The logic behind Tangent Alley

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In my blog post of May 13 where I assured people that I could indeed spell tangentially, I wrote a little about why this blog is called Tangent Alley – my natural verbosity and willingness to be diverted by any aside, no matter how irrelevant. I had decided to name the blog rather than call it FirstnameLastnameWriter on the grounds that I plan to use a pseudonym and have not yet finalised one.

I would have liked to call the blog the Long Way Round, as an acknowledgement of my circuitous writing and as a nod to some of the walks and photos I plan to post and blog about, however that name has been used for the motor biking adventures of Messrs. McGregor and Boorman and that’s not something I ought to get confused with.

“Where was I?” would be a good name. It’s a frequent comment in emails and anecdotes to friends as I try to find my way back to the point I was trying to make. It’s used to devastating and hilarious or heart-breaking effect in the radio 4 drama series “How Does That Make You Feel?” and I’m not sure I want people to make too many assumptions about just how much I might benefit from therapy

I could have called it “Oh look, a squirrel” in reference to a Bill Bailey sketch about how easy it is to be distracted. I find it impossible not to point out these cute creatures (yes I know they are just rats with good PR) and once cried “squirrel!” so loudly that the poor creature fell out of its tree. Oops

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Tangent Alley is a phrase my best friend and I have used frequently over the years whenever one of us has wandered off topic during an email. I was 99% sure I was the first to use it and she graciously said she didn’t object to my utilising it as my blog title. However, when I checked our email archive I found I had actually modified it from a Drop the Dead Donkey quote where the verbose boss, Gus Hedges, had the nerve to say: “I sense we may be straying down Tangent Boulevard here.” (I am counting myself lucky that I wasn’t inspired by other classic phrases from him such as “we’ve got to downsize our sloppiness overload” or “this is a rather regrettable gonads-in-the-guillotine situation.”)

My rather battered Oxford dictionary gives the definition of tangent as: diverge impetuously from matter in hand or from normal line of thought or conduct. Whilst an alley is a walk, passage or narrow street – one that I always picture to be full of twists and turns so that when you enter the alley you have no way of knowing what your destination will be.

For that reason, my first choice of photo above is perfect. It was taken on the Greek island of Symi. I think all Greek islands I have visited have old lanes that twist and turn and where it is easy to get lost (ok, so do most British towns and cities). I am sure I have read that on Symi, in the old town, or Chorio as it is called, it is deliberate. In the days when pirates or sea raiders were common in the Aegean, the lanes that seemed to double back on themselves could take an age to penetrate by which time the locals had had time to hide valuables or make their escape. There is a museum high up in the Chorio and it took several attempts to find it, and then almost as long to find my way back down – you’d think just heading downhill all the time would be the answer but it’s almost possible to circumnavigate the hill and still not escape.

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My other pictures are of a classic Welsh alley running behind a row of miners cottages in Abergynolwyn, and of a medieval street in Albarracín in Spain – a town made up entirely of twisting alleys between buildings three stories high which almost meet at their eaves overhanging the paths.

To return to that dictionary definition – as a writer, what could be better than to diverge from the normal or expected line of thought? Especially when writing romantic suspense. My sub heading for the blog, where a writer goes off-piste, is I suppose saying the same thing as Tangent Alley – oh dear, not only am I long winded, I am very guilty of repetition, especially when I think that dressing it up in fancier imagery makes it a different thought. Double oops.

Off-piste, as a skiing term, contours up images of speed and hidden challenges and dangers, not sticking the safe path or rules. When I added it to the blog I meant it to refer to the blog rather than my writing for publication; that I wouldn’t just post stuff about my writing or research, that it would cover reading, random photos or snippets of history that have inspired me along the way.

I also liked that it had, for me, espionage links. But on looking for dictionary definitions and conformation of this I drew a blank and wondered if I’d imagined it. I liked the idea because for many years I focussed my writing on espionage based romantic suspense and I adore the work of John le Carré.

