The joys of research for a writer- and the scrapes…

As writers, we are often told that we should write about what we know. That much is true – we write about people, places, relationships and the vagaries of the human condition. So much of what we write is based on what we know already. But sometimes our writing ventures into places and areas we know nothing about. I don’t know everything. Sometimes I think I don’t know much at all.

Knowledge comes to us in many ways and one way to understand the world is through experience. So if I need to find out about a place I know nothing about, I pack up the camper van and go there. Research has its positives, and travelling is a huge opportunity. I’ve been to various locations in the UK and Europe to find out how it feels to be in such-and-such a place, as well as to understand the geography. Currently in the early planning stages, one of my future novels involves a road trip in the US, so I’m saving up for that, but it’s not cheap so it won’t happen this year – possibly next. Of course, when everything else fails in terms of actual physical research, there’s always the internet.

As a student years ago, the first time round, libraries were the places where much of my research happened: I spent hours leafing through books, files, documents, letters, trying to find the information I needed. There was also empirical research – direct or indirect experience or observation. But in those days, there wasn’t the immediacy of going on Google and having so many choices thrown up in seconds, which I discovered was a great benefit in recent years and during my master’s. The internet is a writer’s dream and I’m grateful for it every day.

However there is one drawback. I’m sure all writers will tell you this: we become victims of algorithms. It’s hilarious. When I was writing A Grand Old Time, I wanted to find out how much Evie would pay for a second-hand campervan in France. So I researched it on the internet. For the next month, I was inundated with spam emails asking: Are you hoping to buy a campervan, Judy? Look no further.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, I wanted to write about an older woman who tried to find love on a dating site. So, having no experience of dating sites except for the sound advice of my twenty-something-year-old son, I delved into the internet to find out exactly how it happens. It was really successful research – I found loads of information. I sifted through it all with a smile on my face and sent my character on an internet date or two with fascinating results. I loved writing those scenes. Then I received excessive amounts of spam about internet dating sites and did I need to find love now that I was over forty? I was even offered a Russian bride, a suggestion that was received with much humour from my partner Big G who, it has to be said, is tolerant beyond belief.

This brings us to the drag club scene I was writing this week. I’ve never been to a drag club, although I’d love to, and I think it’s the least I can do to make my research as authentic as possible. But, for the time being, pre-editing, I did the research on the internet and found out pretty much what I needed to know to write the scene. But then the emails that came into my spam box this morning… No, no, I’ll leave it to your imagination.

There’s a novel to be had from all this: a writer is researching the internet perfectly innocently for a new book, but the trail left by the algorithms points to… dah, dah, daaahhh!!!

I’ll give that one some thought. Meanwhile, I’ll keep up the researching – it makes me laugh every day and it’s great to be writing with a big smile on my face.

 

Judy Leigh -26b

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Three recommended books to celebrate International Romani Day

 It’s long been a belief of mine that kids of all ages should see themselves reflected in and represented by the curriculum taught in schools. Too often novels and historical books can inadvertently leave out groups of people so that many learners never find people like themselves in aspects of their own education. Of course, there are many sociological and historical reasons for this and I’m not blogging about patriarchy or dominant cultures today, but it’s really important for everyone’s education that there is a ’just like me’ moment for every learner in the classroom every so often, so that all kids understand where they come from and that they are represented, they have role models, so that they know they have a valid and important place in the world. I’m sure many of us understand this experience or the lack of it from our own education.

If I asked you to name a book that dealt with the experience of Romani people, you might come up with Zoli by Colum McCann, or perhaps Lawrence’s The Virgin and the Gypsy or Gypsy Boy by Mikey Walsh. You might even have read something by Damian Le Bas. Hopefully, you wouldn’t say ‘What about The Hunchback of Notre Dame because of the Esmerelda character?’  That’s one stereotype too far but, sadly, that’s just one of the ‘types’ some people are familiar with.

Many books about Romani people are written by non-Romani people – I don’t have a problem with that – but it’s good to read other books written by those who have personal experience, and that is where writers such as Walsh and Le Bas have so much to offer readers.

