Sunday, 19 December 2010

Merry Christmas

Unless I win a massive publishing deal or a major competition I probably shan't blog again this side of Christmas.

There's a story urging me to write it today, then I'm at work until Friday and have to fit in some Christmas shopping, weather permitting. So, whether you're reading this in snowy England, or sunny Australia, I hope you all have a lovely Christmas. xxx

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Jo interviews David Howarth

Today I am delighted to welcome David Howarth to the blog.

From Park Publications in the Cotswolds, David produces three small press magazines. Scribble and Debut focus on fiction, while Countryside Tales also includes articles and poetry on a rural theme. All three magazines offer opportunities for writers to have their work published, and there are prizes to be won in a range of competitions throughout the year.

David has kindly agreed to answer a few questions, and I began by asking...

What inspired you to set up Park Publications?

I had been writing short stories for many years and, despite some fairly good financial rewards, I got fed up with writing for the women's magazines and started to look for outlets that accepted general fiction. Good quality short story magazines seemed fairly thin on the ground; most of the small press publications were special interest such as horror or sci-fi, etc. I began to think that there must be other writers in the same position. So I launched Scribble. This really took off after a few months and I was soon getting more material than I could hope to use. The first issues were only 48 pages but this has increased to its current 60 pages. Interest has continued to grow and it is still our most popular magazine.

What are the things you most enjoy about running a small press?

The satisfaction of seeing the finished magazines and knowing that I am going to make some writer's day by including their work in one of the magazines. It is particularly satisfying when we publish someone's work for the first time. I also get a real buzz from reading all the submissions we receive and the letters I get from writers saying how much the magazines have inspired them. The hard part is rejecting a writer's work when it is obvious that they have spent many hours on it. One of the reasons I started Debut was to give newer writers a bit more of a chance and also to enable me to offer critiques on unsuitable material. Sometimes a story only needs a small tweak to get it to publishable standard, but unless an editor is prepared to offer advice a writer may go on making the same mistakes.

Roughly how many submissions a year do you receive across the three magazines?

For general magazine submissions the following is a rough guide. This is in addition to the open competitions.

Short stories: Approx. 600 a year. We keep about 180.
Articles: Approx. 250 a year. We keep about 60.
Poems: Approx. 200 - 250 a year. We keep about 60.

In the years since you founded Park Publication, have you noticed any particular trends in the quality, style or subject matter of material submitted?

The quality has definitely improved over the years; this is possibly because writers are continually discovering the magazines. Styles and subject matters are always changing with the times: for instance we get more stories featuring gay/lesbian plot lines than when we first started. We get a lot more contemporary stories with a romantic theme nowadays and there seems to be a shortage of crime fiction (oops, perhaps I shouldn't have said that!). Perhaps that is because there seems to be a much larger proportion of submissions from women writers now?

Whether it is a short story, a poem or an article, what makes a submission stand out for you?

With short stories, I look for something different; something that stands out from the crowd. I like a crisp beginning that takes me straight into the story without too much waffle. I look for interesting characters that I can believe in and want to do well; and I like a satisfying (not necessarily happy) conclusion. Articles should entertain with interesting topics and personal thoughts; I don't like too many boring statistics unless they emphasise a point. I don't mind whether poems rhyme or not but they should 'flow' and sound good when read aloud.

Which authors do you like to read and why?

I like Thomas Hardy and George Eliot for their authenticity - they were actually seeing an England that has vanished. I like Stephen King for his quirky characters and Ian Rankin for his gripping story lines. I have also recently discovered Tess Gerritsen - a brilliant American crime novelist. I also like to read about the English countryside in bygone days - particularly books by the early naturalists such as Gilbert White and Richard Jefferies.

With three regular magazines in production, do you have any plans to expand further?

I think three is enough for now!

Thank you David for giving us this insight into your work. I am one of those writers whose first ever published story appeared in a Park Publications magazine (Countryside Tales, winter 2004). I can honestly say that it marked a turning point in my life, therefore I really appreciate the value of small press magazines such as these.

For full details of how to submit to Scribble, Countryside Tales, and Debut please see the Park Publications website.

An Important Update
October 2012: Please note that sadly David is no longer to publish Countryside Tales. Meanwhile, Debut has this year been amalgamated into Scribble. This means Scribble now has more pages for your lovely stories! It's a very hard climate for small press magazines these days, so it's great that David has found a way to continue giving newer writers this opportunity for publication.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Words With Jam

A small "hurray" from me this week. The latest issue of 'Words With Jam' came out and I discovered I made it to the shortlist in their first annual short story competition. I was particularly pleased with this because the story I entered was one of those that arrived in my head out of nowhere. Even now I could not tell you what inspired it. Often I seem to do better with those types of stories than ones where the idea has been a long, slow struggle to figure out. Well done to the winners of the competition, whose stories are published in December's magazine (or I should say e-zine, as it is only available electronically).

If you haven't seen 'Words With Jam', subscription is free. All you have to do is go to the website and complete a short form, then you will receive an email with a link to the current issue. You can either read it online, or download it as a PDF. And in December's issue you have the chance to win a four day writing retreat in Cornwall. I love Cornwall! That's another one for my personal competitions calendar.

Monday, 29 November 2010

Have you heard? It's in the stars!

Are you a financially flexible Gemini, or a cash conscious Cancerian?

This week, my 20p bargain from the library's sale shelf was 'Money Signs: A Beginner's Guide', by Christeen Skinner. This little book examines each of the astrological signs in relation to how they handle money. I've had an entertaining couple of evenings reading through it, trying to identify traits of my friends and family.

I tend to be sceptical about astrology - until I read something that is so uncannily accurate that I think 'wow'. And I have to say that reading the chapter about my own star sign of Aries made me laugh.

Apparently we Aries folk travel between extremes of having plenty of money, and having none. Yes, my lifestyle does tend to lurch between famine and feast. And Christeen Skinner says that as a result of these fluctuations in our finances, people born under Aries develop a laissez-faire attitude to money. Yes, I have to agree with that too. In fact there are so many things in the Aries chapter that I recognise in myself that I am unable to quote them all for fear of infringing copyright!

At the end of each chapter are some suggestions for how people of each star sign can improve their ability to handle money. Again, more cause for laughter from me. One of the things I am advised to do is to save one type of coin in a jar. I did this for quite a while with twenty pence pieces. Once I even saved £10 and put it in my building society. But I've never managed to repeat my great achievement, because these days I have to keep raiding the jar to pay my tea money at work. See? Hopeless! Must try harder.

Now where did I put that piggy bank?

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Jo interviews Rosie Edser

Today I have to say a big thank you to Rosie Edser for answering a few questions about herself and her writing.

Rosie regularly has short stories published in women's magazines, including Take a Break and Woman's Weekly. Welcome to Zigzag Road, Rosie, and let me begin by asking you....

How did you get the writing bug?

At school, if we are going back to the sixties and seventies. I definitely preferred words to numbers. I grew up on the classics, and also devoured comics full of tragic heroines. Many school hours were wasted dreaming up dreadful alliterative titles for my English homework. Happily I've forgotten them all now, so can't be tempted to resurrect one!

If I'd known how wonderful it is to write and create characters I would have started years ago. What actually got me started was akin to the phrase 'necessity is the mother of invention'. I used to do respite foster care for two children. During a visit to my uncle, I took them up on the Malvern Hills in the hope of doing a really long walk. The children soon got bored, so I made up a story about a dragon who was asleep under the hills. They kept going, probably as I spun out the tale till we'd reached my halfway point! We later used it as a project and wrote in characters based on ourselves. I'm sure it will sell one of these days.

