Monday, 17 November 2014

Ideas and Creative Research: A Novelist's View

Last Thursday night one of the readers in a crowded library workshop asked a familiar question,. Where do you get you
r ideas? Do you ever run out of ideas?

My ideas come from everywhere I go, everyone I see, every  thing I see. Twentieth century history is often involved.  Ideas will settle into a special pocket in my mind and stay almost unnoticed, lying there like pieces of coral slowly accreting further ideas and other images and becoming things of innate power and intricate potential. These images and ideas might come from books I read, films I see, newspaper accounts, letters, objects I notice at an auction or a car-boot sale.

Then later – sometimes years later –one of these ideas will swim to the surface of my mind etched all over with an urgent request that now is the time to write. Now is the time to plunge into the idea with instinctive writing and proceed to find a place for the story  and to enhance and inhabit the story with characters. Now is the time for purposeful creative research to fix a time and a psychological frame for the story.

This simultaneous creative search will involve histories, timelines, biographies, first person accounts, library, museum and art gallery visits as well as location visits with drawing book or camera in hand. All this allows me to see the world through the eyes of my characters in their time and place and permits the story to develop its own authentic reality.

Once all this is bedded down in my conscious and subconscious mind, then I can go forward and write and write so that the novel can blossom into a whole thing, ready for the more normal proofing and editing process.

By now, having taken that leap into fiction, the original idea has evolved into and entirely different thing, unique in itself. In the meantime another idea is down there in the brain pocket accreting its own associated ideas and images…

A few years ago, as a Christmas present, my daughter gave me two paintings that she;d picked up at a London auction. They are pale, understated water colours: one is of a beach with gypsy family on holiday with a book about Van Gogh sitting on what looks like a painter’s stool; the other is  a hut filled with bunks and draped with washing, occupied by pale men. The date is` 1955. The artist is named. By New Years Day a strong  idea about these paintings and this painter clearly settled down into my brain pocket.

Years later this idea has bobbed up with all sorts of new ideas stuck to it; it is already inhabited by two characters. I have now almost completed  the creative research and begun writing what I think will be a short novel involving this idea.
Here we go again. It’s not just the ideas. It’s what you do with them.

Extract:'...Now the three older Romany boys had abandoned their ballgame and begun to turn hands-free somersaults on the sand. One boy managed to do four somersaults ins succession and Maggie couldn’t resist clapping. The men stopped playing cards and looked across at her, unsmiling. The somersaulting stopped. The smallest of the boys ran to stand beside his mother who was sitting under her own canopy, embroidering something wrapped in a white cloth...' 

Wednesday, 12 November 2014


 OLIVIA OZANNE IS MY HERO’ Reader’s comment. 

We all need Room  To Write.

In my life of writing I have had various rooms: a pasting table in a crowded bedroom in a tiny house when I was young; a corner in the first house when I was married  house, then a room with shelves
in the next one. 
In this present house  for many years I have had the treat of a sunny book-lined study. Then I surrendered this to one who has more need of sunshine and light than me and had returned to a crowded corner in another room.

But now at last  I have been sorting out my house, and have developed my old dining room into my  new writing room – made myself  a beautiful writing space. I have been emptying drawers. peering in boxes throwing things out,  re-discovering real treasures.

One of these treasures was a set of three images of inter-war Moscow which I bought in Moscow in 1991. Andthe six notebooks that I wrote during my stay there.

This made me think again about my precious novel JOURNEY TO MOSCOW I have written HERE about how my experiences in Moscow inspired the novel – two love stories rolled into one at a time of great change, My middle-aged heroine, Olivia Ozanne is very popular with readers – see the review extract below.

So, my newly rejuvenated space has proved both inspiring and refreshing making me eager  to  get on with creating my new novella..

Most importantly this has all  inspired me to make offer it my readers in an Amazon Countdown Offer  of 99p for the week beginning 13th November. I hope you get hold of it and I hope even more that you enjoy it.

It is also available from Amazon in paperback.. I do have a few paperbacks of Journey to Moscow here at £.4.99 +, P and;P. I will sign and dedicate if you request. (Contact top left here). 

I am also interested in your views on this or any of my novels. I enjoy writing them and I so hope that you enjoy reading them.

Sample  Five star Review ….
Anne A. gave Journey to Moscow five stars on Amazon. She said:
'Olivia Ozanne is my hero- totally honest about who she is, warts and all, knowing she has failed as a mother and wife but always remaining true to herself and keeping the faith with her writing.
As always, this writer has woven an intricate tale with many memorable characters, the love of her life Volodya, the grey and brown Aunties, her daughter and son, even the odious Kendrick. They will all remain in my head for a long time and when I say you must read this book, I really mean it!'

For other five star Reviews see HERE

Tuesday, 4 November 2014


My Guest this month is Irish Writer James Lawless, whose novel Peeling
I so enjoyed and commented on, HERE on on Life Twice Tasted.  Readers will be interested in James creative point of view and many of the points he makes here will chime with both experienced and aspiring writers. He certainly makes me want to read more of his books. W.

