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Monday, 22 December 2014

Thinking Time

"How's the writing going?" someone asked the other day.
"Fine," I answered. "It's good."
A clear gaze, a pause; they were waiting for more.
"Actually," I said, "I'm not writing at the moment. I'm planning."

Why did this statement make me feel so guilty? Probably because, as some of you will know, I'm not a great planner when it comes to writing. Also probably because I had an idea that the person who had asked me the initial question now had a vision of me making copious notes, with charts and chapter breakdowns etc. etc. Um no, it's not been like that at all! My planning has mostly been in my head whilst preparing for Christmas, moving furniture to accommodate the decorators and trying not to go into a major meltdown as water leaked from the shower and through the spotlights in the kitchen ceiling.

In the past I have tried to plan my books in detail and it really didn't work. It was the closest I came to writer's block. But recently I finished an adult novel which has taken me a couple of years to write in between other projects. Every time I returned to the romantic novel I had to go right back to the beginning in order to immerse myself  in the story. It was time consuming and complicated. There's got to be an easier way than this for the next book I thought. So I've given myself permission for extra thinking time. It's easy to feel that if you're not writing you're not working but when advising other writers I always extol the value of thinking time. It's been a question of practising what I preach and then some.

Back at the beginning of November I resolved not to begin writing my next book until the New Year. Instead I am making some notes, writing a few vignettes, building up my characters in my head, asking myself the questions I mentioned in my blog  from a few weeks back and writing about the story rather than plunging into the story itself. I'm surprised at how well it is working. I'm actually itching to begin which is a really good sign. The theory is that when the time comes to sit down and actually write I'll be able to crack on with this next book at a pretty good pace and get a first draft written in a handful of months. Maybe it will work. Maybe it won't! I'll keep you posted but whatever the outcome it won't be wasted. I'm convinced that it's good to try different ways of working from time to time.

Thank-you for to everyone who has taken the time to read this blog over the last year. Have a very Happy Christmas and I send you best wishes for 2015.

Friday, 12 December 2014

Cranberry and Orange Relish

Winter is well and truly here. Outside it is one of those grey cloud-laden days which barely seems to get light. It feels like a day to hunker down and catch up with all of those jobs on my to-do list. One of those jobs is to make some cranberry sauce to go with the Christmas turkey. I first tried this Delia Smith recipe several years ago and honestly have to say that I don't think I've ever bought a jar of cranberry sauce since then. The homemade variety tastes so different and is incredibly easy to make. Another bonus is that it smells divine when cooking (actually cooking is not really an accurate description as barely any cooking is needed). Standing in my kitchen I am surrounded by the scent of cinnamon, cloves, ginger, orange and cranberries. Michael Buble's Christmas CD is playing and all I need for a complete dose of seasonal cheer is the scent of pine needles from the Christmas tree which we plan to get this weekend.

So here it is, the easiest Cranberry sauce recipe ever.

Cranberry and Orange Relish
(serves 8)

1lb (450g) fresh cranberries
Rind and juice of 1 large orange
1 and a half (4cm) piece cinnamon stick
4 cloves
1 heaped tsp freshly grated root ginger
(or half tsp ground ginger)
3oz (75g) caster sugar
2-3 tbsp port (optional)

Chop the cranberries in a food processor, or press them through the fine blade of a mincer, then place in a saucepan. Pare off the rind of the orange with a potato peeler and cut it into very fine shreds. (I actually grate the rind and although it probably makes it taste more orangey we all like it this way). Add this to the saucepan, with the orange juice, ginger, sugar, cloves and cinnamon stick. Bring to a simmer, stir well, place a lid on the pan and allow to simmer for approximately 5 minutes. (Mine took slightly longer this time). Remove from the heat and stir in the port if liked. We actually prefer it without. When cooled, remove cloves and cinnamon stick,  put in a serving dish, cover with clingfilm and keep in a cool place until ready to serve. I actually freeze mine and it is absolutely fine. I take it out of the freezer on Christmas morning or Christmas Eve to de-frost, depending upon the time we are sitting down to eat the turkey.

Thank-you for reading. Have a good week and if you make the cranberry relish, enjoy!

Sunday, 7 December 2014

Everyday Heroes

Picking up any newspaper or watching the television news these days you could be forgiven for thinking that there are very few good people left in the world. But of course that isn't true. There are everyday heroes who are kind and considerate and generous. On Friday I met three of them and they turned my day, which could have been quite stressful, into a really rewarding experience.

My daughter was spending the weekend in Oxford with old friends. On Friday the two of us had planned a visit to the William Blake exhibition at The Ashmolean Museum. We had book tickets online several weeks earlier - or at least we thought that we had! The night before, trawling through my e-mails, I couldn't find the confirmation. I couldn't find any record of payment and I couldn't get through to the ticket office either. The exhibition had only started the previous day so, unsure whether we'd be able to get in, we headed for Oxford with a contingency plan to visit one of the colleges instead.

Oxford is a tricky place to get to from Leicester so we drive to Leamington, 45 minutes away and pick up the train. I left an hour and a half for the car journey but by the time we pulled into the station car park we had little more than five minutes to spare. While my daughter extracted our tickets from the machine I asked the ticket inspector where I could purchase a parking ticket.
"You need to get them from the kiosk these days," he said.
This was not good news. There were probably eight people queuing at the kiosk.
"Our train goes in under five minutes," I said.
"Have you got £4.50 in change," he asked. "If so I can get you a ticket."
Luckily I had.
"Platform 3" he said, waving us through the barrier as I rushed back from placing said ticket in the car. "Run!"
As we tore up the stairs I heard the whistle blow.
"We're not going to make it," I said, to my daughter.
But we did, with literally seconds to spare and all thanks to that ticket inspector. What a wonderful man!