Of all the characters you have created in your stories, which is your favourite and why?

There is a composite boy, about nine years old, who appears in a few stories. I used him aged four to thirty in a story once. It was about that moment you realise your parents or grandparents are fallible, and just human after all. He's actually in one I am rewriting now (or should be instead of blogging!). It centres on a woman who is recently widowed. The story is told from the boy's point of view. He's dealing with his own feelings and telling us about his mum's.

For some reason I find it easy to assume this character. I like exploring the viewpoint where life is not that complicated on the face of it, though events are usually out of the character's control. Lots of women are in situations where they have to deal with issues on behalf of others, so not by choice. This makes my nine year old boy easy to identify with - I hope!

What writing related Christmas present would you like to receive?

Practically speaking, a new printer. Especially if it is one that never jams, needs ink at the wrong moment, or makes a lot of noise while I'm thinking!

Let's imagine you're on Desert Island Discs. Which book would you take and why?

Can I take four? I have read a book by Antoinette Kelsall Bird many times over the years. 'The Daughters of Megwyn' deals with relationships between mother, daughter and grandmother. It starts in the mid-fifteenth century, and is set in the Cotswolds. Annoyingly the author has not written anything else, so if anyone knows this lady please ask her to!

I loved 'The Book Thief' by Marcus Zusak, and 'The Lovely Bones' by Alice Sebold. Both cleverly use a character with universal viewpoint to tell everyone's story.

The last book I read (and want to read again) was 'The King of Sunlight' by Adam Macqueen, former editor of 'The Big Issue'. In his own words, Mr Macqueen describes his work as 'a sort of biography', but it is so much more. William Lever founded the company that later became Unilever. The author makes him come to life as a wonderfully caring, yet dedicated and obsessive person. My favourite snippet was that Mr Lever referred to his wife as 'his better three-quarters'. What a lovely man! 'The King of Sunlight' is partly the story of Sunlight Soap, Lever's infamous product. It is also about Port Sunlight Village which he built for his workers, but more about a gentleman with very high expectations and values.

When thinking about a new story, writers often begin with a setting, a character, a situation, or maybe a memory. Do you have any particular starting point for your stories?

Usually it is something that sparks an emotion in me, or insight into another person's emotion.

While writing a story about adoption I heard the phrase 'we chose you' was often voiced to children. It occurred to me that however well meant, this could be a good or a trite phrase to hear. 'We chose you' in context of 'that's all you need to know' was not good for my character, given her desperation to fill the void of knowledge about her birth mother.

I find it easy to explore a starting point while doing something mundane like washing up. Often the setting arrives unconsciously, maybe drawn from a place I already know.

And finally, in the hope of picking up some useful tips, I always like to ask my guests whether they have any advice for newer writers.

Never delete or throw anything away, no matter how many times it is rejected. With the benefit of more practice you can edit and sell any story that has that spark of emotional hit. Magazine requirements change also, so something that is too long, too short, too controversial may be absolutely fine in a few years.

Allow plenty of time to write at each sitting. If you can write in bits, you are lucky! I find it is much the same as getting stuck into a good book, you need a clear stretch of time to do it justice.

Go to a writing class, or start one. When you read to each other, agree to be fair and honest in feedback. There is no point being too nice to be any help, although being too blunt is just demoralising.

Never ask your family or friends for feedback on a manuscript unless they are qualified to advise. My sister is not a writer, but she compiles reports and wrote a dissertation, so she does help me. I asked a friend to read something once, and I was desperate for her comments. She apologised for not getting back to me, and admitted to taking a phone call halfway through and not picking up my manuscript again! (I did sell the story later, which restored my battered ego!)

Read 'how to write' books when not actually writing. The following are very good and I recommend reading the whole book in each instance. It will be worth the time spent.

Stephen King - 'On Writing'
Della Galton - 'How to Write and Sell Short Stories'
Iain Pattison - 'Cracking the Short Story Market'
Sol Stein - 'Solutions for Writers'

Finally, seeing your story in print is the most amazing feeling. There is nothing like it. You will want to tell everyone you meet and find your success slides into conversation several times a day. This is healthy and should be embraced. Buy copies of your magazine from every shop it is sold in, the elation outweighs a new pair of shoes every time.

Thanks again Rosie for such an interesting interview. I have forwarded your request for a new printer to the North Pole.

Sunday, 7 November 2010

And so to bread

I'm not wild about cookery programmes on TV. Most of the recipes are too complex, too meaty, or just plain weird. However I'm really enjoying Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's new series, River Cottage Everyday. Look what I made this morning.

Now I know it's not the prettiest loaf, but believe me it was the easiest bread I ever baked. It's soda bread. That means no yeast and hardly any kneading. See here for the recipe. Admittedly Hugh's recipe did not say to dust the dog with flour, but I'm a messy cook in a small kitchen.

While the bread was in the oven I made my back-of-the-pantry soup, which means using whatever vegetables are lying around. Lovely to have hunks of warm fresh bread to dip in! The bread tasted slightly sweeter than most breads, and the texture was more cakey inside the crisp crust.

Last week I made another recipe from Hugh's programme, Butternut and Nut Butter Soup. I'd made butternut squash soup before, but the addition of peanut butter, fresh ginger and coriander gave the recipe a lot more flavour. Sorry Hugh, but I did omit the lime. I took a batch of this soup to work and my colleagues enjoyed it too.

Although I miss being in the garden once autumn comes, it's nice to be in the kitchen a bit more doing the kind of cooking I don't tend to do in the summer. Now I have to go and do a pile of washing up, so I'll leave you with a picture of sunset over suburbia.

Sunday, 31 October 2010

50 Stories for Pakistan - out now!

50 Stories for Pakistan is now available to order from Blurb. Profits go to the Red Cross to help victims of the recent floods.
Well done to Greg McQueen for co-ordinating another brilliant fundraising project.

Saturday, 23 October 2010

Things I'm noticing this autumn...

The low sun making dark shadows and warped reflections. This is a shadow of the honesty I picked from the garden, and some of my blue glass bottles. I love coloured glass. And it doesn't have to be expensive glass. A Bristol Cream sherry bottle is beautiful when seen against the light!

For fifty weeks of the year the Virginia Creeper is a complete pain in the wotsit. It doesn't creep, it rampages, smothering the lilac tree and threatening the border beneath. But for a fortnight in autumn the crimson leaves are just stunning.

Firethorn berries. I'm told birds eat red berries first, then orange and lastly yellow. This seems true in my garden as the wood pigeons have stripped all the red berries from the cotoneaster next to this bush, but so far they haven't touched the Firethorn at all. The blackbirds always go for the Firethorn, but so far they must be finding something more appetising.

Dewy cobwebs. Isn't nature amazing? All the spider wants to do is catch its food. And look what it creates in the process.

Skeletal seedheads.

I didn't think the trees looked as heavy with apples this year. Once we started picking I realised how wrong I was. I took three boxes from the lower branches, then our neighbours came with their ladders and picked a further fourteen boxes! On the side of our house is what my mother would call a lobby, but people down here seem to call a utility room. For several days it smelt like a cider factory while I found homes for all the apples.

Monday, 18 October 2010

'Sweet Friends' award

Oh look, Ellie Garratt gave me a 'Sweet Friends' blog award! Thank you Ellie, I am highly honoured!

There are lots of people I have come to think of as friends since I started this blogging lark. In a moment I'll have to identify six of them to pass the award onto.

