Everyone else is doing it, I thought, so why shouldn’t I?
By ‘everyone’, I mean the TV and newspapers. They’re now full of highlights from 2016, and as I’ve enjoyed watching/reading them, I’ve decided to do the same myself. It’s been a wonderful, very crowded, year, but I’m going to limit myself to one memory for each month, and to just a photo or two for each.
Where better to begin than in …
For the past eleven years, I’ve been running the Oxford Chapter of the RNA, which mainly means organising a lunch at The Victoria Arms, Old Marston, on the first Tuesday of every month. I agree, not exactly demanding! It seemed appropriate, therefore, when looking back at the year, that my first entry should be something I’ve done twelve times in the past year, and the photo below was taken at The Vicky Arms while the first arrivals were waiting for the others to get there.
With memories of my fabulous retreat the year before in France in wonderful Chez Castillon, I jumped at the suggestion made by Rosie Dean that I join her and Cara Cooper in a retreat in Kent, and in February the three of us met up at The Seekers, where we spent several superb days. We each had a little guest cottage, and worked there until the evening, when we downed tools and went off to a pub/restaurant for an evening of food, laughter and writerly conversation. Not to mention the odd G&T!
I did a number of talks this past year, and was on several panels. All have been really enjoyable, and I could have highlighted any of them; however, I’ve chosen to highlight a Hertfordshire Literary Festival event in March in which I participated – a Romantic Afternoon Tea. Janet Gover, Jean Fullerton and I formed the panel, after which there was tea and cake, and time to talk to those who’d come to the event. It was a really lovely afternoon, and we were told that this was the largest turnout during the Lit Fest for an adult event.
Never one to miss a social event unless it was completely impossible to make it, the moment I heard about a tea to be hosted by the Chelmsford Chapter in Colchester in April, I knew that it’d be a perfect occasion on which to meet those who lived on the other side of the country. Scones, cakes and fizz, served up in a lovely place full of RNA friends – it sounded the ideal way to spend an afternoon, and I instantly emailed organiser Fenella Jane Miller and booked myself a place.
The tea, which was held in the historic Grade 11 listed building, The Minories, which stands across from Colchester Castle, exceeded all expectations, and a marvellous time was had by all.
May is always the month of the RNA Summer Party, and 2016 was no exception. The party was held in the Royal Over-Seas League, in Park Place, London, which is off St. James’s Street, and was a sell-out. No one gives a party like the RNA!
At the beginning of June, the Oxford Chapter lunch moved to a different venue – temporarily! It was shortly to be the birthday of Anita Burgh, who’d for years been a pillar of the Oxford Chapter. Annie had moved away from the area earlier in the year, so we decided to take the lunch to her in this, her birthday week. The sun shone on what was an extremely enjoyable day.
I always go to Umbria, in Italy, in July, to a 14th century house on the side of a mountain just outside a small Roman town. For the most part, the Italians who live in this very beautiful area don’t speak English, and I started to learn Italian so that I can talk to them. Alas, though, since being published, I’ve not done any more Italian, with the result that I’m slowly forgetting what I knew. That cannot be allowed to continue, and I intend to brush up the language before I go there next July. My novel, EVIE UNDERCOVER, was inspired by the house – it was wonderful setting a story (a contemporary rom com) in a place I know so well.
THE LOST GIRL was released in paperback in August so this has to be my event for the month. There were several write-ups in the newspapers, and I gave a number of talks at the time, including going on Radio Marlow to talk about writing the novel.
September was the Historical Novel Society Conference, which was followed by a writing retreat in The Gladstone Library, Hawarden, North Wales, which was followed by my first visit to Crete. I’m going to break my self-imposed limit of one item per month and put a memory from all three.
I was a member of the HNS committee, which helped the overall organiser, Carol McGrath, with the conference, which was held in the Maths Institute, Oxford. The conference was a sell-out, and included a large number of visitors from the US. Among the many brilliant speakers were Tracy Chevalier, Melvyn Bragg, Fay Weldon and Kate Williams. I was very lucky to be invited to be on a panel, entitled Far and Away, with Karen Maitland and Laura Morelli.
After all the work on the conference, what better to do than go on a writing retreat in North Wales with writer friends? And that was what I did.
