The third best piece of writing advice

There’s a lot of writing advice that sounds great but is not necessarily useful to everyone. Except this; anyone who wants to be published should read their finished work out loud before sending it out or self-publishing.

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I can’t find one specific person to credit it to as I’ve heard it many times over the years. The first time I tried it was with a chapter I entered for Harlequin’s So You Think You Can Write competition in 2012 so thank you to any Harlequin editors or authors who mentioned it back then. Unfortunately I only managed a few paragraphs before the sound of my voice and my self-conscious stumbling over words stopped me. “I’ll just read it really clearly in my head” I thought. Umm, no. That’s how I always read anyway and it’s amazing what tricks your mind makes when it half knows the text already – substituting the words it thinks should be there, smoothing over awkward phrasing, blinding – or do I mean deafening – one to careless repetitions.

And how do I know that’s what happens when you read it silently to yourself? Well for one, because that’s what everyone who gives the advice says. And for two, because when I read my finally complete and polished (I thought) manuscript aloud, I fund so many things to correct in the first few pages. Many were minor, a badly placed comma or a rambling sentence that needed breaking up into two – I think a lot of my changes were grammatical and I may still have got them wrong, but at least I’ve been consistent (I hope.)

I was more shocked by the typing errors that spell check couldn’t catch (or had mistakenly corrected in the first place) barley instead of barely. Then there were the repetitions of favourite words – I had done searches for the most commonly overused (I need help with my “just”s and “all”s, it seems to be an addiction – and I chopped a lot of seems too.) Doing earlier edits had alerted me to the fact that once a word is in my imagination I am apt to use it again in the same scene so I had been on the lookout for repetitions and substituted other words (oh thank you for thesauruses.) But only by reading aloud did I catch others – does the ear hold onto the echo of words better than the mind? How else can I explain all the similar sounding or looking words I identified when reading aloud? Not to mention finding two “squarely”s in three lines that I had previously missed.

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Which reminds me that when my critique partner suggested I had people feeling awe for each other too often, I changed one instance to read “not to mention admiration” and then spotted another use of “not to mention” a page later? I did a check and found the phrase seven times in a 75K manuscript which I think is rather too many. Odd how I wasn’t even aware it was such a favourite expression. Then there was the excess of sighing I found in one chapter – sure the characters are exhausted, physically and mentally, but there are more varied ways to show that.

I knew I had a fondness (weakness?) for alliteration and had put some in deliberately, all of which I kept except the most tortuously tongue twisting teasers. More accidental was discovering how many words like gilded, glisten and glimpse I had used, not all in one chapter, but I began to suspect I have an unusual fondness for G words in the this story. I had to check how often the hero referred to the heroine as his golden girl, not to mention her gleaming green eyes.  It’s possible this only seemed so apparent as the hard G sound is noticeable when reading aloud unlike softer sounds which may be used just as much, but I still changed and moved some of these – another person silently reading might not notice them but I didn’t want to risk jarring anyone else out of the story with an unusual rhythm or word choice.

Reading the whole book aloud took several days (and an enquiry from my three year old about who I was talking to) and none of the changes were necessarily enough to get the book rejected. But the overall tightening of my writing and the elimination of careless mistakes was invaluable. Above all else I want my work to be readable. I want the story to be gripping and emotional and satisfying sure – but the best plot in the world or the most beautiful prose can still be flung aside if it is sloppily presented.

So thank you very much to everyone who has ever passed on this brilliant advice and please, anyone else who feels self-conscious reading their work aloud, do persist, it’s amazing what you might find – including how good some of it sounds when the words take on a life of their own. Oh, and yes, you might catch an odd continuity error or two. Hopefully nothing as important as someone dismounting their horse twice in the same paragraph…

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In case you are wondering about the pictures, I wanted this to not be a text only blog entry, but what to use? I thought maybe some bluebell pictures as recently I’ve taken many photos even though I have folders full from previous years – it doesn’t matter how many I have, I’m always looking for one more perfect picture, or one that catches the true beauty of the massed flowers – or of their individual beauty. Just as read after read of the same work can reveal something new each time. Or, to torture the analogy even further – looking at the work as a whole, editing it silently, is to see the whole expanse of purple spread before you – only by reading aloud, savouring the feel of each and every word in your mouth do you break up the picture and see the intricate beauty, or flaws, in the close up detail.