So here are three books on International Romani Day that I adore, and that I believe might have an important place in the classroom too. They have each influenced me so much in their own ways, both in terms of my own writing and in terms of my experience of the world today, and I’d love to see them as frequently used resources on the curriculum.

I have heard lots of discussion from teachers about teaching Roma children, opinions that often reflect the sense of difference rather than the embracing of diversity. I’m not going to comment on it in this blog, except to say that many Romanichal children can feel invisible in the classroom in more ways than one.

The first book on my list is The Pariah Syndrome by Dr Ian Hancock. What an inspiration that man is! I knew a fair amount about the history of the Romani people and their journey across Europe from India before I read his book, and I knew about the various attitudes of others towards them and how that impacted on history, the subsequently ostracised way of life and the need for distance. But the detailed documentation of the slavery and the ill-treatment across time cited in Hancock’s book was so shocking that it gave me nightmares. It is a part of history that everyone should know about and understand. Dr Hancock has also been a powerful influence on my own writing, especially in one novel that deals with events from a historical period.

The Pariah Syndrome is an important book; it should be read widely, not just by Romani people but by anyone interested in justice and the impact of centuries of mistreatment. Dr Hancock is an incredible man, and his lifetime’s work is so important. He’s honest; he pulls no punches: his writing is well researched and completely readable. Also, he highlights how important education is to everyone and especially to those of us who don’t start from a privileged position. The Pariah Syndrome is my first recommendation – in fact, anything written by Dr Hancock is wonderful.

Louise Doughty’s Fires in the Dark may be most people’s go-to novel about the Romani people because it deals with porrajmos. Books and films about the holocaust of World War Two don’t always focus on the 500,000 Romani people slaughtered, and Fires in the Dark is a powerful novel that highlights the horrors and realities of Romani experiences. (If you want an excellent film that does the same job, do look at Korkoro, a 2009 French drama film written and directed by Tony Gatlif.)

However, my favourite novel of Doherty’s is Stone Cradle. The main two characters, Clementina and her son Elijah, and the documentation of their lives strike a chord with me. I feel that I know both characters and their children. Since the novel is historical, dealing with three generations, it fills in some interesting gaps about the changes of the travelling lifestyle and the subsequent impact on the lives of Romani-descendant house dwellers in England. It reminds us about the old language and old ways that may have eroded over time.  I found Stone Cradle deeply moving on many levels, as a story, as a depiction of realistic characters and as a record of the way things used to be.

My third choice is Tsigan by US poet, Cecelia Woloch. I’d recommend all of her poetry books although they can be a little difficult to get hold of in the UK and Europe. I love her use of language, her ability to tell stories and to evoke images and emotions. Her poems are a celebration of the lives of people who have suffered generations of disempowerment, poverty and exile. Often the poems are deeply reflective and personal.

Her work should be on the Literature curriculum in schools: in fact all three books from my list enable readers of all ages to achieve a better understanding of Romani people, their lives and their legacy. I recommend them to you.  Baxt hai sastimos tiri patragi…

When we walked out one spring afternoon…

I popped round to my friends’ house yesterday, five minutes away, just up the hill, for a cup of tea and a chat. It was a completely normal nice activity. The weather was glorious so we sat in the garden. Birds twittered and the sun filtered through branches; little clenched buds were beginning to open. We were talking about the usual things – a local pub closing down, chain saws, cider. My friend’s little dog was jumping up, keen to stretch her legs. Then all of a sudden, Murphy turned up, strutting through the garden as if he owned it and my neighbour said with a grin, ‘There’s your bad cat. He’s always round here. He had a pigeon last week.’

Murphy is the smallest of my three cats but he’s the most independent and he has a bad reputation locally. He’s always prowling around the neighbourhood. Recently a feral female was on heat and Murphy, despite having insufficient equipment to see the situation through, saw an opportunity. He is affectionate and sweet at home but, once outside in the wild, he’s an avid rabbiter. He slaughtered one in front of me a week ago.

I drank my tea and kept my eye on the little dog, but she didn’t seem to mind Murph as he came up to rub against my ankles. In fact, the dog ignored him as he sidled too close, looking for a reaction. There was none so Murphy stayed, despite my suggesting gently that he went home. He ignored me. He’s a cat, after all.

