Crossroads

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I’ve come to a crossroads. I’d managed to finish two novels so far this year, both were sitting ready for editing, and I was waiting to hear whether the publisher of my first two books wanted the third or not.

Much to my disappointment, the answer was, on the whole, “not”.

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A door had closed in my face, which means that the two books I have already written are surplus to requirements and it’s unlikely that in their current form either will find a publisher. I thought about self publishing them, but as I saw the costs beginning to stack up, I realised that I’d have to be able to guarantee a LOT of sales to cover the cost of a structural editor, a copy editor, a proof reader, a cover designer, and, most crucially and most expensively, publicity …

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Cornwall. None of my books are set there. This may be an issue.

It was also becoming increasingly obvious to me that there are some staples of my chosen genre that don’t fit well with my writing style. I don’t write about cupcakes, gin, cosy cafes or Cornwall (I’ll be honest, the planned final instalment of  my Rawscar books had the unlikely working title of Killer Snake Rampage at the Cosy Kitty Cupcake Cafe!)

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Gin. I don’t like it.

I don’t want to stop writing, but cupcakes aren’t getting me anywhere.

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Cupcakes. Not getting me anywhere.

 

 

So, as the door of the Cosy Kitty Cupcake Cafe closes behind me, where do I go next?

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The Cosy Kitty Cupcake Cafe has closed its doors.

Well, I might as well write something completely different, something that I want to write, and crucially, something that I have the confidence to publish for myself. And I thought that along the way I might as well document my progress from idea to novel. It’s not exactly an original idea, but everybody’s writing journey is different.

So just as a hint, here’s a little clue as to where this new mystery novel might be set – I’ll warn you now, it’ a long way from Cornwall!

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 It’s a long way from Cornwall.

[All images from Pixabay]

 

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Will one otter ever be enough?

My bucket list has all gone a bit pear shaped. You all know the idea of a bucket list; a list of all the wonderful things that you want to do before you finally shuffle off this mortal coil. You do one of the things you tick it off the list and move on to the next one. Here’s mine:

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You’ll notice that three items are ticked, and that’s where my problems start, because the idea of a bucket list is that you tick something off and then move on to the next item, right? So, by now, I should be getting on with spotting otters and watching eggs. (I’ve tried several times with the hatching-egg thing. My best friend raises chickens from eggs in an incubator, and every time she has a batch on the go I get excited, only to find that they’ve all hatched overnight and I’ve missed them. Or I sit beside the incubator for ages, watching while nothing happens, and the minute I have to go home, out they all pop. They know, don’t they?)

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This, I have never seen. Not once. This is not my photo, I had to get one from Pixabay, because I have never seen a egg hatch.

But, the problems start with the things on the list that I have done, and it’s just happened again. This weekend I went to the Radio One Big Weekend, just to take the kids, you understand, because none of this was my kind of music, and the kind of music festival I had in mind for my bucket list was more the kind of hippy, folksy, dancing barefoot in the fields kind of festival. Everyone would wear flowers; there would be jugglers and someone would play an acoustic guitar beside a camp fire …

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Flowers in a field. Image from Pixabay, because I haven’t done this yet either.

The Big Weekend wasn’t going to be my kind of thing at all. It was all going to be music for the kids, and I’d be stuck at the back of a huge crowd in the rain, forced to listen to all the kinds of music that I hate – you know the kind of thing. Rap, screaming guitars, DJs with mixing desks, all of that … Why couldn’t I be listening to some nice girl with flowing hair and an acoustic guitar whilst I ate strawberries and wore flowers in my hair?

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A nice, flowing-haired girl in a field with acoustic guitar. Image from Pixabay, because I haven’t done this yet, either.

We get through the gates, some of the first in. The field is our oyster. “Where do you want to go first?” I asked my daughter, while my son went off to meet his friends.

“Stormzy.”

“Great!” I said, with a fixed smile. “Are you sure you wouldn’t rather go and hear Mumford and Sons?”

I was comfortable with Mumford and Sons, because they have acoustic guitars; much more my kind of thing. But  I was here for the kids, after all, so Stormzy it is, who, I was informed, is not merely rap, but grime. I sighed.  “Well, as we’re early, lets get right down the front …” So we did.