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Or maybe I just like these pictures too much and wanted to share them.

 

The Romantic Suspense Plait

IMG_3154 (779x1024)Harlequin editor Leslie Wainger said that in a romantic suspense, the suspense plot and the romance should be so tightly interwoven that if you removed one strand the plait – or story – would collapse. This is the image that has fuelled every romantic suspense I have written and is the standard to which I hold those I read.

The reason for deciding to blog about this is that I often see some of the keenest and most widely read fans of romance saying that they have been burned too often by romantic suspense. One book review lead to a conversation in which people agreed that the main love story and characters were great, but that the suspense plot was unbelievable, manipulative and mainly there to keep the protagonists from falling in love too soon. One person said they liked the romance so much they skipped the suspense plot and ended up enjoying it far more.

While I have never read a book where the two plot lines could be so easily disentangled as to be ignored, I have read a few where by a little over half way the couple are more or less in love and the rest of the book is mostly solving the mystery and some cosy romance. I believe if any time before the last chapter either plot strand could be resolved and leave the other strand intact, they are not tightly enough intertwined and it’s not a true romantic suspense – it can still be a good book, a romance with mild suspense elements, or a suspense with some romance, but not what I was hoping for.

What I mean by resolving one strand would be someone’s boss suddenly appearing and saying, “hey, we caught the villain, he confessed and there’s no more threat, take some leave.” What do the hero and heroine do then? If they smile and say thanks and jet off for a fortnight making love on a beach there wasn’t enough romantic conflict. In my writing and in those books I adore, at least one of the protagonists would turn and run away as fast as possible – solving the suspense is all that is keeping them alongside the other person and by doing so they find out enough about themselves and each other to move forward to love and a hea.

Maybe I love forced proximity stories too much, or reunions where there’s a lot of baggage, or enemies to lovers. But in my opinion solving a mystery or a little shared danger isn’t enough for a hea, I want real personal gaols and motivations keeping them apart, not a deranged killer. It’s having to work together to find a solution that forces them to face their internal emotional conflicts, makes then appreciate the other’s strengths – and weaknesses – and makes them reluctantly fall in love. The suspense is actually pushing them together, inadvertently creating character growth and strength, rather than being a device to stop them falling in love too soon or creating artificial tension.

That’s how I like the romance to be dependent on the suspense, but it needs to work the other way as well – to keep the plait taut in all directions. What if half way through the book the H&h decide they are in love and go to the boss in charge if the suspense investigation and say, “we’ve had enough of this danger, get some other cops/spies/scientists/soldiers to solve this while we go off and make out for a week.” If the boss says, “sure, have fun,” then the suspense plot could belong to anyone. It needs to be personal to this particular H&h. There has to be a reason why they are determined to find answers, why are they putting their lives in danger, why is this story being told?

I’ll admit that this aspect only became clear to me fairly recently, but it’s why so many suspense books have a protagonist in danger such as being a witness or survivor of a serial killer – they will never be safe until the bad guy is caught. Or it’s someone out to clear a family member’s name, or get justice for a murdered partner, or to right something they feel guilty about, or because someone close to them is in danger. Of course there doesn’t always have to be a personal link to the suspense plot and I have read a few brilliant examples where the H&h just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, but on the whole the braiding together of the suspense and romance is made stronger when at least one of the protagonists is personally invested in the suspense. Can any moment be darker than when a choice has to be made between solving the mystery to which they have dedicated their life or saving the person they have reluctantly fallen in love with? The ultimate romantic suspense dilemma.

