition in their world beneath the soil, along with the worms and insects. Write a short story, play or poem.
- Take a current news story and use it as the basis of a fictional story eg ambulances queuing outside hospitals; not enough staff in care homes; your local M&S closing down; the gender pay gap; going 1mph over the speed limit; the football transfer deadline; walking 10,000 steps a day.
- Your bank statement shows you’ve got £10,000 more than you think you should have. After making enquiries, you’re told it’s genuine, it’s yours but you cannot be told who’s given it to you. And you have to spend it in the next week. What do you do?
- You’ve just had delivery of your new super-duper refrigerator. But as soon as you put something into it, it starts talking to you! Give your fridge a 2-minute monologue. What would it say to you?
- What IS Father Christmas up to? (See January prompt) He’s had a holiday and now he’s back at work looking for next Christmas’s must-have: is it a toy, a robot or something from the past?
Wishing you a good February – healthwise and writing-wise.
A New Year and I’m already beset with worries about resolutions. Should I join the gym – again? Shall I buy that watch that will monitor my fitness? Do I really need a new laptop? How many words should I aim for each day?
I know some people hate them but I actually find New Year Resolutions helpful and motivating. I even make a point of checking up on them every four months – as I do for my writing students so they can’t escape them either!
But for New Year Resolutions to work they must be:
REALISTIC and MEASURABLE.
If you are working full-time and have a family to look after, then writing the next block-buster in twelve months probably isn’t going to work. But outlining the plot, doing character profiles and writing six chapters probably will.
If you like writing stories for your local writing group, then perhaps you could push yourself a little further in 2018 and decide that you will enter six outside competitions this year.
If you feel you’ve reached an impasse with your writing (some people call that Writer’s Block), perhaps changing genre might help. Set yourself the target of researching a new genre, such as steampunk or playwriting or writing for children, and writing at least one piece in that new genre.
Me? I’m going to tell you my resolutions for 2018 so I can’t hide!
- To self-publish the novel I started writing for my Masters back in 2013. It’s done the rounds of the agents so now I’m going to take charge.
- To finish the sequel to that novel. I’m more than half way there and I love directing the fortunes of my characters.
- To submit at least one other piece of writing in a different genre, such as a radio or stage play.
I heard a really inspiring feature on Radio Four’s Today programme just after Christmas about prisoners who are teaching fellow inmates to read. Volunteers from The Shannon Trust go in to guide the teachers once a month while the teachers and pupils meet up to five times a week, for 20 minutes each time.
Apparently half of our prison population of 85,000 have a reading age of 11 or under. When poet and writer Ben Okri was guest editor on the Today programme, he went into HMS Isis in Thamesmead South East London and spoke to some of the prisoners involved in the scheme.
These are some of their comments:
- I was always hanging around with the wrong crowd.
- I lost a lot of confidence in not reading so I didn’t speak much.
- I felt inadequate, out-of-place.
- I can write Christmas cards now.
- I can read the Harry Potter books.
- When you can read you can push yourself much further.
- I can get a job and feed my family.
One prisoner learned so he could read to his children. “I have been given what I needed to encourage me to stay out of trouble when I get outside,” he said. “I completed a book challenge and as my prize I asked for two books to read to my children. I hope that me learning will encourage my children to do it too.”
It’s not only prisoners who didn’t learn to read when they were at school. I’ve spoken to a number of adults who grew up in rural parts of Ireland. When it came to harvest-time, they were needed to help out on the farm – no argument! But their education suffered and it’s only years later, perhaps when they get on well in a job or their children want help with homework, that they suddenly find they need the skills of reading and writing.
This is the link to the Ben Okri feature: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p05s5pl3
And to the Shannon Trust at work in Swansea prison:
Asking for help
One of the best experiences I’ve had was volunteering at a Basic Skills centre in Harlington, West London, some 18 years ago now. We helped people of all ages, cultures, jobs and backgrounds, all of whom had had the courage to say “I can’t read. Can you help me?” To see the progress they made, little by little, week by week, was truly inspiring and humbling.
That experience got me into teaching and I haven’t stopped since! I’ve taught computer skills to “silver surfers” and it’s such a joy to see the smiles on their faces when they learn to put photos into their Word documents or do a calculation in Excel! Then I got a job teaching Creative Writing and I just love it! I am so amazed at the ideas people come up with. Having been a journalist and editor, I feel I can help with the basics: grammar, spelling, punctuation and sentence construction, plus story structure, plotting, characterisation and motivation. But all my students leave me way behind with their creative ideas!
I’ve recently put my name forward to be a “listener” at a local junior school – going in once a week to listen to individual read out loud. I’m so looking forward to the new term in 2018 and to meeting the youngsters who may well be our writers of the future.
You can find out more about this scheme here: http://www.schoolreaders.org
- The BBC writers room is open for drama scripts (Film, TV, radio, stage, online and children TV/Radio) until January 15th. http://www.bbc.co.uk/writersroom/send-a-script
- The Little Theatre at Hebden Bridge is asking for entries for its debut one-act playwriting competition. Deadline for submissions is January 31st. If you are interested, email firstname.lastname@example.org and look at their website http://hblt.co.uk/diary/one-act-play-festival-play-write
- The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook holds a free, open, short competition each year. This year there are four places on Arvon retreats to win. There is no theme. Deadline is February 13th. Stories for adults of up to 2,000 words. https://www.writersandartists.co.uk/competitions
- It’s 50 years since Hey Jude was released by the Beatles. 50 years? Really? Yes!! If you admit to being old enough, what do you remember about the Beatles? Do you have a tale to tell? If you’re younger, write about your favourite band.
