Thursday, 12 November 2020

Writing and walking in Sheffield


From Endcliffe Park to Forge Dam

I moved to Sheffield around a year ago, after living in Brighton for over 20 years. The first few months were dominated by our house needing a huge amount of building work – we spent two weeks in a hotel and then moved in just before Christmas. While the builders finished their work, I doom scrolled, watching coronavirus sweep across the world, feeling a growing sense of dread. And then of course it was lockdown. Huge global events, and here I was, in a weird limbo in a new city, living at the edge of the Peak District but not allowed to go there.

But walking was part of my life even then. During the period when basically the builders owned our house and we were interlopers, I walked into Sheffield city centre every day and worked in the central library, sometimes doing my day job, which is working as a senior lecturer for the Open University, sometimes writing my Difficult Fifth Novel, which has a habit of morphing into various different novels as I go along (all of them equally Difficult).  I’ve always walked to get to know a place, and can’t think how you would do it any other way. So now that the second lockdown has commenced – lockdown lite, we might call it – I am recording some of my walks in words and pictures, as is my fellow newcomer, Yvonne Battle-Felton. You can see Yvonne's first Sheffield walk here And if you would like to join us and share text, photos or a video of your walks in your area, Yvonne has some suggestions.

My first walk is the obvious choice – the green chain from our front door (more or less) to Forge Dam. We had no idea how beautiful this walk was when we bought the house, it was a massive stroke of luck to find ourselves in this magical place. The danger seems to be to do the walk too often, so that it loses some of its novelty and allure, but the fact is that it changes all the time, not only with the seasons but also depending on the time of day. During Lockdown One, it was busy pretty much all of the time, full of children, dogs, bikes, joggers of every age, but notably a lot of older joggers who looked incredibly fit, students hanging out, it was throbbing with human activity.

Now, it’s quieter, you can get to see it in a different way. Early morning might be good, but sadly I am not an early morning person. Dusk is lovely, that weird liminal sense of darkness bearing down, of shadows filling up the spaces between the trees, dogs and humans suddenly looming out of nowhere. But I like the sense of being in nature but yet part of a city. For a townie like me, it’s good to measure out the route in coffee opportunities, the café in Endcliffe Park now equipped with a gazebo opposite for rainproof social distancing, the van that parks at the entrance to Whitely Woods at the weekends, and finally the café at Forge Dam itself, next to a pond full of mallards and moorhens and where you can sometimes see a heron.

The walk has zones, all of them wooded with Porter Brook bubbling along beside the path, but getting wilder and less populated as you go along. Once you get beyond Forge Dam, you can smell damp earth, and hear the bleating of sheep – proper countryside, steep pathways, trees outlined against an autumn sky. Sometimes, at the Hunters Bar end, I start off feeling pent-up, irritable, caught up in some admin issue, an email thread that’s tangled up my brain. As I go along, the email threads unravel, the natural world closes in, green, soft, calm, intersected by roads with cars speeding to somewhere as we walk slowly onwards, looking at fungi we can’t identify, at other people’s dogs, listening to odds and ends of passing conversations. ‘That’s just the point Craig, that’s exactly what I said.’ ‘Dad, how long can I stand here?’ ‘Can you imagine her doing this every day?’

I am not a nature-girl. I went to guide camp once and resented the fact that we were meant to make gadgets out of twigs, which seemed nonsensical. I have a fear of slugs and earthworms, have no idea how to dig a garden. 

But this walk has drawn me back to my childhood love of all the smells and textures of the natural world, the cool sense of countryside, going on and on, of things continuing that don’t need human intervention. (Although, perhaps we now need to intervene to preserve this process, rather than taking it for granted.) The walk to Forge Dam doesn’t stop my brain from working overtime, but it shifts the gears, soothes the process, and sifts out the stuff you shouldn’t sweat. 

Thursday, 30 July 2020

How do you invent a character?

On the one hand, I can tell you what I normally say about this, and offer links to numerous writers and pundits who have offered their thoughts on the subject, and I can tell what my creative writing teaching shtick is on this, and perhaps that is fair enough. How you invent a character, right there.

On the other hand, don’t look at me. I literally have no idea. Meaning,  I am half-way through my fifth novel at the moment and omigod. I find myself, on page 180 or wherever, looking at my joint protagonists (for some reason, novel five has ended up with two protagonists aged eight and fortyish, don’t even ask), and I have No Idea whether they conform to want v. need, or the change, flat, negative or open ended character arc. Worse, or is it worse, I can’t even make distinctions, I don’t know what their hobbies are, their birth signs, favourite food, or where they normally go on holiday. When I’m writing, they feel real, and they are doing stuff, and I have made various discoveries about them. When I not writing, I return to the various gurus I’ve consulted in the past, and panic. Are they driving the action? How much agency do they have? What is their Lie? What is putting this Lie under pressure?

I tried to learn ballet when I was small, between the ages of six and nine, I think. I was very, very bad at ballet. Not only uncoordinated, but fundamentally psychologically and emotionally unsuited to the task.  My motivation was the lure of appearing in the yearly dance display at the Mitchell Memorial Theatre wearing a lovely, flowy costume, this being the closest to being a fairy princess that a bookish speccy was going to get.  But between me and that glittering goal were endless rehearsals, mostly not even wearing the proper costume but just my boring leotard and the shoes that weren’t even proper ballet shoes with blocks. Finally, for my very last performance, I tried to focus. I practised, I twirled, I plied, I ran in graceful diagonals, looking surprised (you were supposed to be see an imaginary puppy), I raised my arms above my head in the exact shape that the ballet master modelled for us.  My father, with his usual wry detachment, observed that I was a ‘slave to technique’.