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Of course a plait, or braid, has three strands, not two. For me that’s perfect because in Harlequin Romantic Suspense they like the romance to be of more importance than the suspense, they used to specify 60% romance to 40% suspense and while I don’t think it’s that rigid any more it’s the kind of balance I try to aim for. So, what is the third strand in my plait? One is the suspense or danger or mystery plot. One is the romantic conflict, the inner reasons why they can’t instantly fall in love, the cerebral romance and barrier if you like, the past history and all the things that keep them at arm’s length – even while they acknowledge that there is a connection or an attraction there. So the third strand is showing us, and them, that attraction. It’s the awareness, the sensual details, the touches and glances and reluctant appreciation that they can’t help even though mentally and emotionally they know it’s a bad idea.

And of course these are the moments that happen while everything else is going on. When you’re on the run from bad guys there’s no time to stop and date or get to know each other as we would in “normal” life, everything is heightened and fast and pressured and that’s why suspense stories are great for bringing people together who would never work under any other circumstances – whether they are warring exes, childhood best friends or Montagues and Capulets – the suspense throws them together and all the while they know they can’t be together they are watching each other solve clues, adapt under pressure, be cool under fire, be resourceful and brave and compassionate and no matter how hard they fight it they start to grudgingly appreciate the other while they are solving the suspense plot. It makes them see each other in a light that they wouldn’t without the suspense – the strength in someone’s fingers as they hot wire a car, the gentleness as they bandage a wound, the way they bite their lip as they try to solve a puzzle, or the impatient way they push their hair out of their eyes even while having the kindness and time to calm a scared child. All of these are the little moments that make up a romance almost before we’re aware of it and that can happen literally under fire. When the danger has passed, then is the time for the cerebral strand to come back to the fore and for the doubts or reasons not to fall in love to have the upper hand, but then the suspense is upped again giving a moments respite from romantic dilemma, and so on, constantly twisting and highlighting one of the strands while the others are still visible, holding it all in place.

I doubt that I have stated this as clearly as I would like, but it shows what I hope for as a reader and aim for as a writer. I believe that Leslie Wainger has now retired from Harlequin although her “Writing a romance novel for dummies” book is still available. I was fortunate enough to discover the forums at harlequin.com in 2001. Leslie was the senior editor of the Silhouette Intimate Moments line (published in the UK as Sensation) and she had an “ask the editor” thread where she dispensed nuggets of wisdom, humour and Buffy (mostly Spike) appreciation. I think I had already realised that Intimate Moments was the line that most suited my reading and writing taste and so I lapped up every bit of advice and have some saved in clunky document files. This was how she phrased it:

It also helps to think of your book as a braid. Many new authors think of plot and romance as the side rails of a railroad track, going on together, parallel but never really crossing, though occasionally there are switches that connect them. But in a braid, you have many strands woven together to create a whole. Remove one and the whole thing falls apart.

20170504_195502 (622x1024)And that’s (just one reason) why she was a genius editor and entertaining giver of advice. I hope some of it causes a few lightbulb moments for other romantic suspense writers and that I have applied it correctly to my current work. If I haven’t, I leave this image as a warning of what happens when a plait goes wrong.

*Post edited on 15 May when I realised I had mispelled Leslie’s surname. I did a last minute check of her name against her book on Amazon UK and it picked up the incorrect spelling from a  review as my top search. So much for attention to detail… dammit.

 

 

A bout of about me

The first week of April I planned a post which explained that there was no post as I had spent my blogging time that week writing an “about” page. I worried slightly that it might seem like an April Fools’ joke as anyone who has read even half my posts knows that everything here is very much about me. It ended up taking a lot longer than planned due to trying to put links to some of my most popular blog posts under images on the page.  Let me know if the time was worth it.

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This toasted marshmallow also needs to be added to my manuscript

One of the nuggets of advice I’ve seen on the endless “dos and don’ts for bloggers” was “don’t apologise for not blogging or make excuses.” The idea being that it’s your blog and your rules and if you start letting yourself be governed by what you “owe” other people then you are letting the blog rule you. I like the idea, but alas I am British and sorry is my middle name, so I am going to apologise for the recent dearth of posts. Excuses however are not worth it and tend to make the situation worse, drawing attention to the dereliction of duty; I will not therefore harp on about the latest round of colds “oh it’s a fifteen week cough” said the doctor blithely, nor blame school holidays (I know by now that blogging is impossible with small persons underfoot.)