By the end of both the conference and the retreat, I was ready for a different sort of break – the sort you have in the sun by the sea – and it was off to Crete I went.
At the end of October, I met up for the first time with someone I’d been friendly with for a couple of years on twitter – Carol Hedges. Carol and I had been saying for a while that we really must meet, and in the end we finally did so, meeting for a coffee in Caravan, near King’s Cross. It just shows that twitter and Facebook can be a great way of making new friends.
By now, you may be wondering if I ever get down to writing a novel! Happily, I do! For the past year, I’ve been back in 1930, living in my head with three families, each of whom lives on a tea plantation on the outskirts of Darjeeling. THE SECOND LEAF tells their stories. From the two photos below, I think you’ll agree that it’s a pretty stunning place in which to live, even if it is only in one’s head.
Although I go to the Ox lunches and to some of the Reading lunches, I also occasionally go to a SE Chapter meeting in London. Even if I’m unable to attend any of their meetings throughout the year, I always seem to manage to get to the Christmas lunch. Funny that! Last December was no exception, and we had a really pleasant time in the Sir John Balcombe, near Marylebone, which is now the venue for the meetings.
FINALLY, it’s been a really lovely year, a year full of creativity and friendship. I’m never more aware of how lucky I am that I belong to a writing community than when I sit in my sitting room at the end of the year, surrounded by lights and cards. With each card representing a friend or friends, many of them writer friends, or a member of my family, it’s as if I’m surrounded by friendship.
I wish each and every one of you a very happy, healthy New Year. May your 2017 be filled with the warmth of friendship.
Tuesday, 7th June, was the first Tuesday in June. The monthly RNA Oxford Chapter lunch is always held on the first Tuesday of the month at The Victoria Arms, Old Marston. But not this June!
In the week that would be ending with the birthday of Annie Burgh, pillar of the Oxford Chapter, and long-time friend and mentor to writers published and unpublished, we decided to break with tradition and take the lunch to Annie, who now lives near Cleveden.
As you’ll see from the few photos below, the weather approved of our decision, and the sun shone down on Annie and Billy’s lovely garden.
You can’t have special lunch, in a birthday week, without cake! Katie Carr organised the cakes, which were iced with icing covers of three of Annie’s books. Each cake was a different flavour. Not only did they look amazing, but they were absolutely delicious.
I shall leave you now with a last glimpse of Annie and the cakes, on what was a really lovely occasion. I hope you’ve enjoyed the few moments I’ve been able to capture here, with the aid of Julie Roberts and Carl Pengelly, who kindly added their photos to mine.
May the coming year be a healthy, happy one, Annie!
Repetition is the enemy of authors; nevertheless, I intend to repeat myself by saying what I’ve said after every RNA party – the RNA knows how to throw a fabulous party! The Summer Party 2016 was no exception, and a terrific time was had by all.
Once again, the party venue was the imposing Royal Overseas League in Park Place, off St. James Street, near Piccadilly. From here on, despite belonging a profession that enjoys using words, I’m going to let the photos speak for themselves.
If I were asked to sum up the RNA in one word, that word would be FRIENDSHIP. Writers of romantic fiction are the most friendly, supportive people. I hope that some of the enjoyment they find at meeting up with each other is conveyed by these photos.
I don’t know why, but the words SCONES & CREAM have a way of leaping out at me, wherever they appear. Funny that.
A recent leaping-out was on the invitation extended by the Chelmsford Chapter of the RNA, who’d had the inspired idea of organising an Afternoon Tea, which was to take place in Colchester last Saturday.
Faster than you can say carrot cake, I’d emailed Fenella Jane Miller and Jean Fullerton, the organisers of the event, and booked a place. Sandwiches, scones, cakes and fizz, served up in a lovely place full of RNA friends – it sounded the perfect way to spend an April afternoon.
And indeed it was!
The tea took place in a lovely Grade II listed building, The Minories, which stands almost opposite Colchester Castle.
Arriving there, we gathered in the Batte-Lay tea room, where we caught up with ‘old’ friends and were introduced to new.
Our tables were soon groaning beneath a profusion of delicious things to eat, and soon we were groaning, too!
