Friday, 17 October 2014

Mara and the Bombardment of Hartlepool.

Venue:  Central Library Hartlepool 21st October 2-4pm
Join me in Hartlepool at for my talk about my novel Children of the Storm. This story starts one morning with pupil teacher Mara Scorton, walking to school in Hartlepool  on December 18th 1914, the day Hartlepool was bombed by the Germans. Her pupils are coming from another direction. He headmaster, the fearsome Mr Clonmel, is in the school, preparing for his day,

My novel re-imagines these events through the eyes of young Mara.   Extract :
‘Mara turned a corner by one of the shipyards and nearly tripped over a man in working clo thes. He was kneeling by another man who was lying white and still in the road. Beside him stood a much younger man nervously clutching his cap. The man in the ground croaked something, but the man tending his shook his head. ‘Ah canna make out a word he’s sayin’, Tadger,’ he said,
‘The gadgie’s a Frenchie,’ said the younger man. ’Ah seen him down the dock, unloading, working like fury. The lads telt us he was a Frenchie, like.’
‘That’s what he’s talking,’ said Mara. ‘French.’
‘D’yer ken that crack, hinney?’ said the old man. ‘A bairn like you?’

The Bombardment
Hartlepool was the first place on mainland Britain to be bombed by the Germans. In the bombardment  over 100 people died as more than 1,000 shells rained down on the town for about 40 minutes from the three heavy cruisers Blucher, Seydlitz and Moltke which emerged from the mist shortly after 8am on December 16 1914. Amongst the casualties was Theo Jones, the first soldier to die on British soil in the Great War.
At dawn, six miles east of Hartlepool, shots were exchanged between them and the destroyers of the Local Defence Patrol who left to raise the
alarm. No-one in the town heard anything. The ‘Seydiltz’, ‘Moltke’ and ‘Blucher’ continued to steam towards the nearest target and the rest headed for Scarborourgh.
At 8.10 a.m. as the inhabitants were readying themselves for the day’s work, the first shell was fired. They were aiming at the shore batteries and the Lighthouse. The shell cut all the lines of communications between the batteries throwing them into confusion.
By 8.25 a.m. most of the ships had come as close as four thousand yards and had begun to pour their fire into the gun emplacements and the docks. Some of the armour piercing shells had delayed action fuses and a number bounced off the batteries into the town.
Henry Smith Terrace was dangerously close to the action. There were hundreds of people milling about, taken totally by surprise, the coastguards were doing their best to evacuate everybody safely. The air was filled with black smoke, the screams of shells passing overhead and the cries of children separated from their families. For about three quarters of an hour the bombardment continued, 1,150 shells were fired into the area killing 112 and wounding over 200.
 Amongst the casualties was Theo Jones, the first soldier to die on British soil in the Great War.

Note:  Children of the Storm is the middle novel in
Wendy Robertson's Kitty Rainbow Trilogy.

Details of Event:
Date: 21st Oct 14
Location: Central Library, 124 York Road, Hartlepool, TS26 9DE
Phone:01429 272905
Time: 14:00 - 16:00
Cost: £2.00
From the brochure.
‘A talk with local author Wendy Robertson.
Wendy Robertson is a renowned local author of historical family stories, she will be talking about her work and reading from her early novel Children of the Storm, which opens with the Bombardment of Hartlepool.'

Refreshments will be provided.
Copies of the novel will be available

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

A Commentary on Peeling Oranges by James Lawless

The central character Derek, around whom Peeling Oranges  is built, is reading yellowing letters from his mother, a heroine of revolutionary Ireland, to the man Derek thinks is his father, then in post-Civil War in Madrid:
‘…an initially neat hand succumbing to a spidery scrawl. A gush of words, impatient for ink, flying in many directions, trying to find something to stab. Written in Irish, Accent marks land randomly, surprising letters not used to stress.’

 We in England might think we share a history with Ireland. But in reading this absorbing novel I understand again what I always suspected: it is not the same history. As I read on, it dawned on me that we have more in common with the French, our fellow world Imperialists. Only the different languages divide us,

       Yet we think we share a language with the Irish. In fact we donated this English language to the Irish by force and they cleverly imported into it elements of their own and –as we know from the eminent writers in English emerging from that tradition -  transformed it into a thing of music and beauty.