But first, as a condition of accepting this award, I have to tell you six things about my writing:

1. I could give up writing more easily than I could give up gardening.

2. When I'm writing I drink too much tea, but there are worse vices in life.

3. I have three different kinds of thesaurus and use them all.

4. I can only write first drafts in longhand, not on computer.

5. If I'm cold I can't concentrate. Other than that I can write almost anywhere.

6. I don't plan much, but I often cut out pictures from magazines that relate to the story that's in my mind.

And so (drum roll...) I now have to spread the lurve and give the 'Sweet Friends' award to another six people. If they would like to share six things about their writing, their blogging, their Olympic ambitions or whatever then please feel free to do so. If not... oh hell, just have the award!

1. Margo Berendsen at Writing at High Altitude

2. Laraine at Larainy Days

3. Karen at Get on with It

4. Bazza at To Discover Ice

5. Joanna Campbell at Brightwriter60

6. Teresa Ashby at A Likely Story

Saturday, 16 October 2010

Afternoon Tea with Robert Goddard

Recently friends and I enjoyed 'Afternoon Tea with Robert Goddard' - an event held as part of the Warwick Words literary festival.

Robert Goddard's first novel, 'Past Caring', appeared in 1986. He followed this with a further twenty books, many with historical settings, blending mystery and adventure into complex plots. His latest novel is 'Long Time Coming'.

Robert spoke for around an hour to a packed hall. He began by telling us how he used to imagine that being a writer would be a glamorous life. Experience has since taught him that it is more a life of hard work and invention. I am always amazed at how novelists consistently come up with new ideas over a period of so many years. So where does Robert find those ideas? News stories can be a source of inspiration, he suggested, particularly those where ordinary people become involved in crime. Murder seems especially fascinating to readers. Robert asked whether this is because we can imagine circumstances where we might be tempted to commit it ourselves. History, which Robert studied at Cambridge, also has endless possibilities for plot ideas.

In response to questions from the audience, Robert talked about his process of plotting a novel. He said that while he does continue to plot in some detail before starting to write, often the story can change as the characters evolve. I liked his tip for finding names for his characters - study the gravestones in cemeteries! Robert revealed that one of his own favourite novelists is crime author Michael Dibdin. And a final thought for writers: imagination needs to be trained and exercised through regular use. The more you do this, the easier the writing will come.

Following the talk my friends and I had some fabulous cake, and agreed that Robert Goddard had been a very funny and entertaining speaker. I would definitely recommend seeing him in person if you have the opportunity. Thank you Robert for such an enjoyable afternoon.

For more about Robert Goddard, his website is here.

Saturday, 2 October 2010

Jo interviews Angela Pickering

Today I am delighted that short story writer Angela Pickering has agreed to answer a few questions about herself and her writing.

Angela lives in Essex, and her stories regularly appear in such magazines as Take a Break's Fiction Feast, My Weekly, Woman's Weekly, Yours, The Weekly News, That's Life (Australia), People's Friend, and in the small press. Her competition successes include winning the Annual Ghost Story Competition run by Writers' News in 2006, and also two of their monthly competitions.

So, Angela, welcome to Zigzag Road and can you tell us how long you've been writing?

I have written on and off since I was a child. I used to take episodes of a rambling tale set in Russia to school on a weekly basis and make my friends read them. I also wrote a few ghost stories and then there was that little hand written, hand illustrated magazine called 'Quest' that survived for two issues.

Then life got in the way and I didn't take up the pen again until 2000 when someone I met at work mentioned a writing group she'd joined. "I always wanted to be a writer," I said and she took me at my word. Everything spiralled from there. I shall always be grateful to the writer, Carol Purves, who dragged me along to my first meeting.

Are you someone who plans out stories before beginning to write, or do you like to plunge straight in and see what develops?

Both, actually. Mostly I simply start writing from a title, a character or just a vague idea and see where it leads me. Sometimes the beginning and the end are already set in my head when I start. It's rare that I have a whole story before I begin, but it does happen.

A lot of your stories feature ghosts and hauntings. How do you come up with so many spooky ideas?

I've always been a fan of the strange and spooky tale. My family thought me a strange child, especially when I announced that I'd seen fairies in my bedroom. So it's a question of writing what one loves. My best ideas seem to arrive in that strange time between waking and sleeping. I try to write them down in the notepad beside my bed, but sometimes I think they're so brilliant that I'm sure I'll remember them, and then I don't.

How do you fit writing into your schedule alongside the demands of work and family life?

This is the difficult one. I'm lucky in that I only work part-time, but trying to keep on top of the house and garden in between work shifts means I live my life in a state of perpetual confusion. I call it 'spinning like a top'. I expect everyone calls it something different. Writing is what I do to make myself happy so when I've got a good idea, I drop everything else apart from the washing and ironing. A family of five needs a lot of clean clothes. When I'm not writing though, I'm generally thinking about writing. Many's the tale that has been born over the ironing board.

Imagine you can have lunch with any writer, living or dead. Who would it be and what would you ask them?

I can't choose here between my first hero M.R. James and the amazing Stephen King. In either case the question that springs to mind is "Will you marry me?" To be honest though, I expect I'd be so awestruck that the power of speech would be denied me. I might just curtsy instead and then tremble in their presence. I wouldn't be eating the lunch either.

And finally, have you any advice for newer writers?

Yes, it's this. Love to write. If it's not your passion don't do it. Writing is like breathing to some of us; once you start you can't stop. This passion is what will keep you going when the rejections come through the letter box like confetti. This passion is what will one day see your work in print and if you have it don't waste it. Write. (And join a writing group, read a lot and maybe do courses as well.)

Thank you Angela for these words of inspiration! It's been a real pleasure to discover more about you.

Sunday, 26 September 2010

50 Stories for Pakistan

After the success of '100 Stories for Haiti', Greg McQueen is putting together another fundraising anthology. This time it is in response to the floods that devastated the lives of so many people in Pakistan this summer.
My story, 'A Little Bit of Heaven', is one of those accepted for inclusion in the latest book. I feel incredibly lucky to be picked again, and will of course keep you updated with progress on '50 Stories for Pakistan'.

Monday, 20 September 2010

Make 'em laugh!

I confess I find humour difficult to write. For one thing, it is so subjective. I'm afraid of sounding artificial or strained if I deliberately try to be funny. When I think about what makes me laugh, the humour tends to arise out of a combination of characters, rather than just being a witty one-liner. Take Basil Fawlty, for instance. Always in trouble and frustrated by those around him. However many times I watch Fawlty Towers, it always has me in stitches.

In fiction, there is a moment in one of Anne Tyler's novels where a character accidentally shoots his mother with an arrow. (Non-fatal, I must add!) I read Anne Tyler's books over and over, but every time I come to that particular section, I cry with laughter. It's not only the incident itself, but the way all the characters interact.

I've concluded that the challenge of writing humour is setting up that whole situation by going back to the basics of character building. What do these characters have in common, and how are they different? There you begin to see that potential for humour in how they will bounce off each other.

The reason I'm thinking about humour today is that I've been reading judges' reports on some of the bigger writing competitions in recent years. Several times I've seen judges comment on a general lack of humour in the entries. For example, Tracy Chevalier, after judging the Bridport Prize in 2007, said she wished the entrants had been "jollier about it"!

So why the focus on gloom, doom and death? Ok, we are in a recession and the news is pretty depressing. Maybe we think a funny story will be too lightweight for the judges and won't impress as much as a serious one. But every story needs some light and shade, and just because a story is humorous doesn't mean it cannot also have a serious theme.

