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Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Madingley American Cemetery

Sometimes words seem so inadequate. They seem trite, mundane and, despite the tens of thousands in the English language, completely unequipped to describe an emotion, a moment, a place.

A couple of weeks ago my daughter and I went to Cambridge for the weekend. On a blisteringly hot Saturday afternoon we visited Madingley American Cemetery. Emily has been to the vast cemeteries in Northern France so I suppose she was partly prepared. I was not.

You cannot see anything of the cemetery from the road. You walk past the carved eagle emblem and
climb the wide, curving, pale stone steps.

At the top there is a tree-lined avenue.

 A thread of cool shelter. Maybe even a sanctuary for the wave of emotion which cannot fail to overwhelm you at the sight of all of those graves sweeping away in graceful curves to your left.

I have no connection with any of these people and yet I wanted to cry at the sight of their final resting place. Over 3,800 people who had sacrificed themselves for the freedom of my country and of Europe. Beyond this expanse of white crosses and Stars of David, sits the Memorial Building. Leading you towards it are lily strewn pools, bordered by brightly coloured flowers.
On the far wall are the Tablets of the Missing. The names, reverently carved, of five thousand, one hundred and twenty six people, missing in action, lost or buried at sea, from all corners of the United States.

And where the tree-lined avenue and the canal meet is the tallest flagpole I've ever seen, bearing the stars and stripes, blowing valiantly in the wind, even on this stillest of days.

The raised mound upon which it stands is surrounded by a circle of yellow roses.
At its foot are the wreaths of remembrance.

And around the bronze base these words from John McCrae's poem In Flanders Fields:-

To you from failing hands
We throw the torch.
Be yours to hold it high

Although I felt full of sorrow for these lost lives, Madingley is not a sorrowful place. It is serene, reflective, respectful, beautiful in its simplicity. It acts as a reminder that life is a gift and not to be taken for granted. It is a reminder to be brave and good, to try to live our lives well and to think not just of ourselves but of others, as did all of these American servicemen. It is an encouragement to go away and hold our torches high. It seems to me to be the least we can do.

Thank-you all for reading and a special, heartfelt thanks to all of my American readers. May your week be a good one.

Saturday, 20 July 2013

An e-book journey

How long does it take to write a book is a question I have been asked many times over the last few weeks. Usually for me, quite a long time. I am a slow writer and because I'm not a planner I usually have to re-draft several times.

This week I have achieved a goal which has been on my 'to do' list for several years. I have published a romantic novel under the name of Lucy Cooper.

This story was begun on a whim about 5 years ago while we were holidaying in the beautiful Yorkshire countryside.

After our traditional English breakfast I would be hanging around while everyone else got themselves ready, so on the second day I sat in the conservatory at the back of our holiday cottage, picked up my notebook and started to write. I probably wrote, in rough form, the first three chapters that week and over the next few months returned to the story at intervals, adding, polishing and enjoying the writing process. I came to adore my heroine, Kate, and don't tell my husband, but I rather fell in love with my hero Patrick.

Then, when I felt it was ready, I sent the novel to several agents. Here are a few of the comments I  received;-

I was called 'an accomplished writer', which was lovely.

I have a 'good voice'. Again, just what you want to hear.

They liked my writing style and thought the romantic storyline had potential.

One agent told me it was just the sort of book she liked to read.

Several agencies asked for the whole manuscript.

One agent asked to meet me.

So there were a lot of positive responses

Despite all of this praise, none of them wanted to take my novel.

I had a 'but' of my own. I refused to be deterred!
I vowed to myself that once it was the best that it could possibly be I would publish this story myself. Yes, I could have tried more agents but I decided it would be interesting to take matters into my own hands. So I have dipped my toe for the very first time into the e-publishing market and I am so glad that I did. It has been an educational process. Instead of just thinking about the story I have had to consider fonts, layout, blurb and covers. It has made me look at books in a different and more creative way. Despite taking part in a day course six months ago about uploading your book to Kindle, I decided to employ someone to do the formatting for me. Maybe next time if I tackle a shorter book then I will feel confident enough to do that myself. My daughter has done the cover and I am thrilled with it. I love the fresh colours and she has captured Kate perfectly. The uploading process to Amazon Kindle was very straightforward even for a technophobe like myself and the sense of achievement when I got confirmation that it had worked was a lovely feeling. All in all the whole process has been really enjoyable.

So, if you've got precious manuscripts wallowing in drawers and they are stories which tug at your heartstrings, which call to you from time to time, begging for another chance, then give them an airing. Re-work them if needs be and try your hand at e-publishing so that someone else can love them too. What have you got to lose?

And if you ever get the chance to visit Yorkshire, grab it. It is an absolute gem with stunning landscapes, beautiful coastline, awe-inspiring buildings and lovely, friendly people. It really is an inspirational place to visit.

Thank you for reading and have a good week.


Friday, 12 July 2013

It's all in a name

Names are so important. They make an instant impression. This little rose resides at the bottom of my rockery and is called Warm Welcome. I send a very warm welcome to all of you visiting my blog.

When I was small a lot of people seemed unable to remember my name. They knew it was a name which had belonged to one of the Queens of England so I often got called Victoria.