And I loved it.

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This is MY PHOTO of Stormzy and a camera man.

Not my kind of music at all, but the atmosphere, the intensity of performance, the crowd, all of it … it blew me away, and it went on from there. Very little of the music was what I would have chosen for myself, but I don’t think I heard anything that I didn’t enjoy. From new acts like  Rika, (who I’m sure will be a big name in the future) through superstars like Billie Eilish, (who was breathtakingly good) to local-lad-made-good James Arthur (who I’m SURE was playing with tears of pride in his eyes on a packed main stage).

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James Arthur in the rain, singing his heart out. Also my photo.

By the end of the evening, I’m in the middle of the crowd with my daughter, I’m surrounded by people half my age and I’m dancing and singing along with Miley Cyrus! Yes, me. Yes, dancing. Yes, Miley Cyrus. No, I’m not quite sure how it happened either … A music festival, and a tick off my bucket list.

Only it isn’t, is it? Because now I’ve done it once, I find that once isn’t enough. I even suggested to my daughter yesterday that maybe she needed to go to another music festival, and, as she’s only fourteen, I would just HAVE to take her, wouldn’t I?

And it was the same with Disney World, and it was the same with the novel. Once just wasn’t enough. I’ve now got about three writing projects on the go at once, and I just want to write all the time. All the time! Except, of course, when I find that I may be forced to take the kids to another music festival …

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Steadfast women

After more than ten years, the greatest television drama I have ever watched is returning for a final time. Deadwood ran from 2004-2006 and then finished, abruptly, without bringing a conclusion to any of the characters’ story-lines. Now, there’s going to be a film, finally providing the longed-for conclusion, which has made me think about the original series, and in particular, what might have happened to, for me, the most compelling character in the series. Martha Bullock.

Deadwood : the movie

I can hear everyone who watched Deadwood as passionately as I did yelling right now. “Martha Bullock? What’s wrong with you! You could have chosen Al Swearengen – he’s compelling. Alma Ellsworth – she’s romantic. Even Seth Bullock – he’s …. he’s Timothy Olyphant, goddamit, but you pick Martha Bullock?”

 

Yes. I pick Martha Bullock. She’s the kind of female character who very rarely gets portrayed with any level of sympathy in fiction of any kind – she’s a level headed, clear sighted, steadfast woman. She’s not feisty, flighty or flashy. She’s flawed – like all the characters created by David Milch; that’s what makes the drama so compelling – but she doesn’t fulfil any of the stereotypes of female characters which we are so used to encountering in modern fiction.

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The real Deadwood, South Dakota. Image from Pixabay.

Milch changed three very significant details from historical fact when he created his version of Martha Bullock. In reality, Seth and Martha were childhood sweethearts. In Deadwood Seth has married Martha, his brother’s widow, out of duty to provide for her, not from love. So in Milch’s Deadwood, Martha comes, unwelcome, to a man who doesn’t love her. In the series, she has a son, William Bullock, who never actually existed, but in Deadwood he is all she has to love, and all she has to tie her to the life that she has left behind. In reality, Martha stayed away from Deadwood until it was an established town, but Milch’s Martha arrives, isolated and unwanted, into the chaos and drama of an unformed settlement with no rules and no establishment. This puts her immediately into what seems an unbearable situation. Grieving for her husband, she comes to Deadwood to live with a man who she doesn’t love, leaving the security of family and friends she arrives as an establishment figure in a town with no establishment – no church, no school, and no law. Used to being surrounded by the structure of all three, she’s isolated from the moment of her arrival.

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Image from Pixabay.

Her arrival isn’t auspicious. She travels to Deadwood in a coach with prostitutes, she arrives to find her husband involved in a vicious brawl, and the only other woman of her own social class in Deadwood – her only logical choice for a friend in these circumstances – is involved in a passionate affair with Seth.