So it’s not an excuse, just a fact, that I have been concentrating on getting my manuscript into shape to be submitted to an editor. My deadline of Easter was self-imposed and could have been reached if I hadn’t got cold feet about the idea of a new submission arriving just as an editor was trying to clear her desk before the holidays. Even so, I nearly overrode such fears (there’s always an excuse to put off something like this if you look hard enough) except for having a sudden inspiration to up the suspense in the story which then opened up a whole new avenue of thought. Just add a child’s pov for three tiny scenes I thought, it’ll make the threat more human and immediate, oh, and then I can replace two smaller characters with this one and make that later scene more intensely suspenseful and personal, and what a coincidence I had already given a minor character a divorce in their backstory, now I can utilise that and the hero can see echoes of himself in the child and the child can offer inappropriate hero worship and make the hero see his actions in a different light and….suddenly I was adding snippets here and there and one tiny improvement was causing a slight but very significant rewrite of the second half of the story.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not sorry, it will make the book so much stronger – and is also obeying my critique partner’s plea to cut down on named secondary characters or to merge some of them. The rush of “yes!!!!” as each knock-on effect occurred to me and I scrambled to write them all down is one of the greatest joys of being a writer. Nothing changed plot or character-wise, I just found subtler lights to shine on them and ways to draw out the motivations that had been driving them and helping/hindering them from falling in love. I wish I’d thought of this a few weeks ago, but far better to have thought if it now rather than after I had sent it off. The only difficulty has been switching from editing/revising mode to writing fresh passages, they seem so stilted after weeks of not writing anything new and I’ve been hunting down my writing “voice” – here’s hoping this post helps.

My manuscript has a better social life than I do

I sent my completed MS to my critique partner and thanks to the wonders of Kindle it has been having an exciting week around London. So far it has been read in a coffee shop, the Design Museum and two different Pizza Expresses. Every time I get a text and photo I experience several emotions –including thirst.

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There is the “oh goodness I hope she likes it.” The “I wish I was there too” (and not just because of the wine, but a bit.) The “wow, it looks like a real book.” The “I should have edited that section before I sent it.” And did I mention the “what does she think of it?!” panic that sets me off in a cold sweat each time she mentions she’s reading it?

The comments she has sent so far have been mostly amused and teasing and occasionally admiring – I’d be disappointed if I didn’t get the odd snigger at the uses of “mount” and references to a good ride – we both know it’s referring to horses but we were also both raised on Carry On films. Even so, there is still the moment of paralysing fear at having someone else read my work. It doesn’t seem to get easier and maybe this is a little different as I have deliberately not said much about this story nor shared chapters as I go along as I have in the past, I wanted a completely honest and gut instinct response to the whole story. (No pressure eh gemmaw700?)

My list of questions that I am hoping for feedback on started with;

  • is it a romance
  • is it suspenseful
  • can you see these two people fall in love
  • do you care
  • is there enough keeping them apart

All of which is very basic when writing romantic suspense, but when you’ve lived with the character and story for so long it’s possible to get too caught up in the fine tuning of the prose, or the intricacies of the plot, or the beauty of the location and atmosphere and the basic essential elements of romance can get sidelined. I need to be sure my hero and heroine’s attraction and appreciation and admiration come through without it reading like a list of fanciable features.

(This is as far as I had written last week, hoping to post on Friday afternoon, alas, trying to sort out a niggling laptop problem with right and left click led to the loss of my task bar, and fixing that led to the blank screen of doom. Taking out the battery eventually restored things but by then my wonderful friend was here and the gin was open. The rest of this post is written with her critiques known to me.)

Of course, as soon as I had sent it and started to think what points she might raise, I began to wish I had changed things. Surely she would suggest I merged two chapters that were low on action but imparted important information (she didn’t.) I was spending too much time on that irritating but important secondary character, he needed pruning (she agreed.) That plot point that made sense 2 drafts ago stuck out like a sore thumb – it made sense but was given too much importance and could be scaled back (“Oh I wondered why that was there” said my wise friend tactfully – a very valuable lesson; I can remember all the plot strands or events I have deleted in different drafts and I think I have snipped off all the tendrils they wove throughout the story, but to someone reading it afresh an occasional reference or overreaction to a trivial point leaps out.)