The definitions I found said that off-piste to a skier means to go away from the prepared or designated ski-runs, and in general parlance to go off-piste means to deviate from what is conventional, usual, or expected. It is apparently a fairly recent phrase and peculiarly British, partly as American’s don’t refer to ski runs as pistes. Off the beaten track (or off the beaten path) are suggested as similar phrases, or describing a person or their activities as being off base.

I clearly remember it being used in an early episode of Spooks (called MI5 outside the UK) where a couple of intelligence officers were pretending to be a married couple and had a fixed cover story or legend. The “wife” elaborated a little extra detail during a conversation (I think it was about collecting china frogs) and was chastised by her “husband,” yes it added colour to her character but it wasn’t something he knew and he could have blown their cover. He told her not to go off-piste again. On doing a search for off-piste and spooks several instances came up, including an article about the most recent James Bond film so I’m not imaging the espionage link at all, hurrah. Its usage suggests that it’s often used to describe an intelligence operative going so far from an arranged plan that it jeopardises an operation, or suggests they may be a rogue agent.

But to end with, I shall post some pictures showing a more basic definition of going off-piste.

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Maybe I should just have called the blog Susan Booker writer rather than worrying about all these deviations…

Edited to add: I’ve been thinking about this since I posted it a day and a half ago and realised that as well as being a waffley explanation of my blog title and an excuse to post some nice holiday pictures, it does actually have a writerly point! I am horrifically guilty of writing the same thing in five different ways throughout my manuscripts, you know, just making sure the reader really does understand what I’m saying. Saying someone has gone down Tangent Alley, and then saying they have gone off-piste seems to imply the same thing – they have diverged from the normal or safe path. But to go off at a tangent implies an accidental action, and I certainly always try to return to the point I was making – where was I? To go off-piste suggests a more decisive and deliberate action, it needs skill and knowledge – of one’s ability and the mountainside – and will get one to a possibly different location, at greater speed and with possible danger.

To go off-piste with one’s writing could mean making bold and unusual choices, in word choice or in character action and plot. Knowledge of the writing rules and tropes would be essential before veering away from them. To go down Tangent Alley in a conversation or blog can be amusing and enlightening but needs to be handled carefully in a novel. Nothing annoys a reader like too many seemingly pointless digressions and they will soon learn to skip ahead; but an occasionally expanded scene or anecdote that quickly returns to the original point and makes a character or reader view it from another angle is always welcome. I wrote an accidental aside recently and then realised the imagery and story could come back to haunt the heroine a few chapters later. It actually made me cry at the emotion it stirred in my characters and it couldn’t have happened if I hadn’t had that little trip down Tangent Alley.

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Q&A

I’m not sure how much you can ever get to know a writer through their blog, website or other social media – or indeed, how much you should want to (writers who have put me off their work, or captivated me with their online persona is a whole other blog post). But I have always enjoyed reading the Q&As that Mills & Boon and Harlequin have asked new authors to complete and I’ve also often pondered my answers to those questions in preparation for when I get published… However it’s taken me so long that Harlequin now have a completely different Q&A that they use on their SOLD blog at their So You Think You Can Write site.

Here are my answers to their old Q&A as far as I can remember them, I do hope I’m not infringing anyone’s rights in using them.

WHAT DO YOU LOVE MOST ABOUT BEING A WRITER?

Creating complex character in perfect places – and then messing them all up as much as possible.

And being able to work from bed.

DO YOU HAVE A FAVOURITE LOCALE OR SETTING FOR YOUR NOVELS? WHAT IS IT AND WHY IS IT YOUR FAVOURITE ?

As a reader my first “autobuy” books were those set in Greece and I still long to set one there. The countryside always featured strongly in my manuscripts, I love describing nature, sometimes too much (does a love scene need three paragraphs on the colours in the autumn trees?) Then my enjoyment of small town American books with cowboy heroes was combined with frequent trips to the mountains and castles of Wales. It fired a desire to create stories set against breath taking mountains, hidden valleys and secret ruins with close-knit communities of men and women as rugged, resourceful and romantic as the landscape.