If you are blessed with the gift of humour, making judges and editors smile could be a point in your favour. We all need a laugh sometimes, don't we?

Thursday, 16 September 2010

An autumn sniffle

Don't you hate it when you have a few days off work, only to feel yourself going down with a cold the moment your freedom begins? I love September, but my Loved One has generously shared the first of his autumn sniffles with me. Luckily I don't have anything too urgent I have to do. I just about have enough energy to noodle around on Farmville and browse eBay for Shelley plates!

Anyway, I did have a short story published in the September issue of small press magazine Delivered. I just wish I felt up to starting something new. I think I'll go and get a hot water bottle to stuff down my jumper.

Saturday, 11 September 2010

Feet and drawers

When I went to Derby recently I was intrigued by a new shop, where women were sitting with their feet in glass tanks filled with water. I asked my friend what it was. "It's a place where you go to have fish nibble your feet," she told me.

I am such a sad, out-of-touch person that I hadn't heard of this latest craze. A special type of fish cleans up all that horrid dead skin around your tootsies, apparently. When I mentioned this to someone at work, she said her friend had done it and it was £10 for 15 minutes. Or it might have been £15 for 10 minutes. I can't quite remember which, as the very thought made me cringe. If you can bear to watch, a brave BBC reporter tries it out for herself here.

And this week I've heard about another funny fad. A colleague told me about somebody she knows who has refused to get married next year, because 2011 is an odd number. She went on to tell me that a lot of younger people now think all odd numbers are unlucky. Her own daughter will only have the volume on the radio at an even number. Goodness - folk do make life hard for themselves!

I'd love to know how this superstition came about. And also, if anyone has tried the fish thing do let me know what it was like.

Finally, I was rooting in a secondhand shop today, and a chest of drawers made me smile. Not that I wanted to buy it, but I liked the label sellotaped to its top. 'Chester draw'. If you say it out loud, that does sound like chest of drawers, doesn't it.

Sunday, 29 August 2010

The future of libraries

Oh, I have neglected Blogland for the past week. Apologies for not keeping up with you all, but between work and writing, I visited my old hometown of Derby. It's funny how places seem really big when you're small.

This library was the one nearest to where we lived.

By the age of about twelve I had read my way through the children's section, and was motoring on through the adults'. I'm sure we could not have afforded to buy as many books as I borrowed. The local library was really central to nurturing my love of reading, which led to my love of writing.

I realise (now I am big) that our library was actually very small. Seeing in the news this week that library services are threatened with cutbacks, I worry for the future of libraries such as this one. Apparently, visitor numbers are generally falling. But according to the report, over 70% of children continue to use their local libraries, which is a pretty good reason for keeping them open I would say.

Of course we need our health services, our police force, our transport system etc, etc. But we also need our libraries! I am willing to chain myself to a railing should the need arise.

P.S. I must make it clear that the library pictured is NOT the one mentioned in my previous post (before you all go down there requesting books on divination and sharks).

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Quote of the day

Overheard in the library:

Librarian: "Just don't read it when you're over water."

Customer: "What, not even in the bath?"

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

Blog takeover day : Harvey's humongous fungus

Mrs Boss says she's never known a Retriever get into as much trouble as me. Unfair! Was it my fault I fell down the stairs last week? I was responding to a crisis - namely, the sound of breaking glass and shouting. And what did I find when I landed with undue haste in the hall?

Mr and Mrs Boss had only gone and cracked the glass panel in the front door while trying to shift the old sofa out of the house. They were having a right old ding dong about who was to blame! Humans - honestly! Didn't they know I was on a mission to make that sofa mine. Yes I know I already have the best armchair, but sometimes a dog needs a little more space, you know?

I think Mrs Boss was still a mite tetchy after I tore through the fence the other week and destroyed two tennis balls belonging to the neighbours' grandchildren. A fortnight before that, I conquered the hedge on the opposite side and gave the other neighbours a scare. Mrs Boss says in ten years at Zigzag Road no Retrievers have ever escaped before. Well, that's hardly a record to boast about is it?

Anyway, on Sunday I tried to make amends to Mrs Boss by bringing her a present. I thought it was a ball. Mrs Boss thought it was a ball too. But when she picked it up she gave a shriek (not unlike the pesky parrot that keeps sitting on my fence). The item in question was bigger and heavier than she expected. "It's a humongous fungus," said Mrs Boss. Though you can see from the picture below that it does look similar to the ball they bought me in honour of the World Cup.

Mrs Boss says it's a good job I hadn't done more than take a nibble from the edge. In the hope of identifying exactly what the humongous fungus was, Mrs Boss cut it up. She thought it might be like the puffballs she used to collect for cooking on country walks. In fact, the fungus was totally solid...

Do let me and Mrs Boss know if you can tell us what it is. It smelt strongly of mushroom, it was quite spongy in a dense kind of way, and there was no stalk.

That's it from me.

With lots of wuff, Harvey. xx

P.S Mrs Boss forgot to tell me to add a link to Sally's blog. Apparently Sally is the one co-ordinating all this blog takeover stuff. I hear that if you shoot on over there you can find links to posts by writers' muses, husbands, and even (shock, horror) other dogs!

Monday, 9 August 2010

The writer's voice (mainly)

Yesterday I happened to hear one of my favourite authors, Tracy Chevalier, on BBC Radio 3. She was the guest on a programme called Private Passions, which is a bit similar to Desert Island Discs. A famous person discusses their life, and chooses a selection of music that has been significant to them in some way.

I learnt a lot about Tracy Chevalier during the show. She spoke about her most recent novel, Remarkable Creatures, based on the true story of fossil hunter Mary Anning. Tracy compared the process of hunting for fossils to that of writing - slowing yourself down into the right mental state, until you can pick out the things you are searching for. I also learnt that Tracy played clarinet from the age of eight, back home in Washington where she grew up. For a time she was even a member of the D.C Youth Orchestra. The thing I found most interesting was that she described how, in almost every novel she writes, she has a female character with a "woody, clear, straightforward sound", like a clarinet. This 'clarinet character' is always the one most like Tracy herself - the one whose voice is most akin to her own.

Tracy's musical choices played during the programme included Schubert, Brahms, Bernstein, and Talking Heads. If you want to hear the programme in full, it is available on the BBC iPlayer until next Sunday morning at - there are a few moments of talking before it actually starts, but just let it run and you will find yourself at the correct place. If you are outside the U.K I'm unsure whether this link will work, but I think there is still some process that does allow you to listen. It's well worth investigating!

By coincidence, soon after hearing this programme, I read an excellent blog post called How Writers Found Their Voice: Real Examples, by Margo Berendsen at Writing at High Altitude. I won't try to summarise it, as Margo has already covered the subject so well that you're better off reading it for yourself. There are lots of links to other writers' ideas about what voice is and what we can do to develop it.

My own opinion is that we only find our voice by writing lots. The more we write, the closer we get to arriving at that distinctive feel that makes our work our own. As I commented on Margo's blog, the stories that do well for me are usually the ones that I write totally as myself - not aiming to please or impress. Often they are also the ones most rooted in my own memories, or in my experience of working in mental health. Voice is such an elusive thing, and hard to define, but sometimes I know I am getting near to it even if I am not quite there yet. For me, discovering that voice is one of the joys of writing.

Sunday, 1 August 2010

Meg Rosoff and a plethora of parrots

On Thursday night I finished 'How I Live Now'. I can't tell you what Meg Rosoff did to my mind and my emotions during the course of that book. I felt as if I'd been put through a mangle. It was startling, addictive, and disturbing, and made me wonder how on earth the writer found the initial ideas.