We need technique, writers, dancers, artists of all kinds, but do we need to be enslaved to it? That is the question.

Which brings me back to this: how do you invent a character? The most helpful response I can give is that there isn’t one way. Sometimes, a character appears almost fully formed before you even have a story – Baroness Orczy claimed that she ‘saw’ her most famous character Sir Percy Blakeney, the Scarlet Pimpernel, on an Underground station platform, like a sort of conjuration. Sarah Waters said the two main characters in her novel The Paying Guests needed to be capable of murder, and everything else about them followed from that. Vikram Seth based the matriarch Mrs Rupa Mehra in A Suitable Boy on his grandmother. David Copperfield is a proxy Dickens, and many writers have taken a similar autobiographical approach, from Francois Sagan in Bonjour, Tristesse to Sally Rooney in Normal People. In my first book, I thought I would bypass autobiographical writing completely and wrote the story from a man’s point of view, but actually, he was just the male equivalent of me.

There is a huge amount of advice out there, so if you do want some proper advice check out Linda Seger’s Creating Unforgettable Characters, K.M. Weiland’s Creating Character Arcs or the relevant chapters in James Wood’s How Fiction Works, John Mullan’s How Novels Work or Creative Writing: A Workbook with Readings, published by Routledge and The Open University. For some YouTube thoughts I recommend Tyler Mowery’s Creating Characters Part one and two

Another piece of advice would be to read as many different sorts of novels and stories as possible, and let your mind fill up with them, rather than consciously looking at how each writer tackles this great challenge. Feed your intuition that way, and feel your way towards these people. I am reading stories by Alice Munro at the moment, and you experience the characters and their engagement with their world, rather than being able to say exactly what they are like, or being able to summarize their character traits. Or that’s how it seems to me.

And with that, I sign off and go back to the half-written book, and all those nuanced, nebulous, brain-twisting questions. 


Wednesday, 15 July 2020

Buddy movies and the writer's journey

In a way, writing a novel is like being one half of a buddy movie. At the start there is the sheer incompatibility/unfeasibility factor. You, with your crowded, aching, gadfly brain, half-remembered micro-inspirations and unfulfilled desires. The book, currently a void, not even a pile of paper yet, as there is nothing to print out, not even some electronic symbols on a white electric background because you actually have no idea what the hell it is even about.  This is a relationship that is never going to work.

As you progress, it actually gets slightly worse. After any amount of time, but certainly after producing 30,000 of words, your self-belief undergoes a necessary adjustment. You hit a wall. You nosedive. The words are shit. The idea might be shit, but as yet, you are not even sure it is one. Innocence has been lost, and you and the draft – a mean, truncated, ugly thing – stare at each other balefully.

Maybe you stop at this point and the buddy movie reaches a premature end. Thelma and Louise get a puncture when they are barely out of town, Louise hasn’t shot anyone, Thelma hasn’t had the benefit of Brad Pitt, everything just fizzles. The two women think ‘oh fuck it’ and go home, stuck in their frustrating lives.

Or maybe you carry on. The novel and you patch it up, decide to make a go of things on the basis that neither of you are much good, certainly nothing special, probably a lot worse than the other unwritten novels and their disappointing authors. You grind away, tapping out the terrible stuff. The novel looks on, sceptical. Sometimes you hack bits off the novel, the intolerably irrelevant, the magisterially over-written. The novel shrinks and winces. But you carry on.

This, sometimes, is when it starts to go quite well. You haven’t finished yet, there are a thousand problems still to overcome, but you have reached the part where Thelma and Louise are in their shades, and have just blown up an oil tanker.

Emotional self-management doesn’t come naturally to most of us. I grew up with the idea – based on Hollywood movies - that writing itself was photogenic and intense, the demented author swigging bourbon while sitting at the sweaty Remington, writing into the small hours. By dawn, the novel would be born, a work of genius, a book to change the world. One would expect no less after such a harrowing engagement with the muse. 

But actually, over the years, I have come to accept that not only is writing itself a long game; the production of each individual book or story is itself a multifaceted, time-hungry challenge, and that one of the most difficult aspects of this is staying sane during the peculiar period during which something that does not exist takes shape. Moods swing between mania and zombie-like dejection. Wine tempts. Cake beckons. Twitter glitters.  Self-control is essential at such times, tedious strategies must be adopted: eating your greens, getting fresh air, not reading rave reviews of recently published authors.

My most effective mental strategy is treating the novel like my wrong buddy, the person I am least likely to get on with, my irritating flatmate. Each day we take our places and we carry on. There are goodish days, there are bad days, and eventually, there is a thing. The novel exists. What was once a tiny shimmer of possibility is something else now, usually much less pure and perfect in execution than in imagination, but actually a thing. By managing expectations and checking in each day, it is possible to reach this extraordinary place. If you are lucky, it is the edge of the Grand Canyon and you have found the ending that is the perfect exit for you and your now beloved buddy, your newly finished book.  

