One woman’s clutter is another’s motivation

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What does this picture tell you? That someone treasures their pony books as much as their older fiction? That they have eclectic reading taste – Gothic, Ancient Greece, Medieval Britain, Hollywood noir, spies? What about other things on the shelves? The stash of Cadbury’s crème eggs, the clutter of perfume bottles, the envelopes of photographs – is this an historical picture? The small brick-like mobile phone and the audio cassettes suggest this is a pre-digital time, or is it a current photograph and this is where things go before they are thrown away? Or are they all precious? Pine cones and bits of stone?

This was my bedroom in my flat and everything on that bookcase was put there very lovingly when I set up my own home at last. I had lived for four years in a bedsit; one room, a tiny kitchen and freezing bathroom. A sofa bed. This is why I bought a super kingsize bed for one and would lie there every weekend morning feasting my eyes on beloved books and prized possessions that had lingered in boxes for years.

But many visitors or a burglar would have overlooked them. Why did I have these things on show?

  • The cat statuette that looks more like a fox painted black was a present for a University friend that I have lost touch with. I regret that and keep the ugly little figure as a reminder not to be so careless again.
  • The cut glass bottle was my gift from the bride and groom when I was maid of honour at my best friend’s wonderful wedding. Inside it is the toenail that got flipped off as I moved into the flat. A reminder of the day it was finally all mine and useful if I ever disappear and the police need some DNA for any reason.
  • They could also use the wisdom tooth on the top shelf, kept because I still can’t believe I had a root that big pulled out in my lunch hour.

There are three small pieces of red pumice stone, collected at the top of an extinct volcano in Iceland. After pocketing them I careened down snow clad slopes in a mild blizzard. The sight and feel of those lightweight rocks in my hand brings back the harsh beauty of the country, the blue of the glacier we crossed, the toilet with no door that looked over a lake, the five days of trekking across the island and how on our return we went to a karaoke bar as it was the only way to keep drinking all night. I remember watching my fifty-nine year old father singing along to Dancing Queen before stumbling down to the harbour in Reykjavik to watch the sun rise even though it had barely set and then standing outside a youth hostel drinking whisky from a hip flask and trying a cigar to celebrate having had my first shower in seven days.

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There are at least two bits of red pottery there. One from an archaeological dig in Hampshire where, again, I only showered once a week – slightly worrying theme developing here. The other is from Tiryns, a Mycenaean site in Greece. It was closed for refurbishment when we tried to visit and lots of small fragments of pottery had been dumped outside the gates as waste.

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These two horses date back to when I was seven or eight and my sister and I stayed for a few days with my step-grandmother in Bognor Regis. We’d only been away from our parents once before and it was both exciting and scary. Although she must have been in her late 60s or 70s she was full of life; she was a volunteer at “Hep the Aged” because she didn’t consider herself old at all, she swam in the sea every day and tried to teach us how to do underwater handstands. I remember her driving excitingly fast in her Mini around the town and taking us to visit a distant relation who lived in an Edwardian terraced house crammed full of dark antique furniture, dusty chandeliers and enormous mirrors. The pewter pony was bought in Bognor’s largest department store and the carved wooden foal in one of the charity shops that my granny helped out in. One evening, she walked us through the town park and as the shadows deepened under the trees and the roses turned to sepia, she taught us how to waltz in the deserted bandstand.

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So many memories that can be summoned back by a few simple trinkets, or dust magnets. And what of the bookcase itself? It used to belong to a library and you can still faintly see where years of sunlight on the etched glass signs have marked the shelves for Art and Sport. I paid only ten or twenty pounds for the shelves when the library had a reorganisation and got the complete Oxford History of Britain at the same time for about the same price.

I could go on with everything in sight.

  • The broken gold bell that is older than me and that I always hung on the Christmas tree near my presents so its clear chime sounded whenever I picked up a parcel and wondered what lay beneath its layers – it’s yellow bead clanger is still waiting to be reattached.
  • The hat-brush painted with the name and profile of the first pony I looked after at a riding school when I was nine.
  • The shell that I picked up at Agios Konstantinos, a small port on mainland Greece that a boyfriend and I reached after a night flight, a taxi driver who ripped us off and a dusty battered bus drive through endless Athens suburbs. It had not been a good start to a holiday and then we arrived at the port, bought tickets to Skopeleos and the sun came out. I found the shell as we waited for our ferry and knew that things were looking up.

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The reason for listing all this, apart from giving more background on me than anyone could ever want, is to show how one item can have a history and meaning for a character in a book that is far greater than its appearance or size. I wrote before how the ways each protagonist views a room tells us as much about them as it does the setting, and likewise the importance the person places on a seemingly insignificant object can reveal so much about their personality, or about their past. It doesn’t have to be as obvious as X picks something up and says “what’s this junk?” before Y tells all about a fascinating or traumatic incident in the past, but a writer can imagine that scene and then allude to its significance elsewhere.

I’ve spent plenty of time planning or describing the locations my characters inhabit and I feel that I know their back stories and motivation, but I’m always looking for new ways to convey that rather than introspection, information dumps or stilted conversations.  Far more interesting to have Y pick up the object and have X watch how their face and posture changes – in sadness, joy, regret, anger? X can ask why later, or Y can reflect on it alone, it gives a solid tangible sense to pure emotion and is hopefully showing, not telling.