When I was away from the book I found myself thinking wasn't it sad that such and such happened, but then I would remember it was 'just' a story. It was one of those books that became so real to me while I was reading it, that it was almost more real than the world around. I love books that do that to me - totally absorb me and take me to an entirely different place. I'm not going to tell you anything else about it, in case you haven't read it yet. You may love it or you may hate it, but either way I bet you won't forget it.

When I reached the end of 'How I Live Now', I was tempted to go right back to the beginning and start again. But I decided I should let it all settle in my mind, and so I decided to re-read Meg Rosoff's most recent novel 'What I Was'. Another terrific book. I often find I read books too quickly the first time as I want to know what happens, but the second time I slow down and notice the quality of the writing more. I've also been enjoying reading Meg Rosoff's blog here.

Regular visitors to Zigzag Road will know we've had a stray parrot-type bird in the area. It seems stray parrots are like buses, arriving in threes after a lengthy spell with none to speak of at all. Letters to the local newspaper report various sightings of our parrot, with suggestions that it may be a Crimson Rosella as I suspected. A second parrot has been seen a few streets away, but this one is green. And now a third parrot is on the loose. He is allegedly called Dylan and escaped while his owner was staying with friends in the area. My parrot (right) was 99p in a charity shop. He has no name. Perhaps you would like to suggest one.

Thursday, 29 July 2010

'How I Live Now'

One of my Sunday boot sale bargains was Meg Rosoff's first novel 'How I Live Now'. I sped through half of it last night, and woke up this morning just desperate to continue. Unless I'm on holiday, reading is my evening pleasure, so I am holding off until later before I pick up the book again. Much as I'm dying to know the ending, part of me doesn't want to get there! Awesome is not a word I often use but today I'm going to use it. Awesome!

Sunday, 25 July 2010

Quote of the day

Seen embroidered on a cushion:

"The important things in life are not things."

Thursday, 15 July 2010

On the shelf

I'm on the shelf this week. To be exact, in the July 20th Woman's Weekly with a short story called 'Conversations with Jenna'.

Today I've been writing at the museum. I enjoyed it. No-one took any notice of me, or if they did then they probably assumed I was an art student or something. I came home with several pages of scrawled notes, both about the exhibits and the visitors. People watching is endlessly fascinating isn't it.

Another thing I found fascinating was the museum's 'Adopt an Object' scheme to raise funds. Depending how much you want to spend you can adopt a pearl button, an ancient Egyptian funerary mask, a wedding dress from 1891, a portrait of Oliver Cromwell, and several other paintings which would not look out of place on my living room wall. That's my Christmas shopping sorted then!

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Word Pool Wednesday

It's the last Word Pool Wednesday today, as Ellie is going to concentrate on her other writing projects. Good luck Ellie! And thanks also for running the Wednesday challenge. I can honestly say it has prompted some new ideas which wouldn't have come to me otherwise.

Anyway, today's words are kitty, charity, and donation. As ever, it's got to be a mini-story in 33 words. I'm off to work now so I'll be back later to catch up on comments and other entries for today's challenge. Are you sitting comfortably? Then I'll begin:

"Stick your charity," squawked Kitty Malone, Cockney sparrow of the music hall. "I ain't put my 'at there for donations!"

"Keep it," replied the gentleman. "They say talking pictures are coming to town."

Saturday, 10 July 2010

A competition

Just popping in to pass on news of a writing competition run by Claire Apps at her website Creative Writing for All. The theme is domestic violence and any profits made will go to Women's Aid. There are short story and poetry categories. Prizes in each category are £70, £35, £20. Closing date November 30th 2010.

Wednesday, 7 July 2010


It's not a great picture. I had to take it from the kitchen window and I only have an average zoom on my camera. But I had such a beautiful surprise yesterday evening when that mystery bird, which I mentioned in my previous post, appeared again in the garden.

The size is hard to judge in the photo, but it is bigger than a budgie and smaller than most parrots I've seen. Notice the vivid scarlet and blue of its feathers? Last night I looked on the Internet at all sorts of parrot-type birds. I found pictures of some birds called Crimson Rosellas. Their red and blue plumage looks very similar to that of our bird and I am now wondering if that's what it is. Maybe someone more knowledgeable than me will be able to identify it. I hope it's enjoying life on the wild side.

Apologies to Ellie at Diving in the Word Pool as I did not manage the Wednesday challenge this week. I've been working on a new story which is quite different from anything I've written before. Perhaps you know the feeling of having an idea right at the edge of your mind and reaching out to try to catch it (rather like catching a mystery bird!). I'm afraid to let that idea get too far away from me in case I lose the thread. I'll feel better once I've finished the first draft.

Meanwhile, in any idle moment I find myself gazing out of the window, seeking another glimpse of our unusual visitor. Here birdie, birdie...

Saturday, 3 July 2010

It's that frog again

Can you see him? He is right in the centre of the picture. This week we also had a vivid red and blue parakeet type bird in the garden! Sorry I was not quick enough to snap a photo, but I'm keeping my eyes peeled for another sighting.

Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Word Pool Wednesday (3)

It's Wednesday's challenge at Diving in the Word Pool again. 3 words to work into a 33 word mini-story. This week's words were dragon, fly, and knight. Here goes...

Father called the queen a dragon. In his hand she'd fly round the board, crushing knights and bishops. He always won. Until mother died. And then I found no triumph in my victory.

Sunday, 27 June 2010

Tennis with subtitles

When I got home from work yesterday I found our new TV had been delivered, and everything was functioning just fine. Somehow, between then and the start of Andy Murray's match at Wimbledon, we lost the sound. Oh, for the days when we had a volume knob on the TV which you could actually turn up and down without a 32 page manual to tell you how!

Scared to fiddle too much in case we lost the picture as well as the sound, I turned on the subtitles so at least we could see a little of the commentary. I am intrigued to know if the subtitles are done by some kind of voice recognition, because they had the air of predictive text messaging. Words - but not as we know them. For instance we had gems such as:

"A change of brackets."

"Dodging the smashing."

"Played a nervous shock."

The subtitles were refreshingly free in their use of exclamation marks! And did they mind using a question mark and an exclamation mark together?! No! I also noticed some of the commentators' remarks, which might normally have passed me by, were really quite poetic:

"The sun is setting on Simon's challenge."

And I liked how very few words could be used to convey a dramatic situation, which should be a lesson to those of us who like to flirt with flash fiction now and then:

"Umpire: game, set, match, Murray."


"His mum is thrilled."

Yes, I think sport with subtitles could become an interesting feature of my summer. Meanwhile, here is a photo of the prettiest bit of my garden at the moment. I'm calling it tea house corner.

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Wednesday's words

Gosh - where did that week go? It's time to post my entry for this week's microfiction challenge on Diving in the Word Pool. This week's words of inspiration were: countryside, rose, and sunshine. So here is my attempt in the 33 words allowed. I'm not sure if it qualifies as a story but I tried to make it suitably seasonal...

Rose snored in the sunshine.

"Bet she's dreaming of chasing rabbits in the countryside," Amanda said.

Rose, though, was a city dog, dreaming city dreams. What were rabbits compared with postmen? In shorts!

Thursday, 17 June 2010

Word Pool Wednesday

Yes I know it's now Thursday and I apologise for being a day late with this! Ellie Garratt at her lovely new blog 'Diving in the Word Pool' has had a terrific idea. Each Wednesday she will post 3 words. Our task is to use one, two or even all three of those words to make a story. The story cannot be longer than 33 words in total. See Ellie's blog for fuller details.