Wednesday, 24 June 2020

Writing your lockdown novel

Patricia Highsmith (unknown photographer)

I am one of thousands of people who are writing a novel draft during lockdown. (Let’s hope it’s not millions, but who knows?) The peace and quiet, the sense of a global pause, the endless home-based hours – for those without onerous family responsibilities, this seemed like a golden opportunity. Still seems like it, as ‘lockdown’ segues into ‘period of confusion’.  With a partner better at cooking than I am, a furloughed adult son and a newly part-time job, it certainly seemed like a good time to me. And still does, even though I have no idea how far to stand away from other humans outside my current bubble, or whether I should mask-up to go to Waitrose.

So what is the story now? I teach creative writing, this is my fifth novel, I am half-way through the first draft. I hesitate to call myself an expert, because writing is so peculiar, and each book so different from the last. By the end of any novel, you are generally an expert on that novel, but not necessarily on any other novels you might write. And I’m also the kind of writer who – foolishly, perhaps – writes novels that are dissimilar. I don’t even stay in the same historical period. (That is definitely not a smart move, so my future books may well be set in the Victorian age, like my current Work In Progress.) But I am past the ingenue stage. I know what doesn’t work, for me, at least.

Writing blind

This is the approach in which you just slam the words down, in the spirit of Jack Kerouac. You don’t look back, you don’t read your draft before starting work each day, you just get the darn words down. The file on your computer grows, there are lots of words there. Therefore, you are a writer. There is something to be said for this, because all writing has its use, and this may help you establish a writing habit.

But the reason I know it doesn’t work for me is that I end up with a lot of pages and no story. And the germ of the idea – what the tarot calls ‘the scent of the undertaking’ seems to have been drowned in the wrong words, it’s in there somewhere, but I don’t know how to find it. Both D.H. Lawrence and H.G.Wells used to write a new draft from scratch, rather than editing the existing one, and I wonder if this is because they had that feeling, that they had to have a blank sheet to imagine the story freshly.

Working to a plot outline

I’ve tried this too, bruised from the experience of churning out words. But the problem with this, for me, is that I don’t want to know too much more than my characters do. I have to experience their problems and issues from their point of view, and see how they resolve things. If I already know, and have just put the problem there so I can fill some pages, then the energy goes out of it. The well-balanced approach is to have a rough plot outline, or plot ideas that you think will work, provisionally, but which are subject to adjustment.

Being a perfectionist

People sometimes think that perfectionism is a desirable quality, because it means that someone has high standards. But there are no standards which can deliver perfection – there is no such thing as perfection in human life. No perfect novel has ever been written, not even The Great Gatsby, which sometimes attracts that kind of praise. And even if your finished novel is going to be a work of genius, it has to be allowed to be rubbish at first go. (As Ernest Hemingway famously put it: ‘The first draft of anything is shit.’) So your novel-in-progress will often feel as if it is no good. That is its prerogative.

Talking too much

I once heard Edna O’Brien describing the way young Irish writers sometimes go to the pub and talk their books into oblivion, carried away by the Guinness and the craic. I am a talker myself, if I get excited I want to share what I am working on. Currently, I am keen to bore the partner and adult son with highlights from the life and times of H.G Wells, and they are quite keen not to listen. That kind of stuff is fine, as is sharing drafts with other writers if that works for you – the quid pro quo element helps, you feed back on their work and they feed back on yours and it all feels like part of a process. But talking endlessly about your characters and plot can kill an idea, make it seem almost not worth writing. I try and keep quiet if I can, and jot notes down rather than talking.


This relates to the over-talking issue, because sometimes I want to talk because I want the story to be out there, and I know it will be months, if not years, before that happens. Novels are like lives or relationships, they have phases, seasons, moods, good and bad days, periods when they seem to be spinning down the vortex of your self-destruction (or maybe that is just me), periods of euphoria and hope. What I try to do, at the point I am at now, with 40,000 words down and 40,000 very much to go, is focus on the provisional nature of the writing. I try and keep a balance between clarity and wild imagination, focusing on that first glimmer that made me want to write it in the first place, but also thinking clearly about how that can best be dramatized and live.

I’ve just had the first half printed out (at our local, newly reopened print shop), read it through in hard copy, covered it in notes and corrections, and am ready to move on to the second half. I find that doing it this way stops me from becoming anally obsessed with editing paragraphs and polishing sentences. The editing that happens at that point is about story, more than style.

Does it work? Is this how you write a novel? I’ll let you know. I think it’s probably how I will write this one. For now, it’s onwards and sideways, following this weird thing where it needs to go.

Monday, 15 June 2020

My top five writing guides

It’s week 13 of lockdown in the UK and my energy levels are definitely beginning to flag. What seemed like a welcome pause in frenetic 21st century living - for those of us lucky enough to be in work and in reasonable accommodation - now feels like a prolonged period of uncertainty tinged with paranoia. Not the best situation for writing, perhaps, and I know many people are struggling to get words on the screen or page.

But it’s also true that writers have been producing work in adverse circumstances since whenever, whether personal or political or a mixture of the two. Virginia Woolf struggled with her mental health, George Orwell with TB, Chester Himes (author of A Rage in Harlem) started writing and publishing fiction while serving eight years in prison for armed robbery.

So, it’s time to reboot, recharge the batteries and return to the Work in Progress. These are five books that have helped cheer me on, over the years, and I’d recommend them to anyone, at any stage of the writing process. 

