Friday, 3 July 2015

Postcard 5 from Marseillan. Abby sat up in bed...

 Inevitably, sitting here on my balcony in sunny Marseillan, I am fizzing up a new story – the next novel or novella or whatever it may be. On element of this is the waiting, waiting for characters to walk off the streets and into the novel. This has happened before. In many places, at many times.

Yesterday I was in the city of Agde yesterday, feeling so affectionate about the narrow streets, the ancient atmosphere. I spent some sitting beside the magically green river Hérault. The quayside is busy now with cafes and travellers but still in my mind’s eye  I see bustling traders and fishermen, fishing boats and tall ships trading exotic spices for Langedocean wine and oil in this port that goes back to 600 BC.

This is the place that inspired two of my novels: An Englishwoman in France, which goes back to the Roman occupation of this region, and most recently Writing at the Maison Bleue which goes back to the German occupation in World War 2...

I’ve been meaning to write some posts about the role of characters in the writing process and how one builds on the seeds of a character after he or she has walked into your mental and imaginary space. I thought first I would reflect on characters in Writing at the Maison Bleue with reference to a helpful article I stumbled on. I’ve already mentioned my conviction that the best writing follows intuition and naturally derived insight. But here in the relaxed sunshine I thought an exercise in back-checking might be useful. This article mentions four elements: a driving need, desire, ambition or goal; a secret; a contradiction; and vulnerability

Of course my characters in Writing at the Maison Bleue are already made - Francine on her bicycle, Joe with his rucksack - living, breathing and striding out between two covers. But in this series of occasional posts I will look at all eight characters in the light of this article and see if I have hit the mark. 

What do you think?


In this excerpt we meet Abby:

Abby Constantine sat up straight and yawned. The rough fabric of the hostel sheet folded rather than slid down her smooth form. Felix lay against the pillow admiring the way fine dark hair gathered like an arrow in the small of her back. He laid his finger on the nape of her neck and allowed it to sketch a line to just that point.
She shivered slightly. ‘Don’t do that, Felix.’ Her light voice was well modulated, low key. Felix had a good ear and had always known that he could never make love to a girl with a voice like a corn-crake, no matter how beautiful she was. He’d fallen for Abby first because of the silver tones of her voice. She was very pretty, if too plump to be beautiful, and she could be violent and crude in many ways. But she had the voice of an angel and that was enough for Felix.  

More characters and excerpts soon…

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Postcard from Marseillan 4: Holiday Reading Delights

