Category Archives: Fiction

Why I love Victorian paintings

I grew up with this picture:

The Travelling Companions

On Saturday mornings, while my sister was at youth orchestra, my father and I would often have a quick scour round the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. It was the galleries devoted to Victorian painting that I always loved the best and I was lucky because Birmingham had one of the best collections in the world. For me it was magical.

I loved those big necked Rosetti women with their flaming hair and pouty lips, (and possibly thyroid problems.) I loved  ”Christ in the Carpenter’s shop in Nazareth” by Holman Hunt and I loved Ford Maddox Ford’s “Work”, where the figure of a man dressed in women’s clothes slinks down the side of the composition to hide from the police. I loved the “Death of Chatterton”, with the chalk -faced poet stretched out on the couch beneath his attic window, looking so beautiful and romantic in death and I loved “The Last of England”, with the baby’s hand reaching out from under the mother’s wraps as the parents look mournfully out, surrounded by cabbages for the long voyage to goodness knows where. A terrible, sad tale indeed, but I never tired of looking at it and wondering.

The Last of England

I realise now these pictures turned me into a storyteller. They are seared in my brain. I can recite their contents like poems learnt off by heart. And those two sisters in grey silk by Egg, one asleep, one with her book – how I wondered who they were and where they were going. Were they sisters? Did they mind being dressed the same? What is she reading? Of what is the other one dreaming? The same questions still throw themselves at me and I long to answer them. Maude and Florence? Lucy and Susan? Mary and Kate? Who are you and what is your story? Do you love the same man? Does your mother favour one of you over the other? Have you enough money to last you through the winter in Rome?

Now I look for the people in the stories I write in Victorian paintings. Sometimes I even find them.

May I introduce to you Felix Carswell, the young hero of The Butchered Man?  I found him staring out at me in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. I hope he approves of my biography of him.

The Butchered Man – buy here on Kindle, Smashwords and now in paperback

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Jane Austen and the long gap

I could not resist beginning a post about Jane Austen with this wonderful early illustration from Pride and Prejudice, which shows Lizzy telling Mr Bennet how Mr Darcy had helped Lydia and Whickham.

File:Pickering - Greatbatch - Jane Austen - Pride and Prejudice - She then told him what Mr. Darcy had voluntarily done for Lydia.jpg

Cleary in the 1830′s the idea of a contemporary novel being a thing that could only ever be rooted in the period it was written or published did not apply. Hollywood did not have this problem either which gives us Laurence Olivier and Greer Garson in a similar high romantic mode in the movie of 1940.

Given our period accuracy fetishism it is quite interesting to  consider whether period inaccuracy has something to be said for it. Certainly an author as resonant as Jane Austen can survive the dress shapes being wrong, the furniture being wrong and the hair even more wrong. In that she is like Shakespeare – the stories are big enough to be played out in any world at any time. Pride and Prejudice in space perhaps? Emma in austerity Britain? (I do like that idea actually.)

I digress. What I wanted to consider in this piece was the long gap in Jane Austen’s writing career when she seems to have written nothing. Her father retired as a parson and they moved to Bath, which according to one biographer provoked a deep depression in Austen at being exiled from the only home she had ever known. According to another the period was a long one of revision of existing manuscripts and private writing.  I suspect the truth lies somewhere between the two – a mixture of block and mid career reflection.

By this stage Jane Austen knew what she was doing as a writer. She had mastered her craft. She knew she could write. She had also been very productive and may have been feeling a little burnt out. She may have needed the time to grow her new ideas. Is  this what was happening in this long period of apparent silence? We can bet her mind was not silent, nor without new ideas forming.

I think we in the writing world have become a little hung up on the idea of visible productivity. There is a lot of be said for writing everyday – it keeps that side of you alive and creates a habit, but for a writer already as skilled as Jane Austen, it may not have been necessary. She had the necessary focus through long previous practice and instead of writing feverishly, she could allow ideas to gestate. This is such an important part of the process. Writing fiction is not just about writing stuff down. It is about story development and world building and deep characterization. Now, you can write all that down, but you can also hold it in your head and your heart and work it over and over again there. For a woman like Jane Austen this would have been a very real possibility and perhaps a necessity. Although there is some evidence she was excused some household duties to allow her to write, there were still daily obligations to be met – a certain amount of sewing for example. She was also a diligent pianist. From my experience both these activities are perfect for ‘writing in the head’ as we might call it.