Geneva Dawn by Nouhailler is licensed under  CC BY-SA 2.0

1. On Writing; A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King

Wonderfully down to earth, filled with King’s own experiences of the highs and lows of writing, and pithy advice about getting started and keeping going. Busts the myth about alcohol fuelling great writing, too. The account of his near-fatal accident is as vivid and shocking as you would expect from this master story teller. A favourite with experienced writers as well as newcomers.

2. The Art of Fiction, David Lodge

Lodge gives a clear overview of the elements of writing, from Beginning to Ending, and taking in Suspense, Interior Monologue, Defamiliarization, Weather, Fancy Prose and Magic Realism along the way. Elegantly written, and with a short extract at the start of each section which illustrates the point being made. A book to dip into again and again – my copy is bulging with Post-It notes.

3. Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew, Ursula le Guin

Le Guin is best known as a science fiction writer, but this book is invaluable to writers in any genre. It’s just as useful to writers working alone as those in a creative writing class, and the playful tone makes it accessible and easy to refer to. I love the passion and commitment that informs this book. As Le Guin says: ‘To make something well is to give yourself to it, to seek wholeness, to follow spirit.’

4. Into the Woods: How Stories Work and Why We Tell Them, John Yorke

Yorke is a screenwriter and drama producer, and this book is filled with references to story and narrative on the screen. But his insights are extremely useful to fiction writers too. Here he looks at the fundamentals of storytelling and the reasons that there are so many common elements to a compelling story. Here is an example of York at work, speaking to employees at Google 

5. The Right to Write, Julia Cameron

Cameron is a passionate advocate of the writing process as a form of self-discovery. I find her approach borderline hippie at times, but it works. One of the approaches she advocates is writing morning pages when you wake up – this is not easy, particularly if like me you aren’t much of an early bird. (I am borderline dynamic after 8.30 am, pretty much slug-like any earlier than this. I can just about manage a masochistic bout of yoga, but thinking is out).

Reading any of these books is a reminder that writing, while not necessarily fun, is a sustaining, grounding process if you approach it with patience and commitment. Top tip: try to avoid thinking about agents, publishers, Twitter storms and The Voices while you are engaged in writing. See you writing space as a place apart, where you can think and write what you like. That works for me, and it may well work for you.

Wednesday, 13 May 2020

How to be a great writer

This website is dedicated to helping writers write, avoiding the how-to-actually-write in favour of the how-to-actually-be. Today, inspired, frustrated, maddened, whatever, by lockdown, I have branched out into how to be not just a writer, but a great one. Because, let’s face it, none of us want to mess about.

1. Ignore all fashions, facts and the Twitter zeitgeist.

2. Read everything possible – good, bad, current, classic, in every genre.

3. Become a word-nerd, read poetry aloud, peruse the dictionary, memorize brilliant sentences.

4. Have an unhappy childhood.

5. Either a. give up drinking alcohol or b. become an alcoholic. Moderation is the enemy of genius.

6. Write first thing in the morning, for at least half an hour. Don’t stop to brush your teeth.

7. Fall in love unrequitedly. Take notes.

8. Fall in love requitedly, then fall out of love, by very gradual degrees. Take copious notes.

9. Be extremely selfish and sacrifice your family and friends to Art when necessary, or if you feel like it.

10. Ignore all lists: they are for mediocrities.

Friday, 8 May 2020

Living la vida lockdown

Tense, moi? Apparently not. All my life I have been a hypochondriac, a worrier, awfulizer and general unease generator, and now here I am, locked down in a pandemic. I seemed to be the only person to get into a serious anxiety state about the bird flu outbreak in 2004, eventually only able to sleep at night when I bought some Tamiflu from a Canadian website for £400, which I could not actually afford. I kept it under the stairs, mindful of the fact that when it All Kicked Off, my neighbours might murder me to get their hands on it if I revealed its whereabouts. (It was for my kids, not theirs, I had totally embraced the whole Sarah Connor/Terminator mindset.) I threw it out two years later when we moved house. By then I was panicking about something else. And yet, weirdly, here we are in an actual dystopian movie styled by Waitrose food magazine, and I am completely calm.

Perhaps this is because I feel my constant fearfulness has now been vindicated. Things really were going to get this bad, and the well-adjusted optimists were wrong. Or perhaps because I have the perfect lock-down personality – unsociable, introverted and bookish. This time last year, I was on a train to Manchester, off to run a historical fiction conference, busy, busy, busy. Now I’ve started working part time at a point when the entire planet feels as if it has taken the same decision. There is stillness with the worry. There is birdsong outside the window, I’ve even heard owls hooting.

And yes, I do find I can focus on writing. I don’t write for hours, I do about two or three hours on my non-work days. My strategies, such as they are: limiting doom-scrolling; drinking one small glass of wine a day; walking in the evening (as seen in the photo - wonderful Endcliffe Park in Sheffield) and postponing a self-improving assault on Massive Novels in favour of short stories and poetry. (Still don’t really know how to read poetry, still staring at the words the way I used to look at pictures in galleries or art movies where nothing happens, waiting for someone to give me the explanation.) 

Also, I don't understand the urge to read The Road or La Peste at this point in time; I am definitely in the Barbara Pym comfort reading camp, although usually I don't *get* her novels. Vicars, quietly chic heroines, teashops in the 1950s - her books are the literary equivalent of Bake Off, but with a tincture of astringency. Just the job, unfettered feel-good makes me uneasy.

This is not advice - what works for me may be hell for other people - but I feel strangely functional. Lockdown might be scary, but for those of us who aren't on the frontline it is a chance to let things settle somehow, and that can't be bad.