In my job as a writer I read books all the time – but however they are defined by the pleasure principle they mostly – whether fiction or fact – are associated with ‘work’.
But here on holiday I join with D, and S, in reading and relaxing and generally sharing tastes and inspirations with my fellow travellers, I arrived with Miranda Seymour’s evocative Robert Graves biography half finished in my Kindle.  (D and S, who came by car, brought their pile of hard- and paperbacks.)
Up to press S. has read the fivebooks, courtesy of his Kindle, and D I come a close second, havng read three books each.
Having finished reading the Robert Graves book I paused for thought..
I had thought I knew about Robert Graves from my rounded and grounded research for more than one novel involving World War One, I had joined him in saying Goodbye to All That and as a feminist I had naturally rather sided in the eccentric ideas in his The White Goddess,
But as I finished reading the book on the long balcony I knew I had enhanced my understanding of this prodigiously talented, inspired, energetic, magisterial, charismatic, sexually repressed character who acted into older age like a mischievous boy; who glorified women and at the same time unknowingly used and repressed them. Of course he met his egotistical equal in Laura Riding. The term folie a deux was made for those two.
I relished this great informative read – which, on reflection, I might not have finished had I not been on holiday here.
I moved on to a novel that D. had just finished – a Irène by Paul le Maitre - a book recommended for reading in France by her Stoke Newington  bookseller. This is a gruesome thriller whose apparent central character is Camille, a highly likeable detective. This novel is very graphic. I had to close my eyes now and then to the description of much bloody mayhem but the novel is such a good and clever read (translated by Frank Wynne) that it’s worth it, The other main character is a shadowy serial killer obsessed with the crime novel genre – reflecting I think the high focus of the writer her Pierre le Maitre who, in the end, plays a rather neat trick on the writer.
But after that it was like a drink of cool water to move onto On the Wilder Shores of Love by Lesley Blanch and her god-daughter Georgia de Chamberet. Compared with Irène it’s a light, easy read. It is packed with anecdotes of a Bohemian working and personal life of an artist and writer against the backdrop of the great war-and-peace dramas of the 20th Century. She blossomed in the ‘artistic melting pot that was London between the wars.’  In her high octane life names like Marlene Dietrich, Cecil Beaton and Vivien Leigh flit casually across the pages of this remarkable memoir.
Appropriately subtitled A Bohemian Life and a bit random in presentation, this is a memoir of a free spirit who shoots through the years like a meteor obeying her impulses and driven by a fascination for the exotic East, even before she travelled that far.
In her childhood and youth Lesley Blanch lived the grandly impoverished life that the British upper classes seemed to embrace so well in those days,
There were shortages of butter and sugar. Face cream was scarce so I nourished my face with lard and then washed it off; otherwise it went rancid and smelled. We didn’t have hot water so I bathed in Piggy’s house,
[…] My mother had been quite well off, but the money trickled away gradually. The Fabergés the traveller had given me were sold. I left the Slade in 1924: I had to earn my living double quick!
The most affecting part of this autobiography is her graphic account of her unusual childhood, as the child of a strange, devoted couple who, encumbered with grand Victorian certainties, had trickled down to the mundanities of life in Chiswick at the start of the Twentieth Century.
This memoir was put together when Lesley Blanch was well into her old age, with the editorial support of Georgia de Chamberet. She lived and worked on until she was 103.
Very reassuring. There’s hope for me yet!
Happy holiday reading.
Wish you were here.


At Our Front Gate 

Monday, 29 June 2015

Postcard 3 from Marseillan. Treats in store!

As a non-cook and non-foodie co-traveller I hope I have something to offer here in terms of conversations and observations  at the holiday house where both the lovely D and S, are food aficionados  in this territory where food is harvested fresh and enticing from the sea and the land in an astonishing and inspiring variety.
The thing is, although I don’t cook myself, I’m interested in talking more generally about the history and cultural importance of food and cooking,  and the whys and wherefores of its significance here in the South West. This is a wonderful extra to the exploring, reading, drawing and painting that is at the core of this stay.
So it’s a special pleasure to sit at the balcony table among the palms and pines of thie house in Marseillan where I’m lucky to enjoy good food in great company every evening.
As a writer I relish generous feedback on my work from people who would rather not put pen to paper themselves. As I said, I don’t cook myself, but here in this special house in Marseillan I’m keen to  give proper and appreciative feedback to the lovely D and S, who apparently effortlessly produce food to be dreamed of from the cornucopia which is the Languedoc.  

There is a heritage of cooking here. D. picked up a book at the Marseillan Plage brocante called ‘Chez Constant’.by the chef Christian Constant.  This is a cornucopia of recipes from here in the South West.

On tonight's menu is Jansen's Temptations. Surprisingly, this originates not in the Languedoc but it Sweden. It involves Onions, Anchovies,  Potatoes, and Creme Fraiche, Apparently you bake until soft, add breadcrumbs and bake on until it is crisp, I'm here while it is baking, It smells wonderful.