You'd think meeting one hero in a day would be enough but when I got to the Ashmolean and explained that our online booking had mysteriously gone astray the lady said that she was unable to check whether it had gone through but, without any hesitation, offered us complimentary tickets. I was blown away by her kindness. I didn't have to miss William Blake after all and the exhibition is stunning.

My third hero of the day was the waiter in our chosen restaurant who spent ages going through the wheat free options with me so I could have a lovely lunch.

Our day could have turned out so differently but thanks to the kindness of three complete strangers it was made extra special.

Thank you for reading. I hope you meet more than your fair share of everyday heroes this week.

Sunday, 30 November 2014

Boarding School Survivors

Occasionally I wake in the deep of the night from a recurring dream. I've been having this dream for over forty years but, when I first wake, the feelings of despair, of fear and of my world closing in are as strong as they ever were. In this dream it is the night before I am to return to boarding school. I have to leave the safety of my cosy bedroom with its sloping walls, uneven floor and diamond-paned windows overlooking the garden and the village green, and take my place in a dormitory full of twenty or so other girls. If I am lucky I will occupy a cubicle with a barely adequate curtain to give me a little privacy. If not, my iron bedstead, with its lumpy mattress, will be at the bottom of the dormitory in an open area with five others for company. Only beneath the sheets, which, to begin with, still smell of home, can I hide my tears.

This week I took my daughter for a spa day, as part of her twenty-first birthday present. We went to Ragdale Hall in Leicestershire and each of us selected a special treatment. I chose an angel card reading combined with chakra silks and my daughter had a crystal treatment with chakra balancing. As part of this she was taken into a guided meditation and during the treatment she was visited by my mother who died nine years ago.

"Grandma has a message for you," she said, gently, as we sat at the table, waiting for our lunch. "She wants you to let go of the hurt you still feel about being sent to boarding school. She had no idea how it would affect you long term. She has mellowed. She is sorry."

This came completely out of the blue. We had not been talking about boarding school and although my mother is mentioned often, her name didn't come up on our journey to Ragdale. I felt overwhelmingly emotional.

"Grandma wants you to know that she is incredibly proud of you and all that you have achieved," my daughter continued softly, as my tears spilled over.

My boarding school experience was not a happy one. Those seven years altered me and I spent many subsequent years chasing after the person I was before being sent away. I thought I had put all of that behind me. But the fact that my mother in particular had refused to believe me when I said how unhappy I was still hurt. So, with this out of the blue message, can I totally put it behind me now? To be honest I'm not sure. The message and the unexpectedness of it is still sinking in. It was the last thing I thought would happen on a relaxing, pampering day out. Maybe the ultimate test will be whether that dream recurs again.

Whilst I don't like labels, I do consider myself to be a boarding school survivor and there are many of us. In the intervening years I have negotiated my own way through the fall-out but if you need to talk to someone The Boarding School Survivors Association can offer help. To those of you who have not boarded, the term 'survivor' and talk of healing 'wounds' may sound over-dramatic. It is not. The wrong school for a child can strip them of their essence; being a boarder magnifies that. There is no-one to turn to, no place of safety, sometimes the only way out can lead to drastic and tragic consequences.

I want to end on a positive note. Experiences such as mine, whilst influencing your life do not have to prevent future happiness. From hard times come valuable lessons, ones which I am grateful for. One of the main things I learned was the importance of listening to my children and what they are trying to say, not just when they were small but now they are older too. I hope that I shall never stop listening. As parents we are bound to get some things wrong. When we do it is important to say sorry. That is not a sign of weakness. It is a sign of strength. Saying 'sorry, I got it wrong', can help to heal.

Thank-you for reading. As we move into Advent, I hope you have an uplifting week.

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Christmas Pudding Memories

Quite some time ago I read an article by Helen Dunmore where she said how important it was, when writing, not to forget about taste, texture and smell. I've always tried to remember this when attempting to describe something in my own writing because the smell of something can evoke so many memories and give rise to such strong emotions.

Today is stir-up Sunday and I have made my Christmas pudding or as an American friend described it to me 'that cake you Brits set fire to'! Stir-up Sunday is always the last Sunday before Advent and the tradition was supposedly introduced by Queen Victoria's husband, Prince Albert. In the past, families came together to mix the ingredients of dried fruit, spices, eggs, butter, etc. Everyone takes a turn to stir the pudding which is meant to bring good luck. In my family it has always been traditional to make a wish.

Sometimes people place a silver coin in the pudding and the person who receives this is meant to receive health, wealth and happiness in the coming year.

Anyway, measuring out my pudding ingredients, I spooned three tablespoons of black treacle into the fruit and brandy mixture. The rich, heady, aroma of the treacle instantly brought a picture of my grandfather into my head. One of his favourite things was treacle toffee from a shop called Thorntons. It came in irregular shaped pieces and was weighed into small waxed paper bags. I often bought it for him as a treat and of course he shared it with me. Just being with him made me feel safe, made me smile. He died nearly thirty years ago now but today, thanks to a few spoonfuls of delicious, dark, sticky syrup, his presence was there in my kitchen.

You can buy some great Christmas puddings these days, including gluten free ones but there really is nothing like a home-made one. I got this recipe from a magazine years ago and it's hard to beat.

Christmas Pudding

800g (1lb 12oz) luxury mixed dried fruit

Finely grated zest and juice of 1 large orange

150ml (half a pint) brandy, Cointreau or Grand Marnier

3 tbsp black treacle

1 large cooking apple, grated

50g (2 oz) each breadcrumbs and plain flour
(For gluten free replace breadcrumbs and flour with gluten-free breadcrumbs and 75g (3 oz) ground almonds)

1 tbsp ground mixed spice

100g (3 and a half oz) blanched almonds, chopped

2 large free-range eggs, beaten

125g (4oz) unsalted butter, well chilled.

Put the dried fruit, orange zest, orange juice, brandy (or other liqueur), and treacle into a large mixing bowl. Mix well, then cover and leave to stand for 1-2 hrs or overnight.

