…and I’m finding it VERY hard to settle down to any writing work. April here in Gloucestershire was dry, bitterly cold, but mostly sunny. Although I’m working on a new book (you can find out more about that here and here), at this time the natural world has a powerful pull.
Wild cherries in the wood are hung with snow, as A.E.Housman put it, and here in the orchard the Morello cherry is an absolute picture. It’s about twenty feet high and almost as wide, and when I took this photograph it was humming with all kinds of bees and other insects.
It produces tonnes of fruit each year, but we’re lucky if we get to eat more than a few kilos. The tree is far too big to net properly, and the birds love those cherries as much as we do!
Morello cherries are too sour to eat raw, and we like them best cooked gently for a few minutes with sugar and a little water. This makes a delicious sauce to pour over warm chocolate brownies, or vanilla ice cream…or you can do as we do, and top a brownie with a scoop of ice cream, then drizzle warm cherry sauce over the whole lot. That’s a really indulgent treat!
Yesterday I went to check the greenhouse at 6am and disturbed a sounder of eighteen boar and their piglets, who were grubbing about in the wood which lies on the other side of our boundary fence. They scampered away through the trees, leaving behind ploughed earth where yesterday there had been a carpet of bluebells.
It’s such a shame the boar are so destructive as now there are few free-roaming sheep to eat the local wildflowers, orchids, ladies’ smock, primroses and cowslips were beginning to seed themselves around. They won’t survive for long with the concentration of boar we have here now. The medieval wild boar only had piglets once a year. The creatures running wild in the forest now are hybrids, which have been developed to breed all year round. With no natural predators, their number have exploded.
That’s why my garden is surrounded by a good fence, with barbed wire buried at the base to stop the pigs heaving up the wire and posts to get in. It means I can grow all sorts of things without worrying about finding the place trashed at regular intervals.
The heroine of my current work in progress loves growing plants and when her family hits hard times has to find a way to turn her hobby into a business. I’m off to the greenhouse now to do some detailed research. Well, that’s my excuse!
Last week I told you about how I was trying to create a fictional English village as the setting for my next book. Lots of readers contacted me, either here or on social media and gave me ideas for features to include in the perfect fictional English village. The things mentioned most often were:
Church (which surprised me, as rural congregations have dwindled over recent years)
Somewhere to sit and watch the world go by (preferably with ducks to feed!)
War memorial (another surprise, although the popularity of soldier silhouettes probably explains it)
Lots of people suggested things other than buildings that went to create a village atmosphere. As a writer, I found those ideas equally useful. The things that cropped up most often were:
Local characters – there’s at least one in every village, ready to give you the gossip, or a long-range weather forecast
Peace and quiet, interrupted only by…
Dark skies with no light pollution, perfect for romance under the stars
and two of my favourite benefits of country living,
A little local shop
Friendly locals (rather than the more unusual characters)
We have great examples of both right here in the middle of our village. Pip’s shop really is open all hours, and shuts only twice a year: on Christmas Day and Easter Sunday. It’s within walking distance so you don’t need to bother with the car, and it’s saved my bacon (and milk, and tea bags, and coffee!) any number of times when there’s been a last minute call for school cookery ingredients or bits for science project.
Pre-Covid, our village shop was a meeting place as much a shop. It was somewhere you could find out all the local news even quicker than it featured on Facebook! All that changed with social distancing and face masks.
It’s very sad. I hope things can get back to something close to normal soon.
I wrote here about planning my next book, which is going to be set in my adopted home county of Gloucestershire. For the sake of the plot I’m not setting it in one identifiable place, but instead I’m picking buildings, shops, and settings from several of my favourite villages to create somewhere that plenty of things can happen to my fictional family.
Here is St. Endec’s church, where the grandfather of two of my main characters is a member of the band of bellringers.
It’s actually a photograph of St Giles, Maisemore, taken from the lime avenue which I think was planted as part of celebrations for Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation in 1953 (I’m sure somebody will put me right on that if I’ve mis-remembered!). This lane makes a sweet-smelling stroll during the summer. With Maisemore apiaries only half a mile away as the bee flies, the place is buzzing during June and July!