Martha’s first meeting with Alma Garrett (Seth’s lover) is a beautifully crafted scene. Martha, subtly and intensely played by Anna Gunn, knows instantly exactly what the state of affairs is between Seth and Alma. So we have a scene laden with tension and unspoken understandings, whilst, for possibly the first time in the entire series, everybody is constrained by the language and norms of society, imposed by Martha’s presence. Nobody swears in the entire scene. And, as is well known, what sets Deadwood apart from other shows set in this period is the cursing; the frontier language of the outlaw town. Now, suddenly, in Martha’s presence, words go unspoken and all the main characters struggle to speak coherently, let alone curse.

 

What sets Martha apart from so many other female characters, both in Deadwood and elsewhere, is her dignity. She doesn’t cry and trade on any signs of weakness to gain sympathy and understanding in a difficult situation. She doesn’t try to ingratiate herself.  She doesn’t fight against the situation she finds herself in; she could, with very good reason, turn on either Seth or Alma, but she doesn’t. She doesn’t shout, she doesn’t curse. Nor does she try and run away from it, either by leaving or losing herself (as Alma does) in drink or drugs, or even the arms of a man. Martha simply accepts the situation, and gets on with making the best of it with grace and dignity.

It’s not something that is currently regarded as an admirable trait in a female character. I recently read a book called The Man I fell in love with by Kate Field where the heroine, Mary Black, finds herself in a similarly difficult situation. Rather than “fight or flight”, Mary stoically gets on with making the best of things. She’s a fantastic, warm and real character who stands strong in a difficult situation, just like Martha. However, several reviews unfairly refer to Mary as a “doormat”. And they’re all missing the strength and beauty of Mary’s steadfast nature. When did we lose the ability to recognise the quiet dignity of endurance as a strength, not a weakness? When I look at our drama-driven society. I wish for a few more stoically enduring Mary Blacks and Martha Bullocks. Women like my mother, who endured cancer with nothing more than an occasional sigh of “oh dear me” when things got really bad.

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A steadfast woman. Image from Pixabay

So I stand firm in my admiration for Martha Bullock.

And what happens to Martha? Isolated and unwelcome in a hostile place, she does her best to carry on in her own way until a tragedy occurs (I won’t say quite what, just in case anyone hasn’t seen the series and wants to) and Martha continues trying to be dignified and stoical until … well, there comes a scene where she can’t manage it. It’s another scene of painful silences as characters are unable to speak to one another. She breaks, and falls, and then she is the one who breaks the silence. Finally she can accept Deadwood, and Deadwood can accept her as part of its community, because that’s what Deadwood is; a community of the fallen and the broken and the lost. Until she allows herself to fall, she can’t become part of it.

However, once fallen … well, thankfully, Martha hasn’t lost her steadfast nature. She brings that endurance and steadfastness to starting again, but now as part of Deadwood, rather than as an outsider. She is an important part of the forces which will create society out of the chaos of Deadwood, just as the real Martha Bullock did. There Milch does not choose to alter the facts.

So what lies ahead for Martha in the forthcoming movie? The trailer for Deadwood the Movie shows an older Martha; settled and comfortable, standing beside her husband, every inch a member of the establishment that she left when she came to Deadwood. I hope that whatever fate may throw at Martha in the forthcoming film, that she maintains her steadfast determination to face it calmly and with dignity – and without using any of those famous Deadwood swearwords!

 

Conflagration

The fire last night at Notre Dame was a spectacular and sobering reminder of the fragility of beauty and history, and how easily we can take buildings like this for granted. Every time such as significant historic building is damaged by fire it reminds me how quickly hundreds of years of heritage can be lost.notre-111248__340

When I was writing my last book “The Manor on the Moors” I knew from the start that at the heart of it there was going to be just such a devastating fire. I’d worked in historic buildings and I had always feared what would happen in such a building if a fire did break out.  I also did more research, looking at what happened to buildings such as Uppark, Windsor Castle, Hampton Court, Clandon Park and the Glasgow School of Art in the catastrophic fires which damaged or destroyed them. I pinned a lot of my imaginary fire on the plans that had existed for what might have be done if a fire ever broke out in the building where I worked.