Tuesday, 23 April 2019

Who was Shakespeare’s Dark Lady?

William Shakespeare is 455 today – cause for national celebration. Except, we don’t actually know if he was born on April 23 1564, only that his birth was registered on April 26 1564, and it is reasonable to suppose he was born three or four days previously.

Assembling Shakespeare’s biography is an inexact science, based on a few surviving written records, and the content of his plays. We are lucky that most of his works have survived, and arguably this is more important that the identity and actions of one man in the late 16th and early 17th century. Yet there is an enduring obsession with who he was and why he wrote what he did. For example, were the sonnets inspired by real love affairs? If so, who were the lovers in question? Was the Fair Youth – to whom his most romantic sonnets were addressed – the Earl of Southampton? And who was the Dark Lady, the alleged inspiration for his darker, more overtly sexual love poetry (sonnets 127- 152). The object of his passion is a woman with black, wiry hair, and dark, dun coloured skin. This was not the conventional description of a beautiful woman at the time, when the ideal was pale skin and golden hair. Was she a real person, or a poetic convention?
William Shakespeare, Chandos portrait
(Wikipedia, Creative Commons)

The sonnets dedicated to this mysterious woman are anguished and passionate, and suggest that the poet is in the grip of a painful sexual obsession. Who might have inspired such writing? There is a long list of potential candidates, and new possibilities are still coming to light. For example, in 2013 Aubrey Burl, a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, suggested that the Dark Lady wasAline Florio, the wife of an Italian translator.

Other candidates include Marie Mountjoy, the wife of Christopher Mountjoy, a costume maker and Shakespeare’s landlord in Silver Street; Jane Davenant, wife to Oxford tavern keeper John Davenant, whose son William claimed to be Shakespeare’s son and Jacqueline Field, the wife of Stratford-born Richard Field who printed Shakespeare’s poetry. Very little is known about any of these women beyond the fact they would have come into contact with Shakespeare. Another possibility is Lucy Morgan, who is thought to have been one of Queen Elizabeth I’s ladies-in-waiting, and may also have been ‘Lucy Negra’, a prostitute. The name ‘Negra’ suggests that she was of African descent. (How and why she lost status so dramatically is not known.) In his 1977 novel ‘Nothing Like the Sun’ Antony Burgess suggests that Lucy Negra is Shakespeare’s muse, but her role is anything but decorous – both she and Shakespeare are infected with syphilis and the affair has tragic consequences for them both.

More conventionally, scholars have suggested that the Dark Lady must have been a female aristocrat, a woman with wealth and status. Mary Fitton (1578 – 1647) was a well-known lady-in-waiting to Queen Elizabeth. She had affairs several men including with William Herbert, the Earl of Pembroke. George Bernard Shaw makes Fitton the Dark Lady in his play ‘The Dark Lady of the Sonnets’ (1910). The most privileged of all possible Dark Ladies is Penelope Devereux (1563- 1607), who married Robert Rich, but had a notorious affair with Charles Blount, Baron Mountjoy, and eventually divorced Rich and married Blount in an unlicensed ceremony. Devereux had blonde hair, a point against her perhaps, but dark eyes, and was certainly an inspiration for other poets.

Only one candidate for role of Dark Lady was herself a writer: Aemilia Lanyer, one of the first women to be published professionally as a poet in England. Her poetry collection ‘Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum’ includes a justification of Eve and a retelling of the Crucifixion from the point of view of the women in the New Testament. Published in 1611, it is dedicated to a number of aristocratic women, including Queen Anne, the wife of James I. This is the way in which a professional male poet would introduce his work, and Lanyer’s volume is the only surviving example of a woman writing in this way at such an early date.

Portrait of lady who may be Aemilia Lanyer, Nicholas Hilliard
(Wikipedia, Creative Commons)

Lanyer was the illegitimate child of Jewish immigrant musicians who played at the Tudor court; her father died when she was seven. At seventeen she became the mistress of the Lord Chamberlain, Henry Carey; six years later she was pregnant and married off to a cousin, Alfonso Lanyer. A gambler and spendthrift, her husband spent her dowry in a year. Lanyer was a client of the astrologer and physician Simon Forman, who recorded her enquiries about summoning demons in his journal. Her life has inspired a number of novels, including my own ‘Dark Aemilia’ (2014) and the stage play ‘Emilia’ by Morgan Lloyd Malcolm, showing at the Vaudeville Theatre, London (8 March – 15 June 2019) .

It's unlikely that we will ever know the true identity of the Dark Lady. But we can be sure of one thing: as long as Shakespeare’s plays are staged and his poetry is read, the speculation will continue.

Wednesday, 16 January 2019

Talking on the page

Britain Cab Car City Classic England Group

Stoke is one of those spread-out sort of places the Midlands specialises in, pedestrians aren't well catered for. And I don't drive. So when I go up there, I am often in a taxi. There is no half way house with the taxi drivers, they are either wildly cheerful or utterly lugubrious. Here is a recent conversation between a taxi driver and me. I'd just spend the weekend at my Mum's and called a taxi firm called Sid's to take me to the station. It was a Monday morning, average in every way, not overdoing the weather.

Taxi arrives.

Driver says traffic terrible and sticks ‘Sids’ stickers to side of car (?)

I ask him to help me take off my backpack and put it in the boot with my wheelie suitcase. He does this, not happy to be asked.

We get in the taxi.

