Monday, 22 May 2017

A ROOM OF ONE'S OWN AND A DARK ANGEL



In Virginia Woolf's extended essay, A Room of One's Own, she poses the idea that a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction. In Woolf's day this was absolutely true since women had very little they could truly call their own, including time to pursue their own interests or even be an individual separate and distinct from their spouse or children. Nowadays, things may be different.
It's true that having money or another source of income gives one the time and freedom to write. That's why so many writers have to wait until they retire from other day jobs in order to have enough time and headspace to write fiction. But having  a room of one's own might be highly overrated.  Maybe some writers are spoiled for space or just maybe the way we write and the milieu in which we need to do it have drastically changed.



I recently went to a reading by the prolific Scandinavian noir crime writer, Jo Nesbo, who was promoting his latest novel, The Thirst. Nesbo has sold an incredible 26 million copies of his books . When asked about his favourite place to write, he confessed that even though he has an incredible office in his Oslo condo, with floor to ceiling windows that overlook the ocean - equipped with state of the art tech equipment and lighting - he finds it's the only place he can't write. Instead he frequents a small, local coffee shop. There he covertly listens in to conversations and finds inspiration for plot ideas and characters in the rush of people that come and go.
I absolutely understand. I have a nicely set up office with framed copies of all my book covers around me. It's comfortable and quiet, but I often have trouble writing there. It's just a little too claustrophobic and isolated. Eventually I have to get out among people. The odd or complex behaviours, bizarre conversations and the everyday kaleidoscope of life somehow helps me write. I remember on one particular occasion I sat next to two guys who were actually firing someone from a job. I could barely contain myself while listening to all the doublespeak, the cold, calculated logic and sickening platitudes they were laying on this poor guy. All the while I was expecting him to stand up and deck them both. It didn't happen, but I'm sure I'll find a place for this somewhere in one of my books.  
So here are some famous authors and their favourite workplaces:

  • Agatha Christie liked to lounge in a large Victorian tub, eat apples and write.
  • James Joyce lay in bed on his stomach wearing a white coat and wrote with a blue pencil!
  • D.H Lawrence wrote beneath the shade of a tree. He said the trees were "like living company."
  • Gertrude Stein wrote in the driver's seat of her Model T Ford.
  • John Le Carre wrote many of his books during his 90 minute commute to work from Buckinghamshire.
DARK ANGEL, a review

Joanne Froggatt as Mary Ann Cotton

I was interested to see this ITV/PBS drama that brings to life the career of infamous British poisoner, Mary Ann Cotton and I have to say I have very conflicting feelings about it. 
When I wrote my novel, THE SAVAGE INSTINCT, I spent months researching the life and trial of Mary Ann Cotton. I read newspaper accounts from the era and several biographies of her life. I finally made the decision that Cotton, her "career" and her trial would provide a backdrop to a fictitious story that focused more on the impact of the trial on Victorian society at the time. In particular on the life of a childless woman on the edge of sanity. 
The Cotton case was sensationalized in the newspapers. The idea that a woman, and in this case, a working class woman, would actually go against all feminine ideals and murder her own children as well as her husbands and possibly her mother, caused great upheaval in an extremely patriarchal society. 
The real Mary Ann Cotton. Slightly less glamorous!
 This idea was completely absent in the PBS drama. While Joanne Froggatt gave a chilling performance as Cotton, she seemed too sympathetic and overly glamorized. At 2 hours 45 minutes the production seemed to hurtle through Cotton's many crimes at express speed. For viewers who have no prior knowledge of the case this proves very confusing and at times unintentionally funny. All we know is that when Mary Ann gets out the "Teapot of Death" and mixes a bit of arsenic into the tealeaves, SOMEONE'S GONNA CROAK!!
Mary Ann Cotton's real teapot from the collection at Beamish Museum.
The movie offers very little in the way of an explanation of her motives or her effect on the community in which she lived. It also totally ignores the trial. Cotton didn't have any counsel to represent her at first and then when she did, he was incompetent. This was definitely a missed opportunity. Given a lot more time and a greater attention to detail, it could have been a great adaptation of an important trial.
Let me suggest the following. If you want to know more about Mary Ann Cotton, read THE SAVAGE INSTINCT instead!!