Treats in store!Wish you were hereWx
Later. It tasted absolutely delicious,

Saturday, 27 June 2015

Postcard 2 from Marseillan: On the Beach with Barney

On the edge of the port of Marseillan is a small beach with a colourful, often deserted,
children’s playground and a café inhabited by the fit and young who come to train and enjoy cable skiing, where they are hauled on a wire out through the shallow, still water of the étang,* creating a satisfying spray before they turn right round and return in an equally dramatic watery fashion.
                Apart from the buoys that protect their path there a few motor boats casually tethered. And dangerously near the shallow shore a small yacht is anchored, its sails folded like the wings of a perching bird.
                A family group in shades of pink and red are picnicking close by on the beach, keeping an eye on their craft. Two lone women, one topless, lie separately, sunbathing and reading for half an hour before packing up and departing.
               A lone man – tall and tough – arrives on a gleaming motorbike in search of a swim. He wades out and, finding the water never reaches above his knees, resorts for a while to floating on his back. Then, towelling his hair, he strides back up the beach, flings himself back on his motorbike and roars off to find a more swimmable beach. 
 And here we are:  four people and Barney the Border terrier – for whom paddling up to one’s knees is the ideal thing. Normally placid and very philosophical, Barney comes to life in the water, leaping about, swimming and breasting the shallow waves.        S and D plodge beside him, kept busy throwing his seaweed scented stick. They throw it a hundred times. Barney is sad when the fun stops. He loves the stick and makes quite a business of  burying it safely before he is encouraged to come back up the beach towards us  Once he reaches us this tranquil dog who rarely barks or loses his rag barks loudly, saying to D. ‘Let’s go back, get my stick and play some more! Please.’

              Barney is sad when the fun stops. He loves the stick and makes quite a business of  burying it safely before he is encouraged to come back up the beach towards us  Once he reaches us this tranquil dog who rarely barks or loses his rag barks loudly, saying to D. ‘Let’s go back, get my stick and play some more! Please.’

* Etang de Thau. ‘Is it a lake; is it a sea, was it pioneered by Mother Nature or pioneering ancient  engineers? For centuries historians, scientists, wise men of the south have put forward theories as to the birth of the Etang de Thau. Most agree that the headlands of Sête and Agde are the remnants of two volcanic eruptions that spilt fiery foundations into the Golfe de Lion.’ So says Laurence Phillips in his beautifully written guide How to be very lazy in Marseillan

We Were Here 

Thursday, 25 June 2015

Postcard from Marseillan: 1. The Fight

Apart from gentle company, the sunshine, the great food, the sitting on the verandah looking at the pines and the palms, the listening to the birds in the tress and the watching of boats rocking in the port, the greatest pleasure here in the deep South West is the variety of cafes where, for the price of a good coffee or a vin rosé, you can sit for an hour and watch a very diverse world go by.

B. was just commenting that it was so quiet in this place; you never heard people shouting in the street. Just then a fight brewed up in the corner of the Rue de General de Gaulle. A family group were offended by the actions of a man parking his car.

Growing tomatoes
on the Rue de General de Gaulle

Much shouting and one man had an attack of noisy pavement rage, throwing his arms about and shouting. His wife started shouting. His young son started wailing. His friends tried to stop him becoming more angry and destructive. The boy wailed more.

Gradually they pulled him away and the man got in his car and drove away.

Peace returned and the sun kept shining.

It’s never boring in this place.

Wish you were here.


Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Poems Found on My Visit to the Oriental Museum in Durham City

Ancient Chinese bowl: a poem in clay

The Scribe

There is nothing better
than a book
There is no profession
without a boss
Except for the Scribe -
he’s the boss.
(Satire on The Trades. Middle Kingdom. Egypt)


I wish I had been born
in the year of the hare:
sensitive but haughty
This is how
I see myself

But I was born
in the year of the snake:
fun-loving but clingy
This, perhaps, is how
others see me.

The Silk Gown

She stands tall, straight backed,
engulfed in pale stiff silk  
all gleaming sea-green,
embroidered with butterflies
and flowers

They say butterflies symbolise beauty
 and romance, even though the
inside her sleeve  the embroidery 
is invisible to the naked eye
of the onlooker 
 ©Wendy Robertson 2015

Thursday, 11 June 2015

In Conversation with Novelist Helen Cannam

I have very much enjoyed my conversation with Helen as, although we have only just met, our writing lives are something of a mirror to each other. And I think, other ‘mid-list writers' who are taking on the contemporary challenges in writing and publishing.