Then my neighbour suggested we took the little dog for a walk across a few fields so, despite being inappropriately shod in crocs (pink ones) I agreed and off we went: two people and a dog. The little dog scuttled alongside us, sniffing everything, as we crossed a road, took a narrow path, cut through a hedge and looked out at an open field. Then I glanced behind me and there was Murphy.

‘Are you coming for a walk, Murph?’ I asked him and he surged ahead, his little paws padding effortlessly on the dusty ground.

We walked on, an interesting group of four: two humans, one in pink shoes, a little terrier and a black cat with white paws. We strode through another field with great views of the valley down below, then up into another field and across a footpath. The little dog bounded ahead. Murphy was at my ankles, then a few steps behind before he would surge in front.

A mile later, we climbed through a hole in the hedge, meters from my neighbours’ house. We hugged goodbye – the humans, not the animals – and Murphy and I walked home. I was a little more concerned because we were on a road where vehicles often zoom past – farm machinery, cyclists, silent electric cars and too-fast drivers who doesn’t expect to see animals out for their afternoon constitutional. But Murphy didn’t seem to mind. We strolled home together and into the house, where Murphy demanded immediate sustenance before crawling onto an arm chair and going to sleep. He was worn out, poor thing.

Our cross-country walk has prompted me to plan our next sortie. Murph and I will take to the fields again soon. Next time we might even ask TC to accompany us – he could do from a break from eating. (TC is Murphy’s brother, the one who scoffs curry and crumpets and anything else he can pilfer.) The exercise would do TC good.

Colin won’t come. He sleeps on my office chair most afternoons -or the keyboard or the laptop. He likes to alter my novels, to upgrade them as he sees fit, which is mostly a series of skedjpdcnb1ihfgbcanopqcu01. Colin considers that a good edit.

Meanwhile, the sun is shining outside and Murph is giving me that look – are we going out or what? All right, Murphy – I’ll just get my keys and the pink crocs and we’ll be off.

Larger than life characters hang in the balance as I write a novel or two

A strange thing has happened to me this week. I’m 20,000 words into writing a novel, and I’m enjoying creating the story of five women who become friends and take on an unusual project. I’m not offering any spoilers at this stage but, as usual, I have written the beginning, I’ve planned the surprising end and now I need to slot in the exciting stuff in the middle. Then all of a sudden – this is the strange thing – a new idea came into my head for another story and I went off on a tangent, writing 5,000 words in two days.

The dilemma is – I like both stories and I want to write them both equally. I’m keen on the characters and when characters get under a writer’s skin, you just have to keep going until the story is told. But, strangely, I want to write both at the same time.

The five women, all older protagonists, have their own journeys to make throughout the novel; they have their own lives to carve out and, as usual, they embark on some rebellious mischief in order to arrive at their destination and to achieve something they didn’t expect at the beginning of the novel. But the problem is that the two main characters from the other story have just butted in.

I didn’t mean it to happen, but all of a sudden I’ve created this crazy couple, Dawnie and Billy, who are outrageous, warm, funny and up for a riotous time. I’ve dropped them into a situation with a mixture of other people. I’ve set up conflicts, problems, situations that will need resolutions and, having written the first two-and-a-half chapters, I’m away and running.

Writing two novels at one time is ridiculous, a bit like when people make excuses for their amorous misdemeanours – I’m in love with two people. I couldn’t help it. It just happened. And the rest of us stare in belief and think no, not really – everyone is in control of what happens to them- they could have chosen a different path. But for me, I have two novels on the go, one shouting in each ear, and I’m going to have to write them both. I’m not sure how: a day spent on each, alternating? A week concentrating on one, then spend time on the other? Or maybe I’ll just see how the inclination takes me – type out 10,000 words on one and then 20,000 on the other when I feel inclined?

It’s exciting, though. I know I’ll be in for an interesting ride. As I write, characters absorb me. They fill my head, talk to me in the early hours of the morning, shout at me, ask me questions about what will happen next and demand resolutions. They imprint their speech patterns, their backgrounds, their likes and dislikes in my head and they demand that I have feelings for them in return. I do my best.