Here’s the local pub my characters use…
Although this picture is of the Red Lion in Avebury, the pub in my book is called the Bear and Ragged Staff (or “The Bear “for short). When I was young and single, the Red Lion was about half-way between where I lived, and the home of the man I thought was my Mr Right. When I discovered how Wrong he was, I dropped him like a red-hot bar meal and have never been back. That’s a shame, because it used to be a great place for an assignation!
Here’s the village duck-pond, which is actually part of the mill in Lower Slaughter…
The Cotswolds was only an hour’s drive from where I was born in Somerset, but the countryside and cottages are completely different in character. As I child I thought the villages of Upper and Lower Slaughter must have been the site of terrible battles but the truth was much closer to my soggy Somerset home than I realised. The Slaughters are named after the old English words “slough” or “slothre”, which means muddy.
My heroine’s sister lives in one of these cottages in Arlington Row, Bibury…
Like many beautiful Cotswold settings, these cottages have appeared on all sorts of chocolate boxes, calendars, and postcards. That complicated roof-line and all those hundreds of little roof tiles give this row another claim to fame. If you have a British passport, it’s one of the (hopefully) impossible-to-forge watermarks inside.
I’ve squirrelled away all these photographs in the images file of my in the Scrivener database I talked about here, but I’m still looking for things to include in my identikit Cotswold setting. Can you help me pack my fictional village with all the right things?
When you think about the countryside, what says “England” to you?
I’ve always wanted to write fiction, but until I sold my first book I earned money by writing non-fiction articles and producing photographs for magazines such as The Lady and The Garden. Among other things, I wrote monthly gardening tips, and pieces on how to keep poultry and pigs.
Once I began to get articles commissioned on a regular basis, I could afford to go back to writing fiction. At first I wrote short stories, as they fitted in well with my non-fiction writing schedule.
I love listening to the radio, so trying to produce some radio drama was an obvious move. During my first year as a full-time writer I was shortlisted for the BBC Young Writers’ Competition with an historical drama, but found writing stories and novels much easier than producing a script!
How I came to be published in book form for the first time is a saga in itself. One morning on Woman’s Hour, a writer was interviewed about her new historical novel. It sounded like a great read, but in those days OH and I were poverty-stricken newly-weds. Unable to justify buying a hardback book, I ordered it from the local library.
I can still remember how indignant I felt when I read the opening sentence, which went something like this…
The beautiful heroine looked down from her vantage point on the top of Toghill at workmen busily building Bath’s Royal Crescent….
That was written by someone looking at a map, not a view. I was born only a few miles from Toghill. For anyone to see Bath, let alone pick out workmen on the Royal Crescent, they would need to be about twenty metres tall and blessed with the eyesight of a hawk! There is a great view from the top of Toghill, but it is in the direction of Bristol, not Bath. On a clear day, you can see the Severn estuary. The city of Bath is not far behind you, it’s true, but because of the lie of the land the city is invisible until you travel several kilometres south east from the top of Toghill.
I decided then and there it would be a poor show if I couldn’t write something a bit better than that. Taking the script I’d written for the BBC, I reworked it into an historical novel. This was in the days before the internet, so all my research had to be done during trips to Gloucester library.
During my many visits, I used the library’s copy of the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook to find a possible publisher for my book. That was disappointing. Only one of the publishers would accept work direct from writers. All the others dealt only with agents.
The single publisher that would accept unagented manuscripts was Harlequin, under their Masquerade imprint. Just before Christmas one year I sent off the first three chapters and a synopsis, as requested in the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook. In January I got a lovely letter asking me for the rest of the story. I sent it off straight away, together with return postage (as Snail Mail was the only way in those days).
I didn’t sit back to wait. I kept busy, creating and submitting more articles and photographs on gardening, which is how I fill my time when I’m not writing. At the beginning of May I opened the letter every writer dreams of getting—Knight’s Pawn had been accepted for publication!
The first thing I did was to check out the most impressive-sounding literary agents in the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook. I wrote to them, saying I’d landed a contract to write historical novels for Harlequin Mills and Boon. I got a reply from one of the biggest agents in the country almost by return, inviting me up to a meeting at their headquarters in London.
