Books as an escape

A book can transport you anywhere; to worlds both real and unreal, to lives and loves better or worse than our own. Every unread book holds the tantalising potential to make us see and feel something completely new. They can offer insights into everyday matters that we may be struggling with, or they can offer a brief escape from our day to day existence.

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None of that is going to be news to anyone who reads regularly, and especially those who read romance. One of the most oft quoted appeals of romance novels is the escape they offer; it’s why over the top premises with billionaires, royalty, vampires, or FBI agents are so popular – protagonists that we are unlikely to meet in everyday life, can for a few hours, seem like people we could meet, know, like and fall in love with; people and plots we would hate to cope with in real life but which are exciting on the page at a safe remove. Then there are the romances with more prosaic day to day lives and loves and problems, they offer hope in their familiarity but with a guaranteed Happy Ever After – something most of us still work at every day.

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It’s why books have been even more important to me, and to so many others, in the last year or so. As disaster after disaster has occurred and the political norms around the world have shifted, people will seek escape and hope wherever they can. I’m far from the only writer to have found it hard to sit down and create tales of people falling in love against the odds when acts of terrorism have been taking lives all around us and when peace between nations seems to be an increasingly fragile thing. Can I still believe in Happy Ever After when so many lives are being cut short and families ripped apart? Well I have to. Hope and love are two powerful forces and they may be what separates us from those who want to destroy our way of life – whether they be terrorists or politicians.

I’ve personally found it almost impossible to write in the last ten days given the appalling verdict on the death of Philando Castile in the US and what has happened at Grenfell Tower in London. Not even the amazing heroism of the firefighters can stop me from thinking of the people trapped and knowing what was going to happen….no, can’t do it. So I have been reading far more than usual these last few weeks and decided to post a few pictures of my years reading so far; if nothing else to remind me of how much pleasure books have brought me, how much of an escape they have offered, and to help me get back to my own writing, no matter how hard.

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The first photo is of the Harlequin Romantic Suspenses I have read so far this year; it’s already almost as many I read all last year due to my giving up my reading time to write regularly back then. This year I’ve got better at managing my time and have also sacrificed tv watching to get back some precious reading time. I also didn’t read that many books in the latter half of last year as I (foolishly) decided that the way things were going politically and globally, it would be a good time to re-read 1984 and be reassured that things weren’t all that bad. Wrong. I posted a few thoughts while I was still part way through and I hope to write a longer post about it soon. As I also hope to do about The Secret History, a book I have been meaning to read for years and finally did and that (mostly) lived up to the almost impossible weight of expectation. It reminded me that this was why I started reading the classic Greek tragedies in 2015 – I knew I ought to have read the Bacchae before starting the Secret History but I became so caught up in the joy of reading the originals that I forgot to move back to the book that had inspired me! Again, the delightful morning spent in Foyles in London comparing translations of Euripides deserves a longer post.

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Having bought the last Terry Pratchett Discworld novel, I went back and re read the previous Tiffany Aching book, I then struggled to read the Shepherd’s Crown, partly because of the thought that once it was finished, that was it, there would never be another Discworld novel; but also due to the slightly diminished style of the writing. Terry Pratchett was taken from us far too soon and I treasure all his books, even when his flashes of brilliant wit were fading and finally cruelly stopped before he had finished his last book as he would have wished. I can still remember the day my mother first gave me one of his books to read – Equal Rites – and how impatient we got for each new book (and ended up buying them in hardback as we just couldn’t wait.) It feels so wrong to have outlived the series. Indeed, because I was struggling with the Shepherd’s Crown I started another book – back when I lived alone I would have 3 or 4 books on the go at any one time as I discussed here, when talking about how I read, and I also said that the last Ian Rankin I had read had been a rare book where I could read a hundred pages a day – and it happened again. I think I read it in 5 days which is possibly a record for me, although it’s also a sad reflection on how much in the real world I was trying to forget.

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How is everyone else’s reading year going? I am currently stuck trying to decide what to read next. After the Secret History I feel I need something where every sentence doesn’t make me pause to let its beauty sink in – I  loved it and almost want to read more by Tartt right away, but I know it’s too soon. I have many books by authors whose writing inspires a similar – desire I suppose! Their writing makes me fall in love with the written word, and make me long to write half as well. But I still think I need a change of pace, the Rankin and the Pratchett gave me that a bit but I need to be in the right frame of mind to immerse myself certain books – it’s why I delayed the Secret History for so many years. I was reminded today of the Greek Classics, maybe it’s time to re-read Aristophanes for something a little lighter, or back to Aeschylus. It will be interesting to see what my end of year list looks like.

