Monday, 15 December 2014

Brighton Festival Fringe Event

It's early days yet - but I'm just flagging up the fact that I'm delighted to be talking about historical fiction with the award-winning novelist Susanna Jones as part of the Brighton Festival fringe in May 2015. 

Susanna is the author of three contemporary novels: 'The Earthquake Bird'; 'Water Lily' and 'The Missing Person's Guide to Love' and of the historical novel 'When Nights Were Cold', which tells the intriguing and unsettling story of a group of female mountain climbers in the early 20th century. 

So far this is the information that we have:

Historical Fiction Now - writing and publishing panel and workshop. Novelists Susanna Jones and Sally O'Reilly on why they started writing historical fiction and their publishing experiences. Includes panel discussion with publishers and literary agents followed by lucky dip pitching session. Bring a one-page book idea/synopsis for possible feedback.

The venue is The Latest Bar and the time is 7pm on Thursday 21st May. 

Hope to see you there - and more details soon!

Thursday, 4 December 2014

What IS historical fiction?

I've just finished chairing a series of seminars about historical fiction for the Open University. (There's more about this series here.) There were six speakers, all brilliant and all with a different angle on historical writing and the way in which it relates to other forms of fiction - and to different academic disciplines. I'll be posting in more detail about the subjects we discussed in the next few weeks.

It may seem pretty straightforward to come up with a definition for historical fiction - surely we are simply talking about any story that is set more than 50 years ago? But even that is open to debate - Jerome de Groot, one of the seminar speakers, includes Alan Hollinghurst's  'The Line of Beauty' in the genre, whereas the Historical Novel Society insists that the 1980s are too recent. Whatever the cut off point in terms of time, it's also the case that this is a vast compendium of a genre. 

There are infinite possibilities for writers of historical fiction. It includes straightforward generic writing such as Tudor bodice rippers, and experimental writing like Ali Smith's 'How to be Both' which was the winner of this year's Goldsmiths prize for experimental fiction as well as being long
listed for the Booker.

I'm interested in the way in which this genre can be bent and shaped by different writers, and the way that it develops and morphs with time. I'm also interested in getting well away from the idea that this is a cosy or conservative genre, in which writers are playing safe. 

As Hilary Mantel says: ‘A relation of past events brings you up against events and mentalities that, should you choose to describe them, would bring you to the borders of what your readers could bear. The danger you have to negotiate is not the dimpled coyness of the past – it is its obscenity.’

Some stories may be more brutal than others, but the ‘obscenity’ of the past fascinates writers – war, murder, fear, oppression, loss, invasion, imprisonment and bereavement all feature in 21st century historical fiction, as does squalor, both moral and physical. And just as no subject is off limits, neither is any period, or any form of experimentation. Historical fiction is not an escape from the modern world, it can enable us to see contemporary life more clearly.

Like all writers, I am learning all the time, and this seminar series taught me a lot. What I’ve learned in the last couple of months is that the challenges and complexities of writing historical fiction relate to writing set at any time, and to any comprehension of the past, whether recent or remote. Put simply, this is about what can be known, how we can know it, and how that knowledge can be communicated.

Will this make it easier to write my next novel? Probably not. But I am certainly fizzing with ideas not only about the subject matter, but also about ways in which this story can be told. 

Saturday, 1 November 2014

"Hexenhammer" by Darla And The Blonde

I did post this yesterday but accidentally deleted it! It's a song inspired by my novel Dark Aemilia, written by the brilliant Nina Lovelace for her band Darla and the Blonde and the animation is the work of the equally brilliant Kingman Cheng.

The starting point is the scene in which Aemilia decides to summon a demon to saver her son from the plague. Hope you enjoy it,

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Man Booker prize - a celebration

Here is a Lit Spoof I wrote during my Creative Writing MA. Thought I'd share it on Post Man Booker Shortlist Annunciation Day. Dedicating it to all writers, everywhere. (BTW: topicality alert- this is a Generic Send-up, not a spoof of any of the books on the list, which I haven't read. Still trying to catch up with the 2005 shortlist, to be honest.)


Fentimore Ballantyne, a man little used to women, walks along the Rue de Rivoli, twirling his cane. Only twenty years since Armageddon, and he is on his seventh face.  He strolls towards what was once Montparnasse, and is now a bowling alley for the underclass. This week he is Alexander the Great – his symmetry is on an epic scale. He has cruel, flat eyes – his present physiognomy is inspired by carvings.  His lips are full, protruding over white, parading teeth. Perhaps the lips are not quite right? He purses them, uneasy.  He can afford another transplant.  He can afford any number of transplants. He invested in armaments when the credit crunch came.  Fentimore Ballantyne is a rich man, and his face is his only extravagance.

Where am I?  Clarissa Dalloway wakes up, stretches.  A man in her bed – oh yes!  The launch party of that silky little volume of journalistic musings. Never fails, a slim book, with large spaces around the words. She didn’t even write it. She just told the author to make it shorter. Keep them guessing.  The man is from a broadsheet. Married, of course.  They’re so much easier to pull.  She gets up, slips into her Betty Jackson slacks. Slakes her thirst with last night’s vintage champagne. How to deal with this one?  He is snoring, one arm dangling over the bed-edge, like a baby lion dozing on a branch.  Nice skin.  Hmm.  She hasn’t skinned one for a while.

The bleak cloud remnants are resting on the lid of the moor.  A man’s figure appears, against the huddle of wind-moulded rocks on the black edge of land. He is alone. His silhouette is motionless.  Deliberate as ritual, he begins to climb the hunks of stone. His movements are fast and strong.  Behind him, the sky is fading into invisible monoxide.  A single kite turns on its wing in the vastness, breathing in polluted air, watching. It sees a moor frog, crouching by a stone. Falls earthwards, grabs with dinosaur talons and the frog is gone.

