Tag Archives: writing

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


Choir Tea Dough Balls

Some time ago I blogged about the virtues of bread making to help in the process of making fiction.  A friend asked for my favourite dough ball recipe today and since I had to type it up for her I thought I would put it up here too  as a companion piece.

I also put it up in a mood of new-born nostalgia as I evolved the recipe from having to provide food for choir teas when my daughter was a chorister. These teas would be at Easter, Advent and just before Christmas when there were long rehearsals and big services. As parents we had to bring in suitable food and serve to a hoard of starving chorister and lay clerks in the rather lugubrious hall attached to the Cathedral. Sometimes there would be extra musicians as well and a huge fear that there wouldn’t be quite enough food to go round, especially if they were brass players, but we always seemed to manage, and a Blitz like spirit generally prevailed in the end.  I started doing these dough balls and found they were incredibly popular with the kids and adults, so am rather proud of them. Whenever I make them now I will be reminded of the joy of emptying the tea urns.

The original recipe comes from “Cook now, eat later” by Mary Berry which I cannot recommend highly enough. In fact all her books are fantastic – she seems to understand actually how real people cook in real kitchens and the recipes are written accordingly. No celebrity chef nonsense there.

500g strong white bread flour plus extra for kneading (1 lb 2oz)

4 tablespoons olive oil

300 ml warm water (½ pint)

3 tsp salt

1 7g sachet fast action dried yeast (Allinsons)


50 g grated cheese (1 oz)

50 g chopped herbs – fresh or frozen (1 oz) eg chives, parsley, coriander.

Mix flour, oil, water, salt and yeast in large bowl. Mix and then knead for about 5 mins. If you have a stand mixer/Kenwood use your dough hook!

Put the dough in a large oiled bowl and cover with oiled cling film. Leave it to rise. If you are in a hurry leave it in a warm place with a towel over it, or if less so, a cool corner of the kitchen will give you a slowish rise, and you can deal with it when you are ready. When it has doubled or more, knock it back on a floured surface and give it another good knead.

Now you have a choice – you can either knead in the chopped herbs and cheese into all the mixture or into half of it – or not include them at all. Have included chopped sun dried tomatoes as well and those were equally nice.

Grease a couple of large baking sheets. Grab a small handful of dough and roll it into a small walnut shaped ball and pop it on a greased tray. You will find this makes about 40 little rolls. You can, of course, make them bigger if you wish.

When you have finished shaping the rolls cover the trays again with oiled cling film and leave them again to rise, either slowly in a cool room or for about 30 mins in a nice warm kitchen.

Preheat oven to 200 – 220 C or 400 F/ Gas 6. Bake for about 20 mins – keep an eye on them – it will all depend on your oven. The result should be golden brown and sound hollow on the bottom when you tap them.

Best eaten quite warm with butter, but are also v good served with drinks, with posh olive oil to dip them in. Adored by children of all ages.

They can be cooked ahead, frozen and then thawed and refreshed by about 10 -15 mins in a moderate (180) oven.


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.


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!


David Hockney and the positive feedback loop

The artist David Hockney has succumbed to the pleasures of digital art. He has acquired an iPad and has been using it to draw on it and then distributes them. Watching the little snippet of an interview with him on the BBC, you can sense what he is enjoying the process of creation, but equally enjoying the process of feedback. He likes knowing that he has shared his work, and that other people are enjoying what he has created, and then when the respond, he is even more pleased. This puts him in a positive feedback loop and encourages him to do more

Still life painted on David Hockney's iPad

All artists need to find themselves such feedback loops.

Writing long fiction is traditionally a solitary activity. In fact, so solitary that you sometimes feel as if you are sitting in the corner of some vast, empty space – perhaps a concrete barn perched on the most westerly cliffs on a wind swept island. There you stay, tapping away at a keyboard or scribbling on paper, working at creating a cohesive imaginary world, word by word, sentence by sentence and for what? As you labour you must force yourself to imagine a reader, who may in the distant future, by some small series of accidents, happen to discover your novel and actually decide to read it. If they do read the book you will never hear what they thought of it, and you begin to wonder why you did any of it in the first place. Storytelling is all about communication and how can you know if you have communicated successfully if you never hear from your readers?

I have published five novels, which did not sell wonderfully but did do well in the public library system. I was able to deduce from the Public Lending Right figures and the money that came with them that about 60,000 people read my novels in one year. But I never heard from any of them and my confidence suffered as a result. I did treasure the feedback I got from my family and friends. It felt very precious to me because there was so little of it. Writing in a void is not much fun. Yes the work itself is rewarding, but more wonderful still is when you hear from someone that they loved your story and best of all that they needed a box of tissues by the end of it.

So when I started blogging in earnest, here, and in fictional form with my web serial, here, I was surprised and delighted to get direct feedback from my readers. There aren’t many of you yet, but it is still a bit of a revelation to me. I am beginning to feel the pleasure of actually reaching an audience, and knowing there are people out there who read my work and tell me what they think. Thanks to the internet, writing becomes less solitary and more like performance. The benefit performers feel – that high they suck up from an appreciative audience, is suddenly accessible to writers. I have certainly found myself a positive feedback loop and I am very grateful to those folk who have made it possible.

Arguments rage whether authors ought to be forced out to do publicity and relate to their readership. Some feel that that it is the job of their publishers and publicists to make those connections and that the writer ought to be left alone to write, believing it is the solitary confinement that creates the great work (see here). I think this is too harsh a view for most of us scribes. We need to feel loved and encouraged in our work. And if it is good enough for David Hockney, it is good enough for me.