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Firstly, the manual covers what staff must do if a fire breaks out – obviously the first priority is to clear the public and staff out of the building to safety. Then whoever is in charge takes a deep breath and starts to try and save what they can. The historic building will be full of treasures, usually only to be touched by specialist conservators wearing protective gloves and trained in how to handle such precious artefacts. In the case of Notre Dame, some of these were not just historically significant, but holy relics, precious to believers. Now, the fire brigade will locate and retrieve these treasures and they will be passed down a human chain to safety, and this won’t necessarily be a human chain of conservators and priests. At Uppark, a National Trust property, I remember reading that, amongst others,  vistors helped to form the chain that saved so much of the contents. Anyone and everyone available might be asked to pitch in; there’s no point in waiting for the specialists with their gloves, and someone who is revered enough to touch the relics; by then it may be too late to save anything. In “The Manor on the Moors” its the garden staff and the builders who save the books and the paintings from the library, taking them to a hastily erected tent where the tea room staff and some helpful volunteers from the local community wrap them in bubble wrap to be taken away to storage. One lady weeps as she realises that the painting she has admired from afar all her life is in her hands, cut from its frame as time ran out.blur-1867402__340

Then there comes a curious hiatus where there is nothing else to be done by the people who care the most about the building. There’s nothing in the disaster manual to cover this – the only thing to be done is to keep a safe distance. These are the images that were so clear last night; the people of Paris watching as Notre Dame burnt. The commentators at the scene commented on the silence amongst the spectators, watching, despair mingling with hope, waiting. Some believers prayed, some sang, because that is all that can be done. The fate of that historic building that had been part of the life of their city for 850 years is in the hands of some few hundred professional firefighters, and all that the people who care for the building can do is watch. Or not. In my book, Caroline, the owner, can’t bear to see what is happening. She disappears, and who can blame her?lost-places-3362240__340

In the morning, when the fire is out, that’s when the real work will start. Surveying what remains and trying to find the cause of the fire. Arranging for storage of the salvaged items and seeing what else, if anything, can be saved from the damaged buildings. This is the time for miracles – the golden cross hanging over the altar of Notre Dame still gleaming through the smoke. An ornate marble fireplace from Clandon Park, emerging white and whole from amongst the ash and debris. The oak panelling of Hampton Court, visible behind the fallen roof beams. The long task of restoration will begin, and the hope that new life can be restored to the damaged building.

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But never take the places you love for granted.

Isn’t she nice?

I’m facing a bit of a dilemma.

I’m not very good at writing about nice characters.

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Nice.

I tried. I tried really hard to make Alice, the heroine of “The Manor on the Moors”, a thoroughly nice person, her one flaw being an ever-so-slight (but utterly endearing) lack of confidence. She would develop confidence in spectacular style throughout the book to make her, by the end, practically perfect.  And then along came Caroline. She was meant to be the opposite of Alice’s niceness, throwing just what a lovely person Alice was into stark relief. She was meant to be mean, domineering and constantly cross to make Alice seem utterly lovely.

But the problem I found was – if your characters begin the book being thoroughly nice (or nasty) where have they got to go? If your main character is already beloved by all, pretty, intelligent and sweet, how can she grow?

Authors often say that when writing the characters take over, and this is what I allowed to happen. Flawed characters are much more interesting to write about than well rounded, happy characters, so Alice’s lack of confidence grew to be not just a tiny little flaw in her all-round general niceness, but a crippling problem that was going to ruin her life if she didn’t deal with it. I found I warmed to Caroline because of her awkwardness. I had to explain it, develop it and then show that there was more to her than a grumpy middle-aged woman constantly trying to tell other people what to do, but I couldn’t stop her being awkward. And I couldn’t stop her trying to take over ever scene she entered.

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Utterly lovely.

Instead of Caroline’s attitude making Alice seem more attractive by comparison, Caroline’s sometimes harsh judgement rang a bell of truth. When Caroline wonders ‘if it was legal to shake a visiting PhD student into some semblance of common sense and  [she] concluded that probably it wasn’t …’ I couldn’t help but sympathise with Caroline’s judgement. Alice’s niceness was diminished by Caroline’s attitude to her.

I ended up with two very different heroines with very different issues – but neither of them was practically perfect, or even close to it.

And there’s the dilemma. Because, especially in the genre of cupcakes and cafes that my books inhabit, readers in general warm to a sympathetic main character with whom they can empathise, not a flawed one who can be (let’s be honest about this) a bit irritating at times. I’m no longer even sure whether I’m capable of creating someone nice enough to carry the weight of genre expectations – and crucially, I’m not sure if I want to.