I say something about the traffic, ask if many people are going to the station

Driver - You are my first station job this morning.

Me - Oh, weird, wonder why it’s so busy on a Monday then? I thought it might be people going off to London or something.

Driver - I’ve been doing my own jobs up till now.

Me - Oh?

Driver - The day is already ruined.

Me - Why is that?

Driver - I’ve been trying to sort out an M & S suit for my daughter’s wedding. And I had these tests at the GP surgery. They phoned me up today, said it was nothing to worry about, got to come in in a couple of weeks and have some other tests, and the wife is there, asking me questions, so I can’t hear what they are saying. Then when I ring off, she’s like, why didn’t you ask this and that? So I lost it completely, and I said, well next time I’ll get them to speak to you and not bother speaking to me, and threw the phone at her.

Me - Oh dear.

Driver - So that’s it. The thing is, it’s my wife’s birthday and we were going to go for a nice meal after we’d collected the suit. And now that’s all off, she’s deep in cleaning now, not going anywhere. There’s no going back now.

Me - When women do the cleaning instead of going out for lunch it’s normally a sign of protest.

Driver - It’s all ruined. She’s not speaking to me.

Me - Can’t you unruin it somehow?

Driver - There’s no going back.

Monday, 3 September 2018

The Mindful Writer

So you want to be a writer? According to popular mythology, all you need to do is hole up for a weekend or three, drink copious amounts of coffee and/or smoke a lot of cigarettes and put pen to paper. Words of genius will instantly pour out of you. After that comes The Auction, which will make you rich, and The Film Deal, which will make you famous. For impatient binge writers, there is plenty of advice out there, from writing a novel in a month (NaNoWriMo) to producing a book in a weekend.

Published under the Creative Commons licence.
Site: Rubin Museum of Art, Date 22 October 2017, Author FMdesign (Frank Murray)

But what about the pain and pleasure of writing itself? Or the pure love of invention? And the way that writing, like meditation, can help you find your personal equilibrium? Writing is in many ways the ultimate mindful occupation and recording your thoughts regularly can help transform your life. You don’t have to be a Buddhist to reap the rewards. The essential point is that each day you check in with your work, and each day you learn something from it. Writers have been talking about this for decades, and yet somehow the idea of the lone author instantaneously producing work of undiluted genius is an enduring fantasy. Such outpourings do happen, but only after years of apprenticeship to the craft and discipline of writing. 

As Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary: ‘What one wants for writing is habit...It loosens the ligaments. Never mind the misses and the stumbles. Going at such a pace as I do must make the most direct and instant shots at my object, and thus have to lay hands on words, choose them and shoot them with no more pause than is needed to put my pen in the ink. I believe that during the past year I can trace some increase of ease in my professional writing which I attribute to my casual half hours after tea.’ The trouble with our own ‘casual half hours after tea’ is that such practice can seem more like limbering up for a marathon we will never be asked to run than an activity which is valuable for its own sake. The besetting issue for most writers is that their work is only validated by publication – or so it seems. Until then, writing is a mere hobby, and we are struggling amateurs. 

But there is so much to enjoy. Each stage has its own rewards, even the supposedly preparatory and relatively uncreative period of research, as the novelist Marina Warner has observed – she finds the smell of book dust inspiring and libraries give her a sense of escape. In fact, it’s my experience that research is essential to the creative process, allowing ideas to connect with our imagination and find their own strange logic. We don’t have great canvases to splatter with oil paint, or the thrill of mixing colours, but we do have the tactile reality of paper, books and pens, the fascination of field trips and research interviews and the excitement of serendipitous discovery: the way that a single object can invoke a whole world. Writing is a physical activity as well as a mental one, and every day can be a discovery.

Published under the Creative Commons licence User: (WT-shared) Cai at wts wikivoyage - Own work,
Public Domain,

There is also something restorative and exciting about tapping into your unconscious, developing ideas that are rooted in your obsessions or memories. All artists work with both the external world and their internal consciousness, and this is one of elements of the creative process that is difficult to describe – my view is that each writer will find their own way of combining these elements to a lesser or greater degree, and they will find these solutions via a process of trial and error and experimentation. No agent or editor can tell you how this works, and it’s an innately private and personal matter in the first instance. Notebooks and daily writing help the process along. Author and writing guru Julia Cameron advocates writing ‘morning pages’ first thing each day, and many writers make this part of their practice. One such writer is Hilary Mantel: ‘At this hour one writes easily, without strain or effort,’ she writes. ‘There is no sense of the words being graven in stone, or that sense of making a commitment that can be so paralysing. Sometimes what is written at this hour isn’t used, but is invariably free from constraint.’ (The Agony and the Ego, Clare Boylan, 1993).

This communing with you inner self isn’t necessarily spiritual, but has some similarity with yoga practice or morning prayer – it’s a way of getting beyond ‘dailyness’ and finding patterns and symbols that have meaning. And this meaning may be personal in the first instance, but can ultimately be communicated to other people. Creative writers often undervalue this part of the process, and there can be a sense of pressure to rush towards completion. But this is short sighted – and prevents us from working to our fullest potential. We can learn from the process of visual artists, who see process as an integral part of their daily life as well as a component of each finished work. GraysonPerry describes his creative process as his ‘mental shed’ which gives him a sense of security and a safe place from which to look out of a window ‘onto the world’. 