Fenella and Jean did a superb job of making sure that everything went smoothly, and then, when we could eat no more, Jean introduced the guest speaker, successful author Victoria Connelly.
During her highly entertaining talk, Victoria made an impassioned plea for writers to guard against distractions that took them away from their writing, which was the most precious thing, and which was where the writer’s focus should be. She recognised that writers today were no longer expected just to write a good book, but they were also now asked to do much of the promotion too; for example, to spend their days on blog tours. But, she said, ‘Readers don’t want a blog post – they’re probably not even aware of most of the blogs out there anyway – they want another book from you, so get to it!’
Victoria finished her lively speech by saying that there’d never been a better time in which to be a writer as we can now write with or without the involvement of middle men. All that’s needed is ‘the passion and determination to put one word in front of another, to create our characters and build our worlds.’
All that entertainment punctuated with good advice, plus cakes, fizz and friends! It was a brilliant afternoon. Thank you very much, Jean and Fenella, for organising it.
Indian Summers, trailed as lasting for five series, has just been axed while series two is still under way – there’ll be no series three. The initial audience of five million has dropped to one million. On an advertising channel, such figures were always going to sound the death knell.
So why, despite the money lavished on the programme – the first series reputedly cost £14m to make – and despite a strong cast headed by Julie Walters, and despite the exotic, turbulent background of the British Raj in the 1930s, did the programme fail to hold the viewers?
In a word — planning. To add a few more words, there appears to have been a failure to outline the contents of all five series before embarking on the detailed planning for series one.
SPOILER ALERT. If you’re not up-to-date with viewing and intend to catch up, don’t read on!
Indian Summers is set in Simla, the summer seat of the British Government during The Raj. Lying in the foothills of the Himalayas, Simla offered an escape from the intense heat in the plains below. The aim of the programme was to depict the events and relationships among the group of British socialites and government representatives who went up to Simla for the summer months. In doing so, over the course of the five series, they would cover the birth of modern India.
For a project of this scale, advance planning is essential.
JK Rowling said that before she started the first Harry Potter book, she’d worked out the story arc for the five novels. With Indian Summers, the narrative effort seems to have been confined to the first series, and the second series has been left to struggle along as best it can. Which hasn’t been much of a best. Take, for example:
Characterisation. Cynthia Coffin (Julie Walters) was a prize bitch in the first series, which gave the series life.
In the second series, not only was there unfortunately little for her to be bitchy about, but halfway through the series she was reborn as a figure for whom the viewer should feel sympathy! Her husband, we’re told, was serially unfaithful – indeed he was revealed to be the birth father of Ralph, a revelation which had all the excitement of a damp squib – and she’d suffered several miscarriages owing to the medical conditions he’d passed on to her. Gone was the woman we loved to hate.
Gone also was the Reverend’s snide wife, Fiona, whose attempts at being accepted by the Simla socialites, made for good viewing in the first series. In series two, she’s a pallid shadow of her former self, and doesn’t seem to have a role to play.
Taking over the role of malevolence and unpleasantness in series two is the new bad guy, Charlie Haverstock, the husband of Ralph’s sister Alice. But what he’s allowed to get away with is so unlikely that viewer-incredulity is the resultant outcome. Can viewers really be expected to believe that Ralph and the English community, hidebound by rules and their code of etiquette (eg all nasty goings-on should go on behind closed doors), would allow Charlie to humiliate Ralph’s sister every time they were in company, and more than likely abuse her in private?
To turn now to one of the good guys, Ralph. He was the ‘hero’ in series one, and much of the interest was centered on him, strong, upstanding and powerful as he was. But in series two, he’s greatly diminished in stature.
Would the Ralph of series one have allowed his adored sister to be so publicly humiliated? Would the original Ralph have agreed to his wife to indulging in nooky with the Maharajah in order to win the Maharajah’s assent for something Ralph wanted? Would Ralph have publicly acknowledged, and brought into his home, his mixed race son at the time when this was highly frowned upon and he was lining himself up for higher office? No, to all questions.
And if the characterisation is undergoing ill-thought-out changes, which indicate a lack of planning and consequent desperation, what about the cohesion of the story, which features the Indians as well as the British?