It takes Clarissa one hour and nine minutes to cycle from her flat in Stockwell to the offices of Dalloway and Vixen, the most feared author’s agency in WCI. When she gets to work, Septimus has got there first.  With a pretence of solicitude, he has left a skinny latte by her Apple Mac. Next to it, an Apple Danish. Septimus has a congratulatory First from Piers Plowman college, Oxford. He likes to reference doubling, twins and the unfunny. 
            “Thanks, Sep,” she says, wiping her feet on the slush pile.
            “Good evening?” asks Septimus.
            “Marvellous, thank you.” She tosses the Danish into the bin.
            “Seemed to be getting very cosy with Brian Easton-Ellis.”
            “With whom?”
            “That Guardian chap.”
            She gives him her basilisk stare, and turns to the latest bright young novel. Post apocalyptic plastic surgery. Sooo predictable.

If one is a parent.  Sometimes… It’s like A and E. 

You, as an infant. Tugging the milk out of me, stronger than any lover.  We lay in bed, tumbled together, days merging into night. My child. My lost boy. No one has read my book yet, and that makes me very angry. Because.  As a writer, I write. You came into my life, and the very, very short sentences still flowed out of me. In small bursts. Like breast milk. Now, you tug on skunk. My pure, clear toddler is dead to me. 

He started smoking when things were bad between his father and me.  I don’t want to say too much about that now. It’s in very early draft form. An image – his ruffled little head, keep it visual. My boy, I know him.  He lies. He tells the truth. He is talented. I pay him for his poems, which are very fine.  We are pinned to each other with words. Even the house has had its own book. The rabbit is next.  It’s salt lick is addictive.
Clarissa wipes her lips, delicately.  The aspiring writer perspires gently into her alfalfa consomm√© . Over forty, up from the south coast.  Two books, neither of them did much.  Now she is marked by Bookscan, hunted down, a failure exactly measured in an absence of transactions.
             “The thing is…” says Clarissa.
            “You’re not… how shall I put this?”
            “Selling enough?”
            Clarissa sighs. “It’s not as simple as that.”
            “Isn’t it?”
            “The thing is, you’re neither one thing, nor another.”
            “I’m not?
            God, this is hard work, thinks Clarissa. (If she wasn’t a serial killer, she has no idea how she would hold it all together.)
         “Look,” she says, finally, pouring the rest of the half bottle of Chardonnay into her own glass. “You’re not commercial enough, and you’re not literary enough. And you’ve got form.  Okay?”

Monday, 8 September 2014

How to go to a writing conference

Being a writer is hard. I mean, not in the sense that being a miner or a crew member on a billionaire's yacht is hard, but in the sense of being lonely, uncertain and almost certainly doomed to failure. No one is going to make you go a mile underground to hack stuff out of the earth, or clean their Jimmy Choos at three am, but you will be forced by your own obsessive ambition to sit at your PC for many isolated, sedentary hours. The sun shines, the world spins on its axis and there you are, typing some stuff you will probably take out tomorrow because, actually, in the cold light of another day, it is a bit rubbish.

So how do you deal with this? You go for a run sometimes, or to the gym, you meet with other writers and rant/vent about being a writer, and then let them do the same. You try to Be Nice to Yourself, in ways that may or may not involve a. biscuits and b. booze.

And you go to conferences. Yay! Conferences are great. You brush your hair and put on acceptable clothing. You leave the house. You learn stuff, (You always, always learn something at a conference that it is impossible to learn in any other way, even by listening to Radio Four). And you talk to people.

The title of the post is 'How to go to a conference'. Here are my three top tips:

1. Talk to people.
2. Talk to people.
3. Talk to people.

I could do five or ten top tips, but you get the general idea.

This weekend I did just this. I was not only at a conference in London - the Historical Novel Society Conference 2014 - I was speaking at it. My subject was the way in which fact relates to fiction, and the way in which Macbeth inspired my novel Dark Aemilia. And though I obviously think this is a pretty interesting subject, my fellow panellists were riveting - and they were a very impressive bunch, including Robyn Young, Andrew Taylor and Elizabeth Gifford. (The downside of a writers' conference is that you will find out about brilliant writers and their books, and your reading pile will grow even higher as a result.) The session was also chaired by Jenny Barden, who is a fellow Tudor novelist.

Robyn talked about Robert the Bruce and her research trip to Scotland, and the way that the physicality of the land inspired and shaped her narrative. Andrew talked about a ghost story in the Forest of Dean - a black servant whose sister was raped by his white master's son killed the rapist in revenge, and his ghost still haunts the woods.  And Liz Gifford talked about her family history and the selkies in Scotland.

I cam't cover everything that happened, obviously, but hugely enjoyed talks by Conn Iggulden, who basically just needs his own TV show and is one of funniest, most natural public speakers I have seen, and Lindsey Davis, another highly entertaining speaker, who was both witty and very serious, a combination I like.

There was also a panel discussion about publishing and promoting historical fiction. I wish I could say there was a reassuring message here. But as Nick Sayers, one of the most respected editors in the business, gave as his single piece of advice to newbies 'Don't give up the day job' it is clear that only someone very naive would go into novel writing with a view to paying the mortgage, never mind paying it off.

The best panel I attended was 'My Era is Better than Yours' which set a number of writers the task of defending their own era against all comers. Former war correspondent Angus Donald was the star, bigging up the romance of the Medieval period as well as its violence, but everyone gave it their all, and writer/publisher Antonia Hodgson, author of  'The Devil in the Marshalsea' romped home with the Georgian period when it came to an audience vote. (And yes, I did wish I was writing a novel in the Georgian period after the discussion, and in about four years, when I have cracked the Restoration, I probably will be....)

All this and a host of meetings and card-swappings and the drinking of tea and coffee and wine and general bonhomie. And the chocolate cake was pretty good too.

Go to a conference! Go on. You know you want to.

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Tom Hanks and the art of typing

Serendipity is very useful sometimes. I was thinking about blogging about typing, and then, what do you know, Tom Hanks obliging invents a Typing App. His timing is completely perfect.