 The theme of language is a strong undercurrent in this novel – almost a character in itself. English is the tongue of the oppressors and yet is universally if unwillingly used. Derek is scolded by Sinead for not speaking to her in Irish. Irish words and names (and Spanish words and names …) are scattered through the novel like a teasing code for the reader. 
        I was interested to learn that the Irish language was used as a diplomatic code to thwart the English who, during World War Two, had broken the Enigma Code but in four hundred years had never bothered to learn Irish and had even punished children for speaking it. This was especially important during and after the Spanish Civil war when Ireland officially recognised the Franco regime. believing that this gave Ireland a separate identity and and international recognition. This also made way for the declaration of Irish neutrality in the Second World War.
         Patrick, an Irish Diplomat at the court of General Franco in Madrid, is the clearest and most unambiguous character in this novel. We hear his voice through his letters and diaries, and get to know him through a visit the young Derek makes to Madrid and Barcelona.
In Peeling Oranges we move in time from the 30s to the 60s  when the revolutionary war had moved to the North of Ireland and the IRA and its heroes and heroines are still bedded in a narrative that goes back four hundred years.  This is symbolised in the persisting theme of oranges in this novel – eating, peeling them at home, picking them in Spain – the theme eventually echoed in the bitter taste of the Orange marches in Belfast.

So far, so much information and insight. This might too much to take in, if it were not for the fascinating narrative at its centre, where Derek, the lonely, neglected son of a Revolutionary heroine, and in love with such a girl of his own generation, struggles within a confusing mix of identity, history, psychology and nationhood to discover just who he is as an individual.

Derek is confused. His mother, once beautiful, is now old, becoming senile. She continues her life- long habit of being cold, cruel and rejecting towards him. Then he begins to read his father Patrick’s diaries and papers. So Derek begins to create an image of an unhappy man, madly in love with Derek’s mother, the Irish revolutionary heroine. Then there is the IRA hero lurking in the shadows of his life. And then there is the girl Sinaed - clever, committed and brave, determined to match her heroism to that of Derek’s mother.
            But Derek is tentative, not made of such heroic stuff. He struggles in the matrix of his parents’ history, hating the English, honouring the Irish and trying to become his own self. In the process he is driven unwillingly to kill and to witness the maiming of one close to him.

This novel is a fluid mass of symbolism, ideas, opinions and historical insights held together with literary efficiency by Derek’s tentative journey through his parents’ pasts into his own present. Effectively an orphan of the Revolution, he moves on just into the post-revolutionary phase of an Ireland not secured by rusty chains to the skirts of England, but emerging into the a-historical materialist world as an independent nation in the European Community.

On the cover: ‘A book to lose oneself in. Highly recommended.’ Gabriel Byrne

I certainly lost myself in it. It is a great read. 

Highly recommended. w.

Thursday, 9 October 2014

J.L.Carr's Novella: A Month in The Country,

The Novella Form
At present I am transfixed by thoughts about contemporary fiction in the form of a novella, although buried under the optimistic label of a novel,
       The reading has been interesting. ‘Novels’ by Henry James, Truman Capote, Joseph Conrad, Thomas Mann – all have won great praise for books which have been labelled ‘novels’  but which in their length (30 to 50 thousand words) and form (focused, singular, obsessive) clearly meet criteria for the novella – or what is now being called more neutrally, ‘short fiction’.
         The novella form has been something of a Sleeping Beauty up till now but has been kissed into visibility by the widespread emergence of eBooks where length is an invisible factor.

A Month in the Country
Knowing my present obsession my friend Pat steered me in the direction of A Month in the Country by J. L Carr. This is a real treasure - an outstanding 'novel' which won the Guardian Fiction Prize and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, as was another of H.L. Carr’s novels.

The Small Tale
In his forward Carr quotes a definition by Dr Johnson. ‘A novel - a small tale, generally of love.'