When the Austens did return to the country, to Chawton, Austen began to produce again in earnest. What she did produce was a succession of masterpieces. Mansfield Park, Emma and Persuasion rank as some of the finest novels ever written in English. So the long gap, which may have been painful for her and frustrating at times, was also fertile. Novels as perfect as Emma do not arrive fully formed. They have to grow and evolve in the mind of the writer. This is what I think must have happened with Jane Austen.

The comfort we can draw from this is we should not always be afraid that we have not filled the blank page with words. Sometimes the words are not ready to come. Sometimes we do not have the space or the time in our lives to let them come. But we always have our minds and we can write in our heads no matter where we are or what we are doing.  The long gap can be turned to our advantage.

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Novel Landscapes: Green Grow the Rushes

I have just seen the trailer for what looks a wonderfully naff film about the burgeoning romance between a certain Kate and William. What strikes me about it is the complete lack of sense of place – in this case St Andrews, which really ought to be the star of the piece as an all round very romantic place.

This got me thinking about place in my work and how I like to use places that I know or visit as a jumping off point for my imagination. I have talked a bit about this process here for The Daughters of Blane, so I thought it would be fun to have a look at some of the other locations I’ve used. Being your own location manager is one of the best bits of writing fiction and much easier than fanatasy casting.

I shall try not to give away too much of the story as I do this, in case you haven’t read it.

Green Grow the Rushes starts in the Scottish Borders, in a country house called the Quarro. The location and general setting of the The Quarro is Traquair House

but the house described in the book is Errdig, near Wrexham.

Errdig is a complete time capsule of a house with all the staff quarters beautifully preserved and has the most extraordinary other worldly quality to the place which seemed perfect for the opening phase on the novel, when the characters all fall in love with the wrong people.

The next phase of the story is in Edwardian Edinburgh and I had my heroine Jessie and her new husband set up home in a flat in Marchmont Road that actually belonged to some friends we had at the time. But the best place to get the idea of a middle class flat in a Scottish city of the time is to go to the Tenement House Museum in Glasgow.

Ralph Erskine and his family live on the other side of Edinburgh in Rothesay Terrace, in a house that was in fact built for the owner of the Scotsman newspaper.

It is now the Melvin House Hotel and currently being refurbished. I shall go and have a look when it is done!

Alix, Ralph’s sister goes off to study at St Andrews University, where she lives, like many respectable women students of her day in the all female hall of residence, University Hall.

I lived here myself for 2 years. When my mother (ex Newnham College) dropped me off for my first term she remarked “This is just like Newnham” which is what the founder, also ex-Newnham, intended.

The Erskine family decide to retire to Fife and buy an old mansior near Cupar, which they hire Philip Winterfield (the architect hero of my first novel) to remodel for them. This house is called Allansfield and is inspired by the very wonderful Hill of Tarvit, also near Cupar.  Sadly, because of financial squeezes, the house is now closed but the gardens are still open.

In fact, I love this house so much I have included it in my only contemporary novel so far, The Wild Garden, (coming soon as an ebook) and the house still belongs to the Erskine family.

It features a wonderful, state of the art Edwardian kitchen and adjoining Butler’s Pantry (with a wooden sink) as well as some incredibly beautiful rooms for the family to live in. It is terribly sad that it’s closed and I can’t send you all off for a day trip there.

If any of this takes your fancy you can find out more about where to buy Green Grow the Rushes here.

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Sensitivity or sensationalism? The dilemmas of storytelling.

Storms have been brewing in the world of BBC serial drama over the festive period. Firstly to mark 60 years of rural radio 4 soap, The Archers, the decision was taken to have one of the show’s most popular characters fall off a roof to his death. The untimely demise of Nigel, an aimiable toff, and wife of Elizabeth Archer provoked a howl of protest from the Twittersphere to the broadsheets. Only this morning in the Telegraph Alison Pearson accused the show’s producers of political correctness in piece called Ambridge and its putsch of the posh while complaints and laments continue to pile up on the BBC website when the actor who plays Nigel, Graham Seed explained how and why the decision had been made for him to leave the series.

However this fades in comparison to the fuss about Eastenders, which celebrated Christmas day with two birth scenes and then proceeded with a plot line over the next few days to extinguish one baby in a case of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome and then send the bereaved mother to kidnap the other newborn child. This story has received at time of writing at least 6000 complaints from the BBC, not least from Anne Diamond, who lost a baby in the same tragic circumstances and has campained ever since for research and understanding of such deaths.