Background. The background to Indian Summers is the rise of the Indian Nationalism. Indian factions are fighting the British – fair enough, they want us out of their country – and they’re also fighting each other. Why? This is never made clear in Indian Summers.
While I don’t want a history lesson on a Sunday evening – I want exciting story lines, gripping characters and to find myself at the end of each episode longing for the next episode – I do want sufficient understanding of the background to know what’s going on and to know for what the characters stand. Instead we have confusion as nothing is really explained.
I’m not even sure what Ralph wants, which is so important that he allows his wife to prostitute herself. If that was made clear, I must have blinked at the wrong moment.
Instead of us being given sufficient information for narrative clarity, we are left to struggle with a ‘story’ that seems all over the place, set against a background of confusion, with little vignettes that don’t seem to be going anywhere.
So, with apologies to Margaret Mitchell, Frankly, I and a great number of viewers no longer give a damn!
Do you agree or disagree with me? I’d be interested to hear.
To clarify the heading, the ‘tips’ in question are my fingertips, and the ‘tip’ is something that might save you money.
To show you my tips, here I am, holding a tiny Julius Caesar – I have the complete works of Shakespeare in miniature, each one being the unabridged play. I thought a reference to Shakespeare most suitable for the weekend upon which we mark the 400th anniversary of his death.
You’ll note that my nails are a deep plum shellac. Since I have them done once a month only, you’ll appreciate that they get long, although not talon-long, and that being shellac, they’re hard. The result all too soon, alas, of something as hard as (my) nails hitting the keys with force as I type my novels is a bald computer keyboard, which has to be replaced.
About a month ago, while working on the third – yes, the third – keyboard I’d had since January, I noticed that the letter E had almost vanished, and the O was looking iffy. The erosion had begun again, I realised. It always started with the E, since E is the vowel that appears most frequently in the English language, and O swiftly followed suit. After the E and the O, I’d say goodbye to the T, to the R, to the S, and so on.
I sighed deeply. I’d soon have to buy my fourth keyboard of the year. My frustration was great – there wouldn’t be a thing wrong with the keyboard I’d have to throw out, apart from the lack of the letters I use most frequently. But as I can’t touch type, that ‘apart from’ couldn’t be ignored.
I was sitting back in my chair, staring miserably at my keyboard, when my eyes landed on a bottle of clear nail varnish that was on my desk next to the computer. I’d fixed a nail a few days earlier and hadn’t returned the varnish to its home (A not unusual situation, I’m afraid – it accounts for the mess of things that builds up on my desk).
I sat upright. I wonder, I thought, and I leaned forward, picked up the varnish and painted every key on the keyboard with it. Then, about ten minutes after that, I gave each key another coat of clear nail varnish for luck!
It was an inspired thought, though I say it myself! It’s now a month later, and the remains of the E and O are exactly as they were four weeks ago, and not one of the other letters has started to disappear.
It wasn’t the cost of each keyboard, which is relatively inexpensive, that hurt. It was having to throw away a keyboard that was perfectly good, apart from one thing. It always felt such a waste. But happily, that’s a feeling I won’t have again for a very long time now.
So my tip to you is CLEAR-VARNISH YOUR KEYS!
Spring seems to have arrived at last. Enjoy!
I never knew that there were events that were FREE to attendees EVERY SINGLE DAY of the week of the Oxford Literary Festival, which takes place annually at the beginning of April. But apparently, there are free events for all ages throughout the week, with the weekend slots being given over to local authors.
All the free events took place in Blackwell’s Festival Marquee, which had been set up in the courtyard of the Bodleian Library, opposite the famous Blackwell’s shop in Broad Street. Underneath my photo of Broad Street, you’ll see photos of Blackwell’s and of their Festival Marquee.
I hadn’t known about the marquee events until I was invited by author Sylvia Vetta, a fellow member of the Oxford Writers’ Group, whose publishing arm is Oxpens, to go to her talk about how she came to write Brushstrokes in Time, a beautiful and moving account of life in the dreadful, oppressive regime that flourished in China in so recent a past.
Arriving at the marquee on the Saturday morning, I found myself surrounded by books on one side, a café on the other and the sight of a lounge at the far end. Sheer bliss! I bought a couple of books and a coffee, and wandered down the marquee to the Shakespeare Lounge, which overlooked the beautiful Bridge of Sighs, and there I took a seat.