Helen has written since she was eight years old. To date she had written twenty
three books and has done a stint as a columnist for the Northern Echo. She lives with her husband on the fringe of Durham City. And has two adult children and two grandsons. You can find her HERE

Wendy: What are you working on at present, Helen?

Helen - The novel I am working on is my first full-scale historical novel for twenty years.  I've written other novels in the interim - eight of them- but none of them the full-scale, carefully researched explorations of the past in which I once loved to lose myself, taking two years at least in the writing of them, researching, imagining, living with my characters.

Wendy: Is this one taking you the same length of time?

Helen: I've had this new novel in my head for more than a decade, along with a synopsis and lots of research notes. Not having a publisher to commission it, nor much hope that it would appeal in today's tough market, I used it as the background to the last contemporary novel I wrote, 'A Scent of Roses'
          This new one is the story behind the supernatural appearances in that book, whose explanation is never given in full. And it was my experience with 'A Scent of Roses' that taught me I no longer needed to depend on a publisher. I could write the book anyway and launch it on the world all by myself.

Wendy: So many good writers are taking this path now. You seem to be enjoying it.

Helen: In some ways it's been daunting, going back to the early years of the seventeenth century, reliving the lives of these people who have reality only in my imagination.  

Wendy: How do you deal with the presence of real historical people in your novels?

Helen: In my historical novels (with one exception), 'real' people only appear at the fringes of the story. My characters are people who live through these difficult times, shaping and being shaped by them, emerging at the end into a new world, a new understanding of who they are and what their place is in the scheme of things.

Wendy: And with this novel you are going back to your old routines?

Helen: So, with this novel I'm working on, I have embedded myself again in the once-familiar routines of being a writer.

Wendy: So, how do you set about your writing day?
Get up, shower, breakfast (most important meal of the day, they say...) a mug of strong coffee, a brief walk to get the circulation going, and I'm at my desk.
        I get up now and then just to keep my brain ticking over and my legs from seizing up; and I need quiet-- no one to talk to, nothing to interrupt the invisible cord that connects me with whatever it is that feeds the creative process.
        I'm wary of the word 'inspiration', because that can be given too much emphasis, when writing is indeed 99% perspiration, as the saying goes. But still, the elusive, fragile thing that some call inspiration is as essential as any amount of hard work. Without it there would be no novel at all.

Wendy: And then?

Helen: A morning of work, a light lunch and then a good walk; then if all's going well the story continues and develops in my head. In fact, for me, any routine activity--ironing, making soup, cleaning--is ideal for working out details of plot - how to get that character from here to there, or rescue her from a difficult dilemma.
        Sometimes I will write again in the late afternoon or early evening, especially if I'm in the final stages of a book. But morning is my writing time: if anything intrudes on my morning, then that day is lost.

Wendy: And where are you now?

Helen: I've just come to the end of the first draft of this new novel, written in a wild rush of words, a minimum thousand a day, just dashed down any-old-how.

Wendy: I have been writing recently about that on my Newsletter – trusting that first powerful creative rush. And what happens now for you?

Helen: Now the pace slows, and I work chronologically through the story, chapter by chapter, at the same time fine-tuning the research, absorbing myself in these past lives and the terrifying events that swept them up.

Wendy: I sense you are enjoying it.

Helen: Well,  I'm writing again. And oh, it feels good to be back where I belong! Because writing to me is as essential to my well-being as breathing, with the obvious difference that I can actually survive without writing, if I have to-- and sometimes life forces you to do so.

Wendy: I mostly feel I can’t survive without writing. As you say it is as essential as breathing! Where did it all start?