According to a piece in the Guardian she

branded the plot “tacky sensationalism”. “I think it’s crass what they’ve done,” she told ITV1′s Daybreak.”I find it amazing that a cot death isn’t awful enough for any drama.” That they’ve had to actually make the cot death mother go slightly mad and then do a baby swap, is frankly offensive.”

The Guardian continues,

The Foundation for the Study of Infant Deaths (FSID), which worked with EastEnders ahead of the story, has also spoken out about the storyline, stressing its involvement “was limited to advice on SIDS risk factors, bereavement and the involvement of health professionals and the police”.

The charity added in a statement: “FSID had no involvement in the planning or adoption of the specific ‘baby-swap’ plotline. The behaviour and actions of Ronnie Mitchell are in no way ‘endorsed’ by FSID as a typical, or even likely, reaction of a bereaved parent.””

The BBC have apparently now been forced to cut short the storyline due to these complaints.

For a writer and storyteller it has been interesting to observe the arguments and emotions that these two dramatic story lines have evoked. It is in fact a powerful and heartening reminder of the meaning and value that people attach to their stories. These programmes, which are fictions, are significant parts of their lives. They love and hate the characters that the writers and actors create. They are enthralled and involved by the events portrayed. They care about those fictional worlds and their inhabitants and draw solace, distraction and amusent from them. In the case of the death of Nigel Pargetter there is a real sense of loss and indignation that someone that they have allowed into their lives has been disposed of so callously by the powers that be. To many listeners it is a betrayal.

As a result, as storytellers, we have to remember that our task is a delicate one. A shocking storyline is always a great temptation. I have done horrible things to my own characters in my time and been berated by readers for it. There is always a danger of going too far and forgetting the impression that such events cause, or worse still, thinking gleefully “that’ll make ‘em cry.” Of course there must be drama, there must be heartache, there must be shock and awe, despair and triumph. We have to make things happen. We do not want anodyne fiction where tea cups clink together and passion is banished. But there are lines which we cross at our peril. The great trouble is that those lines are very often invisible.

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Writer or Storyteller?

It is socially awkward being a writer at parties. “What do you do?” you will, of course, be asked. Do you tell the truth?

“Well, I sit around all day, drink too much coffee and sometimes write a few paragraphs. I procrastinate a lot, but mostly I fantasise about imaginary people at great length.” No, of course not. Instead you mumble something about “being a writer” and then move on swiftly to asking “and you?” to avoid all the laborious explanations of why your books are not for sale in WH Smith.Inevitably you discover that your questioner does something worthy or high profile or well paid (or all three at once) and the next ten minutes can be happily spent getting the inside information on that. You call it research and yet again you resign yourself to never being able to sound so admirable or successful.

But with the Christmas cocktail party season approaching I am wondering about taking a different tack. It is about time I had a rebrand. I might try saying I am storyteller and see what sort of reaction that gets.

Why? To me saying you are a storyteller sounds so much more life affirming than saying your are a writer. It stresses entertainment and performance. It is a word that implies communication. Writer is a sad old sounding word, with built in angst in it.It makes you think of dragging a scratchy nib laboriously across a page in an unheated garret. Storyteller sounds bouncy and fun. It conjures up the fireside and the mead cup. I think that’s what you need at a Christmas party.

There are other reasons. When you read the reviews on Amazon, reviews by ordinary folk, it becomes clear that, nine times out of ten, what they are after when they pick up a novel is a great story. This is an ancient, primitive desire. The story is what helps makes us make sense of everything. There has been research done to show that there is an evolutionary advantage to storytelling. Now that is a profession to which I’d like to belong.

Another problem for me it that the word “writer” stresses the means of communication rather that the contents of the message. I love words and I love good writing, of course I do. I strive to write as well as I can but I know I am clumsy and slipshod and lazy with my tools. I am frequently deeply frustrated by them. It is the effect of words that interests me, not the words for their own sake. Often I wish I could send my ideas straight to a movie screen or into paintings. Words often seem unequal to the task I want them to perform. I want soundtrack, I want texture, I want the smell of things and the taste. I want my readers to experience everything. Oh heavens, I think I want to create a holodeck for them, just like the one they had on Star Trek, the Next Generation.

To say “I am writing” vastly understates the task I am setting myself. I am not just stringing symbols together on a piece of paper. I am striving to make an imaginary world credible and tangible to the reader. There are characters to create and develop; there are settings to realise and convey and all of this must be then carefully crafted to produce a logical, satisfying narrative in which the events pile up and up, each building on the other in order to create something that is both emtionally and intellectually satisfying. I write so that I can tell stories. Heck, I’d use a box of wax crayons if that did the job more efficiently than words!

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