I was shown into a plush office where I was given tea and cake by a lovely guy who said it was his first week in the job. He sweet-talked me into agreeing to become his client, and said he’d get a contract couriered to me as soon as it had been drawn up.
I was so excited, I spent the journey home from London working on the first draft of another book. A week passed, then ten days, but no contract arrived. I was climbing the walls with excitement until the awful day two weeks after my trip when a slim white envelope arrived.
It was an apology dictated by the head of the firm. It was their policy not to take on clients who wrote historical fiction for Mills and Boon, the letter said. The Harlequin contracts were pretty much “boilerplate”— that is, there was little if any room for an agent to negotiate different terms. The man who interviewed me hadn’t been fully aware of the circumstances, the letter said, and so with regret they didn’t feel able to offer me a contract after all.
It was tough, discovering I was that new agent’s first big mistake, but this cautionary tale just goes to show that if something seems too good to be true, it usually is.
That was years ago and I never did find an agent, but it doesn’t seem to have done my career much harm. I may have missed some opportunities and I’d love someone to take control of my writing calendar, but I’ve always had plenty of work, and I get to keep 100% of my pre-tax profits. If I had an agent, I’d lose 15% of it, in their commission!
What’s been the biggest excitement in your writing life?
This week, I’m using one of my own short stories as a real-life example of all the steps—from motivation to publication—that have appeared in this series.
In 2018 I took my seventeen-year-old-son to a university open day and ended up signing on for a Masters course myself. There had to be a story in that experience. To answer the question Why Write? posed in Part One of Writing for Pleasure, Profit, and Posterity, I wanted to satisfy my creative instinct, capture my experience of going back into education as a mature student, and do it in a way that would entertain others.
Readers like to relate to characters, and giving the people in my story everyday worries would make them convincing. Part Ten of my series included the top concerns of people today, two of which are ageing, and work-related worries. That pair of posers certainly kept me awake while I was trying to decide whether or not to sign up for university. I worried that I was too old, and that my poor school record (I left at sixteen) might mean I couldn’t keep up with the other students.
Projecting my fears onto a fictional character and making sure she overcame them might persuade others to become mature students, too.
In real life, it turned out that I was worrying about nothing. There were people of allages on my course. One of them had children older than me! I survived all the coursework and assessments, and emerged at the end of two years with lots more life experience, and a distinction.
My short story project was always going to be an optimistic piece, so The People’s Friend was the obvious choice when it came to finding my audience, as discussed in Part Three of Writing for Pleasure, Profit, and Posterity. That magazine’s combination of upbeat fiction and articles, crafting, cooking, and beautiful illustrations has kept it popular for generations. The People’s Friend has exacting standards but provides lots of information to help potential writers— see here for details.
Parts Four and Five of my series centred on inspiration, and using your own experiences as a starting point. I decided my short story would be built around a woman wondering whether she was up for a huge challenge. Every other day, I face a struggle of my own like that. I’m built for comfort rather than speed, but I force myself to use a treadmill for the good of my health. I may not be fast, but I keep going! In contrast, one of our friends is a workaholic. His doctor is always telling him to diet, stop smoking, and take up exercise. He’s never got around to doing any of that, although he did try walking rugby…once!
Those two contrasting real-life people gave me the basis of my central fictional characters. I then needed a theme for my story. Waving my last “baby” off to university was hard, but it led directly to me having a great time there myself. That idea of turning a bittersweet experience into an advantage was something I wanted to share. It proves that life doesn’t end when your children move on. Finding something which keeps your brain active, gets you out of the house, and involves meeting other people can help fill the gap in your life.
Part Six of my series dealt with turning thoughts into a manuscript. As I was only going to be writing a short story rather than a novel, I didn’t use Scrivener for this project. I used the prose template I have on my computer, which automatically creates manuscripts in 12-point Times New Roman, double spaced, with wide margins, and numbered pages.
I typed my notes straight onto my computer, saving my work regularly both as a document and onto a thumb drive. I named my file Restart_Short_Story, as that working title plays on the heroine’s aim of restarting her life. It also suggests a change in her relationship with her husband, and gives a nod toward running, which is central to the plot. The word Restart formed the header on every page of my manuscript, keeping me focussed on those core themes.