The year is 1920. Recovering from shell shock which persists as a facial twitch, Tom Birkin arrives in a sleepy Yorkshire village to restore ancient murals in its tiny church. As he slowly uncovers the medieval images of heaven and hell he is imbued by a sense of the medieval painter who first laid paint on these walls. Outside the church he meets the archaeologist Moon who is digging a portentous hole outside the church. Moon another man constructing his own survival after savage war experiences. Further into the shadows are the sour vicar and his beautiful wife both shell shocked by the exigencies of daily life. On the lighter edge are Mossop the stationmaster – the voices of kindness and reason - and his daughter.
          This complex work with its elaborate over-weaving of character and story and under-weaving of universal themes is told in clean prose which extends to a powerful evocation of weather and landscape that binds man to the world and can make a man’s spirit whole.
        In the introduction in my edition Penelope Fitzgerald says, ‘Carr is by no means a lavish writer but he has the magic touch to enter a re-imagined past.’

Size Isn’t Everything
A Month in the Country is only thirty five thousand words long. But there is nothing small  about this tale where Tom Birkin uncovers the painting on the wall and intuits some deep truths about the man who painted them, at the same time waking from the long nightmare of fighting in the trenches,
           Seen through Tom Birkin’s eyes, structurally near perfect, very readable and drenched with powerful meaning, this tale even has an intriguing revelation towards the end which, on examination, has been bedded into the story so far.
            Some writers might need a hundred thousand words to weave this amount of meaning and literary magic into a story. H.L Carr managed it on thirty five thousand words. That is the potential power of the novella. No small thing.

The Writer
H L Carr was a stubborn anti-establishment autodidact who disliked London ways. He was a teacher, traveller, small publisher and writer who knowingly and sometimes mischievously wove his own life right through his fiction and published novels right into his late seventies. His own life - find out from  Byron Rogers' insightful, affectionate biography  The Last Englishman - has the slightly manic tone of a picaresque novel.

The Novella
Thank you Pat for pointing me in the direction of A Month in the Country - no small thing but a very fine – I now insist - novella! Having read this great story I now have a brilliant benchmark for what may be adjudged a fine novella.
We will be discussing all this and approaches to writing your own novells at our Novella Workshop in Durham City on 25 October. 
Perhaps you might like to join us?

Thursday, 2 October 2014

Brilliant RTW Celebration of our Winning Writers

Laughter and  great conversation  at last night's Room To Write celebration for the winners and shortlisted writers in our

Room to Write Short Story Competition.

Today, from Ruth Henderson, short-listed writer, to us at  'Room to Write':

Dear Avril, Wendy and Gillian. Thank you for a lovely time last evening, it was good to talk to all the short listed writers, there's always a new friend to make. Listening to why the judges liked a particular story was so interesting, I'm looking forward to reading them all. ...You were all so kind to me, seeking me out to talk about my work.  it was obvious all the judges really had read every story, and, although I'm sure Pat Barker was kind to all of us, I was thrilled when she spoke to me with such knowledge and understanding of my story. so once again, many thanks and i wish success to you all and continuing prestige for Room to Write'                                           Ruth

Sally Wylden - , short-listed writer - talking to Pat Barker

Writers Eileen Elgey and Liz  Gill celebrate in style

Our Winner Christine Powell in the peace garden
at  the Lafcadio Hearn Peace Garden at Lafkadio Hearn Centre
at Teikyo University at Durham

Novelist Pat Barker who presented the prizes talking to two winners
Christine Powell and John Adams

rachel cochrane in earnest conversation with writers. Rachel
 will record the winning stories for her broadcasting website   

Ruth Henderson - short listed writer - in conversation.
Behind her Mike Daley Bursar  of  

Teiko University of Japan in Durham. 

In the centre here writers Kitty Fitzgerald and Carol Clewlow . With her, hand chin, middle distance, is short-listed writer Isabel Costello,

Me taking a breather  
(I am smiling inside, honestly!)

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

How Not to Waste Time as a Writer

Using my Little Red Book
to organise  my time.

I can’t count the times that  promising writer says to me -

‘If only I had the time I could really focus on this novel/article/poem/short story.

A Weird Situation

For a writer the only answer to this dilemma is to take time, to take control of your time. In doing this you will create dedicated time for you to imagine and for you to write afresh.

Writing creatively is often viewed as an inchoate, random, uncontrollable act -weirdly beyond the writer’s control based on the notion that all writers are dreamers. How does this compare with the expressive arts? Contrast this frenzied image with an artist going into her or his studio or a musician turning up at her or his rehearsal room.

Contrast this also with the reputation of highly successful present day and earlier writers -  part of whose success is built on their ability to organise their time to ensure systematic daily, weekly and monthly blocks of time to devote purely to their imagining and their writing.