Below you have the view from my sofa looking ahead towards the books, and my view when I turned to look through the window behind me.
I’m happy to say that the talks were sandwiched in the most pleasant way possible – the sandwich filling was lunch with friends in a venue not far from the marquee.
Before our lunch, I listened to Sylvia’s fascinating and informative talk, after which she signed books.
And after the lunch, I went back to the marquee to hear Barbara Hudson give an amusing introduction to her debut novel, Timed Out, in which her central character, deciding that retirement was not the end, but a new beginning, placed a lonely hearts’ advertisement on the Internet and embarked on her new life, suffering disappointments and learning hard truths about herself.
And here are the covers of Sylvia’s and Barbara’s novels.
After the marquee events, I couldn’t resist going across the road to Blackwell’s. And lo and behold – look what I found on the shelf!
And now it’s time for me to stop writing and to get on with reading one of the novels I bought last Saturday, so I’ll say goodbye for this week!
Conversation was lively at the monthly RNA Oxford lunch last week, as it always is, but I found one topic particularly interesting. This may have something to do with the fact that I initiated the topic! It was about what was fair to the reader and what wasn’t.
I remarked that I’d been very disappointed at the end of the thriller I’d finished the night before, Broken Promise, written by one of my favourite authors, Linwood Barclay, as I hadn’t found the conclusion a satisfactory one.
I’m always gripped by Linwood Barclay’s novels, and Broken Promise was no exception. Slightly unusually, though, there were two main story lines. I’d predicted the ending of one of the story lines, and when I finished the book, I was pleased to discover that my prediction had been correct.
I also had ideas about the second main thread in the novel, and wanted to know if I was right, but when I reached the final page, I found that the thread had been deliberately left open. Instead of a satisfactory conclusion to this story line, too, the reader was given a chapter from the opening of what was going to be the second in the series.
I hadn’t realised that Broken Promise was the first of a series, the Promise Falls Series, but even if I had, I don’t think I’d have been any less disappointed as I expect every novel that I read to be complete in itself.
In the ensuing discussion, I quoted the Montana Sky Series Novels written by Debra Holland, several of which I’ve read, and said that each story in the series was satisfactorily rounded off, even though each contained a hook within it that intrigued the reader about a subsidiary character.
But that subsidiary character isn’t part of the main story line, so the fact that their story isn’t developed or resolved doesn’t stop the novel from reaching a satisfactory conclusion. Nevertheless, the reader is intrigued about what happened to that other character and, needless to say, that other character’s story is the next in the series.
Leaving a main story line open, I saw as a ‘don’t’: intriguing the reader into wanting to get the next book, I saw as a ‘do’.
In our discussion, I realised that I was the only one at the table who felt strongly cheated at the end of a series book if I found that I had to buy the second book in order to conclude a story line started in the first, and I’m curious to know if others feel as I do.
Does anyone else feel as I do?
It’s no secret that I’m an Archers’ addict – I frequently comment on twitter about the storylines, and I’m noisily grateful to the The Archers’ producers for many hours of excellent listening. And in addition to that, The Archers was responsible for my great stroke of luck prior to the publication of The Road Back.
The stroke of luck was that I was introduced to Colin Dexter, author of the Inspector Morse novels, at an Oxford Writers’ Group party. Later, Colin read the manuscript and asked to endorse it with the words, ‘A splendid love story, so beautifully told’. And he came to my launch at Waterstones Oxford.
Colin and I had bonded at the OWG party over our mutual addiction to The Archers. At that time, we were both critical of the many new, difficult-to-identify young voices who’d suddenly been added to the cast, and we felt that the storylines needed a good shaking-up.
Well, we certainly wouldn’t make those same criticisms today! The story of Rob’s physical and emotional abuse of Helen has been absolutely gripping.
And this is despite some early confusion about Rob’s character. Let me explain what I mean.
When Rob moved into Ambridge, he was at loggerheads with his then wife, Jess, and it wasn’t long before he’d started a relationship with the emotionally-fragile Helen. Later, he divorced Jess and married Helen. Some time after that, Jess visited Helen, claiming to be pregnant with a child fathered by Rob after he’d married Helen. We, the listeners, believed Jess over Rob, and even more so when Rob refused to take a paternity test until he was effectively forced to do so. However, defying the listeners’ expectations, the DNA test results said that Rob wasn’t the father. Hmm, we thought.