Helen: I wrote my first complete story at eight years old and have barely stopped since. My publishing career began around 1980, with seven historical romances (all now available for Kindle under the pen name Caroline Martin).
Then came the breakthrough into the mainstream, with 'A Kind of Paradise' (1987) the only novel of mine to tell the story of people who really lived-- the lives of Josiah and Sarah Wedgwood.
 Six other historical novels followed, before my publisher decided that middle-brow historical fiction wasn't doing too well. So I wrote a couple of historical stories for children, and then a series of 'contemporary' novels, which are arguably now verging on the historical!
And then, after a spell when real life seriously interrupted my work, I found myself without any outlet for my writing. 'A Scent of Roses' was completed
in 2011 and did the rounds of the publishers, with some good feedback but no takers; at which point my agent suggested I self-publish the novel as an eBook.
It's good for the ageing brain to be faced with new challenges, but I did wonder if this would be a step too far.

Wendy: I’m not sure about the ageing brain reference myself. Look at the Pablos  -  Picasso and Cassals. Look at PD James. Great old brains! We have many good role models. Now - what about the mechanics of your creative process?

Helen: I've used a computer for my writing ever since I got my first Amstrad back in the late 80s-- at the time I was sure I would still continue to write my rough drafts as I always had, longhand on alternate lines of lined A4 paper. In fact I found writing straight to the computer gave me a wonderful sense of freedom, though it was a very long time before the Internet meant anything to me; now I use an ageing Mac laptop and enjoy the ease of checking odd things on the Internet. But I'm no techie, in any sense.
Fortunately, my son is; so with his help I set up a website and investigated the process of converting a book for Kindle (I first bought a Kindle myself, to find out how it worked). The worst moment was when I reached Amazon's instructions 'for advanced users only' just as my son was out of reach at an important conference. I was on my own, and too impatient to wait. So, I concentrated very hard, read and re-read the initially impenetrable instructions-- and I did it!

Wendy: Bravo!  I keep telling people it’s an accessible process for all of us.

Helen: Anyway, the essential gizmo was safely downloaded, nestled in my Scrivener word-processing software, and my book was converted to the Kindle format, tested on the 'Preview' device, and launched into the Amazon Kindle store. After a few hesitant weeks it began to sell.

Wendy: It’s kind of magic when they start to sell isn't it? And after that?

Helen:  After that, I decided the time had come to convert all my now out-of-print back titles for Kindle too, which meant scanning and editing them (and sometimes rewriting parts of them) before converting them to the right format. I am a very picky editor: I read and re-read every book I publish, to be as sure as I can that it hasn't any mistakes. But if I don't on the whole regret the absence of a copy editor, there are other things my publisher used to do which I really do miss.

Wendy: My experience too. Very hard to hyper-edit one’s own prose.

Helen:  The cover design was one issue.  I didn't always like my print book cover designs (sometimes I hated them) but at least I didn't have to do them myself, or pay for them. But I couldn't afford to commission a designer of my choice, so it was back to self-help-- or my son's help. Anyway. I provided the photos (one came from a kind friend) and my son did the rest.

Wendy: How long did that take, then?

Helen:   It took me a good two years to get all my books converted, in which time I did little writing, apart from the odd blog on my website.
One thing self-publishing does help with: you can easily see which your best sellers are; and mine was a book that had only ever been published as a hardback library edition. It had good borrowing figures from PLR, but that was it. So, earlier this year I launched a paperback edition of 'Family Business', just for those readers who prefer a 'real' book. I did this through Amazon's 'Createspace', as that seemed the simplest way, though this time I did commission a cover design. I hope to launch its sequel 'Queen of the Road' very soon; and then issue 'A Scent of Roses' in the same way.

Wendy: Have you hit any problems in this process?

Helen:   I've realised too that I have to up my game as far as publicity goes--
because that's another thing that a publisher normally does for you. And without publicity the book is likely to disappear without trace. So now I'm on Facebook and Twitter (I find the latter time-wastingly addictive).
          But the real trouble is that with all these extra activities self-publishing involves, the time for actual writing shrinks horribly. It's a dilemma for which I think there's no real solution, except a rigorous self-discipline--and in my case, lots of daily lists of things to do, to make sure I don't fritter time away.

Wendy: So what is the very best thing about your present writing life?