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Practically perfect

 

The Manor on the Moors is now available in both e-book and paperback form here if you want to read about two not entirely lovely ladies …

An Evening at Misterley Manor

For a little bit of fun on the publication day of The Manor on the Moors I thought that I’d share with you what life might be like on a typical September day at Misterley Manor, the setting for the book, just as the novel begins.

It’s evening. Caroline has finally left her desk, and Emily and Marjorie are cooking some salmon for tea in the family kitchen. Caroline offers to take some up for her father. He complains that fish doesn’t agree with him, but Caroline knows to ignore all that by now. She trudges slowly down the stairs; Marjorie and Emily have gone off to do their own thing and the kitchen is empty. Sometimes, Caroline feels very isolated, even surrounded by her own family.

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Alice has walked back home to Rawscar along the clifftop path. The smell from the fish and chip shop has been too much for her again, and for the third time this week she’s had fish and chips for tea. Sebastian wouldn’t approve … but he’s not here, is he? Although now it’s getting dark, he’ll probably be getting in touch with her very soon, just before bedtime, like he does most evenings. She’d better make sure she’s finished her fish-and-chips before then …

Tom’s exhausted after a hard day of physical labour. He’s having a nice cool shower. I’ll just leave that image with you.

Emily is texting Mikey. If anybody asks, she’s doing her homework. She’s certainly not going to share the contents of those messages.

Marjorie goes out to the summer house by herself for a bit of fresh air and solitude. She watches the sunset and remembers that time, long ago, when she and Anton spent the night half way up the mountain. They watched the sun set over the Alps that night … Aaah, those were the days.

Duncan’s working hard, marking essays while he listens to Radio 3. Sometimes the house feels very empty.

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Image from Pixabay. 

 

Tom’s still in the shower, by the way …

An Afternoon at Misterley Manor

For a little bit of fun on the publication day of The Manor on the Moors I thought that I’d share with you what life might be like on a typical September day at Misterley Manor, the setting for the book, just as the novel begins.

This afternoon, Caroline is at her desk, hard at work, after that altercation with That Man this morning. How was she to know that Emily hadn’t gone to college? She never checks personal messages on her phone when she’s working, he should know that by now … She’s worked right through lunchtime again, but now she’s hungry. Perhaps Sarah in the tea room will have some soup left over?

Alice has had lunch, she took some sandwiches out into the gardens where she sat on a bench in the sunshine appreciating the sunshine and the birdsong and the scent of the heather moors …. and the view of the assistant gardener cutting the box hedge … She’s disappointed by her afternoon’s work. Lots of detail about stonemasons, but no clues about what might have happened to Fox-Travers. She checks her watch – about time for a cup of tea, perhaps she’ll join Caroline in the tea rooms.

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Image from Pixabay.

Emily eventually made it into college. Mikey, the young builder checks his watch. She should be back soon, if he can schedule his break for later on, he might manage to see her again. They’ve got a favourite meeting spot, hidden away near the library, and if anybody asks, he was just helping her with her homework …

Sir Henry listens to the world outside his window. Somebody is walking along the gravel path – he can tell from the way she walks slowly and painfully that it’s Marjorie – she should be using her walking stick, foolish old bat! At least it’s not that meddling young PhD student again. She was hanging around outside his window at lunchtime; he can’t abide her. No right to be in his house, he should never have listened to Caroline. They don’t need help from people like her – meddling academics – no better than that one that Caroline used to be married to. Good riddance to him! And the sooner they can get shot of Alice, the better.

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Tom has finished cutting the box hedge; he’s heading back to the shed where George, the head gardener, will hopefully have the kettle on, when he bumps into Marjorie. What on earth is she wearing today! A lime green cardigan, a pink denim skirt and a pair of boots with stripy socks. He says hello, politely, and she asks if he’s seen her walking stick, she seems to have lost it somewhere. He found it yesterday, propped up beside the garden door, but he hasn’t seen it today.

Marjorie heads inside to take Sir Henry a cup of tea. He doesn’t say thank you.