WHAT ARE YOUR FIVE ALL-TIME FAVOURITE BOOKS?

  • Persuasion by Jane Austen
  • The Magus by John Fowles
  • These Old Shades by Georgette Heyer
  • A Perfect Spy by John Le Carré, or maybe The Honourable Schoolboy
  • The Morning Gift by Diana Norman

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DESCRIBE THE ULTIMATE ROMANTIC MEAL.

The most romantic “meal” was with a friend in Cuba. We arrived in Havana after a troublesome internal flight, my friend was poorly, the hotel wasn’t quite as we had hoped – and then we stepped out into Havana and found a tiny restaurant serving the most basic meal of the entire holiday. We sat in an historic square by the light of a full moon, beautiful architecture and history all around us, cheap rough local wine, black beans and rice, and lobster. My friend had to ask me to tone it down as I was moaning in ecstasy after every mouthful and gesturing around me at the perfect setting, lighting and food. Basically I made Meg Ryan look restrained in the restaurant scene from When Harry Met Sally.

But the most “romantic” meal was cold roast chicken and salad sandwiches eaten inside a plastic orange bothy during a hailstorm in the Black Mountains in Wales. The sandwiches tasted amazing, as does pretty much anything when you’ve just climbed a 2,500 ft. high mountain, so did the thermos of warm coffee and the Green and Black chocolate. What made it so perfect was partly the location and the exertion, but mostly the person I was with whom I had loved on and off for years and never expected to be climbing a mountain with again. But there I was. And we’re still climbing mountains together, and occasionally building snowmen.

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Looking down on the hailstorm we had to shelter from

One day I hope to combine the two and go back to Cuba, such a romantic place, with my partner. Although as he’s allergic to shell fish I guess a different menu wold be a good idea.

WHAT IS YOUR FAVOURITE ROMANTIC MOVIE?

Bride and Prejudice, or The Philadelphia Story. And Romancing The Stone. Oh and Persuasion.

WHAT IS YOUR FAVOURITE ROMANTIC SONG OR COMPOSITION?

Fantasy by Earth Wind and Fire or Could It Be Magic by Barry Manilow, or even the Take That Version as it takes me back to a time when I was falling in love for the first time without even realising it.

Or Nimrod from Elgar’s Enigma Variations in a lush, over the top, tears to your eyes romantic sense.

WHAT IS THE MOST ROMANTIC GESTURE OR GIFT YOU HAVE RECEIVED?

My partner giving up his dream house so that together we could buy the countryside one I’d fallen in love with.

WHERE IS THE MOST ROMANTIC PLACE YOU’VE EVER TRAVELLED?

See the meal answer – Cuba was amazing, but my spirit soars whenever I see Welsh mountains in the distance (as long as I’m travelling towards them!) And Greece, it’s impossible not to fall in love there

WHAT IS THE SECRET OF ROMANCE

Lust, trust and respect. And keeping those alive by knowing when to give each other space and when to be there for them whilst never taking them for granted.

When my parents celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary we asked them the secret and my mum said it was having separate interests or hobbies so that you always have something to talk about in the evening. They’ve just celebrated 56 years of marriage so something is working.

BESIDE WRITING, WHAT OTHER TALENT WOULD YOU MOST LIKE TO HAVE?

Anything musical, I seem to have dated many talented musicians and have no skill myself at all

WHO IS SOMEONE YOU ADMIRE AND WHY?

Sir David Attenborough for so many years of educating and entertaining the world.

I wrote that instinctively a couple of weeks ago, and then recently the comedian, writer, actress, songwriter and all round genius Victoria Wood died. I’m still processing the fact she was taken too young and so suddenly, grief for her and her family is combined with the selfish feeling of having been robbed of all the work she had yet to share. Her ability to make you laugh and cry, often at the same time in comic sketches, dramas and brilliant songs was peerless.