 Helen:   There is one thing I've realised since I started writing properly again: though I'm writing without a publisher's deadline, that looming date that used to keep one at work even on bad days, there's something that's replaced it. If you blog about your work-- how many words written today, what your research has uncovered, how it feels to be writing again-- then you've gone public.
        It's like a sort of imprecise publisher's deadline, because once you've admitted in public that you're writing a book, then you've really got to finish it, and within a reasonable period of time, or you lose face and credibility.
I write because I have to, because it's an essential part of who I am.
Sometimes it seems nothing but a slog. But when it goes well-- there is nothing to match that sense of being caught up and transported into the world of the imagination, where something outside yourself seems to have taken over and be doing all the work for you.
The final result is rarely quite what you hoped for; some books come nearer to the ideal than others. But once the book's written, there's a great satisfaction in seeing how well (or not) it's doing. I write for myself first, but I need to have readers too. And knowing that someone's enjoyed a novel of mine is a delight.
 A letter from a happy reader or, these days, an enthusiastic four or five star review appearing on Amazon is enough to lighten even the hardest day and send me back to my laptop with renewed enthusiasm.

Wendy: Thank you Helen. I love your renewed enthusiasn and  identify with your practical can-do writing spirit.
 And, of course, I  look forward to reading the new novel.

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

Catching Ideas Like Cobwebs: Diana Athill

‘Where do you get all the ideas for your stories?’

 I’m frequently asked this question as I go about my writer’s business.

My usual answer is that they pile the door of my imagination, emerging from my memory, my reading, my acquaintances and all my daily life. They hang around like cobwebs in the air ,catching at me almost without my knowing.

I have just been reading the Persephone 2011 edition of Diana Athill's short story

Diana Athill

collection entitled Midsummer Night in the Workhouse. .

In her Preface, Diana Athill describes very precisely how she came upon her very first short story. In it she says: I can remember in detail being hit by my first story one January morning in 1958. Until that moment I had been handmaiden, as editor, to other people’s writing. Then, at nine o’clock one sunny morning, I was taking my Pekinese across the Outer Circle of Regent’s Park when a car pulled up and its driver beckoned. I thought he was going to ask the way somewhere but what he said was: ‘I am Mustafa Ali from Istanbul – will you come and have coffee with me?’ At nine in the morning - What an optimist! I thought as I went away laughing; and how odd that someone who looked so very like a man I had once knows, a diamond merchant from Cape Town called Marcel, should behave in such a Marcellish way. And I began to remember Marcel.
All through that day Marcel kept popping up in my head and with him came an oddly gleeful sensation of energy. When I got home from the office I thought: ‘I know what – I’m going to write a story about him,’ and down I sat at my typewriter…
There is much more to this wonderful Preface. Any aspiring writer would enjoy this book for the Preface alone. And then the great Preface is followed by Athill's  artful, beautifully written short stories - each one of them a fine example of the Short Story form: much to learn here too.

It is refreshing in the frantic modern forward-rush of writing and publishing to pause to catch our own accidental cobwebs and to recognise the cobwebs of other fine writers whom we can admire, and form whom we can learn.

Persephone describes the collection: A selection of short stories mostly written in the late 1950s: some are set in England and describe incidents from Diana Athill's girlhood; one or two describe holidays abroad, almost all are seen fron the woman's point of view. 'In this terrific collection female characters are sexually adventurous, introspective and enjoy a drink or three,' wrote the Daily Mail. 'A cheating wife, back with her boring husband, is wracked with agonising love for the unavailable partner of her brief fling; a writer seeks inspiration at a writers' retreat whilst avoiding the group seducer.' 

A great holiday read for anyone and  everyone.

Happy reading. Happy wrting.

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Two Great Joys of Independent Publishing

I have been reading and revising my Room To Write novels, trying to work out some kind of strategy for presenting them to my readers in a way that will appeal to them.

One of the great joys of Independent Publishing is energy of making one’s own decisions and taking responsibility for one’s own work. So last night with my Independent Publisher hat on, I sat down and thought of what my novels had in common. I even went back to pre-RoomToWrite days when I was writing for what they now call a Big Publisher.