I learned to type in the 1960s when I was five, as part of an experimental literacy programme at my infant school. I've no idea how successful the experiment was, but the fact that it was a one-off suggests that it wasn't groundbreaking. And ever since then, I have kind of loved typing and its ritual of mental and physical progress, of getting thoughts on paper.

I won a writing competition when I was 26 and the prize was a manual typewriter, an Olivetti, the symbol of Being An Author. But it was rather small and flimsy. When I decided to get down to it and really write, I used a retired golf ball typewriter my office was throwing out. It was more like a combine harvester than a mere typewriter,and took up nearly the whole desk in my bedroom in Brixton. (I lived in a house which was like something in an early Woody Allen movie, with trains passing so thunderously that the whole building trembled.) I fed paper into the typemonster and tapped away on the QWERTY keyboard, watching my words clack into reality, looking ordered and serious, even when they were misspelled.(Which they frequently were.) When I needed to think, or sob with frustration, I would lean on the expansive keyboard. It was so large and flat you could have slept on it. 

Now, like the rest of the world, I use a PC or a lap top, and my words are electronic, trapped in an glaring white screen which seems to have its own reality, its own authority. To escape, I often write in hand, in notebooks or on lined A4 pads which remind me of being at school. But my handwriting is sometimes hard to read back, particularly when I am in the throes of creativity (or delusion). So recently, I have been thinking it would be good to use a typewriter again. It seems to offer a half way house between the privacy and informality of a notebook and the misleading polish of a computer draft.
Will Self uses a typewriter, and waxes lyrical about it - here is an extract from an article he wrote for the Times in 2012:

"I switched to working on a manual typewriter in 2004 (all my previous books had been composed either on an Amstrad word processor or more sophisticated computers), because I could see which way the electronic wind was blowing: dial-up internet connections were being replaced by wireless broadband, and it was becoming possible to find yourself seriously distracted by the to and fro between email, web surfing, buying reindeer-hide oven gloves you really didn’t need — or possibly even looking at films of people doing obscene things with reindeer-hide oven gloves. The polymorphous perversity of the burgeoning web world, as a creator of fictions, seriously worried me — I could see it becoming the most monstrous displacement activity of all time."

He is absolutely right, of course. The virtual world is populated with distraction junkies, and that includes writers.

There is a whole world of typewriter obsessives out there - maybe we will see a rebirth of the clanketty typewriter as opposed to the bland computer keyboard? There is no romance in PCs or laptops, though I know Mac users will disagree with me. There are some photos on the excellent blog The Classic Typewriter Page.

Thursday, 14 August 2014

Five top tips for summer writing

Free stock photo of legs, notebook, working, wristwatch
My last post focused on the fact that writing in the summer holidays is not a walk in the park. (Or if it is, you are on the way to the recycling point.) Part two is going to be Way More Positive. This is because, though it is probably reassuring to know that life after publication is not all wafting about in a cloud of smug complacency, there is also a vague expectation that a blog called How to be a Writer might include some useful advice.

So here are Five Top Tips for summer writing:

1. Write indoors, or in the shade. Sunbathe later. Writing in the sun equals migraine, there are mathematical equations to prove this.

2. Chunk your time. Vis a vis the sample 'to do' list in my last post, there is always shit to be done, and there is always writing to be done, so you need to do first one thing, then another, in blocks. Zone your day into writing time and non writing time. Zone your week in the same way - try and have at least one day on which you write and that is it. Nothing else is allowed to happen, and that includes coffee with your best friend.

3. Write first. You don't have to rise at dawn, drink lemon juice and be perfect, but it does help if you write early in the day, before your brain has silted up with invoices and cleaning tips. (I know this is hard if you are a parent and have early rising children, in which my advice is to send them to a summer play group or insist that your partner does some holiday child care and write then.)

4. Avoid social media. Yes, this is me, writing online, telling you to avoid going online. Avoid going online. I am still saying it.

5. Enjoy yourself. I am not of the persuasion that writing is a sort of self-torture, and that the only reason to do it is that you like the look of a published novel, or doing signings in Waterstones, or whatever the motive is meant to be if you write-but-hate-writing. I LOVE writing. I would go mad without it. Ergo, I enjoy it. If you don't, try something else. Life is short, and there are too many words out there already.

And here is a my Useful Link, an excellent book which is not written by me: Getting Things Done: How to Achieve Stress Free Productivity by David Allen Good time management isn't the answer to everything, but it is a big help when it comes to doing The Actual Writing and still sorting out the mortgage payments and all the other stuff the modern world insists on consisting of.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

My summer of words?

All year long, like many people all over the world, I think about the blissful period when I won't be doing what I am usually doing. (Commuting, sitting in meetings, looking at very long documents searching for an opinion, filling in online forms that have been designed for robots rather than people etc etc.) And I dream about what I will be doing in that golden time - which in January I conceive of as July and August, by May has morphed into six weeks including August and by June has become simply AUGUST, one sacrosanct month in which to be that pure thing, A Writer.

So what happened? It is now August 13th, technically nearly half way through my precious month of words, and so far my novel notebook is empty, though two or three non fiction books about the Restoration are bulging with post it notes, and my husband has had a couple of quite boring nights in the pub during which I told him how great my unwritten characters will be, and how brilliantly they will integrate with my themes. (This is probably the only subject more tedious than other people's dreams.)

The trouble is that because I am a busy person, a mother of teenagers, partner of a commuter, owner of a recalcitrant Victorian terrace etc etc, once the busyness recedes slightly I start to panic and fill up my potential writing time with anxiety and paranoia about stuff that isn't Work, but is Life. Writing is like the neglected middle child, overlooked in favour of the more pressing needs of its demanding siblings.

I have done some work, yes, but I am nowhere near the Zone, that wonderful experience of living the life of your book so intensely that what other people mistakenly call Reality has faded into the distance. Not only is my every day notebook brimming with 'to do' lists, I am not even doing the things that should be done, rendered immobile by a sense of injustice that they are there at all, cluttering up My Month.