Yesterday's words were: seaside, liner, and port.

So below is my attempt in 33 words, with apologies also for rubbishness. I'm sure I will improve at this challenge with more practice.

Max dreaded the morning-after scene in the squalid seaside hotel. But his relief at waking alone was tainted by the message scrawled in eyeliner across the mirror. "Any port in a storm."

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

I'm going Australian

It's always exciting to have a story accepted. And extra-specially-exciting when the acceptance is from a magazine which hasn't published anything of mine before. So, as you can imagine, this week I am extra-specially-super-duper-excited that Australian magazine That's Life wants to use one of my stories. Australia - I love you!

I'm also off to a big gardening show on Thursday called BBC Gardeners' World Live, at the N.E.C near Birmingham. That's pretty exciting too.

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Quote of the day

In a letter from the bank this morning:

"We've had a fantastic year, therefore your share of the profits is £2."


Sunday, 6 June 2010

Warwick Castle

I had hoped to use one of my photos from this week's trip to Warwick Castle to update my profile picture. This one might be OK when I've cropped it. (I'm on the right.) Warwick bills itself as 'Britain's ultimate castle', which is quite a statement. But there really is loads to see and do. And if you use 2 for 1 vouchers from the Radio Times, as we did, then it's not bad value for a day's entertainment.

Jousting takes place during Whitsun week, and then for the schools' summer holidays. Health and safety rules being stricter than they were in the medieval period, you have to watch the jousting from the opposite bank of the river. But there is plenty of time afterwards to see horses and jousters up close.

If you're feeling energetic you can climb the castle walls to see the views across Warwickshire. The big wooden structure on the left of this picture is a replica of a medieval weapon called a trebuchet. We didn't stay late enough to see it in action, but it's used to hurl flaming missiles through the air!

This morning we had a sparrow in the bedroom and I was in such a panic. The whirring noise of little birds' wings always does that to me. But anything bigger than a parrot and I am fine. At Warwick they have fantastic displays of falconry. I'd have liked to get decent photos of this display but I was too busy gasping at the huge wingspans of the vulture and the American eagle as they swooped in low over our heads.

There are also lots of quiet corners, like the Rose Garden, where you can recover the use of your legs from all the walking.

And see odd things that you wouldn't expect.

And so a good time was had by all!

Sunday, 30 May 2010

Birmingham Book Festival's 'Spring Thing'

What a brilliant idea to stage a mini-festival in a day. Birmingham Book Festival's main event takes place in October, but yesterday two friends and I attended their 'Spring Thing' at the Birmingham Conservatoire.

This venue is a short walk from what we know as the 'Floozie in the Jacuzzi' (left). The fountain has been dry for some months, but happily the floozie has now had her water turned back on. Yesterday I noticed how nice it is to hear the water racing down those steps in the city centre. But enough about floozies, and onto subjects more literary.

When we arrived at the Conservatoire we were so disappointed to see a poster about last minute changes to the programme. One of my favourite writers, Helen Dunmore, was sadly unable to appear. Also off the menu was Jenn Ashworth. Best wishes to Helen and Jenn, and I hope I may be able to see them in person at some other writing event.

But a big 'well done' to the organisers, who found fantastic writers to fill the vacant slots. Two of these were Judith Allnatt and Clare Clark, who opened the day with a discussion about their most recent novels.

Judith Allnatt spoke about her book 'The Poet's Wife', and also read a short extract. Judith explained how she found inspiration for this novel from reading letters written by nineteenth century poet John Clare during the years he spent in an asylum. As a consequence of his mental ill health, John Clare suffered a delusion that in addition to being married to his wife he was also married to his childhood sweetheart. Judith used this as the foundation for her novel, telling the story from the viewpoint of the poet's actual wife, Patty. This sounded fascinating, and I immediately wanted to read the book for myself.

Next, Clare Clark talked about her latest novel, 'Savage Lands', and again read an extract. This book is set in eighteenth century Louisiana, and was another intriguing subject. Clare had read how French women were shipped out to Louisiana (then a French colony) to marry men they had never before met. Young French cabin boys were also left behind there to act as spies. Clare told us how these two viewpoints captured her interest and became the basis for her novel.

In discussion, both writers talked about the process of research. Judith said research could throw up some real gems of information, but it could also present problems for the novelist. For example, in preparing to write 'The Poet's Wife' she realized she would have three historical characters significant to the story who shared the name John. She got round this by referring to one by his surname, and another by the nickname of Jack. Clare said she tended to research in a fairly unstructured way, until the story crystallized around her reading. This struck a chord with me, as I like the thought of trusting the story to lead you rather than starting out with too fixed an idea of where it will go.

The second session featured a panel discussion with writers Samantha Harvey, Aifric Campbell, and Amanda Smyth.

Aifric Campbell read from her recent novel 'The Loss Adjustor', and described how this was originally inspired by a sense of loss in a house where she had lived.

Samantha Harvey read from 'The Wilderness', a novel which centres on a man suffering Alzheimer's disease. She told us how she wanted to explore how our memories hold us together, and what happens to us when we begin to lose these.

Amanda Smyth read the opening passage from her first novel 'Black Rock'. I found it particularly interesting to hear her talk about her inspiration for this as I had read the book myself in the last few weeks and it was still fresh in my mind. Amanda has a mixed family background of Irish and Trinidadian. She spoke about a family mystery concerning the murder of her great-grandfather back in Trinidad, which she intended to base this book upon. However as she began to write she found herself also influenced by stories told to her by her relatives in Trinidad and the book took another direction from the one she had intended. (I must also say that Amanda had very nice shoes.)

The three discussed the theme of loss, which is present in different ways in their novels.

Aifric made a very good point about how loss is part of life and can also be part of our growth. She touched on how we live in a therapeutic culture which often views loss as a problem to be treated, rather than as a natural event in human experience.

An excellent question from a member of the audience was whether these three writers had to give themselves permission to write. I'm sure many of us who do write have had mixed reactions from other people, and perhaps found our friends and families see our writing as just a hobby until we are lucky enough to be published. I also see a lot of debate on blogs and message boards about what constitutes a proper writer.

I liked Samantha's reply, that writing is an activity and inspiration comes from doing it rather than from waiting around to be inspired. Aifric's response was refreshingly simple. She said you are a writer when you are holding a pen.

After a lunch break the next guest on stage was writer and broadcaster Stuart Maconie. Stuart was a very funny and entertaining speaker, and woke us all up for the afternoon. He spoke about what makes a 'Northerner', and how he tried to discover the answer to this by writing his second book, 'Pies and Prejudice'. More recently he has moved on to trying to define so-called middle England in 'Adventures on the High Teas'. Questions from the audience focused on these issues of identity, and Stuart answered them with humour as well as insight.

At the end of Stuart's session we had a brief introduction by Jo Bell and David Calcutt to a very exciting writing project called Bugged. Do go to the website for more information (after you finish reading this). It's a project we can all take part in, and I am already looking forward to it.

Jo Bell stayed on stage to read some of her wonderful poems. I admit I knew nothing about her as I do not tend to follow poetry as much as fiction. I was so impressed by her work that I now really want to read more.

Interspersed with Jo's poems were readings by Nick Walker from a short story which appeared in an anthology published by Birmingham's Tindal Street Press called 'Roads Ahead'. Nick is a playwright, screenwriter and novelist, and had stepped in to fill the gap in the programme left by Jenn Ashworth. He was fearless and engaging in his delivery of his story, about events in the life of an escapologist working in a booth on a railway platform. Again we were laughing until the seats shook.