SHARE ONE OF YOUR FAVOURTIE INDULGENCES WITH US.

Just one? After years of living happily alone I do sometimes find family life overwhelming so any alone time is precious and I love every minute of it – and it does make me appreciate the family when they return, mostly… Long baths with a good book and an occasional glass of chilled wine are heaven too.

Oh, and theatre trips to London to see my best friend are indulgent and expensive but essential at least twice a year.

WHAT QUALITY DO YOU MOST ADMIRE IN A MAN?

Broad shoulders and a sexy back are hard to beat.

But more seriously  –  honesty, integrity and knowing you can trust him with your heart. And a similar sense of humour is essential.

WHAT IS THE ONE THING YOU’VE ALWAYS WANTED TO DO, BUT NEVER HAD THE COURAGE TO TRY?

I’d love to have the nerve and talent to sing in public. But would prefer to try hang gliding or parachuting, less scary.

IF YOU WERENT A WRITER WHAT WOULD YOU BE?

Even more frustrated than I am now.

I guess in reality I’d be what I was, a University Administrator. Ideally I’d be an archive conservationist or a dry stone waller.

WHAT QUOTE DO YOU LIVE BY? WHO SAID IT?

A day without laughter is a day wasted.

Charlie Chaplin gets the credit a lot, and occasionally Groucho Marx, but an 18th Century French Writer Nicolas Chamfort expressed it first (& possibly better, my French isn’t that great) La plus perdue de toutes les journées est celle où l’on n’a pas ri.

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The tiny snowman we made out of hailstones and Green & Black’s chocolate

I do know how to spell tangentially, honest

Does the world really need another writer’s blog? Let alone an unpublished writer? My goal is not so much to share my path to publication (positive thinking) as to share thoughts on all aspects of being a reader, a writer and someone whose other interests – walking, mountains, ruins, gin, tv – may also be worthy of mention. Anything that makes you laugh and cry and think and feel is never going to be wasted.

Hence the title of my blog, Tangent Alley (not simply a misspelling of tangentially). I have never knowingly written anything too brief, not even text messages or tweets (just take a look at the “about me” post below for a dizzying mix of run on sentences complete with comma, semicolon, parentheses and dash abuse). But sometimes what looks like a random diversion or detour can bring unexpected rewards, new vistas and ways of looking at the old. And in truth, when walking, riding or driving I have always gone out of my way to make it interesting; I would far rather allow extra time to drive the back routes rather than motorways, or head off without a map altogether (such an attitude meant I once drove from Heathrow to Gloucestershire via Guildford (on purpose) and I can still picture some of those villages and empty lanes in the afternoon sun)

I have been around long enough to remember when authors first started advising each other to have blogs, it was at the same time that they also debated the merits of facebook or myspace. Yes I’ve been around that long. Blogs sprang up everywhere and I dutifully bookmarked and followed many – hardly any of which are still with us as authors have moved on – to Facebook, twitter, Pinterest, Tumblr, Instagram and probably many other areas I am unaware of. But perversely, having decided all those years ago that it would be too scary and hard work for me personally, I find that blogs are still my favourite place to go to follow authors, preferably as part of regularly updated and easy to navigate websites.

The received wisdom 10 – 15? – years ago was that you had to blog daily, always be interesting, always end with a question to make people post answers and try to use images to catch peoples’ eyes. A lot of that put me off, the discipline needed to post that often, surely it would take away from writing time – as if I needed another excuse to not be working on an actual wip. I didn’t even have a digital camera at the time and I didn’t own a mobile phone either, not that they would have cameras for some time

Advice and “rules” about the image you portray as a writer, or to put it more bluntly marketing oneself, change all the time. The best advice I have seen is to do your research and do what suits you and your needs at this time.