Example: Monday 11th August:

1. Filing and sorting office
2. Clean shed (this is where I should be working on novel, in serene cardigan)
3. Bank stuff
4. Emails (long list of people whose book launches, parties, country walks etc I have missed due to being ill/busy/mad, who I can now catch up with)
5. Update Lovefilm (This is now something to do with Amazon which I neither fully understand nor entirely approve of)
6. Set up subscription to Writing Magazine
7. Song feedback. (Yay! This is a writing thing - a brilliant friend has written a song inspired by my novel. More on this later.)
7. Deal with painter (this has actually now happened - the hall was painted on Tuesday. This is the power of delegation.)
6. Sort rubbish (This is related to student neighbours leaving their mouldy rubbish bags outside so the seagulls can slash the bin bags and led to my husband and me cleaning the street with detergent two days ago)
7. Clean blinds with sock (online tip, yet to be tried out); clean kitchen cupboard and paint back wall (this is never going to happen); clean window (not sure which one, they are all filthy), clean mirrors (bathroom and sitting room). (This is all one number?)
8. Declan - Bestival?
9. Declan - Other? (This is an oblique reference to A level related issues)
10. Get hoover fixed
11. Apply to teach on Arvon
12. Washing, two loads

So there you go. The world doesn't go away during a summer of words, it takes up residence in all its horrible little bits and pieces. My summer of words is under threat! There is so much bittiness to contend with, how can an entire novel get done?

It's a bit like deciding to stop being a lardy couch potato - it has to happen in small steps. So although a novel might end up being 120,000 words long - or even quite a bit longer if you are Karl Ove Knausgaard - it is the Right Here, Right Now scenario, and you need write what you can today. And the pressure isn't off when you have set time aside to write, it is On.

The trick to binge writing or binge thinking, is to start as early as possible in the day. My pledge to myself for the remaining 18 days of August is to write first, and keep my lists at bay. Future lists will doubtless feature most of the above items, but 'Write Novel' will be at the top, every day.

Off to a cafe now to do my J. K. Rowling thing.

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

How to find a literary agent

If there is one question I can guarantee will come up at readings it is: how did you find your agent? These days, the answer to that is that I have found and lost three agents in my twenty year writing career, and have been published by six publishers (three global and three independent). Currently, I am not represented by an agent at all, and am lucky enough to deal direct with my publishers.

So finding an agent is only the beginning. And if you do find one, although this is an important step as so many publishers will only look at work that has been submitted by a literary agency, it is not the end of the journey towards being a Published Writer. You may well find an agent who loves your work, but they may not succeed in convincing a publisher that they should take you on. These are tough times for new writers, and indeed for any writer who is not already famous and deemed to be a reliable and bankable commodity.

Nonetheless, if you can find and keep a good agent, you are likely to find the path to publication easier, and you will be able to offload some of the aspects of a writing career that authors traditionally dislike - e.g. anything to do with numbers. (I speak as someone with established number dyslexia.)

So here seven habits of highly effective agent finders. Be warned – there are no short cuts here. Good agents are inundated with would-be clients, and you will need to invest time if you want to convince someone that they should represent you.

·        Write a good book. Write the best book that you possibly can. Or ideally a slightly better book than you possibly can. The bar is set very, very high for new writers. Your writing must stand out.

·        Research the market. This means looking at literary shortlists, best seller lists in newspapers, online communities, reviews, book group choices and whatever else you can find. If yours is a genre book, make sure you are an expert on the genre and the readers of that genre.

·        Check out each agency. When I found my first agent, there was no internet, and all I had to go on was the Writers & Artists Year book. This is still an invaluable resource for all professional writers, but you can also now find a huge amount online, and research not only agencies but the interests and preferences of individual agents.

·        Be realistic. Don’t just send your work to a famous agent who everyone has heard of and sit there waiting for the phone to ring. You could be lucky, but try and reduce the odds. Check out their agency and send it to the most junior person who is taking on work in your genre. Or send it to an independent which has been set up recently. You are more likely to attract a new agent who is still building their list than an established player who is too busy to read new submissions.

·        Enter competitions. If you are shortlisted for a major competition, you may find yourself in the pleasant position of being courted by more than one agent. Of course, such competitions are in themselves a lottery, and this may seem like a long shot. But there are dozens of competitions of various kinds out there, and the more you enter, the more chance you have of getting somewhere.

·        Get published. Writing short stories used to be the tried and tested way of starting a writing career, and to some extent this is true today, largely because of the rise of online magazines and literary websites. Be proactive and try and get your word published as widely as you can – short short pieces and micro fiction can be very useful in this respect. Agents do look at literary journals and websites.

·        Network. Go to literary events and talks which include agents. Ask questions and try to speak to them at the end. Personal contacts are very useful in this game. (But the good news for night workers or those living far away from the nearest bookish metropolis is that these contacts can now be made online.)

 I hope this is useful - do let me know if you disagree with any of the points I've made, or if you would like more information about any of my suggestions. It's good to have ambitions for your writing, but don't confuse having an agent with being a writer - you can get on perfectly well without one. We are living in fast changing times, and the publisher-agent-writer template is still the conventional way to launch and manage a writing career, but is by no means the only show in town.

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Shakespeare in Love review

London’s West End is filling up with movie-retreads and musicals, and here we have a movie-retread with music. But this isn’t just any movie, and it is almost surprising that it hasn’t been adapted for the stage before now. Released in the US in 1998, the Oscar-winning Shakespeare in Love gets a rating of 92 per cent on review site Rotten Tomatoes and is a cinematic tour de force, full of energy, wit and exuberance.

So the challenge for this production team (writer Lee Hall, director Declan Donellan and designer Nick Ormerod) isn’t that we know little about Shakespeare-the-man, that his plays are seen as inaccessible or that his creative process is unknown. These are the challenges which Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard  have already surmounted with great panache. Just as Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead spins a story from the side-lines of Hamlet, the screenplay is a comedy confected from the tragedy Romeo and Juliet.