Monday, 27 March 2017

CHILDHOOD IMAGININGS

BAMBURGH CASTLE: " King Ida's castle, huge and square,"
I just finished working on a very harrowing novel that dealt with some tough social issues so, while I let that book sit for a few weeks before I make final revisions, I like to move away from harsh reality and step back in time to the magical world of imagination and myth.
I'm working on a Middle Grade/Young Adult novel set within the rich folklore and mythology of North Eastern England, my birthplace. I was inspired by a quote from a book written in the early 19th century by Walter White who travelled through Northumbria and the borders. He visited the remote Farne Islands and quotes the words of a 7th century contemporary of St. Cuthbert's:
In the northernmost reaches of England, near the wild Northumbrian coastal islands we encountered the Farne Devils. Clad in cowls, and riding upon goats, black in complexion, short in stature,
 their countenances most hideous, their heads long - the appearance 
of the whole group horrible. Like soldiers they brandished in their 
hands lances, which they darted after in the fashion of war. First the sight of the cross was sufficient to repel their attacks, but the only protection in the end was the circumvaliation of straws,
 signed with the cross, and fixed in the sands, around which the 
devils galloped for a while, and then retired, leaving us 
to enjoy victory and repose.
This new book is inspired by the incredible castles at Bamburgh and Lindisfarne in the old Kingdom of Northumbria. Since I spent my childhood sixty miles south in Durham City, I visited these places as a child and later as an an adult. I remember being struck by the mysterious castles perched on rocky crags above remote and untouched beaches. They sparked something in my imagination  I knew sooner or later I'd have to explore and use in a story. Hence The Flamebearer was born.
LINDISFARNE CASTLE
So many of the books I enjoyed as a child were set in haunting, strange, mysterious - even bizarre places. Here are a few of my favourites. Perhaps they'll remind you of your favourite childhood stories or maybe you'll be tempted to look them up again and read them to your children or grandchildren.

ALICE IN WONDERLAND and THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS


Who can forget the bizarre dream world of Lewis Carroll's famous character Alice. Like walking into a strange dream or hallucination where everything is just slightly off kilter and a person can grow bigger or smaller just by nibbling a piece of cake or drinking a mysterious drink. This is a world of transformations where a screaming baby turns into a squealing piglet, where chess pieces take human form, where courtiers become playing cards, and a pet kitten becomes a queen. I remember being so struck by this book I made paper cutouts of all the characters and re-enacted the scenes against hand-drawn backdrops! Slightly obsessive!



MOOMINLAND MIDWINTER

This haunting story by Finnish writer Tove Jansson is set in a dark, lonely winter world. Young Moomintroll suddenly awakes to find himself alone, while his family family rest in the deep slumber of their annual hibernation. Unable to get back to sleep he wanders through his house which seems strange and unfamiliar with its covered furniture and unseen creatures under the sink. Outside he discovers a world he's never encountered where the sun barely rises and the ground is covered with cold, white powder. At first he's scared and angry until he meets Too Ticky and Little My, a strange little creature who sleds down snow hills on Moominmamma's silver tray and skates with their kitchen knives as blades. In this book winter is personified as The Lady of the Cold, who freezes squirrels with one look from her eyes. A magical book!



THE SECRET GARDEN by Frances Hodgson Burnett

Set on the bleak Yorkshire Moors and the dark, forbidding Misselthwaite Manor, this classic children's story features Mary, a grieving orphan sent to live with her uncle since her parents died of cholera. Mary is a sickly, sour child used to being waited on by servants in the lush, tropical surroundings of a large colonial home in India, so the cold, bleak landscape of Yorkshire comes as a shock to her. Soon Mary begins to explore her surroundings and discovers the beauty of nature with the help of friendly housemaid, Martha, groundsman, Ben Weatherstaff and Martha's outdoorsy brother, 12 year old Dickon The two become great friends and work together on a hidden garden that belonged to her deceased aunt, Mrs. Craven. They also discover her young cousin, Colin, confined to a wheelchair and deprived of fresh air for years. Together the two children secretly nurse him back to health while cultivating the beautiful secret garden. This is a touching novel of love and compassion.



MISS PEREGRINE'S HOME FOR PECULIAR CHILDREN by Ransom Riggs

The most recent of my recommended books for children but enjoyed by adults. This story brilliantly intertwines vintage photographs with a thrilling story to create a creepy and strange atmosphere. After a horrifying family tragedy, sixteen year old Jacob journeys to a remote island off the coast of Wales where he discovers the crumbling ruins of Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children. As he explores the abandoned rooms he discovers the strange children, pictured on the set of vintage photographs given to him by his deceased grandfather, may still be alive and do actually possess strange and dangerous powers. The story becomes a fast-paced mystery as Jacob races to help the children who are threatened by a ruthless enemy.

There isn't enough room here for the other great children's books I could have mentioned. Maybe I'll do that in a later post. Meanwhile - back to the drawing board and time to step back into the world of the dark Northumbrian coast!!