My favourite writing space is a moving train, looking out at a passing world. This makes me feel as if my writing is moving too, and what I write is delible and malleable, like Hilary Mantel’s dawn drafts. This creative sketching is a way of finding a pattern without imposing one, of evolving a loose logic that determines its own shapes and connections. Raw experience, random impressions, childhood memory, all of this can be forgotten and revisited, twisted and repurposed. At its best, this process can take us into the ‘zone’ in which we transcend the limitations of self and find an equilibrium that allows our creative imagination to flourish, disappearing into our own ideas. Rather than rushing this period of our writing process, surely we should cherish it, and learn how to nurture our developing ideas. Not only does this benefit our finished work, it is a life enhancing process in itself. 

(Based on an article I first published in Bookanista

Sunday, 12 August 2018

Three books that inspire me

I don't know how many books I've read in my life, but I do know that I was an avid reader from the age of five. The books I first loved were about magic and adventure, and I developed a passion for Roman warfare as a result of reading Rosemary Sutcliff. I still love historical fiction, though I can't remember much about shield deployment in a battlefield context.

Childhood favourite
My common law step-grandfather gave me a boxed set of all the Narnia books when I was seven. I loved and re-reread them all, but the one that blew me away was The Magician’s Nephew, by C.S. Lewis, the tale of two Victorian children who travel back to the Genesis of Narnia. (I had yet to make the discovery that all of these books were Christian allegories, though very little seems to be under the radar when I look back on them now.)

What I liked best was the evocation of lost London, in particular the attics that connected a row of tall houses, and the way in which Lewis boldly describes Creation, with Aslan breathing the new Narnia into being. It seemed that anything was possible, anything could be described in a book, and I found that so exciting.

All-time recommendation
It’s impossible to be accurate about this, as these things do shift around as you find new things, but I keep coming back to Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, which recently took a bit of a drubbing among some of my Facebook friends for its poor plot structure. There is a danger in teaching creative writing that you might suggest that there are absolutes in writing, when I would say there are just two – read a lot and write a lot – and this book is proof of that.

This is what I wrote on Facebook in its defence: ‘It's not a sensible book at all, but so mad and intense that it creates its own weird magic space, unlike anything. CB's books, crazed as they are, are positively Austen-like in their restraint compared to this one.’ What stays with me from this book is its character, the moor, the intensity of teenage passion, something bleak and mysterious that doesn’t make any sense. It’s my ultimate recommendation (today) because of this – few writers can communicate the essence of obsession and contrariness as Emily Bronte does in this book. And I also actually love the Russian doll structure, tales within tales, the enjoyment in a story told by a fireside with the wind howling outside.

What I'm reading now
I’m currently reading Reality Hunger by David Shields, which is opening my eyes to the extent to which my own genre of writing, historical fiction, overlaps with creative nonfiction as well as fiction. I’d describe this book as an opinion-starter, and it’s a bit ‘novel is dead’ (or at least in intensive care) for my taste.

I think the novel, literary or generic, will absorb all comers – the success of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s maximalist My Struggle series is an example of fiction that encompasses many of the tropes and conventions of nonfiction.

A version of this post originally appeared on the English and Creative Writing Department's blog at the Open University.

Tuesday, 31 July 2018

Five women forgotten by history

I'm attracted by the stories of lesser-known people in history, left out of the established historical record because of their race, their social status or their gender. Here are five examples of women marginalised by history whose lives were fascinating, and whose achievements were astonishing. One of them, Aemilia Lanyer, is the inspiration for my novel Dark Aemilia.

Trota of Salerno was a 12th century Italian medical practitioner and writer. She was famous in her own time, but her work was forgotten until the late 20th century. Her treatise On Treatments for Women was incorporated into the Trotula, which was a compendium of three different works about women’s medicine by three different writers. There are only a handful of copies of her authentic work. No other information about her life has survived, but we know she wrote the Practica secundum Trotam ('Practical Medicine According to Trota'), which covers a variety of different medical topics, from infertility and menstrual disorders to snakebite and cosmetics.

Aemilia Bassano Lanyer, the first woman to be published professionally as a poet in England, was born to a family of Jewish Venetian musicians who played at the court of Henry VIII in the sixteenth century. She was the mistress of Lord Hunsden, the Lord Chamberlain, for six years. After that, she was married off to a cousin, and lived in Westminster. In 1611, she published her proto feminist poetry collection ‘Salve Jesu, Rex Judaeorum’. She is thought by some academics to be the mysterious ‘Dark Lady’ to whom William Shakespeare addressed his later sonnets.

Excerpt of a miniature portrait of Aemilia Lanyer
Painted by Nicholas Hilliard (d. 1619) (Source Wikimedia

Maria Anna Mozart was the sister of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. When she was seven years old, her father Leopold started teaching her to play the harpsichord. He took her and Wolfgang to cities like Vienna and Paris where they performed at court. In the early days, Maria sometimes received top billing, and she was noted as an excellent harpsichord player and forte pianist. But when she grew older and was of marriageable age, she was excluded from these performances. There is evidence that Marianne wrote musical compositions, as there are letters from Wolfgang praising her work, but none has survived.