So even before we met up I had made myself face the details that had niggled at me but that I had put off in my eagerness to get a second opinion – a friend might forgive this, an editor or agent might not. How often have I heard – You never get a second chance to make a first impression?

Fortunately, after enough gin and good food all the points that were made to me were extremely helpful and kind and insightful. I mostly agreed with them, or could explain why I had made that choice (and noted that I need to make it clearer in the MS – if it needs justifying to a friend you can be sure an unknown reader will want the full picture too.)

I am extremely lucky in having such a best friend; one who has read widely in many romance genres, who has entertained me for years with short stories and serialised fiction, who has taken a creative writing course, who has always had a better grasp of spelling and grammar than I have and has the humour and tact to point out my errors in a way that encourages me to learn rather than to sulk.

For all this, I will forgive the fact that she drank all my tonic water – and sent me this picture on her way home.

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My manuscript has travelled first class on a train – I’ve never done that!

Now to just ensure everything else about my work is first class too.

Seen in a different light

Most things are worth a second glance, whether it’s a person, a place or an object. Looking again can reveal hidden beauty, or unexpected faults – and as I type this I realise how much this applies to re-reading one’s writing! I’m in the process of editing a manuscript and every time I open it I find another mistake, or I find a piece of dialogue or imagery that makes me think “did I really write that?” (and not always in horror.)

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Oops, that’s was a very early diversion down tangent alley. I’ll admit now that this blog post started as an excuse to post two photos of the same spot but it evolved in my mind into being more about how characters in our writing see things on a second glance, or more specifically, how they have interpreted phrases that can have a completely different meaning years later when more information, or life, has been accrued.

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These two phots were taken at Dolgoch Falls in Wales, the first in March and the second in August 4 years later. It wasn’t a conscious duplication, just a perfect spot to capture the twisted ancient woodland that enthralled me the first time I visited – to me, those moss covered trunks and corkscrew branches reaching up from a deep ravine full of thundering water are the perfect embodiment of all secret woodlands described in books like the Hobbit, the Narnia Chronicles, Arthurian Legend and of course Susan Cooper whose Grey King is largely set just a few miles from Dolgoch.

Apart from being shocked by the weird coincidence of standing in the same spot over four years later, what else do those pictures make me – or you – think? I long to capture the scene in Autumn, or in snow. They make me want to go back and explore the gorge and the river further, away from the easily marked footpaths; but I also want to just sit in that glade and look closer at the ivy and holly clad trees, I want to see if the grass is as soft as it looks, if some of those fallen branches are still there, or have they rotted back into the earth? And just which picture do I prefer? Logically the autumn one has more colour and depth and life, but it was the stark silvery grey silhouettes of the trees that first captured me and which draw me now more strongly.

Obviously the second glance, or the reassessing look is a common trope in romance – not just the cliché of how beautiful the spinster looks when she takes off her glasses and lets down her hair. I’m thinking of the fish out of water scene that often occurs, or the “this is going to be uncomfortable but actually we’re really turned on by the end of the evening” scene. How often do characters have to attend a ball or dress function, or a family meal with everyone on best behaviour? Or the boss and secretary end up in a casual situation and realise how different each looks out of the usual business suit. These are all familiar scenes or plots because it is often exactly at such moments that we see someone we had a fixed view of in a completely different light and have to reappraise our opinion of them; not just the surface looks, but a deeper understanding of their character. Modern romances are not simple enough to fall into a “clothes make the man/woman” cliché but a change of scene or situation can tell us a lot about both the character being seen in a new light, and the one doing the seeing.

I’ve blogged before with pictures of the same location in different seasons, that time I was trying to explore the way seemingly inconsequential memories can add depth to a character, how backstory can be given in fleeting glimpses rather than an info dump, or how the different things two characters see in a room can tell us about their background and expectations. Where I was planning to go this time was to reflect on my current manuscript where both protagonist have had their lives shaped by a key phrase – and by the end of the book they have come to see, or rather to hear, the words differently.