Pre-heat the oven to 180C (160 fan) or gas mark 4. Grease a 1.8 litre (3 and a half pint) pudding basin and line the base with a circle of greaseproof paper. Add the apple to the soaked fruit, along with breadcrumbs, flour, spice, almonds and eggs. Grate the butter over the mixture and stir with a wooden spoon until mixed.

Spoon mixture into bowl and level surface. Cut out two squares of greaseproof paper measuring 30.5cm (12in), put one on top of the other and fold a pleat down the middle. Place over the basin and tie under the rim with string. Then cover with a circle of foil, pressing it down around the rim.

Stand the basin in a deep-sided roasting tin (I place mine in a cast iron casserole dish) and pour in 1.7 litres (3 pints) of boiling water. Cover your tin with a large piece of foil and secure edges or place the lid on your casserole dish. Transfer to the oven and cook for 6 hours. You may need to top up the water.

When it's ready remove basin from the tin and leave to cool. Remove wrappings, re-cover pudding in fresh, dry greaseproof and foil and store in a cool, dry place until Christmas.

On the day, cook the pudding in the oven, as before for one and a half hours or steam gently on the top of the oven for 2 hrs. Serve with brandy sauce and brandy butter.

This makes a large pudding which serves 16 people. I often divide the mixture and make two smaller ones or you can just halve it and make one pudding.


Thank-you for reading. Have a lovely week.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Never Grow Up

Last week it was my son's birthday. He was 26 and his girlfriend bought him some boy toys, a remote controlled car and a small model helicopter. As I stood at the cooker making scotch pancakes for breakfast, the toy car whizzed around my feet and immediately I was transported back twenty years to when both of my boys used to play on the kitchen floor and I had to be careful where I was treading.

"You should never grow up," my son's girlfriend said to him and I was reminded of this later in the week when I went to visit an old friend. This lady was a friend of my parents and has known me since before I was born. There are some people who always make you feel better, who always leave you with a spring in your step and she is one of them.

Despite any troubles she may have, she always looks beautiful, has a ready smile and a great sense of fun. In many ways, inside her head, she has not grown up and her home reflects this lightness of spirit. In her hall are photographs of her family and flowers arranged in a crystal vase, this week an airy bunch of pale pink carnations. We had tea in her elegant sitting room with it's aqua walls and cream carpet. She pushed a chair nearer to the fire to ensure I was warm enough and took a small walnut table from the nest of tables and placed it next to me. The tea tray was set with bone china cups and silver tea spoons. I felt absolutely cosseted but I know this treatment was not just reserved for me. She is like this with all of her friends which is why she has so many of them. She is interesting and interested. She is a role model for many and we all need those.

My china cups and saucers have stayed in the cupboard recently but I shall be getting them out and using them. But more importantly than that, as the years pass, I shall try to emulate my friend and grow older gracefully and with good humour.

Thank-you so much for reading. Have a lovely week.

Friday, 7 November 2014

Just Do It

'Sometimes you just have to get on and do it,' my daughter said last week. And she's right of course. Sometimes you do have to fight the lethargy and get on with whatever it is that you are putting off. But it's not always as easy as that, is it? Normally, I love my writing life. Where had that love gone? Not wanting to write is discombobulating. I don't feel like myself. I did sit down and do a little writing but it didn't spark a real desire to plunge in, so I found plenty of displacement activities, hoping that an absence from the page would be the solution. It wasn't.  My characters didn't follow me and occupy my thoughts while I drove to the garden centre or cleared away leaves in the garden. They didn't even fill my head while I did the ironing and, in the past, I've found the gentle repetitive action of ironing to be great for cultivating ideas. Maybe the passion has gone away for ever I thought. Maybe I only had so many books in me and that was it. Then immediately I tried to be more rational. I can easily let my imagination run away with me, (but not frustratingly in this case in the form of a story for my next novel) and I had been here before. Once I had a whole year when my enthusiasm waned. I got through that and I'd get through this period too.

Sometimes you don't quite know what you need until it happens. I know that meeting with other writers always gives me a boost so I was looking forward to our monthly meeting of the Romantic Novelists' Association. Everyone is so supportive of each other. We commiserate, we share, we celebrate. Would that renew my absent enthusiasm? I wasn't sure. I didn't want to pin too many hopes on it.

This month the delightful Carole Matthews came to visit and talk to us about her career so far and her hugely successful books. Carole is engaging, funny, ready to share her knowledge and inspiring. She loves what she does and is extremely appreciative of her readers. Her enthusiasm is infectious and you can check out her website and her books with their beautiful covers by Alice Tait, here.

A couple of hours later I came away with a real spring in my step. I'm itching to get on with my next book. My characters are clamouring to make themselves heard. So, a huge thank-you to Carole and over the weekend I'm also looking forward to settling down with one of her books, Wrapped Up In You. What a treat!

Thank-you for reading and I hope that something puts a spring in your step this week.

Friday, 31 October 2014

A Sense of Wonder

After returning from from Lanzarote, relaxed, refreshed and raring to go, I've had flu which really knocked me for six. Not only did it leave me feeling rather fed up that all the benefits of my lovely holiday were wiped out but also quite unmotivated too. I had a new book waiting for the back-story to be worked on and for the first few pages to be scribbled down but I kept putting it off. Then last Saturday my son and daughter-in-law suggested we went to Canon's Ashby in Northamptonshire for a light lunch, and a gentle wander.

I have to confess that Canon's Ashby isn't one of my favourite National Trust houses but it does sit in the most beautiful Northamptonshire countryside and the view from every aspect is stunning and uplifting.

There's also nothing like spending time with a small child to restore your sense of wonder. To my grand-daughter, at 21 months, the whole world is new and exciting. She found a sleek white cat to stroke, piles of leaves to throw in the air, bags of freshly picked apples to run her fingers over. We pressed our faces to the glass of the garden shop which was closed and gazed at a huge pumpkin, before heading for the chapel where she and her Gramps discreetly played peep-po in the pews.