And then some of us started to suspect that Rob, who was already showing a nasty side away from Helen, had falsified the notification of the DNA test results. This idea was fostered by the return of Dr Richard to Ambridge. But we weren’t to learn if we were right as the issue of paternity was suddenly dropped. (Of course, it might still surface again.)
For a short time after that, it seemed that Rob’s preoccupation with Henry, Helen’s young son, and Henry’s sudden emotional disturbances and nightly bed-wetting, might be related. But this line was dropped, too. It would have been too dark for The Archers, I’m sure.
At the same time, we were watching Rob’s actions outside the house. For example, he tried to put a wedge between Adam and Ian prior to their marriage. Why try to do this, we asked. But we were never given an answer. He then seemed to have been dishonest at work, and promptly resigned when financial discrepancies were raised by his boss, Charlie. But Charlie didn’t pursue the matter. Why didn’t he, we asked. But again there was no answer.
By then, the story of Rob’s abuse of Helen was beginning to surface, an abuse which was to result in her loss of self-worth, and in her blaming herself for her ‘failings’ as a wife and a mother, a sense of guilt induced in her by Rob.
For the listener, Rob’s verbal attack on Helen, which happened in real time, made for chilling and harrowing listening. It has had a profound affect on people, with Helen’s plight being taken to heart by listeners, and more than £80,000 being raised through a JustGiving fund set up by Archers’ fan, Paul Trueman, to help victims of domestic abuse.
Looking back at the different directions taken by Rob since his introduction to the show, it’s hard to avoid concluding that the writers originally intended Rob to go down one path, but then, drawing ideas from the way in which the actors/characters sounded together, changed their mind and sent him down several different paths until they happened upon the path on which he’s ended. This necessitated them turning their back on the several false starts and focusing solely on the domestic abuse of Helen.
The nature of radio means that storylines which are started and then abandoned, are done so in front of the listener. To give a literary analogy to this: it would be like experimenting as we wrote the novel with the ways in which our different characters could be used, and then publishing the novel without any editing.
Cavalier disregard for storylines that have already been started can be seen as an insult to the listener’s intelligence. However, when the story ends up being as powerful as the Rob and Helen story, I can forgive (almost) anything, and judging by the response from the numerous listeners, so can many others.
We authors are lucky in that we don’t have to leave the workings-out for the readers to see. If we have new insights into a character while writing the novel, we edit what’s gone on before so that every aspect of the story agrees with our changed vision. After that, the publisher’s editor will check that the novel works as a whole. By the time that our novel is put before readers, any inconsistencies and diversions will have been ironed out, and everything that happens in the story will be relevant to the story.
It’s Sunday morning and looking at the clock, I can see that it’ll soon be time for the omnibus edition of The Archers. As I don’t want to miss a single minute of it, I’m going to end now.
Over and out!
Two of the things that authors enjoy most are meeting readers and talking about their books, and last Thursday afternoon, three of us had the chance to do both of those things as Jean Fullerton, Janet Gover and I had been invited to give a talk at a Romantic Afternoon Tea, to be held at Hoddesdon Library as part of the Hertfordshire Literary Festival.
And what a lovely afternoon it turned out to be! Throughout the afternoon, there was a warm and friendly atmosphere in a room so crowded that people were standing at the back. We were thrilled to learn from the Hoddesdon librarians that the turnout for our event was their highest turnout for an adult event.
Not surprisingly, we all thoroughly enjoyed telling the readers about our writing and answering the questions they put. At some point, too, each of us gave a short reading from one of our novels.
At the end of our session, we joined the readers for tea, cake and chatter. Amazingly, I met a reader who’d actually been born in the same hospital as I!
I’d intended to take a photo of the delicious selection of cakes on my plate but funnily enough, they’d all vanished before I remembered my intention!
The librarians couldn’t have been more helpful and friendly, and the audience couldn’t have been more delightful. It was my first visit to Hoddesdon Library, but I certainly hope that it won’t have been my last.