For the final session of the day, a silence fell across the room as Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy appeared. She read some poems from her book 'The World's Wife', and told us how she still feels close to this particular collection even though it is now ten years old. She went on to read some more recent poems, including ones about the death of her mother. One of her comments I found interesting was that as a poet you look at something which seems incoherent and through the process of writing you find a clarity. I think that can apply to fiction too.

By the time we left the 'Spring Thing' and walked back out into the rain, I felt we'd had a thoroughly enjoyable and fulfilling day. I had discovered new writers and seen some I already knew about.

My motivation levels for my own writing had certainly been topped up. I can't wait to see the programme for the Birmingham Book Festival's main event in the autumn. I'm sure we'll be booking up for something.

The Festival also runs a short story competition, deadline July 10th (my wedding anniversary!). It is on the theme of loss. Details will be posted on their website in the next week.

Thursday, 27 May 2010

Seize the day!

My Loved One has just informed me there is a Test Match starting today. Oh joy! (For those of you who don't know me, I am being ironic here.) I know I can hardly complain about cricket, when I've been watching T.V. coverage of the Chelsea Flower Show the whole week.

A few days ago a lady was telling about all the places she dreamed of visiting when she was young. The Taj Mahal. The Grand Canyon. The Great Wall of China. In her eighties now, she knows she will never see any of them. "Don't put things off," she said. "Whatever you want to do, get on and do it!" Sound advice. And as a result I have decided to go to Chelsea in person next year, instead of sitting on my sofa, wishing I was there.

Whatever you are up to, seize the day.

Friday, 21 May 2010

What colour was your week?

A friend I clothes shop with often tells me she needs something in a certain colour. Not 'needs' in the sense of co-ordinating with the rest of her wardrobe. More 'needs' in that she just has to have that colour around her, as though it reflects how she is feeling or how she wants to feel. I know what she means. If I'm going into a situation where I want to be more confident I will wear red. Black is practical for work, but it drags me down. I am not buying anything new in black. For some reason lately I fancy something lilac, though it will clash with almost everything else I own. It's a shame yellow makes me look ill, because this week has definitely had a yellow theme.

This laburnum tree in my garden always has a good year followed by a bad one. Right now its long waterfalls of yellow flowers promise that this year will be spectacular.

My writing goes through good years and bad years too. 2009 was patchy, but 2010 has been pretty successful so far. Last week I was shortlisted in The Yellow Room magazine's spring competition, which was jolly nice. Not quite as nice as winning, but congratulations to those awarded prizes.

Around the garden two other plants have also caught my eye. Or should I say weeds? These splashy yellow poppies (left) come up everywhere.

And I probably shouldn't mention it with the Chelsea Flower Show starting next week, but I also have a healthy crop of dandelions. I do love their delicate seedheads, and can't bring myself to banish them completely from the garden. Beautiful, aren't they?

Sunday, 9 May 2010

Blossom blooming beautifully!

Not much to report this week. Oh yes, there was some voting going on. However at the time of writing, it is still unclear which merry band of pixies, elves, goblins and changelings will end up on the Top Toadstool.

Last night I finished 'A Spell of Winter' by the fabulous Helen Dunmore, whose every sentence is pure magic. I am looking forward to seeing her at the Birmingham Book Festival's 'Spring Thing' later this month.

And hasn't the blossom been wonderful?

Monday, 3 May 2010

Six things I learnt from Sophie King

Last Tuesday two writing friends and I tootled off to Stratford-upon-Avon's annual Literary Festival. Back in the dark days of February we'd booked our tickets for one of the Festival's events: "Writing workshop with Sophie King. How to use your memories to write fiction and non-fiction." At last the date had come around and I was so glad of the opportunity to see what I could learn from such a well published writer.

Sophie King is the author of five novels including The Supper Club and The Wedding Party, plus many short stories. Under her real name of Jane Bidder she has also had a very successful career in journalism and published several non-fiction books.

There were nine of us in the workshop and during the day we covered lots of ground with writing exercises and discussions. Now I've had time to reflect on it and sort out my pages of scrawled notes, here are six things I found particularly relevant to my own writing.

Treasure your memory. Without realizing it, we store away a huge fund of experiences, sensations and details. Tapping into our memories can enrich our writing and help us convey emotion. Asked to recall my first memory, I spoke about having a butterfly land on my foot when I was about three years old. I was so afraid of that butterfly that I screamed and screamed, as if it was the scariest thing to have happened in my young life. Perhaps it was the scariest thing. It certainly made a big impression. But now, as an adult, when I am writing about fear this is the kind of memory I can draw on to help me describe how fear actually feels. I could also use the butterfly incident to make a small scene in a novel, for instance if I wanted to change the mood of a happy, family afternoon into something darker.

Use the senses. We experience life through all five of our senses, but it's easy to concentrate on the visual and neglect the others. Our memories can provide details which bring a scene alive. To use my butterfly incident as an example again, I remember that my shoes were red, the butterfly was white, it was a warm summer's day in our garden at home. If I was using that memory in a piece of fiction I could really build up what it was like to be in that familiar, safe environment with the sounds and scents of the garden around me. Then when danger strikes (an innocent butterfly!) it would be even more of a shock by contrast.

Find the right trigger. Remembering our life's events is often a chain reaction. One memory sparks off another, and during the workshop I found myself thinking about incidents that I hadn't given a thought to in thirty years. Some triggers we discussed included Christmas, old films and music, the first time we did something new, or where we were when a big news story broke. Re-examining some of these memories may inspire a terrific idea, just waiting to be used. Photographs, letters and postcards can be great triggers for our memories too. Now I feel better about the bottom half of my filing cabinet being stuffed with memorabilia. I should put it into some sort of order, though. There are probably dozens of story ideas in there.

Write everything down. You can't always bring the right sort of memory to mind when you need it. And during the workshop, when I was asked to recall a funny event, I had something of a Hamlet moment. It's not as though my life's been empty of funny stories, but when put on the spot I just couldn't think of one. Of course when I got home I could have kicked myself. Why didn't I talk about such and such, and how could I forget about XYZ. It was like one of those occasions when you think of the perfect witty reply to someone's sarcastic comment, hours after it's too late to say it. We touched on how people can write their life stories, maybe organising events chronologically or in a 'Desert Island Discs' type format. But what I've thought since then is that I will try writing down my memories under themes, such as funny, sad, frightening, romantic. I think it would be a useful reference tool for my future writing.

There's more than one way to skin a sausage. Whenever I have an idea, I tend to ask myself how I can make it into a short story. But the workshop really showed me how the same memory can be used in several ways. Develop it one way and it may be a scene from a novel. Developed in another way, it could provide the theme for an article or even a non-fiction book. So how could my butterfly incident be non-fiction? Well, it would probably have taken me a week with an A4 pad of paper to see it, but Sophie King quickly spotted that it could be used to illustrate where phobias come from. One of the big advantages of having such an experienced writer leading the workshop was that she could give us many examples from her own fiction and non-fiction as to how to make best use of ideas. I think I could be much better at seeing alternative uses for my own ideas, particularly in non-fiction which I have not pursued much until now. We can all get into a comfort zone with our writing, as in any other area of life, but I do think it's good for us to try different things.

Write every day. I know we are told this all the time, but I also know how hard it can be. I often take a break from my writing when I am in between projects. But since I've been working on the novel again, I find it difficult to keep track of the threads of the story if I let a couple of days go by without looking at it. Even a quarter of an hour a day would help. It's not so much about what I can add to the word count in that time, but more to do with keeping the story simmering away in my mind. The workshop definitely reinforced that I must use bits of spare time constructively, rather than telling myself it's not worth starting if I only have fifteen minutes.