I came away feeling uplifted and much more like myself.

My week continued in a similarly happy way. I paid a visit to Farndon Fields Farm Shop in Market Harborough. Just walking in and seeing the fantastic display of vegetables and smelling the loaves of bread is good for the soul. On Wednesday evening we visited the local theatre with friends to see Gerald Dickens perform Great Expectations which is my favourite Dickens novel. It's a one man show with Mr. Dickens, the great-great grandson of Charles, playing every part and he was amazing. If you get the chance to go and see him, please do. Yesterday I nipped down the road for Literature at Lunchtime with Dr. Jane McKay and a talk on Edward, Lord Lytton's life and his best known book The Last Days of Pompeii. If you can't get to any of her fascinating talks, then she has a wealth of recordings on cd which are well worth investing in.

Today I have met up with some writing friends where we exchanged news, had a few moans and generally encouraged each other. We all got to hold a four week old puppy too which seems like the most perfect way to end the week. I haven't got a puppy picture but if you want to see three adorable Patterdale/Border Terrier cross puppies take a peek at my friend Bridget's lovely blog. Thinking of the Days.

A few brief outings, meeting up with friends, some cake of course and cuddling a puppy has put me back on track. I've even written the first rough couple of pages of the next novel. It's easy to talk yourself out of things - I'm really good at that - but sometimes making the effort to get out and about, even when you don't feel like it, really does have huge benefits.

Thank-you for reading. I hope you have an inspiring week ahead of you.

Friday, 24 October 2014

Building a Back-Story

I hate to be disappointed by a book but I read quite a few manuscripts and quite a few published books where the back-story seems scant. These are the books where, however hard I try, I just can't relate to the main characters, and however pacy the plot, the story does not satisfy me.

As a beginner writer, I too was guilty of skimping on the back-story but one day, when struggling with plot, I had a light-bulb moment. I realised that if I knew my characters well enough, what they were afraid of, what they wanted above all else, then the twists and turns of the plot would generally reveal themselves. And so it has turned out. If you struggle with your plots then I can guarantee that taking the time to build up your characters will make the writing process a lot, lot easier.

And that is one of the keys - taking time. Getting to knowing your characters with all of their blessings and flaws cannot be done in a hurry. It takes time to work out their hopes and fears as well as their parentage, their siblings, their characteristics and whether these were as a result of nature or nurture. It sounds complicated and time-consuming but it isn't really. You can be thinking about it whilst driving or shopping or washing up. It can be such fun, getting to know the people you are going to write about, who in the case of a long book, are going to be part of your life for a long time.

So these are some of the questions I ask myself when building my back-story.

What is it that my main character wants above all else?

What motivates them to strive for this?

What do my characters need?
(This can be quite different to what it is they actually want).

What do they doubt?

Who/what are they afraid of?

Who do they look up to?

What was their childhood like?

Is there someone in the family they are particularly close to?

What do they wear? 
(Clothes communicate a lot about a person).

How do they talk/walk?

Here are some of my beginning notes for the hero's mother in my next adult romance:-

'Jane is 60 and recently widowed. Her husband was 13 years older. She was 21 when she married and always deferred to him. She wears a large solitaire engagement ring alongside her platinum wedding band and likes to drink tea from a china cup and saucer. She escapes to the garden whenever there is a problem and knows the Latin names for all of her plants.She could become a good friend to Rachel (my heroine). This inter-generational friendship is an interesting possibility, especially as Rachel cannot rely on her own mother for sound advice, due to her nervous disposition.'

From these few lines I had the basis for my character and went on to describe her appearance and delve into the relationship with both of her sons. She developed depth and as so many authors say 'took on a life of her own'. I didn't necessarily use all of the information which I wrote down but that didn't matter. What mattered was I knew her, inside and out. I knew how she would react in any given circumstance. I knew her weaknesses and her strengths and what she wanted from her life. And because I knew her well I became very fond of her but also quite exasperated by her behaviour at times!

So, taking the time to build up your back-story is definitely worth doing. You will not regret the time spent even if the temptation is strong to just plough straight into the story. When writing a children's story, the same rules apply, whether your characters are human or animal. It is important to ask questions and to know them really well.

This is a constant reminder which I have posted up on the wall.

If I were this character in these circumstances what would I do?

I try to refer to this question with all of my characters, even the minor ones, so that no-one acts out of character, or if they do, there is a good explanation for it.

There are a lot more questions you can ask about your main characters as well, favourite food, places to go on holiday, do they like dogs etc. etc. The more you know about them the stronger they will be and the stronger your story will be.

Thank-you for reading. I hope for those of you who are beginning your writing journey and for those of you who get stuck with your plots, this will have helped. Wishing you all a very good week.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

A Delicate Balance

There is a delicate balance required to being a mother-in-law and to being a daughter-in-law too. I am lucky enough to have a beloved daughter-in-law who has accepted our family with all of its faults and idiosyncracies. I have also been lucky enough to have had wonderful parents-in-law who embraced me unreservedly into their fold. In spite of this there are bound to be ups and downs along the way but over the years we have all found an equilibrium at worst and an increasing closeness at best. But it never does any harm to be prompted into questioning the way you do things, the way you behave with people. On holiday in Lanzarote last week, whilst lying under clear blue skies and surrounded by exotic flowers, I was nudged into re-examining my dual roles, all thanks to this book.

I have read most of Joanna Trollope's novels and always enjoyed them. There is a comforting anticipation when picking up a book by an author you have read before but also, in my case, a frisson of anxiety. Will I like this story as much? Will I be disappointed? Well I wasn't disappointed and for me this is one of her best, but I also got much more than expected. Daughters-in-Law is a book of layers. At its most elementary it is a story about relationships, about what happens when your children have grown and flown and adapting to the changes which that entails. But it is also about so much more than that. It's about seeing each others' point of view, of letting go; for Rachel, the main character, it is about the difficult and painful journey of re-discovering herself and finding a new purpose, something I think many parents will understand; it is about the necessary adjustments which ensure the family, any family, doesn't just survive but thrives.