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This is of course something we writers try to do a lot, straightforward seeming conversations can be imbued with subtext for the other characters or for the reader who may already be party to a secret that one of the protagonists doesn’t yet know. I personally love it when a secret or something from the past is revealed and I go back to an earlier scene to reread it in the light of the new information and see a character’s reactions in a whole new light. It is again a crucial tool in giving insight into plot, conflict or motivation.

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I hope I handle it less clunkily than I am trying to explain it now. In my manuscript learning more about the background to the situation, or the people who said the words that shaped their lives is only the start of my character’s dilemma. How do they take that knowledge? If someone else’s words have been so important in shaping their lives, how will they now reshape themselves? A second glance, or fresh light on a familiar view can be refreshing, or terrifying if it reveals aspects we had no idea were there. Balancing the expected with the new, the known with the subtly altered is tricky enough in everyday life, let alone when it is with characters we have created and whose worlds we are turning upside down. But it is exhilarating and literally life changing for them.

Those last two pictures were taken on the same day, I came across them last week when I was looking for photos to illustrate the precise shade of green that I had been coughing up for weeks. I remember that mossy wall deep in Coed y Brenin forest and how the stones looked as soft and inviting as pillows. These were simply taken with different exposures or with and without flash, but they show two completely different scenes. In one the wall is as emerald as I remember it and the rest of the wood could be dressed in springtime. In the other the wall no longer catches your eye, it is the autumnal golds and russets that leap out at you, and the fairylike sparkles of rain caught in the camera’s glare. Each tells a different story, which would you rather read?

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?

Finding your daily squirrel

It is the little moments, sometimes almost unnoticed as they wiz by, that make up a life. And a year. Globally 2016 wasn’t the greatest (nor the worst) but I wanted to remember the positives that happened personally. When I worked in Oxford I had many commutes over the years; but whether walking, sitting in a traffic jam or waiting at a bus stop, the day could be immeasurably brightened by the smallest or silliest of things. The easiest was a squirrel, anytime, anywhere, even rooting through a bin. When you walk the same streets twice a day you can see the infinitesimal changes in gardens and trees, tracking the growth of furry magnolia buds in spring, or hearing the scuffling of your feet get louder every day as more leaves fall in autumn. I’ve been very lucky to work in places where I can walk through parks or have to cross a river to get to work; the sight of tiny brown ducklings makes me smile just remembering it. Little positives are everywhere and finding the ones that lift your spirit every day, is, I think, one of the secrets of life.

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So, after a classic Tangent Alley overlong opening paragraph, here are a few of the things that I had almost forgotten made 2016 sparkle amid the tears and fears. (Quite a few of which are illustrated here in my what we did on our holidays post.)

  • Climbing the first Welsh One Hundred for a few years. My partner Dr J has a book about the highest one hundred mountains in Wales, and in our first year of dating we added several more to his list of those achieved. Small children have hindered such adventurous walks and climbs for a while so this was a great achievement, especially as our 6 year old walked all the way herself (the 2 and a half year old was in a back pack much of the way.)
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The Gruffalo’s Child climbed with us
  • Lots of days on beaches –I think of this as mostly for the kids but I had far too much fun building, and destroying, dams on beaches this year.
  • Many ice creams, even ones that make your tongue go blue.
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Not my tongue
  • Many picnics, in woods, up mountains, in the garden. Everything tastes better outdoors and this was the year I finally got to appreciate tuna mayonnaise.
  • When we gave the girls the choice of what to do on a day out our eldest said “Mummy likes castles and waterfalls best.” I am lucky to have a generous daughter with a great memory – but then  I do go on about it a lot I suspect. This year has indeed been  very rich in castles.

As for waterfalls, I was treated to a wonderful wet walk at Nantcol in Wales, where I fell in a bog and got filthy feet and loved every minute. I looked at the pictures recently and wondered why I was grinning like a fool in every picture, then I remembered, I was having such a perfect day and wanted to be sure the family knew it. It’s a little alarming to realise my happiest face looks so deranged, but hey, they seem to love me anyway.