The story is simple: laddish Will Shakespeare is suffering from writer’s block and a bout of impotence. He’s caught up in the frenetic play-world and promises plays to both impresario Philip Henslowe and bombastic Richard Burbage. His original play idea ‘Romeo and Ethel the Pirate’s Daughter’ only gets under way after he has been aided by his friend and rival Marlowe, and the play goes into rehearsal when Shakespeare has barely written anything. His love affair with the wealthy Viola De Lesseps fuels his creative energy, and their clandestine relationship is conducted while the play comes to life. (Viola, disguised as ‘Thomas Kemp’, plays the part of Romeo.) But though it is pacey and entertaining, the script makes serious points about the creative process and how works of genius come into being. It dramatizes the chaos and confusion experienced by all artists, and highlights the importance of happenstance and collaboration.

I have to declare an interest here, as I am something of a Shakespeare in Love anorak having seen the film at least four times, and read the script for my PhD thesis which focused on fictional inventions of the Bard.  This means that the film is clearly fixed in my head, and I was continually comparing the one with the other. But it’s likely that many audience members won’t have seen the film at all, or will only have a vague memory of it.

Still, for me there are two main questions – does the play work as well as the film? And does the stage adaptation make full use of the fact that this is live theatre? Given the track record of those involved, my expectations were pretty high. (Donellan and Ormerod are the creative force behind Cheek by Jowl, and their production of ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore at this year’s Brighton Festival was brilliantly staged and visually stylish with a real edge of danger. And I have been a huge fan of Lee Hall since his astonishing radio play Spoonface Steinberg reduced me to tears more than 15 years ago.)

This production certainly has the charm and lightness of touch of the film. Tom Bateman is a puppyish, ebullient Will, who exudes innocence and naivety as well as passion. I liked Lucy Briggs-Owen’s take on Viola: she is slightly awkward and unsure, which fits with her geeky expertise about the stage and the various productions she has seen. Their attraction is breathless and compelling, and a convincing inspiration for the intense attraction that destroys Romeo and Juliet. (Bateman is as likable and roguish as Joseph Fiennes, and Briggs-Owen far more fresh and appealing than Gwyneth Paltrow.)

The staging is striking and highly effective. A wooden arch surmounted by two balconies sometimes looks out on to an auditorium, as if we are behind the scenes, and sometimes switches perspective so that we are the audience looking at an Elizabethan stage. This creates visual drama and a sense of immediacy. An actual dog, required by both Henslowe and the Queen in any acceptable dramatic piece, makes several appearances and gave a creditable performance as a bumbling bit player. The musical element adds to the sense of authenticity and is also used humorously – Burbage insists on incidental music to aid him in a bout of overacting.

There is an ‘and yet’ at the end of this. The second act has less energy than the first, and the climactic Romeo and Juliet death scene seemed overly protracted.  And thought this is an enjoyable and clever entertainment, I would have liked something more. Something unexpected, surprising, audacious: something more Shakespearean. Much is made of the fact that Will is writing against the clock, trying to pluck his unimagined words out of the air. The other actors cluster around his candlelit desk, rapt with expectation, on the brink of ‘the mystery’ that is theatre. There wasn’t quite enough of that mystery in a production that is following such a familiar template. 

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Feeding the soul

I'm not much of a mind-body-spirit type of a person, though I am quite keen on yoga. There is a small part of me that still thinks I am a Bryan Ferry girl, circa 1981, and therefore anything hippyesque Must Be Shunned. 

However, this is not altogether rational. And more and more, I feel that the writing life is not a life that should be lived exclusively in the head. We are not brains on sticks. Nor are we sentient robots who can usefully plug ourselves into an electronic machine - laptop, PC, whatever - and then tap our trapped thoughts out onto a keyboard. Writing connects up our physical, emotional and mental selves, it links sensation, memory, habits, everything.

Therefore - and here comes the spiritual bit - it also connects to what we might call our souls. By which I mean that inner part of our psyche which is unique: consciousness, imagination, our inner being. As Julia Cameron has said, much of our time as writers draws on this, and so it should. But sometimes we need to feed our spirits, and our energy as Artists. (I know this sounds a bit embarrassing, but this is what you are if you are in the making-up game.) 

Sometimes, though, you need to do the opposite and feed that inner being, and find ways of recharging your energies. I found the perfect way to do this at the London Short Story Festival on Sunday, when I went to a brilliant writing workshop run by Claire Keegan. If you don't know her work, you are in for a treat, and if you ever have chance to hear her speak, don't miss it.

Keegan was talking about the short story, with the focus on the sentence and the paragraph, and the way that the draft text and the imagination work together when we are developing a narrative. I thought it might be a restrictive way to approach fiction before I went, but the reverse was true. Her approach makes you proud to see writing as a calling, but at the same time she insists that good writing only happens when we abandon pretension and egotism and let the words find their own logic. As she put it: 'I believe that whatever you have to write is under the text in front of you.' 

There were lots of other insights as well, such as: 'We should draw on the strangeness of being alive, the stuff we can’t say to each other.' 

I came away brimming with ideas, and with hope for the writing I haven't done yet. 

Friday, 20 June 2014

Theft and juxtaposition

Okay, so this is my final handy writing tip for anyone interested in this wide-ranging genre. The last post was about reading an eclectic range of books set in the past; in this post I will go further and suggest that you can also import ideas and tropes freely from thrillers, crime novels, sci fi, fantasy, ghost stories, romantic fiction, life writing, travel books, graphic novels and literary fiction. It's also useful to stockpile ideas and inspirations from other art forms - films, visual art, music. You may want to write a book set in the past, but that doesn't limit your creative research (as opposed to your factual research).

Richard Lee, founder and chairman of the Historical Novels Society, suggests that it is not accurate to talk about historical fiction as a genre at all. He says: 'The first self-evident point to make is that historical novels are not a genre. ‘Crime’ is a genre, ‘romance’ is a genre, ‘literary’ is a genre. Historical novels can be any of these. The defining characteristic of historical fiction is merely that it is set in the past.'