I didn't just enjoy the story and the accomplished writing. This book has a well defined structure and as a writer I have admired that and taken inspiration from it. Every character has a depth and strength which only comes from a detailed back-story. Only a few weeks ago at our writing group we were talking about back-story. I'm a huge believer in this. I have learned the hard way that if I have problems with my plot it is because I don't know my characters well enough. Plot and character are, for me, inter-dependent. My character should respond to events within the plot in a believable way and the plot should develop in a way which challenges that character so that he/she can shine.

I was going to do this anyway but this book has produced quite a nice lead-in so next week I'll write a little about the questions I ask myself when building up a back-story. But, in the meantime I'd advise anyone who is a mother-in-law or a daughter-in-law, or about to become one, to pick up Joanna's book. You'll gain so much more than just a good story.

As always thank-you for reading. Have a good week.

Sunday, 21 September 2014

Wedding Anniversary

Last week it was our wedding anniversary. It is 33 years since we married, 35 since we met. We were little more than children back then and we have in many ways grown up together. We don't often buy each other gifts but my husband always gets me flowers. This year it was a stunning bunch of freesias from De Jager. (We have sent these flowers to friends in the past and they are absolutely the best.)

I happened to spot this architectural oddity and bought it for Mr. G. to place in the garden.

We envisage growing something up it next summer, maybe deep blue morning glory or a tiny flowered pink clematis to scramble up and around it.

Occasionally, I wonder who and what I would have been had we not met. Would I have been a writer? Would I have had three auburn haired children? Would I have been happy? A long relationship is bound to have its ups and downs and we have had our fair share. From a logical point of view, it is remarkable that we have survived so long together for, on the surface, we do not have much in common. I was brought up in the country, he in the town. I can be impetuous, he is more measured. I am fairly shy, he is more gregarious. He is a de-clutterer and I have a tendency to hoard. I am impatient and, unless it is something to do with flatpack furniture, he has endless reserves of patience.

On a day to day basis it drives me mad when he throws the newspapers away before I've had the chance to read them or turns out my bedside light when I'm halfway down a page of my book at night. I drive him to distraction with my habit of writing things on scraps of paper and leaving them all over the house and my tendency to blame myself for everything that goes wrong even if it has nothing to do with me.

On the positive side he has introduced me to cricket, a love of rugby and bean gravy (half a tin of baked beans heated up in some gravy - delicious!). I like to think that it is through me he has developed a love of gardening, more of an interest in art and an inclination to read more.

Having him by my side and on my side through thick and thin has made me a very different person to the one I was when we married on that sunny September day so long ago. His encouragement, his belief in me, his love has, I know for sure, made me a better and braver person. Even after all these years I still can't believe my luck that we found each other and he chose to spend his life with me.

And whatever life has thrown at us I think barely a day has gone by when we haven't found something to laugh about. When people are interviewed who have been married for much longer than Mr. G and I, they are often asked the secret of a long and happy marriage. Many of them cite a shared sense of humour. For us being able to laugh together when the world has bombarded us with problems has been a blessing beyond measure.

Thank-you for reading. I hope you have a happy and laughter-filled week ahead.

Sunday, 14 September 2014

A Writer's Life

A few weeks ago I read a report in the newspaper that two thirds of British people would like to change their job. We all know people who are in the wrong jobs, who ended up there without intending to but who don't know how to escape. I would guess that a substantial number of those have a burning desire to do something more creative.

Recently I did a critique for an aspiring author. In his follow-up e-mail this person used the word 'vegetate' in relation to his current job and, over the air-waves, I felt his frustration. What he really wants, above all else, it to be a published writer and hopefully he will become one.

It seems to me that being a writer has a rather romantic air about it, especially to those longing to chuck in their jobs and to write full time. Maybe this is why a few years ago, a student from my old school rang and asked to shadow me for a week as I worked. I was stunned and wondered if she had any idea what writing fiction entailed. Maybe if I wrote biographies or factual books or even historical fiction it would have been do-able, for a day or two. But there is not much research involved in my line of fiction and I think she would have been horribly bored watching me staring into space or typing random thoughts on to my keyboard, so I gently declined.

A few days ago when rummaging through my bookshelves I came across Natalie Goldberg's book, Wild Mind. I love Natalie Goldberg, the directness of her writing style, her encouraging tone, her energy. Very early on in this book she states that 'Being a writer is a whole way of life, a way of seeing, thinking, being.' It sounds all-consuming, doesn't it?  Daunting and slightly exotic.

I began to think about what 'being a writer' means to myself and my writer friends. They are normal people with normal lives. We have the same worries, hopes, fears, domestic duties, family commitments as the next person. We bake bread, we walk the dog, we worry about the bills, we are there for our children etc. etc. and in the midst of all the hurly burly of modern life we carve out portions of time to write. Sometimes our efforts are lucrative and celebratory. Sometimes our writing lives are dispiriting and frustrating. Very few writers make enough money to support themselves. That it not to say that you shouldn't do it but it is not a quick fix. For most ordinary people, devoting yourself to becoming a writer means that you're in it for the long haul, rain or shine.  I think it is risky to look at writing fiction as a career path; far better to write because you absolutely love it and there is nothing you would rather do. That is when you work will come to life.

I found an excellent blog post by Howard Gardner on creativity in education (that's a whole other post!) but one sentence stuck out.

'Creativity is not an easy option'

He is absolutely right. It isn't. But I believe everyone is creative in their own way and everyone needs an outlet for that creativity, whether it is baking, gardening, painting, making music, sewing or writing to name a few. The alternative is to 'vegetate', to stop 'seeing, thinking, being'. There is nothing mysterious about being a writer and nothing particularly romantic when the cat is sick next to the keyboard!  For aspiring writers, if you have a love of words, of books, of reading, and a determination to succeed, I believe anyone can do it. But the key is patience. We are all prone to being too hard on ourselves. We are often in too much of a hurry. My advice is not to expect too much too soon and one day, when someone asks what you do, you will be able to say with absolute pride, 'I am a writer'.