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  • Having other people be happy is of course one of the very best things that can happen, that’s partly why I think of picnics as being such a highlight of the year; the glee on a small child’s face when you show them you brought their favourite snack is an utter joy. Who knew scotch eggs and pickled onion flavoured crisps were so valuable?

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Sadly this year hasn’t featured as much reading as I would like. It started well with my passion for ancient Greek dram still in full flow, but then I realised those precious two hours when my youngest slept would be better used to write rather than read. As I said,  you have to give up something for writing  and this year it was my reading. I don’t regret it, but I do miss my books and am determined to find some more reading time (tv watching has already gone by the wayside so I think it will have to be bath time, I don’t like showers but they are a bit quicker – or else I have to get used to reading in the bath again. Since I needed reading glasses the steaming up problem and condensation running down my nose has meant it’s not as easy to lose myself in a  book while the bath water goes cold.) Oops, this is supposed to be a positive look back at the year, luckily for me, the few books I did read were excellent and I plan to blog about them later this month.

Speaking of reading though, this was the year I discovered Gimlets, all due to Raymond Chandler. I enjoyed rather more than I should have on sunny evenings, and actually, having just bemoaned the lack of reading time (I think my memory is biased because I’m still reading two books I started in the summer holidays, I know I’m a slow reader but this is ridiculous) I did have a golden patch of reading in the dusky evenings after tea. One memorable night I had to turn on the outside lights as it was so dark but still warm in the garden – sadly the rustling noses by the door when I went in for a top up of my drink put me off staying out too late; mice and gin don’t mix.

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A highlight of any year is a trip to London to see my best friend and visit the theatre. This year even more people will envy me when I confess that I saw Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, all due to the organisational skill and generosity of my friend gemmaw700. That trip also deserves its own post, partly due to my first visit to the revamped Foyles where I could have happily spent the day, but also because I have only once before heard an entire theatre gasp in such shock as they did at one line of dialogue and I can’t remember the last time I cried so much with laughter as I did at one scene – the fact it involved a library was just an added bonus.

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A few other moments that I have been reminded of when looking for photos to accompany this:

  • How many people ever actually have the cliché happen to them of a crab nibbling their toes? I did!
  • And I saw a snow leopard! (Not at the same time as the crab, that would be quite a dream. The leopard was at Dudley Zoo, awaiting a mate, and looking beautifully healthy and content.)
  • I went back to Avebury, one of my favourite places in the world.
  • I discovered  Dunraven Bay and castle, a new favourite place.
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Our broken dam flooding Dunraven beach

One major thing which has brought me pleasure, (and occasionally stress when I’m late, like this week, oops) has been finally starting a blog. OK, so I’m ten years behind other aspiring writers I mixed with back then, most of whom are now published. But the time was right for me in 2016; back then it would just have been another thing to distract me from writing and to then feel guilty and stressed about when it dwindled into nothingness. I haven’t quite stuck to my Thursday posting each week, but I’m still enjoying it and planning to continue.

The main personal achievement last year, and cause of a great amount of happiness and inner glowing, was that I finished writing a book. OK, the first draft. I have completed books before but this one has been written and – especially the last half – finished with such delight and a drive to get the story out there. It still needs work and I’m not happy with all of it, but the overall story and the characters and what they have to go through still move and excite me (rather than the “oh god I don’t know how to finish this book and can’t wait to see the back of these dammed people” feeling which did rather haunt the ending of a couple of previous manuscripts. These are people I want to revisit in editing and make sure I’m doing their story justice, every time I think of the final scene I feel full of trepidatious (is that not a word? It should be) hope and happiness.

None of these miniscule moments of happiness are meant to in any way diminish the things that went wrong in 2016 or the fact that so many people (individually and as nations) are facing an uncertain future. I’m just trying to remember for myself the little moments that make day to day life brighter and better and that give us hope. It’s why authors are continuing to write; because we all want those moments of escape, and the promise of love helping people to thrive. We’re all looking for our daily squirrel.

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