Perhaps to be so successful and productive, needs the quality of what the world calls ‘selfish’. (We need a new word for this quality …) I sometimes feel that – because of their cultural brainwashing - women writers are worse at this ‘selfish’ thing than male writers.

I have often said that making time to write creatively is ‘my first priority after the safety of my children – before the house, the table, the call of friends. And these days,  surfing the Internet, tweeting. Even blogging (Though I have to say that does have its creative element.)

I have become used to to the faintly judgemental looks when I make this statement. The disbelief or disapproval comes equally from men and women of my acquaintance. But still I get my head down and write my stories, my novels and articles.

My Theory Is Based On Blocks Of Time

These blocks of time evolved during the time I was teaching full time -  first in schools then in higher education and wrote and had accepted for publication several stories and three Young Adult Novels.

This Is How My Method Evolved.

 My life in school and then college was keyed around the academic year: three terms and three longish holidays. This gave me six blocks of time  to attend to my writing as an important part not just of my time but my of identity.           Of course my preparation and my teaching also had to be properly  planned in. My teaching  commitments trained me to focus intently on a major creative  task (teaching)  and meet  deadlines (for preparation and marking).
           During the holidays I would use these skills in the free-lance way to research and write first short stories then novels which were accepted for publication. And during term times I would work spasmodically on my creations, close editing prose and developing characters and listing, brainstorming new ideas for new ideas.
        After that when I moved into writing full time I knew how to make time to write and went on write a book a year for twenty years – not ‘churning them out’ but giving them special time and space in my life to ensure quality, credibility and qualitative development.

So I thought I’d share with you my idiosyncratic views on how to make proper time in your life for your writing.

(This is not a recipe for everyone but perhaps  aninvitation to look at your own time-control more objectively as a writer and develop it systematically and – most important – give it priority in your life – first after the safety of your household perhaps.)

First you need to consider your own creative approach

Look back and estimate the light and shade of your normal practice as a writer. Estimate when you are in  a good mood and in full flow, how much writing you can do in a morning, an afternoon, a day in the week. Grahame Greene did this and aimed for and achieved 800 words a day – about five thousand words a week.  This adds up.Work out how many days in a week you can make your writing your absoluter priority. This can be as little as one our two but if you build it into your life you will be surprised how productive you become. 

When – during ‘holidays’ or purposeful breaks you increase this to four or five days you have practices in place which will ensure that you go straight into creative mode. If you have it in you’re a fine novel will grow out of this process.

Here We Go!

Make dates with yourself to  write.

1.      Choose  a block of time

           - a week, a month or several months.

In this block of time draw a line through whole days (or mornings, or afternoons),  in your diary and scrawl Writing  right across it, just as you might do if you were away on holiday. NB By ‘writing’ I don’t mean sitting at a desk, emailing, internet surfing, blogging, catching up with phone calls. You can block other times in your day(s) for those things.

2.      Choose  a space.

Chooses a space or spaces where you regularly write – a particular room in your house, a carrel in the library, a deep chair in the loungs of a favourite hotel, a corner tabe=le in a café, a car parked on the moors. (I have chosen all these places in my time…) You need to have a dedicated space for a big project.        If you draft by hand this could be a big bound notebook and  a tray on a shelf that you take time when you want to work on. Or it could be the big notebook in a rucksack ready to take to the library/bar/café/hotel of your choice.         If you are transcribing and editing, or writing directly onto the screen then you should create a folder with the generic novel title. Inside the folder should be your main manuscript and perhaps relevant informational research files, query files and any correspondence to do with this project.Perhaps you could include (my favourite) inspirational images     Always save the story file with the last date you worked on it. (The date is the best code. Easy to lose track)          

       If you are working on the computer at home it may be difficult to cultivate your 'dome of silence.' (See Below …) If so, pop your laptop into your rucksack and  make for that library carrel. If no laptop, copy the folder to a USB stick, pop that in your pocket and make for the library or any other place where you can gain private access to a computer.

3.    Cultivate your Glass Dome of Silence.

Once you develop it this approach can work in even a crowded place. They key is to become blind and deaf to everyone who is around you. It is possible. I do it. When you get this skill,  by some magic it increases your focus on your story.