Maria Anna Mozart, Anonymous, 

Mary Elizabeth Bowser was an an American freed slave who worked as a Union spy during he Civil War. Bowser was highly intelligent and had a photographic memory, and posed as 'Ellen Bond', a slow-thinking servant. She worked at functions held by Varina Davis, the wife of the Confederate President, Jefferson Davis. Bowser eventually worked in the Davis household. She memorised all the paperwork she saw and the conversations she overheard, relaying this back to the Union side. Bowser was eventually found out, but before she fled she attempted to burn down the Confederate White House. After the war ended, the federal government destroyed any records of evidence of espionage in order to protect those involved. Bowser did keep a journal about her life, but was lost in 1952. There is no record of her later life, or her death.

Irena Sendler was a Polish nurse and social worker who served in the Polish Underground during World War II. As head of the children's section of the resistance organisation Zegota in German occupied Warsaw, she helped smuggle some 2,500 Jewish children out of the Warsaw Ghetto, providing them with false identity documents and housing outside the Ghetto. She was eventually caught by the Nazis and sentenced to death, but managed to escape execution and survive the war. In 1965 she was recognised by the State of Israel as Righteous among Nations and honoured by the Polish government for her humanitarian work.

Irena Sendler, 1942, Wikimedia commons. 

Thursday, 26 July 2018

Keeping a notebook

How does an idea become a story? It’s hard to define or describe the process. The relationship between creativity and physicality is one that we sometimes overlook. But the physical process of writing is essential to the development of fiction. The brain/hand connection is as important to a writer as it is to a tennis player.

What exists in our imagination is usually formless and confused until it has become in some way physically real – at which point we may find that other ideas attach to it. Some writers carry ideas round in their heads for months – but I can’t be the only person who thought they were doing this, only to discover that the idea had disappeared. Obviously there are different ways of keeping track of our thoughts. A note on an iPhone may be all that’s needed to record the passing moment, or pin down a sudden inspiration. But perhaps we are losing something if we turn our thoughts into instant electronic data. The notebook, tried and tested for centuries, is an invaluable tool. Not only is it a repository of ideas and experience, it can also help generate lateral connections.

Essentially, a notebook helps us to focus on our immediate responses to the world. Writing in the preface to A Writer’s Notebook (Heinemann, 1951) novelist and short story writer W. Somerset Maugham says: ‘When you know you are going to make a note of something, you look at it more attentively than you otherwise would, and in the process of doing so the words are borne in upon you that will give it its private place in reality.’ (Maugham 1951: x)

Kafka's notebook with words in German and Hebrew
Vessel to Vessel, The National Library of Israel Collection

Habit is also important according to Virginia Woolf. In A Writer’s Diary (Hogarth Press, 1953) she says: 'But what is more to the point is my belief that the habit of writing thus for my own eye only is good practice. It loosens the ligaments. Never mind the misses and the stumbles. Going at such a pace as I do I must make the most direct and instant shots at my object, and thus have to lay hands on words, choose them and shoot them with no more pause than is needed to put my pen in the ink.' (Woolf 1987: 22)

For most writers, a notebook is the closest thing we have to an artist’s sketch book, and the equivalent of a studio. Instead of an atelier of half-finished canvases, splashed with paint, we have jottings and scrawled sentences which catch at our vision of life, and can sometimes contain passing flashes of inspiration that would otherwise have gone forever. Unlike sketchbooks, they are rarely beautiful in themselves, although there may be beautiful things in them.

Bruce Chatwin, photographed by Lord Snowdon, 28 July 1982, Wikicomms, Fair Use

Does the quality of such notebooks matter? At worst, an expensive notebook can tempt us to write self-consciously, or pretentiously. I used to think the travel writer Bruce Chatwin was guilty of notebook narcissism. In his memoir The Songlines (Penguin 1987) he writes: ‘I made three neat stacks of my “Paris” notebooks. In France, these notebooks are known as carnets moleskines: 'moleskine', in this case, being its black oilcloth binding. Each time I went to Paris, I would buy a fresh supply from a papeterie in the Rue de l'Ancienne-Comédie.’ (Chatwin 1987: 160) These notebooks went out of production in 1986, but a Milanese publisher brought them back into production in 1997 using Chatwin’s term ‘Moleskine’ to give credibility to the brand. They are now ‘design classics’ which potentially adds to their dubiousness as the tools of a writer’s trade. But – confession time - I now write in a Moleskine notebook myself.)

The writer Ailsa Cox stresses that the notebook should help us connect with the energy of lived experience Writers like Katherine Mansfield fuelled their intensely observed short fiction by making bright, immediate word sketches, using sensory observation to record the minutiae of the ‘ordinary’ world. In Writing Short Stories: A Routledge Writer’s Guide (Routledge 2005) Cox explains: ‘Notebook-writing doesn’t have to prove anything or be shown to anyone. Mine’s indecipherable anyway.’ (Cox 2005: 49)

Although habit is important, writing in your notebook shouldn’t be an oppressive duty. The spontaneity essential to the best short story writing is best fostered if you write in your notebook regularly, but not slavishly, Cox believes. ‘The idea is to liberate your creativity, not restrict your own freedom. Write whenever you find an opportunity. I have to confess I have sometimes started scribbling during an especially mind-numbing meeting.’ (Cox 2005:50)

Perhaps the most important function of a notebook is that it is portable, and you can almost write in it off-guard, without worrying about the quality or quantity of what you produce. So the notebook is my ally in the struggle to improve as a writer, and to feed my imagination with fresh ideas. I write on trains, in cafes, parks, at the seaside, in the kitchen, anywhere. There is always something there when I close the book that didn’t exist when I opened it.

(A longer version of this article was published on the Thresholds website, University of Chichester