Thank-you for reading. I hope you get the chance to do something wonderfully creative this week.

Friday, 5 September 2014

Dazzled by Dahlias

About four or five summers ago I bought a dahlia plant from my local florist. Little did I know what I would be starting when planting it in front of the children's old playhouse! Since then my husband has developed a passion for dahlias.

Dahlias are at their peak in September in the U.K. This week we went to see the spectacular display at Baddesley Clinton, a moated manor house belonging to the National Trust, dating in parts from the twelfth century and nestling in the beautiful Warwickshire countryside.

I love Baddesley Clinton. I love walking across the moat with it's silky green water ruffled by the occasional diving duck and into the sun-filled courtyard.

Inside the house is mainly panelled but it is not at all gloomy. The rooms are cosy and of a comfortable size and on the day we visited, light flooded through the leaded windows.
During the Reformation, Baddesley Clinton as a 'safe house' for Catholic priests and there are three priest holes here, two of which are reputed to have been constructed by Nicholas Owen, who was the main builder of priest holes during the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I. He was eventually tortured to death in the Tower of London and canonized by Pope Paul VI in 1970.

Despite the fascinating history of the place, we had really come to see the dahlias and here they are in all their glory...

I really wished I had a wide-angled lens so that I could take the whole border. The colours were stunning.

Each petal is so perfect...

The colours so energising...

Amidst all this showiness is the modesty of a lemony white. I love the shadows on this one.

To be honest it's a day when I should have been writing but soon the dahlias will be fading and I didn't want to miss them. More importantly, I didn't want my husband to miss them. In a couple of months the gardeners will dig up the corms and sell them off so we are already making plans to go back and treat ourselves to a little piece of Baddesley Clinton.

Thank-you so much for reading. Have a lovely week.

Sunday, 31 August 2014

Making Lists

If I let myself, I could be quite a lazy person, allowing swathes of time to disappear without achieving much. So I set try to set myself targets and I write lists. One of my recent targets has been to finish my romantic novel by the end of August. I don't yet have a publisher for this book, so there is no pressure there, but I just find it useful to give myself deadlines.Tomorrow is 1st September and I have failed in this particular quest. Considering there is not much more to do, two chapters probably, and a bit of infilling, this is quite frustrating. I haven't been lazy but life recently has been pretty hectic and although I'm fairly good at prioritising writing time, sometimes other things have to come first.

Over the last few weeks my 'to do' lists have got longer and longer which is not a good thing. A list should serve to soothe. The mere act of writing them can give me a sense of impending order -unless the list gets too long, which has happened lately. So how many items should you put on your 'to do' list?

My daughter is a list-maker too and, since returning from university she has been writing a daily list. Unlike mine, hers are consistent and manageable. Each day she writes down four things she wants to achieve. Through trial and error she has discovered that, for her, four is the magic number. Any more can add too much pressure. Any less and there is the feeling that you could have made more progress.

Interestingly, four is the only number which has the same amount of letters as its value in the English language. In Numerology, the number four resonates with the vibrations and energies of organisation, application, patience, determination and progress too.  It is a grounding number and symbolises the principle of putting ideas into form. Four is also the number of Fate which reminds us that many things happen which are beyond our control. So, although my daughter didn't know any of this beforehand, she may be on to something.

By writing things down we also create space in our brains. If it's on a piece of paper there's not so much danger it will be forgotten (unless you have a husband like mine who swoops on random pieces of paper and discards them - I am still trying to train him in this regard!).When I've done something on my list, I tick it off and this gives me a feeling of satisfaction. We all need to give ourselves a pat on the back from time to time. Most of us don't do it often enough.

So this week, with the sense of optimism which September usually brings, I shall be adopting the rule of four. In four weeks I really do aim to have finished that novel!

Thank-you for reading. Have a happy week.

Sunday, 24 August 2014


On U.K. television at the moment is a programme called Long Lost Family. It is about loss,  a deep need to make contact with family and the enduring power of love. There are mothers who were forced to give up their babies, children looking for parents they have never met, siblings in search of each other. It is a simple and predictable format but the programme itself, which has won a BAFTA, is incredibly powerful. I cannot watch it without a box of tissues to hand.

Yesterday we had a family day. My husband's sister and family drove down from Yorkshire, his brother joined us from around the corner. We drank Pimms to celebrate all being together. My mother-in-law brought a fruit salad, my daughter baked gingerbread and I cooked salmon and beef to serve alongside new potatoes and salads. After lunch the sun came out and we took our coffee into the garden. We played boules on the lawn, my granddaughter picked golden cherry tomatoes from the greenhouse (much more exciting than toys!) and my son and daughter caught up with their cousins, aunt and uncles. As an only child and with my parents gone, I do not have much family of my own so, over the years, my husband's family has become mine.

Quite some time ago my husband and I stayed the night in a lovely bed and breakfast near Cirencester. We chose it from the Alastair Sawday's Special Places to Stay for Garden Lovers and at breakfast everyone sat around one big table. Opposite us were a couple who had driven down from Scotland. They were attending a Golden Wedding celebration that day and I asked if it was a family celebration.' No', the lovely lady replied. The party was for good friends. And then she looked at me and added, 'but sometimes friends are better than family, aren't they?'

She was right. In Long Lost Family the ending is always a happy one and rightly so. I also totally understand the sense of loss those people on the programme feel, but life is not a television programme and not everyone has the family they want, not everyone has a happy ending. I have been extremely lucky. I love my husband's family dearly and I love my friends too.