Or maybe I looked a bit like a Victoria but there's nothing like people regularly forgetting your name for making you feel a bit insignificant! Maybe people couldn't remember my name because it was actually given to me by my grandmother as a result of my parents not being able to agree on what to call me. So my name was not carefully chosen for me. It was plucked from the door of the room my mother was in at the maternity unit - the Alexandra room. I sometimes wonder if I'd  be a slightly different person if I had a different name or maybe I was meant to be called Alexandra all along. But we're getting into the realms of philosophy here and I am digressing.

I do know that in books it's important to get the names of characters right. Last week, on one of my school visits, a young man asked me why I had chosen the name Jess for my main character in Last Chance Angel. I'm afraid I couldn't really give him a satisfactory answer. Jess was the name which spiralled out of the ether when I began to write the book and from the very beginning it felt absolutely right. Likewise the Angel of Death was instantly and obviously a Darren. In my next book for Templar my main character is called Laura and her cousins are Liberty, Liam and Luke. Again these are names which came fairly easily. I didn't have to think too much about them and to me they seem to fit the characters. Completely unwittingly I seem to have tapped into a trend as I read a report only last week that celebrities are favouring names for their children which begin with the same letter.

Names don't always come easily though. The student I mentioned earlier said he had a problem with names and I do sympathise. The names of the adults in my next book for Templar took more thinking about and it took me a little while to feel comfortable with my choices. For me, if the name doesn't feel right my character won't develop in the way he/she needs to. Every time I write I will get that little voice in my head saying 'this name isn't right. Do something about it.' As a reader too I am quite sensitive to names. I recently read a children's book where the names of the four main child characters felt completely wrong and it spoilt my enjoyment of the story.

So, how do you find the right name if it doesn't come to you straight away? Well baby name books are always useful as are lists on the internet. Olivia, Lily and Sophie are the top 3 girls names in the U.K. with Harry, Jack and Oliver being at the top of the pile for the boys. But sometimes I'll just be driving along and see a name on the side of a lorry or hear something on the radio and think 'that's a good name'.  I actually find surnames more difficult to choose than Christian names and that is where the telephone directory comes in useful. Although I have been known to change the surnames of my characters several times until I felt they were right.

Of course you can have great fun making up names too. In Princess Posy Knight in Training I had a horse called Hodgepodge and an old, crusty knight called Sir Limpalong. In Pirate Polly I invented characters called Stinky Dave, Mad-Eyed Mick and Press- Gang Pete.

What I do believe is that it is important to take time to find the right name. Finding the right name for your characters will affect the way you write about them. It will give your writing more freedom and the right name will also affect the way your readers respond. So I'll finish with another flower. This is a geranium, which I've had for many years, taken loads of cuttings from and given away to friends. It is called Happy Thought and just its name makes me smile but of course it has the most beautiful bright flowers and lovely leaves too.

Thank you for reading and may you have many happy thoughts this week.

Friday, 5 July 2013

Broad Beans and My Inner Child!

In the last four weeks I've done eight school visits and every one has been a joy. Amongst the questions which have come up is whether I use experiences from my own life in my books. The answer is yes and no. I think most writers put bits of themselves into their books, whether it's a small character trait  or something which they have seen or heard. What I do think is important is the ability to remember what it was like to be a child or a teenager and, for me, broad beans are something which takes me straight back to childhood. My father grew loads of vegetables. The garden was his passion and his escape. My mother was a great cook and one of my favourite meals in the summer was gammon, new potatoes and broad beans in parsley sauce. This year we extended our vegetable patch. It's still not very big but I've managed to fit in beetroot, French beans, runner beans, potatoes, onions and of course broad beans (Meteor is the variety I chose).

I didn't plant the beans straight in the ground but into segregated seed trays, one seed to each compartment, and I brought them on in the greenhouse. Every single seed germinated. I planted them out a couple of weeks before Monty Don on Gardener's World and immediately worried that I had got it wrong. We'd had a couple of good days and I was brimming with optimism that the good weather would continue. I should have known better. Another cold snap followed but my beans didn't seem to mind and they have thrived.

About two weeks ago I pinched out the leafy tops and we ate them in a risotto with some prawns and then last Saturday I couldn't wait any longer. We were having our first barbecue of the summer to celebrate my husband's birthday and I wanted some broad beans to decorate my salad.

 I could feel that most of the pods needed a little more time to fill out so I didn't pick many, just enough to sprinkle over my salad.

But, returning to those childhood memories, it is the podding of the beans which really takes me back.  I am instantly transported to our little thatched cottage with its crooked walls and low, beamed ceilings. I am probably not much more than four years old and sitting in our kitchen at the grey Formica topped table, digging my impatient little fingers into that seam at the side of the broad bean pod. I loved that moment when you split the pod open from top to bottom. It was like unfolding the pages of a precious book. And inside, there they were, pale green beans lying in little hollows which followed their contours exactly. They looked so snug and cosy in their little beds and I loved the softness which surrounded them. It felt like the most luxurious cotton wool and it seemed almost cruel to disturb them but come out they must. I vividly remember the satisfying plink as the beans bounced into the old saucepan with the slight dent in one side and I remember how important I felt to be trusted with this job.

So broad beans are just one part of a whole bank of memories which enable me to get back in touch with what it feels like to be a child. Hopefully, taking myself back in time and catching hold of specific events which have a special place in my heart, will help to make me a better writer and as a result help me to connect with my young readers.

Thank you for reading this post and I hope you have a happy week.