James says:
"I write what I hope is accessible literary fiction. Normally the initial impulse is the itch of an embryonic character forming, and when I start to work on him or her  that dictates the plot. In other words character driven narrative.
In some of my novels that demand historical research, the more I research  the more the work seemed to take off like a type of osmosis from my reading. Because I write poetry, thia  informs what has been described as the sometimes lyrical style of my writing.
I think good and memorable writing is almost as important as a good storyline and I strive to combine both, often spending a long time on the construction of a sentence or a mot juste.
How about the evolution of style and content in your novels? W.
Peeling Oranges, my first novel, was driven by my quest to understand things that had been inculcated into me like idealism, religion, nationalism and one’s native language. So this novel, as it is with a lot of first novels, had autobiographical elements even though the characters are fictitious.
From there I moved on to a wider canvas. I write a novel essentially to find out something. For example my second novel For Love of Anna explored the devouring monolith of capitalism and when I wrote Finding Penelope I wanted to see the world from a woman’s point of view. I believe to be an artist one needs to be able take an
androgynous perspective,

And what about the writing process itself? W.
The writing process  affords me the freedom  to explore the why? of things. I believe life is not what you make it (which is a luxury for many) but what you make of it. I believe there is an ascetic  and spiritual calling to be a writer or artist and, as Virginia Woolf would agree, there is no time for messing about. That is not to say you take yourself unduly seriously, just that you  should take your art seriously.

So, how do you see the role of historical figures in your fiction? W.
I used historical figures in Peeling Oranges such as Franco and de Valera and Michael Collins who have cameo roles, and in my latest novel American Doll I use a lot of factual stuff about 9/11 as background. But I don’t believe in recreating say a fictitious Michael Collins as a main character in a novel. I believe such writing is a form of cheating and, while one does a certain amount of re-imagining, it is not a true imaginative creation as a lot of material is ready provided. Besides if I want to learn about Michael Collins, I would prefer to consult primary factual sources, rather than have to wonder what is true in a second hand interpretation.

Where did the original impulse to write come from? W.
The seismic jolt of my mother’s sudden and premature death propelled me into writing. Up to that time death was something remote that happened to other people.
Also there was a lot of insularity and provincialism when I was growing up which I explored in an attempt, as Joyce would say, ‘to escape the nets’. My European travels, particularly in Spain (I did a degree in Spanish), helped to broaden my world view.

And which writers have inspired you? W.
I love Virginia Woolf  for her attitude to the novel as an art form and the beauty and resonance of her prose as in To the Lighthouse. I admire James Joyce of course for stretching our limits and Cervantes for starting the whole thing off. I appreciate  Pasternak for his poetry and the purity of his vision and the sacrifices he made for his art are an inspiration.

What about the role of research in your writing? W,
Up to now there are have been types of novels that I write: the purely creative and then  the creative with research backup. For Peeling Oranges I researched in the national archive which had opened to the public at the time to reveal a lot of previously censored material about the Irish and Spanish civil wars. The research took over two years before I even started the novel. The novel Knowing Women however sprang from the source of the creative well and factual references would have been subliminal and contemporary. American Doll brought me back to research again, which took about a year before I put creative pen to paper, although all along I had the embryos of characters forming in my head.

And what do you particularly enjoy about writing?W.
As I said the opportunity it affords to explore the why of things. Sometimes in conversation, one thinks in hindsight of what one should have said. Writing gives you the time to say exactly what you mean. Also I would find life rather dreary without having a story in its formation to carry around in my head.

 Do you have a writing routine? W.
I have converted a small bedroom in my suburban house into a study believing, as Virginia Woolf does, that one needs a room of one’s own to create. The trouble is the internet frequently intrudes and I lack the will power to turn it off. I counteract this frequently by having recourse to my cottage in the mountains of west Cork which is internet free, and therefore is better for forcing one to engage with the written word.
 I write best in the morning, but a lot of my time is taken up at the moment in corresponding with translators of my works. I often take a manuscript with me on a sea holiday. Sitting on a chair close to the waves is ideal for editing as well as being lenitive.*

And your latest work? W.
For Love of Anna is my second novel and was originally published in 2009. It is heartening to know its relevance is valued and it is still in demand, prompting a new edition in 2013. There are three main strands running through it. Firstly, it may be read as a poignant love story — Anna is a ballerina with whom the main protagonist, the university student, Guido van Thool, falls in love.
But Anna is also an acronym for Anarchists of the New Age, which brings us to the second dimension of the novel as an ideological story positing ideas in the mind of the philosophy student Guido, in the wake of the collapse of Russian communism and the dilution of oppositional politics, on what alternatives there are to the all-devouring monolith of corporate capitalism.
Anna wants to steer Guido away from this sort of 'dangerous' thinking, but his friend, the anarchist Philippe, keeps goading him. Paralleling the lives of the lovers is that of a corrupt judge, Jeremiah Delahyde (the third strand) who literally crashes into the world of Guido and Anna on a fatal New Year's night."