My friend Cathy once said to me that 'you make your own family', and those wise words have stayed with me. For those of us who do not have many blood ties it is important to 'make our own families'.  They can take many forms and provide much happiness.

Thank-you for reading. May your week be a happy one.

Friday, 15 August 2014

Overcoming Disappointment

Recently, at one of our invaluable writers' meetings, someone mentioned disappointment. It is something we could all identify with. For most writers, disappointment is something you have to learn to live with on a fairly regular basis, in one form or another. I think it is easy to forget that even successful authors will have had rejections and disappointments and probably still do, even when they hit the dizzy heights. The disappointment from rejection letters (or even the gaping hole of no response at all), can be energy sapping; it can throw you off course and worst of all it can, if you let it, mar other areas of your life, dulling times which should and would otherwise be joyful. That initial conversation stayed with me and I wondered about how other people cope with disappointment so, a couple of days ago, when we got together again, I asked my tenacious and inspiring writer friends.

These were some of their answers:-

Cry - a lot!

Spend time with someone close whose job depends less upon the judgement of others.

Read some affirming words.

Talk your disappointment through with family or friends.

Acknowledge how much it hurts.

Remind yourself of all of those authors who are now successful but were turned down many times on the way. (i.e. Kathryn Stockett's The Help was reputedly rejected by 60 agents).

Take strength from your writing group if you have one. They are guaranteed to console, encourage and put things in perspective.
(If you don't have a writing group, try to find one).

Someone suggested getting a dartboard, pinning your rejection letter to it and taking aim!

 I also recommend walking. It usually helps me to feel better and more able to face the world.

Remember that this rejection is only one person's opinion.
(okay maybe more than one person but there are still plenty more out there who may love it - how will they get that opportunity if you stick it in a drawer).


Send that work out again.

You will probably have many other suggestions, maybe involving chocolate, retail therapy or being slobbered over by a very affectionate pet. I find all of these help a little bit too!

Then I had an e-mail from one of the disappointment contributors and she mentioned success, which set me thinking again. Because this wise writer said that we don't celebrate our successes enough. And I think she's right.  I happen to come from a family where celebrating success was rather seen as 'showing off'. But I'm about to show off because on 1st July I had a book published and I haven't mentioned it until now. Not because I'm not immensely proud of it. I am. But because I have been so disappointed that my publishers are no longer taking children's fiction and the lovely people I worked with on Last Chance Angel and my new book, No Going Back, are no longer there.. But it's more than time to get over that and move on. So here is my new book.

It's about love, loss, forgiveness and strangely enough, disappointment. It is also about moving on.

Finally, when that rejection letter drops on to the doormat or a 'thanks, but no thanks' e-mail pops up in your inbox, this quote from Barbara Kingsolver is a good one to give hope.

'This manuscript of yours that has just come back from another editor is a precious package.
Don't consider it rejected. 
Consider that you've addressed it 'to the editor who can appreciate my work'
and it has simply come back stamped 'not at this address'.

Thank-you for taking the time to read this post. I hope you have a good week.

Saturday, 9 August 2014

Watershed Walks

Our greatest gifts are often given to us before we even realise. When I was barely more than a toddler my father used to take me walking on a Saturday morning. We usually walked across the fields to the next village, our English Setters bounding ahead, and headed back again in time for lunch. Since those early days walking has been an important part of my life and I have written about it on this blog several times. I think that one of the most difficult things I found about boarding school was not being able to just open the door and go for a walk.

Later, when living in Oxford, I was a member of the University Rambling Club but I am not a hearty walker. My walks tend to be gentle and last anything from a brief twenty minutes up to an hour or two at the most. Sometimes I walk alone, sometimes with company. The walks take many forms. They can be celebratory or consoling. They can raise questions or can lead to answers to questions I already have. They can provide inspiration and, every once in a while, a walk occurs at a watershed moment.

This week we collected my daughter from Oxford. After three years studying History of Art she graduated in June. Since then she has been working, but on Wednesday the lease expired on her student house and she has come home. It is almost eighteen years since she started at playschool for three mornings a week and, like many children, the rigours of academic life have not always entirely suited her personality. But she has done well and now she begins a new phase in her life, with freedom to choose the direction she wants to go in. It is an exciting time for her but also daunting too. So we went for a walk.

In retrospect it seems appropriate that, at this watershed moment, for the first part of our walk we headed for the still, muddy water of the canal.

Planting our feet carefully on the uneven towpath we admired the wild flowers, recalled blackberry picking with my grandmother and took a moment to study the quietly moored narrowboats. We talked of friendships she had made over the last three years, some which would endure and some which she needed to let go.

As we emerged into open pastures our conversation changed to the future, of possibilities ahead and of the importance of giving yourself time, not trying to achieve too much all at once.

Again our walk finished by water, this time alongside the crystal clear water of the River Sence.

We headed off to the nearby garden centre for a coffee and to buy some fresh produce for lunch.

So, this week a chapter in our lives has ended. Unless, in a few months' time my daughter decides to do an MA, all of our children have completed their formal education. It's been a long haul!  I feel enormous pride that they have all done so well and are making their way in the world and relieved too that the worries about exams, subject choices, settling in to new schools/universities and fitting life in around term times are behind us. So it's not just a watershed moment for my daughter, but for my husband and I too.

Thank-you for reading and if you have a watershed moment this week I hope it's a good one.

Saturday, 2 August 2014

Pacing your Book

A few weeks ago I wrote a blog post about pacing myself physically when writing. Since then I have been thinking a lot about pacing in books themselves. Poor pacing can mar an otherwise good story and I've read a few books recently where this has happened.

Also, eighty thousand words into my adult, romantic novel, I have become stuck. The ending is clear and not that far away; there are a variety of paths leading to the conclusion but I'm not quite sure of the right one. I'm also not sure whether the pacing is right. When writing shorter books for children it is much easier to judge the pacing but at eighty thousand words it feels much harder.