Monday, 30 January 2017

SNOW WALKING AND MORE GREAT READS





I've finally made a vow to keep going with my morning walk schedule regardless of the winter weather outside. And despite the challenges of walking outside at temperatures of -22C and lower, I've discovered snow walking can be fun, beneficial and incredibly beautiful.

It takes twice as long to dress up for the weather with extra leggings, thermal socks, snow boots, wooly hat, scarf, parka, hood and thick mitts, but I have this theory that plunging through the park or climbing a snow hill dressed like a yeti, burns at least three times the usual calories for a walk. The only trouble is that we've also been experiencing some higher than normal temperatures more recently and that means the snow turns to ice which then makes it feel like you're walking on an ice rink.




For many writers, a quiet walk outdoors is the best way to think of new ideas and sort out plot problems, and winter has a certain sleepy, silent magic about it that seems more inspirational than any other season. To write a novel you need to do a whole lot of thinking before you even sit down and put your fingers on the keyboard, and once you're into the first draft you need to take breaks and think about the way the story is developing. Tearing yourself away from that screen and plunging out into the fresh air is the best way to go.
Since winter is a great time for a quiet read by the fireside, I've highlighted a few more great books I've enjoyed recently:



THE PURCHASE by Linda Spalding

Set in Virginia, 1798, this Governor General's Award winning book explores the indignities of slavery from a unique perspective and shows how one man's single impulsive action can create ripples that affect the lives of multiple generations of his family.
This is the story of Daniel Dickinson, a Quaker from Pennsylvania, whose wife has passed away and left him alone with five children to raise. He hastily marries a fifteen year old orphan and sets off with his entire family and his few meagre belongings to forge a new life across the border in Virginia.
At first life is tough, the family buys a plot of land in a tiny community and begins to establish a life there, but when Daniel goes to market one day and encounters a slave auction he is horrified. A firm abolitionist, this spectacle goes against all his values and beliefs. On impulse he buys the boy but is completely unaware how this action will resonate with his family through the decades, leading to conflict, passion and tragedy.
This story is a complex exploration of emotions, morals and the struggle to maintain one's beliefs in a changing world. The characters are well drawn, memorable and imperfect which makes them all the more intriguing. Also the author conveys the hardships of life on the American frontier with unsentimental but beautiful, spare prose that will keep you reading to the last page.



HUMAN REMAINS by Elizabeth Haynes

This suspense filled thriller is made even more compelling by its imperfect narrator and its exploration of a major societal problem - the epidemic of loneliness suffered by people forced through circumstances beyond their control to live alone, unloved and unnoticed by their community. Most often they are seniors, but sometimes they're younger - possibly suffering from mental illness, depression or some other crippling problem.
Anna, the main character, is one such person. A police analyst with a busy job and an aging mother to check in on, Annabel is socially awkward, has poor self-image and is a loner at work. She lives alone but doesn't see herself as lonely. When she discovers her neighbour's decomposing body in the house next door, she is shocked that no one, including herself, noticed the woman's absence. When her colleagues show a lack of interest in the case, she takes it upon herself to investigate and discovers a disturbing pattern of such cases, leading her to believe that something is not right and this can't be a coincidence. But as Anna gets chillingly close to the solution, she reveals her own vulnerability in the depths of her depression and puts herself in danger.
This was a refreshingly different take on the usual police procedural thriller, mainly due to the originality of the characters and the complete believability of the situations portrayed. Reading it, one is reminded of one's deepest fear - of being completely and utterly alone and uncared for - invisible to the people around you.



THE WONDER by Emma Donoghue

Another novel by the author of the wonderful Room, this novel is definitely as compelling. Set in the  19th century, this is the story of an English nurse who is brought to a small Irish village to provide objective observation of what is thought to be a miracle: an 11 year old girl who lives and thrives without touching a morsel of food. Tourists already flock to the small cabin to see little Anna who lives, according to her family and the local priest, on manna from heaven. Lib, a veteran nurse from Nightingale's Crimean campaign, is hired to keep watch on the girl, but soon finds herself fighting for the child's life, together with a journalist sent to cover the miracle.
As with all Donoghue's books, this is an in-depth psychological exploration of the motivation of diverse individuals - each with their own agenda. This story begins slowly but picks up pace so that it becomes impossible to put down as the stakes are raised and Lib must make a choice to do as she's told or to defy the orders she's been given and possibly put herself in danger. Ultimately this leads to a gripping life or death scenario with an innocent child at the centre.

HAPPY READING!