You can check out reviews of this book at

Opening lines of For Love of Anna
Guido van Thool, blond head downcast with little round spectacles perusing a book, is about to enter the door of Loti’s cafĂ© in the old quarter of Potence when he bumps into a girl, knocking pumps out of her hands. He apologises, picks up the pumps, lets his book fall in the process, picks it up and rising, reddens slightly, as his eyes are drawn to long shapely legs protruding from a white wool coat.
         The girl smiles doe-eyed, and his mind becomes suffused with the idea that he has just bumped into the most beautiful girl he ever saw, and she’s about to walk away....
Peeling Oranges
For Love of Anna
The Avenue
Finding Penelope
Knowing Women

Rus in Urbe

Clearing the Tangled Wood: Poetry as a Way of Seeing the World

NB. These books have been translated into several languages and can be checked out at
The Avenue or Finding Penelope could be good novels to start with.

* A rare thing! I had to look up 'lenitive'! It is absolutely apposite here. The learning curve continues... W.

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Harriet Evans Writes about Dorothy Whipple for Persephone

I have bought several novels published by Persephone Books for myself or as presents either by ordering online or visiting their exquisite shop in Conduit Street in London. They make marvellous presents for reader- and writer-friends.

This publisher - dedicated to reprinting neglected fiction and non-fiction mid twentieth century books, mostly by women - must be unique on the contemporary publishing scene in that they show high respect writers and readers and have a brilliant sense of the aesthetic and physical nature of books.

This was brought home to me when I came across a copy of their  2014 winter catalogue called The Persephone Biannually, It is truly a beautiful object featuring paintings and images from the 20th Century art and essays by contemporary writers which serve as forwards and afterwards of the re-published novels.

I was particularly delighted to read Harriet Evans's* passionate and iconoclastic essay introducing Dorothy Whipple's novel 'Because of The Lockwoods.' It is worth getting hold of  Persephone Biannually just for this essay alone. Like me you will be movedo to buy Dorothy Whipple's Persephone novel. 

In her essay of appreciation Harriet Evans says 

'... the world of Literary London, for want of a better expression, is today perhaps more sexist and snobbish (especially geographically snobbish), almost unbelievably, than it was when she was writing, than in the time when she was writing and the cultural tide of opinion and the cultural tide of of opinion, is these days against her. Another reason why Whipple has been disregarded by the literary mainstream is that we still live in a sexist world and in addition one where writing from the North of England is undervalued.'

Looking back on a lifetime of  writing from the North of England I can heartily endorse this.

*Harriet Evans, now a very successful novelist, was once my own very much appreciated editor. W.

Friday, 24 October 2014

A Novelist’s View of the Emerging Characteristics of the Novella

 All  novelists have their own vision of the nature of the novel,

Me? As a novelist I come from a lifetime of reading hundreds, probably thousands of novels and writing a couple of dozen , I guess I have taken
Reading, writing, research -
all part of embarking on a novella
the novel form for granted. 

On reflection, in addressing the task of writing a novel I have seen it as a long piece of work: a story of between eighty and a hundred and twenty thousand words - with a distinctive range of characters; set in an authentic time in history up to the present day;  in a recognisable place or moving between recognisable places in the world.

I would see the novel  as having a core group of varied and characters with one or more probably two characters at the centre of this group, one of whom may be the narrator. In the action of the novel the spotlight might fall on different members of the core group at different times, often to illuminate the life journey, the transformation and the quest of the central character.

Of course this is a lot of stuff , but the length of the novel allows elbow-room to explore and illuminate all these aspects of a narrative. I like the form because in many ways it fits the size and hyperactive nature of my imagination. A novel can be leisurely, exploratory, urgent and illuminative in part and in turn. It can explore different points of view and leave space for the reader to join the narrative with her or his imagination and link it all together into a shared fictive world.

Tension has greater or lesser a part to play in the long novel – it informs the strong forward movement of the narrative and the character development. Tension can be evident more strongly in the thriller, adventure or crime genre – sending the reader hurtling through the novel alongside the hero or villain figures. Other novels allow themselves a more leisurely approach to their heroes’ journeys, allowing psychological exploration and thematic speculation more space for the reader to enter the action.

So what might the novella – sometimes called the ‘short novel’ - lose of all this in a form that only runs to a length of – arguably - thirty to fifty thousand words?

One might argue that it should lose nothing  - except perhaps bodies. As one studies this form with its long history in European literature and its hidden history (for reasons worth exploring) in English language literature –one begins to realise that where the novella is concerned, anything goes. Having recently read novellas in some numbers it seems to me thar the only common denominator between novellas is that they are short.

Brainstorming my new novella 

Read some of my  initial thoughts in relation to JL Carr's Month in the Country. HERE 

And  log in for  further thoughts on the Novella on this page after our exploratory Workshop at the Lafkaido Centre in Durham City tomorrow. Look HERE for Avril's take on our event.

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


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.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...