- It’s 250 years since the first publication of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Where have all the door-to-door salesmen gone? Tell the story of one such person.
- Do some research and find out what other anniversaries are being celebrated this year. Choose one and write either an article or a short story based on your choice.
- First-footing is a ritual in Scotland at New Year. But what if your first visitor is
(a) a complete stranger or (b) an alien?
- Set 2 minutes on a timer and write down as many words as you can think of that describe what 2018 might bring for you.
- You remember someone at the office party giving you a scratch card as a Secret Santa Christmas present. But now you can’t find it. What happens?
- Write a story (you determine the length or time) that starts:
“Wait!” The voice echoed across the deserted car park. Damn! Why hadn’t she/he left with the others?
- I understand that, in the United States, January is designated as
THANK YOU MONTH. Write a thank you letter to someone you wished you’d thanked but didn’t, for whatever reason.
- Write for five minutes non-stop about WINTER.
- Write as Father Christmas looking ahead to 2018.
Hints and tips
I’ve come across a few tips from authors that I thought might be worth passing on for the New Year.
- Zadie Smith recommends: work on a computer that is disconnected from the Internet.
- Jonathan Franzen reckons: Interesting verbs are seldom very interesting.
- Helen Simpson says: The nearest I have to a rule is a Post-it on the wall in front of my desk saying ‘Faire et se taire’ (Flaubert), which I translate for myself as ‘Shut up and get on with it.’
- And James Patterson suggests: I’m always pretending that I’m sitting across from somebody. I’m telling them a story and I don’t want them to get up until it’s finished.
Happy Writing for 2018 and do let me know how you are getting on.
First a catch-up on various happenings during November.
- I didn’t manage to complete NaNoWriMo 😦 Once again, life got in the way and I wasn’t able to keep up to the 1,666 words a day. But, on the plus side, it did get me back to a project that I had stopped in the summer. The break has done me good and I’ve been able to get going again, with enthusiasm. I’m hoping to complete this project – the sequel to my previous novel – by Easter.
- I went to the book launch of the friends I mentioned last month – Jack Bold’s QUOTA. Brian and Jackie are long-time members of our local writing group here in south Hertfordshire so they were very much at home amongst writing friends. They recounted how the idea for their novel came from one of the flash fiction competitions held regular by the group. They talked about the ups and downs of collaborating; the editing process; choosing covers and marketing their book. And they read a couple of extracts from the book. Their talk – and book – were well received and it has given them confidence in going forward with other marketing evenings. Their book is on sale on here
- I’ve booked a week’s writing retreat for next year at the end of March. I think we all like something to look forward to, particularly in these dark, winter days. So I took the plunge and signed up at a place in North Devon. A writing friend went there two years ago and loved it. You get your own room with a desk. Three meals a day are all catered for so you don’t have to think about shopping or cooking. And you can be as sociable, or not, as you want. I’m looking forward to it already and I’ll report back in April.
Writing advice: I faced a dilemma this week which got me thinking writing-wise!
I’ve recently been going down to a local swimming pool early each morning, hoping to avoid the rush. One morning, there was just one person in the pool so I had the choice of all the lanes. Should I choose fast, slow or “other”? I was tempted by the fast lane but I knew as soon as I got going, some fit, young, lithe and very fast male would be getting in my way!
So I chose the slow lane and then comfortably fitted around the other two people who eventually joined me. Yes, the fast, young…… male did turn up and proceeded to splash us all from the fast lane!
But it made me wonder about the use of the terms slow and fast. In comparison to what? If Ian Thorpe were to choose to swim slowly, he’d still be a hundred times faster than me.
If you describe something in your writing as beautiful, remember that is a totally subjective word ie it means something to the person (or character) who’s writing but possibly not the same to the reader. Instead of using such a word, why not try to describe what makes that person beautiful eg their smile, the light in their eyes, their caring attitude. Note I didn’t mention hair, lips, bone structure, makeup or figure – that sort of beauty is very much in the eye of the beholder!
Similarly with comparative adjectives and adverbs. An elderly person might well be moving more slowly than a younger adult but probably at a similar speed to a toddler. One exam question might be hard for one pupil but easy for another. It will very much depend on the circumstances of your character and how they relate to the other characters or events around them.
Prompts: Write your Christmas/winter/snow stories now and keep them for next year’s competitions.
- Snowed in – think of what this means to you and then use some of those ideas, images and thoughts in a 400-word story.
- Write a story for children, involving a Christmas tree with no presents.
Another story for children – written from a penguin’s point of view.
- A Family Christmas – emotions run high, there’s an argument but something happens to make it all right. A 600-word story.
- Homeless at Christmas – what do they have to look forward to on Christmas Day
- A shopping centre at Christmastime from the point of view of
(a) a Christmas elf
(b) a person with lots of money and
(c) a shop assistant catching a shoplifter.
Start your story with dialogue.
- A poem about snowflakes.
Tips: I thought I’d pass on some Google tips from the company that looks after my computer. They send me regular emails about safety, viruses, hacks, backing up and all the things we know we should be doing! These aren’t necessarily writing-related but I just thought they could be helpful.
- If you receive a phone call from a number you are not sure about, you can type the full number into Google and it will display the name and address associated with that number.
- You can use the Google search engine as a calculator: type in the maths problem (eg 567*45) and when you press the return key, the answer will be top of the list.
(* for multiplication and / for division)
- You can even track airline flights. Simply enter the airline and flight number to display the status of an airline and its arrival time.
I hope you all have a most enjoyable festive time and that you receive some really good “writing” gifts – we writers can never have too many notebooks!
And if you have a spare ten minutes in between all the activities, why not start thinking of your Writing Resolutions for 2018? I’ll have some ideas for you next month.