But now I have two books to write at the same time, I’ll have two sets of characters battling it out; two stories to plot; two settings to create. But I’m not complaining. Writers’ block it certainly isn’t. And the characters make me laugh, cry and feel loyal to them. I’m enjoying this.

I’m, also not worried about taking a break from work because I find that time off away from a novel gives it space to breathe and throws more ideas and conflicts into the mix. Both sets of characters visit various destinations so it’s an excuse for me to get the camper van out, distance myself from the project and do a bit of research. (I have another idea for a novel I want to write further down the line that will involve a mammoth journey, but it’ll take me a while to save up enough to go there and if I’m desperate, I’ll have to make the journey virtual…) It’s not a bad life, where you get to go and visit all the places your characters visit, take a notebook and jot down details of setting, the senses, impressions. I certainly can’t complain.

So no spoilers at this point, but my plan is to finish the first story about the five women and the other one about the crazy couple before the summer sun becomes too much of a regular visitor to my window. Otherwise I might just have to put these larger- than-life characters on hold for a short while and go and have a life of my own. After all, it’s easy for writers to live constantly in the world of make-believe but sometimes we all need to get out there and have a reality check, travel about a bit, seek out some sunshine, before we come back to the computer desk and write up more chaos.

On International Women’s Day – it’s about being worth it.

Today is International Women’s Day and there’s much debate about whether we need a day to celebrate all women. It doesn’t take long to realise that we’re not there yet in terms of gender equality – experience and statistics speak for themselves: in the workplace, in terms of pay, in terms of prospects, even in terms of childcare and the home, we aren’t all sharing equal status yet. Some people don’t want equality; some don’t care about others’ equality and for some it’s a global issue whereas for others, it’s personal. And of course, men need to be equal too.

Perhaps it starts with accepting, loving and celebrating the people we are as individuals – only then can we accept, celebrate and love others. It makes sense: in the world where people feel the need to project perfect selfies on social media and are embarrassed by their bodies, to such an extent that they are afraid to attend health screenings; where people feel dissatisfied with their lives and fall into anxiety, perhaps we need to adjust to the fact that, while not being perfect, our imperfections are all right. We are unique and we shouldn’t try to be perfect. Perfection is overrated and it doesn’t matter.

My parents’ generation affected their kids’ confidence by pointing out our faults all the time. We fell short. My generation affected our kids ‘confidence by telling them they were beautiful and could do anything they wished and when they couldn’t, they fell short. We just need to accept it all – we are all beautiful, we can try to do anything and yes, we have faults: we will fall short occasionally but it doesn’t matter. That’s part of who we all are.

Then there is the case of rewarding ourselves, being ‘worth it’ as the advert constantly reminds us. Being worth it is not about indulging ourselves, but about cherishing the person we are. I often think of it as being our own best friend. If my friend perceived a problem with his or her appearance, their happiness, their health, their relationships, their job, I’d be there for them. I’d encourage them, tell them they were special, wonderful, and bad things don’t last forever – it will come good again soon and I’d encourage them to keep going. So why don’t we do that with ourselves sometimes? Why do we behave like our own worst enemy and let the inner voice tell ourselves we are rubbish?

Is it just a women’s problem, on this international day of women, the fact that we want to highlight our own inadequacies and ignore our real potential, or do we all share the self-deprecation, whatever our gender? Here’s a basic example. Yesterday I had some great news – my book is being published in Slovakia. I was thrilled. I didn’t need rewarding though – the news was exciting enough in itself. Then I saw a lovely jacket I wanted to buy, not expensive, useful.  I can afford it but I don’t need it, as a reward or otherwise. I have other jackets – but my first response wasn’t ‘I don’t need it’ but ‘I’m not worth it’ – I should spend the money on someone else or on something more sensible.

Human wastefulness is another debate for another time, buying ‘stuff’ we don’t really need – but the real issue for me here was that it was a nice jacket, it would suit me ok, I’d wear it a lot and get a lot of fun from it but, no, I don’t deserve the treat – I can do without.