When the idea for this post first came to me I tried to picture my current heroine’s bookcases and wondered what oddments she would have like this. I could think of none, couldn’t picture such a shelf. Then I realised that that was key. She has given up her own career twice for her family and not yet had a chance to rebuild a proper home. All such mementos are packaged away safely and that in itself tells me and the reader a lot that we need to know. Someone who has locked away precious memories and daren’t bring them out yet, who doesn’t feel at home anywhere, or not proud enough of herself to display her desires or achievements to anyone else. This is only very obliquely alluded to in the manuscript but it’s helped me a lot in having a rounded picture of my heroine and gave me the key to a later confrontation scene where things locked away in a bookcase are highly emotive.

I know that my next heroine has a large collection of art postcards but very little else, and I know why. And suddenly I wanted to give one of my Egyptian jackal heads to another heroine; making her have a passion for Egyptian history and archaeology has opened her up to me in ways I hadn’t thought of before.

What trinkets, junk or precious objects are on your characters’ shelves? Or what are the stories behind some of the treasures you look at every day?

Don’t write about sex, politics or religion?

What gives a Brit the right to have an opinion on the US presidential election? I’ve seen such sentiments expressed a few times lately and the most common answer – apart from opinions are free and everyone is entitled to them – is that the election result does indeed affect the whole world, not just the US. Global warming. Nato. There are many effects, both big and small.

But the main reason I have an opinion is because the result affects people I care about. They are afraid of getting hurt. They are being hurt.

People I care about but who don’t even know me. People who, mostly, I haven’t met. People who have educated me. People who have made me laugh, and cry, often at the same time.

I’m talking about the romance community, mostly about authors but also editors, agents and readers. Over the years I’ve watched people argue, inform and campaign about; plagiarism, shady publishing practices, racism, diversity, authors bullying readers and reviewers attacking authors.

When I started on Twitter I followed comedians, actors and authors that I liked, and editors that I thought might offer valuable information (they do). I followed the bloggers who had previously impressed and informed me and I followed authors I hadn’t read but whose work I had seen praised on those websites, or whose names kept cropping up in interesting discussions. Thus I found out that as well as writing brilliant books and blogs, a lot of the romance community were bloody funny, witty, compassionate and passionate – about so many things. I could list my entire Twitter feed but the ones I look forward to hearing from every day include; Bree Bridges, Julie Cohen, Alyssa Cole, Victoria Dahl, N K Jemisin, Susanna Kearsley, Colleen Lindsay, Courtney Milan, Alisha Rai and Carly Silver. Their willingness to educate others about writing and publishing romance is amazing (I often wonder how the heck they find time for their other jobs).

This year these ladies have written tirelessly, fearlessly (although I know many are deeply deeply fearful) and honestly about the election. They have been tweeting or retweeting for years about race, religion, LGBQT and neurodiversity issues whether or not those are subjects that impact them personally. (Edited to add that they have also written about disability issues – it might just have been simpler to list things they don’t discuss – because I can’t think of any. I suppose what I was trying to illustrate is that with many of these women I have no idea of their race, religion, sexuality or any disabilities that might affect them, but they still speak up on behalf of others who are being marginalised or targeted.) They write about them because they are important, because there is so much injustice out there (in the romance world and of course elsewhere). They have made me realise so much about my own deep-seated unconscious prejudices and how much I take for granted, I have started challenging lazy perceptions in others in a way I didn’t before because every small step is important in challenging bias and privilege.

And because of their bravery in speaking up for their community, their families and friends, these women are attacked on line regularly and many fear attacks in the street any day soon. The election result has made life unsafe for people because of how they look, live, love and believe. It has made me afraid and angry on their behalf and that is why I will feel free to have an opinion on American politics and why I am retweeting so much that makes me so angry and so afraid. Not just because of the effect globally or in Europe. But because of the women to whom I owe so much.

I should add that I started thinking about this post as soon as the election result was known; I wanted to howl my horror and disgust at the moon, but feared I had no right. Over the next days as I read the gut wrenching despair of these women my own revulsion seemed pitiful in comparison with those who are going to live with this open hatred and prejudice and fear every day for the next four years. I wanted to offer support but it seemed puny in comparison with the phone calls and demonstrations being organised on line. Then someone in the UK posted one of those “10 things writers mustn’t do on line” lists and on it was “Don’t talk about politics, sex or religion (unless you write about those things in your books)” and I was incensed. How can it not be in our books when it’s everywhere in the world being shoved in our faces whether we like it or not? How can a rise in hate crimes not affect everyone who hears about them?

I’ll admit I’d already unfollowed an author or two in the last weeks. Such bad luck if you had a book release scheduled and need to try and do promo while people’s worlds are crumbling around them. Many have managed it tactfully and respectfully while acknowledging how the world has changed, and is still changing. But if you tweeted eight links to your book or glowing reviews with not one tweet about current affairs? I’m not really sure there’s going to be anything in your book to interest me. Yes, authors are not their books, you can have wildly different politics to mine and I may still enjoy your writing – especially if I have no idea what your politics are, so yeah, keep quiet about it. But I notice your silence, and my admiration for you has diminished and I will remember it next time I see one of your books. No, I am not trying to shame anyone into sharing what they don’t wish to, I have never told anyone how I have voted in any general or local election and nor will I; but I will speak up on horrors like a President elect with no respect for women or people of colour, the ongoing crisis at Standing Rock and anyone who claims all romance books show that women secretly long to be grabbed by a masterful man.

Every one of the women I have mentioned above has voiced their anxiety (to put it mildly) in the last two weeks, but they have also continued (with a lot of effort) to write, edit and publish books that give pleasure to millions. They have helped me to remember that when hatred and fascism are on the increase, the love and hope in art is needed more than ever for the promise it gives us all.

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.