I am planning to post a blog once a week on a Friday, in my old 9 – 5 job that was always the time for my “hooray its nearly the weekend” relaxed trawl through varied websites.  Maybe people will find and respond as time goes by and having a back catalogue of thoughts and writing will show my voice and for now, the idea of writing into a void is liberating.

Until next week, hello and cheerio to anyone out there. Indeed, as it’s Friday, cheers; this more than any other day is sure to have a gin in it. I should warn readers with sensitive livers that gin will get a lot of mentions here. And wine. And tea. And coffee. A Romantic Suspense writer’s life is full of lubrication.

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Writer fuel (“tasteful” 1980s kitchen tile optional)

About me

I can’t remember a time when books weren’t part of my life. IMG_4814 (2)Our house was full of books and my parents always read to us at bedtime  – Mary Plain books, Winnie the Pooh and Narnia are those I remember best. Once I learned to read myself I was addicted; I kept books in the downstairs toilet cupboard to read before school, tried to hide books on my lap under a napkin during breakfast and read under the bedclothes with a torch at night – although that may have been partly due to thinking that books like the Famous Five ought to be read by torchlight.

Before long I was continuing these stories in my head and then writing them down – although to be honest plotting, drawing maps and making lists of characters was always more fun than actually writing the story (still is if I’m not careful). My other early passion was ponies and as soon as I was old enough I would walk to meet the mostly tame ponies living on the hill above us. I had devoured every pony book in the library – including the technical ones – long before I was allowed to have riding lessons (and as with so many things in life learned that theory and practice are very different).

Pony stories (I had over 300 by my teens) were what I wanted to write, and then I discovered Mills and Boon books and the similar pattern to so many of my beloved horse books captured me – the heroine was pony-less at the start, would work hard, learn, take many falls, almost lose hope (and maybe the pony) and finally triumph at the local show. They weren’t all like that obviously, and I’m not saying I compare heroes to horses – although a good ride is essential – but the familiarity and endless variety within a relatively compact book inspired and captivated me.

I actually submitted my first attempt at a romance to M&B when I should have been doing A level homework – and hence failed most of them and my book was deservedly rejected (it was, I now realise, simply a first draft with no plot, no conflict and no black moment. All it really had was a nice description of the Greek island of Cos).

My next submission was over ten years later and its rejection led me to join the RNA (Romantic Novelist’s Association) and to look on line for advice. Finding the forums with their seemingly infinite amount of help and advice in the community at harlequin.com changed my writing life, not least in directing me to the Silhouette Intimate Moments line of book (published here in the UK as Silhouette Sensation) later as Silhouette Romantic Suspense and now Harlequin Romantic Suspense. This is where my reading and writing tastes are now happiest.

I grew up in a small town on the edge of the Cotswolds and early memories and photos show lots of walks involving hills, woods and mud. After a degree in Ancient and Medieval History at Cardiff University (with too few excursions further into Wales and plenty of mud on archaeological digs), then 15 years living and working in Oxford (pretty, too flat and good for murders if you believe fiction and drama) I have ended up in the wilds of Worcestershire. Again within tantalising distance of proper Welsh mountains and where as soon as you walk out of the door you have to go up or down a steep hill. And where there’s mud.

I live with my partner Dr J who is a University lecturer and our two small exhausting daughters. Plus a ginger fiend in the shape of a cat and her ever expanding collection of corpses. We are lucky enough to have a garden that attracts amazing wildlife, mostly of the bird variety but bats as well and at night we are kept awake by the cry of owls, deer and foxes (not all of which are prey for the cat – yet).

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I have been using one photo as my on line presence for at least four years and it’s therefore a bit out of date, I certainly have more chins, wrinkles and grey hair now but am still wearing the same walking outfit. Here’s the complete picture with the first peak of Cadir Idris in the background, the one at the top is from a year earlier at my best friend’s wedding and is probably the last time I wore make up or earrings.