This is a useful and freeing way to approach historical fiction. And feeding your writing habit with your knowledge and passion for writing in all genres makes sense if you want to write a historical novel that is fresh and original. (If this sounds counter intuitive, it isn't. The more you read, the more ideas you will have, and the more bizarre and brilliant juxtapositions you can make. Fact.)

You don't have to write a zombie mash-up, or fan fiction, or an overtly genre-busting novel. The sky is the limit, and you can write any kind of book you like. Writing historical fiction isn't synonymous with writing escapist costume dramas. There is no need to constrain your imagination, your language or your originality. As long as your story takes place more than sixty years ago, and as long as the thought of it makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, you can go anywhere you like.

Good luck!

Saturday, 14 June 2014

Top ten tips for historical fiction - genre

If you want to write good historical fiction, whether your aim is to entertain, sell millions of copies, subvert reader expectations, win the Booker or an ambitious combination of the above, you need to understand the genre that you are working within. This means reading widely and familiarising yourself with the books that are already out there. This is a broad church, and even within the over-arching genre of historical fiction, you will find a wide variety in terms of subject, form and style as well as historical period. My advice is not to read narrowly within the sub-genre that interests you, but to spread your net widely and read as much as you can across as wide a spectrum as possible. 

A slight difficulty here is that historical novels can be lengthy and time consuming to read. (Relatively) short historical novels I would highly recommend are Mrs Shakespeare by Robert Nye, Slammerkin by Emma Donoghue, The Passion by Jeanette Winterson, Affinity by Sarah Waters, Perfume by Patrick Susskind and Orlando by Virginia Woolf. On my current reading list is Pure by Andrew Miller and and An Instance of the Fingerpost by Ian Pears. And books that I have mentioned before that weigh in more heavily but were well worth the effort include both Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies, and The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco. 

I'd also recommend developing sub-genre awareness. If you want to write a Tudor crime thriller, make sure you read C.J. Sansom. If you want to write about the the hidden lives of women, read Philippa Gregory and Susannah Dunn. And if you want to read books that experiment with historical themes using literary innovation, I would recommend Ros Barber's The Marlowe Papers, Unexploded by Alison Macleod and When Nights were Cold by Susanna Jones. 

It's great to immerse yourself in the work of other writers, whether they are your contemporaries or the long-dead authors of literary classics. As well as enjoying these novels and losing yourself in their pages, it is also worth jotting down notes as you go, and reading acquisitively, so that you can learn from the example of others. 

How do they set the scene? Why are they writing the story now, and what does it say about the 21st century? How important are the various ingredients of the conventional novel - character, theme, plot, pace? Is the story undermining any of these conventions? Is it part of a sub-genre? Is this sub-genre literary fiction, and if so, what makes their approach 'literary'? Which elements of their technique might you want to emulate? Which elements do you feel are less successful?  

There is no need to write reviews of everything you read, but I'd recommend making notes, and using Post It notes to mark your place easily. Writing historical fiction doesn't just involve researching your period, it involves researching the ways in which you can bring that period to life, and customise lost reality for your own purposes. 

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Top tips for writing historical fiction - character, character, character

Why is ‘Wolf Hall’ so successful? Or ‘Restoration’? Or ‘The Other Boleyn Girl’? They are all very different in their approach, but all have vivid and believable characters that the reader cares about. Even an apparently unsympathetic character like Thomas Cromwell becomes engaging and absorbing when we are party to his thoughts and fears.

When writing my own novel, 'Dark Aemilia', I fell in love with a real historical character, Aemilia Bassano Lanyer, the first woman to be published professionally as a poet in England, and she was the main inspiration for my story. I worked hard on the plot, and on the structure of the novel, but the themes arose from her character and the way that she responded to the relevant work of William Shakespeare - the later Sonnets, which are full of pain and rage as well as passion, and 'Macbeth' (or as I should say, 'the Scottish play').
There were times while was writing the novel when I was discouraged - VERY discouraged - and it was extremely useful to have in Aemilia such a robust and determined colleague. It was impossible for me to give up when she had surmounted obstacles which were so much greater, and embarrassing to whinge when she had had to contend with the forces of Early Modern Patriarchy, and all I had to contend with was an agent operating in Agent Time (which moves very, very slowly) or a faulty washing machine. Write about someone you love, and you won't care if some readers don't like them. Write about a character who inspires and obsesses you, and getting up at 6am each day to get the words down will feel like play rather than work. 

A key question here is: has human nature changed? I don't think it has in fundamental ways - all people fear death, seek pleasure, feel hungry and so on. But everything else - all the customs and assumptions - are constantly changing. In my own lifetime, social media has transformed social life and even the way we think. I think that, as with language, historical characters are a hybrid of what is intelligible to modern readers and what is plausible in terms of the period you are writing about. 

It is a challenge, and not everyone will agree about the extent to which the past and the present should inform your characters. But the more you write, the more time you spend with the characters in your story, the more idea you will have about their 'voice' and their identity. 

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Top ten tips for historical fiction - find the gap

It is Mr Gradgrind in 'Hard Times' who says: “NOW, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life... Stick to Facts, sir!”

Ironically, Charles Dickens was quite a fan of facts himself - like many authors who start out as journalists, he was engaged with social and political life and the zeitgeist, and in many ways facts were his inspiration. But he knew they had limitations. 'Hard Times' is a novel which seeks to expose the ills of the education system, and of the industrial machine economy of the Victorian age, and to do this Dickens deploys factual information to dramatic effect. This is a society, he suggests, in which the imagination has been suppressed and the human spirit is being crushed.  He uses hyperbole and exaggeration, but he is still using a factual framework.

Facts were useful to Dickens, but they did not constrain him. Most of his novels were written in the recent past, as were those of George Eliot and Jane Austen. But one of his best loved novels, 'A Tale of Two Cities' dramatises the French Revolution. And what the reader remembers is the character of Sydney Carton, his doomed love and his final words before going to the guillotine: 'It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known..' Do we care that there is no historical evidence that an Englishman named Sydney Carton was executed in the cause of true love during the French Revolution? No, we don't. (Well, I don't, please feel free to comment if you find the plot of this novel annoying.)