With one doubt comes another and another. This is where an editor or an agent are worth their weight in gold. But I have neither for this book, so for now I am relying on my own judgement and that could be skewed!

These are some of the questions I have asked myself.

Is there enough tension?

Is the plot being driven forwards in a fast enough manner?

Are my characters themselves acting in a way which drives the story forwards?

Is my heroine someone readers will love, someone who will compel them to turn the page in order to find out whether she attains her heart's desire?

Is my hero the sort to make readers swoon?! 

Does the network of relationships, the ups and downs, slow the pace of the story in some places?

And does this matter if it is only a transitory thing?

Pacing is about rhythm. Too much tension and the reader will tire before the denouement. Too little and they will switch off.

Robert McKee's Classic Five Part Narrative Theory is as follows:-

Inciting incident.

Progressive complications.




Pace needs power but I am aware that it also needs pauses. It is finding the balance between the two which is so  hard to get right.

So how am I attempting to answer my doubts?

Well, eventually I will hopefully pass the book to one or two trusted writer friends and rely on them to be truthful. Before that I have begun to edit. Many writing blogs say not to edit until you have finished the story, but by returning to the beginning, deleting some passages and adding in others, I am hopeful that all will become clear. I am hopeful that, when I reach the part where I became stuck first time around, the choice of which path to follow will have been made for me. I am hopeful that by re-working from the beginning and trusting my instincts, I will be able to better judge how well the pace is working.

There are a lot of 'hopes' there but to a large extent that is what writing is. You pluck an initial idea from the ether, trust your instincts and hope that you can make something of it.

I hope that whatever you are doing this week you don't get stuck and if you do, that you find a speedy solution! Thank-you for reading.

Friday, 25 July 2014

Lyme Park

This week we went to the Tatton Park Flower Show. It's a two hour drive from home and that's if the traffic is behaving which on the M6 it often doesn't. So we decided to treat ourselves and stay overnight. On the way up to Manchester we decided to take a slight detour and visit Lyme Park, a National Trust Property, on the edge of the Peak District. It is a stunning place.

Before passing to the National Trust in 1946 the house had belonged to the Legh family for nearly 600 years.

The interior was fascinating with some impressive Elizabethan fireplaces, a beautiful library containing a semi-circular window with a built-in seat, (I could just imagine sitting there overlooking the grounds, book in hand), and a dining room with some tiny little lidded porcelain pots on the table which apparently were used for gravy. In previous times gravy was only poured over the vegetables so every diner would have been given one of these pots for extra gravy if so wished. I've been to quite a few historic homes and have never seen these before.

The house is set within beautiful gardens and beyond that a deer park. Some of the exterior scenes for the  BBC television series Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen were filmed here. This is the lake from which Mr. Darcy/Colin Firth emerged sending many hearts a'flutter!

We loved the orangery...

...the soothing sound of water pitter pattering from the moss encrusted fountain...

...following you around past the beautiful plants.

The herbaceous border was full of colour, as well as bees and butterflies...

... the rose garden an oasis of scented calm.

And this year the Italian garden has been planted in honour of those of fought and fell in the First World War.

This must rank as one of my favourite National Trust houses, alongside Greenway which was Agatha Christie's house in Devon and Coleton Fishacre, also in Devon, once belonging to the D'Oyly Carte family. Considering this is the largest house in Cheshire, Lyme has a delightfully informal and friendly feel. Children rolled down the grassy banks in the garden and played with the games provided on the lawn. Inside, the guides were friendly and informative and The Timber Yard was a lovely place to eat on a hot and sunny day. We didn't get the chance to explore the parkland but hopefully one day we will go back.

As always thank-you so much for visiting my blog. Have a good week.

Sunday, 20 July 2014

A Book Launch and Richard III

Isn't it lovely when you have something to celebrate? Especially when it's an occasion to mark the culmination of hard work and the coming together of something really special. On Tuesday evening we attended the book launch for The Children's Book of Richard III, which has been written by my writer friend, Rosalind Adam.

Ros and I have known each other for a long time, through good times and bad. This is a story of tenacity, entrepreneurship and serendipity; all qualities which you need in spades when you are a writer. The full story of this book is Ros's to tell and you can find all of the details on her blog. here.

Briefly, for those of you who missed the excitement, last year the remains of King Richard III were discovered underneath a council car park in Leicester. He had been hurriedly buried, following his death at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, in the church of the Greyfriars. This last bit of information wasn't certain and Greyfriars was long gone so the chances of finding him were remote, but thanks to many people, found he was.

Lynn Moore, who owns The Reading Shop, an independent children's book shop in Oadby, Leicester, was repeatedly asked for a children's book on Richard. She found there weren't any and, as Ros had already written The Children's History of Leicester, Lynn asked if she would be interested in writing about Richard.

Ros is very modest and she won't tell you just how fantastic her new book about Richard is. So I will!

Firstly, it is beautifully put together, printed by Soar Valley Press in a hardback edition. This is a book which will stand the test of time, which can be handed down from one generation to another which is such a lovely thing to be able to do.

The words are Ros's and the stunning illustrations are the work of Alice Povey. Ros discovered Alice through Twitter and it is so heart-warming to hear of a positive Twitter story.

Richard is a controversial and enigmatic character and his is a complex story. Ros has covered it expertly in a colourful, informative, entertaining and accessible way. This is a gem of a book, one you could read from cover to cover but also to dip into, one to sit down and read with your children or one to let the explore on their own. They will find it fascinating and fun.

It just goes to show that as writers, with a little bit of luck and a lot of dedication, anything is possible. So well done to Ros, Lynn and Alice for being such an inspiration and I am sure this book is going to be a huge success. If you would like to order a copy it is available from The Reading Shop.

Here is the lovely Ros with myself and a couple of other members of our writing group, children's author, Josephine Feeney (second from right) and BBC journalist, Bridget Blair in the gorgeous pink dress.

Thank-you for reading and may you too have something to celebrate this week.