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.