Writing historical fiction means that you need to develop a sophisticated attitude to facts. You need them, but you also need an engaging narrative, a plot, coherent themes, characters who readers can engage with. Though we are adept at making the past into a series of myths and stories, it is of itself both chaotic and filled with far too many facts to pack into even the longest novel - Umberto Eco's 'The Name of the Rose' is a veritable compendium of arcane facts, but even he had to miss some information out. And his story is a well-constructed thriller. 

If you find facts daunting, it is a good idea to a. find a period or social group about which (or whom) relatively little is known or b. to write about the more distant part or c. to write alternate history and mix fact and fantasy. Gaps are just as useful as facts. 

Monday, 2 June 2014

Top Tips for Historical Fiction: Be Succinct

Be succinct. Less is more in historical fiction – don’t get bogged down in long descriptions or expositional dialogue.

Dump any research information that isn't relevant to your story. One reviewer praised Sarah Waters because (in The Night Watch) he knew the knobs on the radio were made of Bakelite, but she didn't say so.

Your book may be long - it may need to be long in order to address all your themes and tell a complex, nuanced story. But it shouldn't be long because you have padded it out with stuff from some archive.

In the brilliant Slammerkin, Emma Donoghue keeps description to a minimum, but vividly conveys the eighteenth century setting nonetheless. Comprehensive detail, words piled on words, aren't needed to conjure a scene. What you want is the right image, a key detail, which will stand for the greater whole.

Er, that's it. Less is more, as I say.

Monday, 19 May 2014

Top 10 tips for historical fiction - the time machine

Put your reader in a time machineIf you have found a way to immerse yourself in the period, try to give them the same experience. I found that one of the great joys of writing about the past - London 500 years ago in my case - was that it was an utterly escapist pursuit. I was completely immersed in a kind of fantasy, and yet at the same time I felt I was trying to uncover and re-imagine what life was really like, and how people actually felt. This is an image of the Early Modern London as imagined by the producers of Dr Who in 2007. (You can see the Tardis if you look closely.)

If you are a historian or a biographer, there is a greater responsibility to 'get it right', and although a biographer might speculate about what their subject thought or how they responded to certain events, they are usually pretty restrained. This doesn't apply to everyone - Peter Ackroyd works across both fiction and non fiction, assembling his material to recreate lost worlds or dead writers with verve and audacity. When I wrote my book, once I had the facts that I needed in place to give my story a framework which was accurate, my great challenge was to convince the reader that the story was happening around them. And that is where the time machine comes in. You climb aboard, the controls whir away, and you see where it takes you. Just as Marty McFly does in 'Back to the Future' .

There is a strong element of vulgar showmanship involved in writing like this, and I am not in the least embarrassed about it. It's vital to believe in the world that you have made up, a fantasy based on fact, a magic ground that might, just might, feel like a lost reality.

Saturday, 19 April 2014

Dark Aemilia Publication

It is 23 days since my novel Dark Aemilia was published by Myriad Editions. Why, you might ask, did I wait this long to blog about such a momentous event? Partly because in a rather OCD manner, I felt that I should complete my Top 10 writing tips before having an intermission to talk about My Actual Writing Life.

Partly because of emotion - the joy of knowing that my book is out there is counterbalanced by the anxiety of not knowing what out there will make of it. 

Authorial anxiety

And partly because of good old fashioned busyness: I have spoken at two conferences and chaired a short story seminar since the book came out. And as well as working for the Open University, being the mother of teenagers is somewhat time consuming. 

Here's Georgia, on an early pub outing before she went all Katie Puckrik:

Georgia sitting quite near a bottle of beer

And the one in the green-rimmed shades is Declan during his 2008 film-making phase: 
Declan and Digby in the mean streets of Brighton

Keeping tabs on the two of them is a bit like trying to glue peanut butter to the ceiling. Writing fat books set in the Early Modern period is a breeze in comparison.

Writers, as Fay Weldon once said, have lives. One of the defining attributes of my own writing life is muddle - each day seems like an attempt to extract writingness, or to decide whether reading other people's books or talking about being a writer, or watching films to learn about plot is writingness enough, or whether real writing, in a notebook, must always take place. (It should do, but must it?) 

Publication day is always going to be one of the great events in the life of any writer, but it is also a curiously anticlimactic experience.  Unless you are already famous, the emergence of your new work will be incremental rather than immediately operatic. Your novel may already be on sale (mine was spotted at various airports by various friends). It may not immediately appear in all known bookshops. Amazon may seem curiously immune to its status as a major cultural artefact. And so on. The last 23 days have not shaken the world. It has remained on its axis, though there was a small earthquake in Rutland the other day so it did wobble slightly.

But just to focus on the great event of the birth of Dark Aemilia, here is a short extract from the speech I made at my launch party: 

'Like most writers, I’m rather obsessive and end-driven. It’s easy to get sucked into a state of mind in which all you think about is the next goal that Must Be Achieved – finish the draft, find the publisher, get reviewed, appear on the short list, improve your Google ranking. It can go insatiably on and on. But sometimes, a good thing, a brilliant thing, happens. And then it is time sit back and say – this is great. And today is one of those days – one of the happiest and most satisfying days of my life. Dark Aemilia is an actual book, and in one way, it doesn’t matter what happens next.'

More on how this all goes later, and before then I will impart six more nuggets of timeless wisdom about writing historical fiction. 

Saturday, 8 March 2014

Top 10 tips for historical fiction - think laterally

Historical fiction is a broad and eclectic genre. You don't have to write a story that is a copycat of what has already been written. So my fourth tip is to think laterally and customize tropes and conventions from other genres as freely and cheekily as you like. Remember that there are already numerous sub-genres that have done exactly that: romantic historical fiction, historical thrillers and alternative histories, which are part historical fiction, part fantasy.