(This does not, however, work in a crowded family room – children, spouses crash through the glass with ease,). In your home you need a separate space ro raise your dome – smallest room, corner of a bedroom or bathroom  works quite well, If this is not possible get out of the house into the café/library etc.

4.   Keep a Little Red Book.

Well, mine’s red. Yours could be green, pink, blue….I would say avoid black, but I don’t know why I’m saying that.
         In the front of the book brief yourself to write that day. It might be finish the bit where Francine… Or The bit where the family car crashes. Or  They bury the body. Always small scenes which are accessible enough for you to fall into them to write and start writing. 

        At first your mind will wander to other things – necessary emails, phone callse,bits of research.. If this happens turn to the back of your little red book and list them. The write down a time at least four hours ahead when you will allow yourself to deal with them. In your little red book you can list research tasks that need doing, Necessary phone calls and emails, research.

Remember on your chosen writing days such things are not as important as your story. Give your story priority on your writing days. Such task should not count as ‘Writing time’. On other days you can tweet, tickle, lunch, surf to your heart’s content.

Try all this for a year.

However weird this is, you will be surprised how you fall into a fruitful writing  rhythm when you deliberately create the time and space  for your own creativity to blossom and develop into a fresh, original story which will satisfy yourself and your readers. Perhaps even agents and publishers even in this dire climate.

TO REMIND YOU . If you are a writer anxious to complete your novel , my book The Romancer might get you going again on the road to completion,.. In The Romancer you will find my much praised Forty Day Plan For Writing a Novel which is about you as a writer organising your time on a large scale.

Happy Writing!



Saturday, 20 September 2014

Working and Playing in the Languedoc with no WiFi.

You may have noticed my two week absence on these pages. So sorry about that.

I went back to the Langudoc with A and D, my two favourite writers, for a work-play September break. The weather was stunningly hot. The woman in the stationary shop mentioned the ‘unseasonally hot weather’; the woman on the oyster stall said the same, adding ‘You should go to the beach!’ 
Cafe Writing

The hot weather ‘broke’ in the last few days and it was ‘only’ very warm in the morning and hot in the afternoon. On our last day, dragging our cases across the bridge over the River Hérault which, instead of its usual gleaming silver-green was now a churning brown, spitting trees and logs as it hurled itself towards the sea.
The River Hérault, still  in a silver state.
The big performance-pontoon had sheered away from the quayside and was bobbing about mid-river. The  Hérault  had burst its banks further upstream - a serious affair:  lives had been lost.

We all had plans for our stay.  A and D had their own reading, writing and planning  projects, My tasks were to mop up some last pieces of research for the final edit of my novel, Writing at the Maison Bleu; to read some more short fiction - Truman Capote, Edith Wharton, Henry James – in preparation for our October 25th Room To WriteWorkshop on The Novella; to write exploratory pieces towards my own new short fiction.

I also had a  plan to send  to you some ‘Postcards from Agde’ - to follow on from the ‘Postcards from Marseillan’ (scroll back) that I wrote for you in June.

This was not to be. We had quite elaborate plans to have WiFi Internet Access in our slice of a medieval house. For various reasons this didn’t materialise. We had to make do with WiFi facilities at the Melrose Café on the Quayside which was only intermittently available. In other years here we depended for the Internet on the WiFi facilities in  the library (The delightfully named Maison de Savoir). But to our chagrin this year it was closed for refurbishment.But to our chagrin this year the library was closed for refurbishment.

So –  our work/play break consisted if two weeks in the sun in dusty, atmospheric old Agde -  virtually without the Internet.

All I can say is that it was great. It was remarkably peaceful and fruitful – living and working in a kind of seclusion: no checking out, no Tweeting, for Facebooking, no emailing. There was a lot of writing, planning, talking and
thinking. And a lot of sitting in cafés, over café crème or Pastis, watching the comings and going in this busy little self-absorbed town.

A little bit of writer’s paradise, 

to  be truthful. 

On the plus side I did find two new fantastic book sources for my new novel -

Writing at the Maison Bleu.

Reading and Writing

On the minus side I really did miss writing my Postcards from Agde  just  for you. I would have written about :.

Autimn Fruits

Cooking and Writing 

A Reading Corner 

Windows in Strange Places

Wish you'd been there. Wx


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