So, as you can see, I had a very thought provoking day in Stratford. I enjoyed it a lot, and everyone in the group was so generous in sharing their memories and ideas. It really fired up my motivation and I came away keen to put everything I'd learnt from the day into practice.

For more information about Sophie King and her work, please see her website.

Friday, 30 April 2010

A true and steadfast friend

I often read the births, deaths and marriages column in the local free newspaper. Partly I want to see if I know anyone. Occasionally I do recognise a name. And also, these announcements often contain little snippets of information that can spark off ideas for stories. But recently I read something that really made me stop and think.

Someone had put in an announcement in memory of their 'true and steadfast friend'. I thought, what a wonderful thing to have said about you. I mean, your family are pretty much obliged to call you their beloved this or sadly missed that. But no-one is obliged to call you a true and steadfast friend - unless you've really been that in life.

Here's to true and steadfast friends everywhere. Just so they know they are appreciated.

Monday, 26 April 2010

More tulips

My tulips in pots are still doing really well. I can say for definite that these ones are 'Red Riding Hood' because I planted them myself last autumn.

Friday, 23 April 2010

My camellias and Monty's roots

I know I've already shown you a picture of my camellia, but I couldn't resist posting another. It's never been as full of flowers as it has this spring.

A friend gave me this plant for my birthday a few years ago, and what a wonderful present it has proved to be. Sorry I've lost the label and can't tell you exactly what variety it is, but the flowers are double ones as I hope you can see.

For more about camellias, their history and care I just found a good article by Monty Don here. By co-incidence this week I've been reading Monty Don's book 'My Roots'. It came out in 2005 and is a selection of Monty's articles for The Observer newspaper from 1997 onwards. (A previous collection 'Gardening Mad' covered his earlier pieces.)

I've always seen Monty Don as one of those gardeners who has soil in their blood, rather like the late (and still missed) Geoff Hamilton. So, I was surprised to find out from 'My Roots' that originally Monty wanted to be a writer. As a child he wrote stories, plays, poetry and a journal.

Maybe this is why he always communicates his passion for gardening so well. Several of the pieces in 'My Roots' are ones I cut out of The Observer because they were just so interesting or poignant that I knew I'd want to read them again.

One of those moves me every time I read it. It's about Monty's elderly farmer friend. One year he planted daffodil bulbs with his granddaughter, telling her when he was up in heaven she would be reminded of him looking down on her at daffodil time. Tragically the granddaughter died at nineteen, and it was the grandfather left looking at the daffodils, thinking of her up in heaven.

Another really sad piece is about Monty burying his dog. But I don't want you to think it's all doom and gloom as there is so much joy and humour too. Monty's chickens constantly seem to be escaping and ruining precious plants. He describes so beautifully those fleeting moments when everything in the garden is peaceful and right. I get the sense that Monty's wife and children are at the heart of everything he does. His son's sheds, his daughter's sweet peas, and the trampoline they all bounce on are as much part of Monty's garden as his hundreds of tulips or his box topiary.

His footnotes often poke fun at himself, when, with the benefit of hindsight, he disagrees with whatever he said in his articles. "Pure pontification" is how he now sees one point he made, and another is "terribly O.T.T.". At the time Monty was writing for The Observer, garden makeover shows like Ground Force were all the rage. Monty was pretty scathing about those, and quite a few other things. Again his footnotes add perspective, recalling how he upset lots of people including the B.B.C, the National Trust, the R.H.S, garden centres and bat lovers.

I discovered Monty and I share a favourite gardening book, 'Derek Jarman's Garden', and I also learnt some new things, especially about fruit trees.

Monty's slot at The Observer is now occupied by the equally excellent Dan Pearson, but it's great to have so many of Monty's articles gathered together in 'My Roots'.

Ooooh, I'm so looking forward to Gardeners' World Live!

Saturday, 17 April 2010

Five questions (well, one of them anyway...)

A little while ago Suzanne Jones tagged me to answer 'Five Questions' about myself. Well, Suzanne, the weather has been so lovely I've been outside most of the last week rather than sitting at the computer. I've only come in today because that dog everyone thinks is so adorable broke through the hedge and escaped. Yes, I had to retrieve the retriever from next door! Talk about embarrassment.

And apologies again Suzanne, but I have such a lot to say about your first question that I'm not going to attempt the other four now. That question is: "Where were you five years ago?" Thank goodness 2005 was one of my more interesting years. Are you sitting comfortably? Because I just need to explain why my memories of 2005 really begin with 2004.

In summer 2004 I'd started writing again after a break of several years. I was unpublished, except for a handful of readers' letters. Of the things I still wanted to achieve, seeing one of my short stories in print was around the top of the list. When I submitted a story for the annual competition organised by 'Countryside Tales', a small press magazine from Park Publications, I expected another rejection. But I was wrong. Soon I heard that my story had won second prize of £25. To receive actual money for writing a story felt like a small miracle. But more important in the long run was the thrill of seeing my story printed in the magazine in the winter of 2004. I can't tell you what a difference it made to me. At least one person in the world believed my story was good enough to publish. That was all I needed to keep me writing and I will forever be grateful for that bit of encouragement.
So 2005 opened with me submitting more seriously, full of New Year's resolutions to prove my first success wasn't purely beginner's luck. But before the next significant event in my writing life, something completely different happened...

When I was a child my best friend lived round the corner, until emigrating with her family to Canada. For a while we lost touch. But through the wonders of the Internet I managed to contact her again in 2003. After 2 years of frequent emails, she invited me to visit Toronto in June 2005. The catch? I hate flying. It terrifies me. But I knew that if I turned down the opportunity I would regret it forever. So, I made myself get on the plane. I didn't exactly conquer my fear of flying, but I coped with it. And what a terrific holiday I had. Not only was it wonderful to see my friend and catch up on all our news, Canada was a fabulous experience. The C.N. Tower. Niagara Falls. Her dog jumping into Lake Ontario and needing 3 people to fish it out. (There's always a dog getting into trouble somewhere).

Travel broadens the mind, everyone says, and I am sure that it's true. I came home refreshed and with new perspectives. I wrote, wrote, wrote. And in September I had a phone call from Woman's Weekly. They wanted to buy a story. Gosh. If they bought it that meant I had sold it. Sold! I had sold a story! I was on some other planet whose name was Bliss. I know I'd had my readers' letters published, and my Countryside Tales story. But the truth was that I still wondered whether I was deluding myself that I could maybe write a little - you know - on a good day, with the moon in the right phase and a following wind. Wind? Was that the dog again?

Now I was on the shelves in all good newsagents, I needed to get organised. Personally I think that if you have a success with your writing, you should always treat yourself to some small thing to remember it by. Or even a big thing, depending on the size of the cheque. With some of my Woman's Weekly money I treated myself to a Filofax which I still use now. I'd like to say everything is colour coded and filed to within an inch of its life, but you wouldn't believe me anyway would you? But I do keep a list in there of deadlines, especially of competitions to enter and any publishers I've noticed asking for submissions for anthologies. For me, it's good to have deadlines to aim for. They help motivate me to finish stuff.
As for the rest of 2005, well, I was pretty much here. I applied for some jobs, went for some interviews, dug my garden and read loads of books. So all in all, life was good. I did have a different dog though, and I think the last picture should be his. Sam with his favourite Teletubbies ball. Much missed. (Sam, I mean. I still have the ball.)