Another of the joys of Independent Publishing is the opportunity to think and re-think your novels in terms of how they will be seen by readers who might be attrected to them

In my writing career I have been proud (maybe too proud) of the fact that each of my novels is a different creation and; that my work has never fallen too easily into tight genre-corsets (if you’ll excuse the term). I think this was a bit frustrating for my Big Publisher,  although they still rolled my novela out in elegant saga covers,

The fact is, of course - I can hear you saying it - not falling easily into a tight fiction genre can be counter-productive. 

This is said to be even more so in the contemporary Independent Publishing scene. One message regarding this in the swathe of articles, posts and advice is expressed in the almost religious mantra that only distinctive genre designated novels with fittingly dramatic covers will sell on Kindle and Online.

Anyway, although I would always say that each novel is a unique creation I challenged myself to sit down and decide just what my novels have – and always have had – in common. What are the similarities rather then the differences?

What – as an Independent Publisher -  should I focus on?

I came to the conclusion that what they had in common was me with my own family history with its storytelling tradition, my background knowledge of history and sociology. Add to that my deep interest in what makes unique individuals tick whatever the context of their lives.

So I have decided that my novels reflect all of this and are essentially historical novels – a field of fiction rather than a genre. It is true that my stories are inhabited by extra-ordinary 'ordinary' women and men of the rather than Kings, Queens and Chancellors. Add to that the stories focus more or less on the industrial and war-torn Twentieth Century history now, of course – also part of my background.

The one exception to this is my very latest novel The Pathfinder which is set between the country now known as Wales and the North East of England in the second century AD. But this novel was inspired by the journey made by my own family at the turn of the twentieth century from North Wales to County Durham. I have to say that the research and writing of this novel was quite an emotional journey for me.

I asked myself what should I call my category?

I came up with the idea of Extraordinarily Ordinary People in History. So with this in mind, with my Independent Publisher’s hat on I have put together my last six Room to Write novels as a kind of set which will come under the title of  Extraordinarily Ordinary People in History I have revised and redesigned these six  novels keeping in mind that - although each one is unique -  the novels are similar in that they have been written and dreamed up by me, with my own peculiar interests and pre-occupations.    

So, to show you what I have been up to I have put these new editions, in their new clothes, on the sidebar here at LifeTwiceTasted. I hope you like the my newly coined novels with their extraordinatry people and perhaps will be tempted to enjoy their stories.

Now, watch out here on LifeTwiceTasted for an inside track on each of the novels its inspiration and evolution and its extra-ordinary ordinary people.

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

The Need for Writers to Escape from Home.

A lifetime of writing and working from - and at  -home compels one to live a domestically-oriented life even if – like me – your are definitely not domesticated.  
Possibly this is less so for men – think of Roald Dahl

Dylan's Boat House

in his shed! Dylan Thomas  in his Boathouse!  But then there’s Vita Sackville West’s Sissinghirst tower isn’t there?   So my sexist theory doesn’t quite hold, does it? Perhaps class counts more than gender.