Examples include Maeve Haran's The Lady and the Poet (historical romance) which tells the story of the relationship between John Donne and Anne More; Dissolution, the first book the Shardlake series of Tudor crime thrillers by C.J. Sansom and Ruled Britannia by Harry Turtledove, which is set in an alternate sixteenth century England which has been invaded by the Spanish Armada. Some books span more than one sub-genre - for example, Fatherland by Robert Harris is both an alternate history (imagining that Germany invaded England at the end of World War II) and a thriller.

This is good news if you are fan of a particular genre of writing, and can help shape and focus your ideas .Plot can be an issue for many new or inexperienced writers, and both romances and thrillers operate within certain constraints and conventions, which both limit your options and clarify your narrative goals. (A romance should be a love story in which your protagonist has to overcome a series of obstacles to be with their lover; a thriller should revolve around a quest or 'chase' story, with the protagonist seeking to resolve a mystery or use their ingenuity to avert disaster or achieve their goal.)

The literary historical novel is also having a renaissance, following the success of authors like Rose Tremain, Sarah Waters and Hilary Mantel. The bets are off here - you can experiment and delve into much darker or stranger terrain if you want to write in this form. The recently announced long list for the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction included a number of historical novels. (The books in question are: The Strangler Vine by Miranda Carter; The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton; Burial Rites by Hannah Kent  and The Undertaking by Audrey Magee. There are also historical elements in two other books on the list: The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner moves backwards and forwards in time, and  The Lowland, by Jhumpa Lahiri  covers several decades of Indian and American life. 

So - the good news is that this genre can be bent and twisted and adapted to any form that you like. You can use certain conventions, you can make lateral connections, and you can subvert the whole lot if you want to.

Friday, 7 March 2014

Top 10 tips for historical fiction - tell a good story

Tell a good story – character and plot are just as important in this genre as in any other. Don’t make the mistake of letting the setting dominate everything else.

Historical fiction encompasses a wide range of sub-genres, and some historical novels are more page turney than others. (Excuse the erudite literary jargon there.) A novel like 'The Name of the Rose' demands more patience and application from the reader than 'The Other Boleyn Girl'. 'Story' tends to be more overtly important in popular fiction than in literary fiction, though all these terms are inexact and some writers think that a plot is over-valued by editors in literary writing, as this blogger has pointed out.

So what do I mean when I suggest that you should 'write a good story'? My advice is that you should be able to lose yourself in the world that you have created, that you should create characters that obsess you and fascinate you, and that you should have some idea about the needs and desires of these characters. I don't mean that you should have a three act structure or a shopping list of must-haves taken from 'how to write' books' (Although I do suggest that you should be aware of all these things.) And I don't mean that you should be scared of experimentation.  A good story is, in the end, the story that you needed to tell, which you have lived with and lived inside and committed yourself to.

There is something organic and instinctive about the best stories and the best story tellers. Don't just read historical novels, but be voracious and catholic in your reading, and return to books that you have loved in the past. My personal favourites include 'Rebecca', 'Wuthering Heights', 'Pride and Prejudice', 'The Wolves of Willoughby Chase', 'Lucky Jim', 'The Talented Mr Ripley', 'The Weather in the Streets' and 'Affinity'. 

The only historical novel on the list is Affinity, and I read it before I had any intention of writing in this genre myself. I challenge anyone to write a better plot than Sarah Waters has in that book. I finished it on a train and actually laughed out loud, not because it was funny especially, but because of its sheer audacity and cleverness. It was the perfect ending, the most satisfying and wonderful sleight of hand by the author. If you haven't read it, and you are wondering what I am banging on about, please do.

A good story is a succession of events which make you want to know what happens next. A clever story is one which surprises you constantly, subverting your expectations. You can write anti stories or meta fiction or undermine the form if you like. But this series of blog posts is aimed at anyone starting to write historical fiction, and in my opinion, mastering the art of story telling is a sound starting point. Just as Picasso began by learning the conventions of drawing, so we can learn from the convention of the traditional tale.

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

How to write historical fiction - be bold

This is the second of my top 10 tips for writing historical fiction.

Don’t be intimidated by the facts, or the personalities that you discover. The facts are a starting point, not a straitjacket. Remember that even biography is an inexact science.

Once you have done enough research to get a strong sense of the time and place you are writing about, and the people who lived there, you need to free yourself from the idea that you need to be 'faithful to the facts'. You must get the facts right, yes, but you actually need to be unfaithful to them. Being historically accurate means that you don't change the dates of battles, the deaths of known historical figures, or make other blunders which are anachronistic and undermine your credibility as a historical fiction writer. (This does not apply if you are writing altered history, of which more in a later post. But altered history has as much in common with fantasy as it does with this genre.)

However it is possible to decide that - for example - Thomas Cromwell was beaten and despised by his father, and this was a formative element of his psychology, as Hilary Mantel does in Wolf Hall, or that Charles II rewarded an obscure physician for saving his favourite dog, as Rose Tremain does in Restoration. If you don't make such leaps of imagination, then you might as well write a text book, which is fine, but it's not fiction. 

Biographers create a story: the story of the life of their subject. They research that person's life and perspective, using letters, their own work, their own diaries, the diaries of others, and perhaps interviews if their subject is still alive or died recently. Once this work is done, the biographer uses supposition to try to enter the consciousness of this person. They may dramatize or even invent certain scenes to bring the 'story' alive. Some are more audacious than others - Peter Ackroyd is well-known for using the devices of a novelist to explore the lives of writers like Charles Dickens.

Fiction writers go beyond supposition - they invent. You have just as much right to do this if your book is set in 1614 as you do if it is set in 2014. And this still applies if you are basing your story on the lives of real people.

You can't write historical fiction politely. You have to force your way into the past, and claim it as your own, no matter how crazy or impossible this may seem. This is what Fay Weldon said to me when I was working on an early draft of my novel Dark Aemilia 'If you are going to put William Shakespeare in your book, he has to be your William Shakespeare, and no one else's.'