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?

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The case of the disappearing bookshelves

Can you love books too much? For me, a large part of the pleasure when reading a book is deciding where it will go on my bookcase when it is finished. I love blogs or twitter chats about book shelves and how they are arranged, pictures of libraries are pure book porn for me and I often fall asleep at night imagining redesigning the entire house around books.

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From the number of posts I’ve seen along these lines I am obviously not alone, but of course I’m a reader and a writer and the people I follow are too; or they are editors, agents, publishers – book lovers. But what about other people in our lives? Even if they don’t introduce themselves with; “Hello, I’m a reader,” don’t  they like books too? I started wondering this a few weeks ago when I was writing about how I read and I realised that in almost all the houses I have visited for the first time in the last 6 years, I haven’t seen a single book in a living room.

There could be many reasons for this. For a start I’m talking about less than a dozen houses – I’m not a madly sociable person. The people I have visited have often been because of children’s parties or looking after a neighbours pets, it may well be that many of my friends have houses bursting with books. But it has still struck me each time I see a room with not a single book, either laid aside mid-read, or proudly on display.

I know ebooks are replacing the need for books on shelves, and de-cluttering is very much in fashion now. But even if people are reading on tablets and pads, where are all their books from just a few years ago before ereaders? I had friends years ago who gave many books away to charity shops after reading due to a lack of space, but they always replaced them at the same time with more second hand books to read. Are books considered old fashioned? Ugly? Bragging? I cannot imagine not having my collections all around me, but as I have said before, I am a slow reader for whom each book represent a microcosm of the person I was when I read it, where I was, how the book made me feel – I am bombarded with memories when I pick up a loved read, and the story itself isn’t often the first thing I think of when I feel the physical book in my hands again.

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I would never judge anyone on the books they have on display – well I would try not to. But these days it’s more the utter lack of books that surprises me (and which I also try not to judge). Maybe it is to do with the age I now am and that the homes I visit are all of busy working families. When I was a student or single (ok, I lived in Oxford but I refuse to believe only University towns have people happy to display books so prominently – having said that, I did used to love walking home and peering into lit rooms, so many were lined with books in a way that I haven’t seen anywhere in the countryside, but I think a lot of that is architecture as much as the occupier’s choice. The classic town houses of Oxford and other cities and towns are designed with nooks and alcoves for book shelves, even if you don’t put books on them. The countryside homes built with agriculture or industry in mind tend to have more utilitarian features (I’m aware this is a sweeping generalisation but so many homes have been made in converted barns and former farm or industrial buildings and they are huge or neatly uniform places, no recesses or niches and any book shelves often seem dwarfed by the size of the rooms.) Plasma screens are the dominant features and dvds or games are the only purchases on display, books are only to be found in children’s’ bedrooms it seems.

Were books on display a part of showing off in the 70s and 80s when I grew up and all the houses of my parent’s friend’s were full of books? Are they no longer seen as essential? Were they for show, or art back then? Or am I basing all this on a very small selection or homes (yes, this cannot be a statistically significant finding.)

I do unashamedly love books though, browsing shelves whether in a library, a book shop or someone’s house – and I almost always ask permission before approaching someone’s shelves (or waited till they had left in the days when I babysat in other people’s homes.) Having just written that as if it were normal I think I have answered my initial question – it is possible for me to love, or revere, books too much.

However, even now, when I finish a book I take a lot of pleasure in working out where on my shelves it will go. My bookcases are roughly arranged with absolute favourites at top left and on around the room in decreasing satisfaction. If I read a book by an already admired author and it disappoints, it can mean the author’s entire oeuvre gets moved down – or up of course if an author surprises me.

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The pictures I have posted here are all from my flat in Oxford. It was a bare concrete place when I moved in and along with a budget for a washing machine, fridge-freezer, bed, sofa, carpet (yes, I did choose that very dark green one in the photos, I loved it, everyone else who ever visited commented on it and at least two people offered to mow it for me) I also had money put aside for bookcases to create the effect in the first picture. It gave the room a focus and features, yes the tv was prominent, and the hi fi, but for me it was all about the books. I loved the fact I had enough space to break up the shelves so some just had ornaments on them. That last post is the bookcase I had in my bedroom where I could lie back on a lazy weekend morning as I drank a pot of tea and wondered if the book I was currently reading would make it into that room with my absolute favourite books (although I had forgotten until I looked at the picture just how many of the shelves contained pony books!) I feel as if I haven’t read nearly as much as I would like to in the 6 years since I took these photos just before the flat was sold, but comparing them with todays shelves my top selections have indeed been added to. I’m resolved to take photos of my collections at least once a year to monitor their change, and I shall never apologise for loving books too much.

How do you read?

Does the film of the book run through your mind? Is it a serious of snapshots? Or is it all about the words? Can you dip in and out of multiple books at once or do you fully immerse yourself in one and rarely come up for air?

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My 5 favorite books, their relative batteredness depends on how many people I have lent them to, and how new they were when I got them

Every book I have read since the age of eighteen has been kept, some have been read more than once and will be again and again. Each time I take them down I can see and feel and remember where I last read them. Listing favourite books is almost impossible – I did it in my Q&A post below after years of mulling it over – but what exactly is a favourite? Is it because of the writing? The plot? How it made me feel? How it affected my life? The person I was when I read it – or the person I was when I finished it? Especially if I didn’t actually enjoy the book. There are ones that are important because of when or where I was reading them, or because of who gave them to me, or recommended them – subsection disappointing recommendations by adored people. Those whose importance is that I found them myself – or they chose me by being irresistible on a book shop table, those that led me to even greater book, those I still dream about.