Vita's Tower 

Over the last twenty years, as I have worked (quite hard)  from home, my desire to ‘get away to write’ has become part of the creative pattern of my life. I go away from home for refreshment, for inspiration, for separation, for research. Whatever the reason I have no doubt at all that every time I go away my productivity doubles and my inspiration deepens.
More than ten years ago I won a month’s stay at Annaghmakerrig, in Ireland’s border country. I sat there in a small room (haunted, but that’s another story…) and wrote for a month in the great company of other writers and musicians. In that time I completed the first draft of the
book which became my novel of women emerging from prison,  Paulie’s Web.    While I was there I also met a funny, clever, American playwright and actor. Only recently my memories of him produced the essencs my character ‘Tom’ in Writing at the Maison Bleue, my most recent publication.
Going further back in time, it was at Arvon’s Lumb Bank where I met the luminous Irish writer the late Joh McGahern. At than time I was moving on from writing young adult novels to the wider – although never say greater – field of long adult fiction. I was feeling vulnerable at the time. This feeling of uncertainty still pursues me. Part of being a writer, I think.
John read a slice of the novel which was to be my first adult novel. ‘Oh Wendy!’ he smiled ‘Sure you’re a great writer? Don’t you know that?’ He went on to compare the dilemmas of writing fiction based on one’s own life experience, ‘But then,’ he paused. ‘Aren’t there some things even then that you would never write about? An interesting question. He did tell me of an experience he wouldn’t write about. But I’ve never ever told anyone what it was.
The novel I was working on that week went on to win me a three book contract and effectively launched my professional writing career.’
Moving on, there was the year I went on a workshop led by Helen Carey on the magical Greek island of Kythera, where the ‘celebrity’ writer was the Hellenophile Louis de Bernières who was very popular with the retreaters.
I was pleased there that Helen kept the taught workshop element to the very minimum. I stayed in my apartment by the beach  and I wrote sketches for short stories. Much more important than this,  was transfixed by the sheer presence of the island itself, its history  and the blue sea at its edges.
All these years later I have discovered the poet Marc Morday who was at a workshop on Kythera and was also moved by its beauty and its presence. (See his very special poem at the end of this piece.)
Although my experience of Kythera was more than a decade ago, the island bedded itself down in my consciousness and is just now emerging as a setting for the beginning of the new novel on which I am working which opens there on that island in 1941. I just need to go into my head and open a door and I am on that island again.
Of course In between all these more organised retreats, you can make your own retreat experiences. I do this on my own but also with my writing friend Avril joy. We have  been away ‘off writing’ many times through the years on retreats that might be as short as two days or as long as two months. This longer retreat was in Agde in the Languedoc, my favourite place in the world. It’s a  place on many time levels: a place which has inspired two of my novels An Englishwoman in France and,  most recently Writing at the Maison Bleue.
Of course for Writing at the Maison Bleue I have drawn- albeit in pure fiction - on my experiences of creative retreating for writers on various parts of Britain and out there in the world.
The dramas, dangers and changes in a hothouse atmosphere of the companies of strangers in a place remote from your daily life places you uniquely on your own. You find out more about who your are and what you want to write.
I have seen people grow and change before my eyes. They write. They change; they fall in and out of love, they discover new sides to themselves, stimulated by the fellowship of other writers. And it’s not just writing. I led some mature students on Education retreats in Germany who ended up in tears, disillusioned now with their distant home life – their whole lives turned round.
Willy Russell observed this phenomenton very well in his plat.Educating Rita. .
Many of these retreats are in remote, often beautiful places. This for me is particularly true of the Languedoc. And the islands of Kythira and Cephalonia are still there lurking in my imagination and continue to inspire me in my writing.
I am now researching a new novel which will be at least initially set on Kythera against the background for the tumultuous Battle for Crete in World War 2. It is taking a lot of reading and thinking imagining and empathising.
And perhaps I might have to go there again. Oh dear!
So I would urge any aspiring or experienced writer out there to try this thing and go and write with strangers in a strange place. You can call it a ‘holiday’ if you like. But don’t take any baggage from home – personal or relational!
My experiences, bedded down in my imagination, sinking into the strange soup of my subconscious  have ensured that - while living in the same house for more than thirty years  I am able to be bold, and  write my novels on wide ranging themes set in a wide variety of places,. It keeps me fresh, it keeps me inspired to continue to write new novels set in places that inspire me about people who intrigue me..
And I have not needed a shed, a boathouse or a tower to free me from any restricting domestic pre-occupations or routines.

Ah Kythera!

Marc Mordey’s Poem:

 A hymn to Greece #2:

 Kythera, to be precise.

I think

That I could live,

live well

and long,

in a little town

like Livadi

where the Greek coffee

at Rena’s café

is strong

and sweet

and where some of the men

of this small town


to chew the fat

as the honey streaked sun

beats them

Into the shade



Links For You

 Marc Mordey


Arvon’s Lumb Bank

Helen Carey


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