Some of Restart was written during sourdough-making sessions. My recipe requires the dough to be worked four times, with a ten minute break between each burst of kneading. The kitchen timer would go off just when I’d got into the swing of writing a scene. That meant I couldn’t wait to get back to it (once I’d scraped the dough off my fingers). Two more important writing tips: never get flour on your keyboard—and the best time to end a writing session is when it’s going really well. That way, you’ll be raring to go next time you start work.
Gradually my story Restart took shape. I kept Part Nine‘s Four C’s of Creative Writing (Character, Contrast, Charisma, and Conflict) in mind as I worked. Quiet housewife and mother Sue is a foil for her boisterous, workaholic husband Malcolm. He can be annoying, but his charisma is balanced with charm. Sue is keen to pick up the ambition she abandoned when they had a family. I made use of contrast in my writing as well as in my characters, so there’s internal monologue as well as dialogue, and the settings vary between a car interior, and out in the fresh air.
As well as my central middle-aged couple, an elderly lady, and a teenager also appear giving contrasts in age, too. I wrote the story in the first person, from heroine Sue’s point of view as—while this story is complete fiction, and this couple definitely aren’t me and OH— her hopes and worries were based on my hopes and worries. I really did write this story from my heart!
The internal conflict which is vital to keep readers hooked is introduced right at the start of the story. Sue secretly wants to investigate the university course but she is afraid she is too old, and keeps quiet. She knows Malcolm will laugh at her dream, because he never takes anything seriously. Malcolm has an inner conflict of his own. He hides his worries about what will happen now they’re rattling around in their family home alone by covering it with humour.
Once I had those characters and their hidden concerns in place, I added some external conflict to add excitement. Sue and Malcolm witness a mugging. She chases the thief and catches him, which convinces her she’s fitter and more determined than she thought. Malcolm’s pride and confidence in Sue’s ability is obvious, and by the end of the story they have reaffirmed their love for each other. Sue decides to sign up for university, while Malcolm is going to look again at his attitude to work, and his health.
In Part Two of this series I wrote about finding people to support you in your writing ambitions. I usually use workshop sessions organised by the Marcher chapter of the Romantic Novelists’ Association, although the first outing for this short story was a university workshop. A well-run workshop is a brilliant way to improve a piece of work. You can learn a lot by helping other writers, too.
A good workshop is one where only constructive criticism is allowed. As novelist Joanna Maitland puts it, offer three stars and a wish. That is, aim to give three pieces of praise before you make a suggestion for improvement. It’s a classic example of do-as-you-would-be-done-by!
When I had finished the workshop revisions, I went back and checked the length required byThe People’s Friend. Restart would fit nicely into one of their 2,000-word slots, so during the editing process I made sure the word count didn’t go over that figure. When I was happy with the result I saved it onto a thumb drive again, then sent a copy by email to my beta reader. I copied myself in on the email, so I had an insurance copy safe in my inbox.
Once the story was returned to me and I had made the revisions suggested by my reader, I added a front page which set out the working title Restart, my name, the word count, and had my full contact details at the bottom. I copied those, and pasted them onto the last page of my manuscript. After adding the word END and the word count below the final paragraph of my story, I sent it off to The People’s Friend.
Every publisher receives thousands of submissions every year, so waiting for them to respond can be frustrating. Keep writing while you wait. It makes the time pass much more quickly, and means you’ll have more pieces to submit.
Although I called my story and computer file Restart, I never assumed that would be the title of the published work. They are almost always changed for publication, and Restart duly became Catch Me If You Can. There are a number of reasons why publishers change titles. They may have already used that one in the past, their house style may require titles that consist of more than one word, or it has to be a certain length to suit the layout of the typeset page, for example.
That’s the story of my story, from initial ideas about Restart, right through to its submission and eventual publication as Catch Me If You Can. Like everything worth waiting for, success in creative writing takes time but every second is a pleasure, and it’s an amazing feeling to see your name in print.
I’m taking a short break from blogging about writing to get my PhD schedule sorted out. If there’s anything you’d like me to cover in this blog in future, or if you’d like to read Catch Me If You Can, contact me and I’ll see what I can do.