One of the things I plan to do on this blog is talk about favourite books, but I’ve realised I need to talk about how I read first. Since about the age of seven or eight I have read constantly, but slowly. Friends who would say they aren’t really readers finish more books a year than I do. I can partly blame small children and family life for that these days but even when I lived alone and my time was my own – oh for some of that time back now – I didn’t finish many books a year simply because of how slowly I read.

Being positive I would say I read thoroughly – but does that sound too dismissive of fast readers? I don’t mean it to. I guess I read cinematically, I visualise everything in the scene as I read it to the point that if something is mentioned in a scene that I haven’t registered before, I sometimes go back and re read the scene to “picture” it correctly. The most common instance of this is when someone is driving a car in a US set book and one of them turns their head to the left to look at the driver and I remember that we drive on the opposite side of the car here and I have to go back and re read the scene with each character in their proper place. Why? I’m not sure, I’ve just always done this, the words create moving pictures in my head and it’s why as soon as a book is mentioned , no matter how long ago I read it, a scene is instantly there in my mind.

It is possibly because I read like this that I never need book marks. I am baffled by people who scream if their place in a book is lost (never mind my rage for those who bend over the corners of pages to keep their place.) How can they not just pick up the book and find where they were? Don’t they remember? If you open the book at random and read half a line don’t you know if you have already read it or not? Because I either see the scene instantly, or don’t (having not yet read it), I can work my way backwards or forwards until I find where I was, although I usually open the book within three pages to either side as my hands seem to know as soon as I pick up the book how far into the book I was.

This also gives me the ability to find any given scene in a book many years after I read it. I thought all people had this knack until my best friend said that in her book club she is always asked to find the pages they are discussing because no one else can find the place as surely or swiftly.

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2 books, both over 900 pages long and both read on beach holidays. One was also borrowed by someone else (and ok, I’ve read it far more than once)

As for how you do this with electronic books, well that would be a whole new post. Is it wrong to love the physical feel and look of books so much? This brings me back to the dog-earing of pages I mentioned before. Oh the horror. For a while none of my family would ever borrow books from me because of the rage or anguish I exhibited (or worse, tried to hide) when they returned the book in anything less than a pristine condition. I’ve managed to read paperback books of over five hundred pages and not left a mark on the spine. But I have mellowed (presumably now I show more than a few marks of wear and tear myself) and I value the dents on a book’s cover that tell as much a story to me as the printed words (the sand stuck in the pages of Tom Jones from a very windy Cretan beach, the water damaged pages in Vanity Fair due to an exploding bottle of fizzy water on a Cuban balcony.)

One other reason for being a slow reader is that I usually have three to four books on the go at once. The main book that is my first choice, a romance and a classic text, either ancient Greek or Arthurian. The reason for this is that no matter how much I am loving a book, I can rarely read more than 50 pages in one sitting. One of the most exciting parts of going away for a two week holiday was always planning my reading; going through my stacks of to-be-read books, getting a long list, or pile of around 15 books, usually still popping into Waterstones when I was supposed to be in Boots buying sun cream and mosquito repellent and buying 2 or 3 new books, getting the list down to 8 and trying to never take more than 6 (even on a fortnight away with nothing to do but enjoy myself – which would mean reading from dawn till dusk if I was lucky – I knew I wouldn’t read more than 6 books because I would be taking books I had been longing to read and savouring them even more than my usual slow cinematic style.) So I would read 50 pages of one, then dip into another, onto a third, then back to book 2 again and so on all day all holiday. Maybe it’s a delayed gratification thing, making as many books as possible last as long as possible, rather than racing through one to rush onto another? The bittersweet finishing of a book you have loved reading is hard to beat and this way I could postpone the parting, or have several giddy goodbyes close together.

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The 4 that wouldn’t let me put them down

My inability to read more than 50 pages has only been over ruled by book passion on a handful of occasions which saw me staying up till 3 in the morning before having to go to work the next day – John Le Carré’s Honourable Schoolboy and Arianna Franklin’s Mistress of the Art of Death (this was a book I had discovered just days earlier after almost giving up on Diana Norman ever writing another book and I tried to make it last but failed.) Two years ago when I was laid up with a damaged ankle and read voraciously for two weeks, I devoured the last 150 pages of Ian Rankin’s The Falls and the last 200 of Jane Harris’ Gillespie and I on almost consecutive nights (I was sleeping a lot during the day due to pain.) I put those two binges down to the fact that for the first time ever I thought I had guessed a Rebus villain – and I was right! And because Gillespie and I had the most unreliable narrator I had ever read and I was desperate to find out their final comeuppance.

In the last few years, when my reading time has been reduced, I have still managed to read books that fill all my various criteria above – writing and plotting that has blown me away, ones that make me look at the world and myself differently as I close the final page, ones that have made me cry, ones that I have instantly recommended to friends and family, ones that I want to re-read as soon as possible. No matter how much I love a book while I am reading it, I know there are more treasures out there to be found and savoured. Reading truly is the gift that keeps giving. Which books have made you stay up all night, or keep you returning for just one more re-read? Can you narrow your favourites down to five?

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.