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And most importantly of all, the blessed moments of respite, escape, hope, love and laughter that I have found in reading other people’s books have driven me back to writing my own; maybe I can offer someone else a few hours happiness further down the line.

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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.

Poised on the border between the known and the unknown

This was a (mis)quote about the universe, but is also a perfect description of falling in love; of that pivotal moment where all out previous experiences of love and loss are balanced against the unknown possibilities in this new love before us.

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It could also describe the feeling when we pick up a new romance to read – or start to write one. There is the history of all romances read and written before, if it is a category romance there is a defined word count and a restricted cast of leading characters (depending on whether it’s a Presents or a Western for example.) Readers and writers have a wealth of research and past knowledge and experience to draw upon – but how that story will play out, the twists and turns of plot, the depth of character, the sights, sounds and scents of the location will be something new, and hopefully, something amazing.

I’m sorry if I have managed to repeat myself already in only two months on this blog about the infinite variety and possibility contained in romance novels; it’s the cumulative effect of years on line seeing romances denigrated by non-readers, interviewers, other authors and even those who have ridden the coat tails of romance to financial and popular acclaim and then want to say “oh my books aren’t really romance.” Fine, not everyone has to like or read romance, there are many genres I don’t read, but I see no point in singling them out or putting them down – especially when I have no knowledge of them – and I would never try to sell my books on that genre, nor pour disdain on its readers.

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This photograph was taken on the same day as the other two standing stone pictures and shows how quickly Welsh weather can change

I didn’t plan to write any of that, but it’s some of the thoughts inspired by seeing Professor Brian Cox in the snow talking about the centuries of research, speculation and experimentation that have formed theories about the nature and origins of the universe. (I am paraphrasing, and badly as I wasn’t paying total attention.) Scientists now stand on that knife edge with history behind them and the vast unknowable universe before us waiting to be explored. Just as a reader opens that first page and waits to see what fresh characters and intriguing situation will cast a new light on the tale of falling in love and earning a happy ending against the odds.

It’s why humans keep on trying new romances even after disastrous break ups. I ended up single and celibate for almost five years after too many broken hearts (mine and other people’s), but eventually the pain had faded enough and someone offered a fresh view of the possibilities ahead; I reluctantly took a few hesitant steps and low and behold fell in love all over again, almost against my will (certainly against reason) and am still marvelling at it (and never taking it for granted) today.

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And what has any of this got to do with standing stones? I wrote a blog last week about castles (not posted yet due to the heart breaking stories in the news, I’m hoping I’m not tempting fate posting this one with its title on the day the UK votes whether or not to remain part of the EU.) In that blog I tried to explain how it is the love of the unknown in ruined castles and ancient monuments that inspires me – as a story teller and as a visitor puzzling over clues left by people long gone. I love reading about the history as well, but it is more the untold story that fires my soul and makes me return again and again to some sites.

One such place is Avebury (the solstice this week also made my mind take this particular tangential trip down memory lane, with my by now familiar clumsy attempts to tie it to romance.) I first saw Avebury no older than ten on a frosty morning. I have seen it in rain and sun and have always been awed by the mystery and majesty of the place. And been baffled and amused by the village that was built centuries later slap in the middle of this unique landscape; a very British piece of practical vandalism – why not build houses near a handy pre-quarried source of stone and with nice earthworks to keep animals in? Our attitude of veneration and conservation now shudders at what was done just a few hundred years ago – a fraction of the life span of these ancient sites – but what will future generations think? About the sites, about the recent past, about our twenty-first century views? Which will be laughable, which valued, and which utterly incomprehensible?

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Avebury on a sunny day when it was impossible to take pictures of stones without people in the background – or foreground

So much about these ancient sits will be forever a mystery; we will always be on that knife point of knowledge and the unfathomable. And for me that is the main part of their charm. Maybe that goes for falling in love too; I’m hoping for happy ever after but I know it’s not guaranteed or easy, and it’s never boring. Which applies even more to the books I love to read, and write.

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

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.