There is a school of thought about success that I agree with, and it’s to do with Ki or Qi – basic energy. I use Ki in Reiki healing; I studied it for years in Ki-Aikido, and it makes sense – focusing on what you want is important. Not in a greedy way or a selfish way to the exclusion of others, but simply to focus on a goal that is important to us is how we go on to achieve it. We need to focus on the positive, on the inner voice that tells us we are worth it, that we are strong. If we dissipate our focus with anxiety or self-deprecation, we dilute our potential; we hold ourselves back. Then the cycle begins again: we feel inadequate and miserable and we start to fail again.

So on International Woman’s Day, the message is simple, whatever your gender. Care for yourself and then you can care for others. Love yourself and then share the love. Believe in yourself and you’ll be able to believe in everyone else.

Much needs changing in the world, today and every day to promote equality:  attitudes to gender, race, religion, culture, age, species and sexuality – I could go on. Maybe we should start with ourselves first. Self-respect means we respect others and that’s the beginning of change for equality. It’s a nice thought for the day.

Now about that jacket….

In praise of audiobooks

Today is world book day and I’d like to bring up the topic of audiobooks. Life is a learning journey and it is good to have the opportunity to reconsider and sometimes even change our views. I’ve always loved reading – I’m usually stuck to the pages of a book, often multi-tasking, reading while I eat, cook, hoover, travel – anything that doesn’t require an active mind or great dexterity is better with a book on the go, clutched in my hands, my eyes not on the task. However, I’d never really thought about audio books as a choice. Then an artist friend of mine told me she was into audio books in a big way while she worked. A light came on almost immediately. Of course – it is so much easier to do those tasks that have to be done when you are listening to a book. I’d never really thought about audio books before but oh, what a joy they are.

Then another flood of realisation rushed in. Think of all those kids at school, the ones who didn’t like books, those who are dyslexic, those with concentration problems, the ones who’d been switched off reading at an early age, being able to enjoy a good story. And people who don’t see well enough to read print  – how important it is that they can access a library of books through their ears.

As children we love to be read to. We read to our own kids. It often helps us to access sleep – not because a book is boring but because a voice is soothing and safe and we are transported on the wings of our imagination. How nice to go to sleep listening to a story being read to us!

Then A Grand Old Time came out, as a novel and as an audio book, read beautifully by Aoife McMahon. She narrated the story with warmth and humour, bringing out the character of Evie Gallagher perfectly. I was so impressed. And in a review, someone wrote that she’d enjoyed the audio book so much; that the narration was so skilful and Evie’s occasional expletive wasn’t offensive at all, because the voice of the reader was Irish and it sounded so beautiful. That made me smile.

When The Age of Misadventure came out, I listened to Julie Maisey read the audio. I was blown away by her skills, as I was with Aoife McMahon’s. Julie Maisey had a Liverpool accent, not intrusive (although I adore the full-on Scouse voice) but with studied accessibility to all people, including those who might find accents difficult. The characters, action, settings were so well evoked by an actor who, apparently, is asked to achieve the whole thing in virtually one take. What impressive skills these actors have and, to the best of my knowledge, they are rarely known for their performances unless they are a big name.

So here’s my chance: thank you, Aoife and Julie and all the brilliant unsung stars out there that bring a book to life and send it singing into the earplugs of all of us. We who listen to audio books in the gym while pounding the treadmill, while walking coastal paths, while doing mundane domestic tasks and while driving or relaxing in a comfy arm chair with our eyes closed or while imagining the most exciting places and people with our heads on pillows, are truly grateful.

I have realised what a treasure an audio book is. I’m now aware of the skills and thought that go towards producing audio books. Audio books are the ears’ equivalent of block buster films, voices creating powerful visual images, and they are so impactful for so many people, including me now. So thank you, to all those involved in audio books. You are rock and roll. I am looking forward to my next sortie with the hoover, my next thirty mile bike ride in the gym, my next sleepless night when I can wake and in an instant be taken to a thrilling place by a warm and accessible voice.

Of course it’s a personal choice and I will always choose to hold a book, turn the pages, and stare at the words on the page in my own time. But audio books are now important too – they are right up there with all the fiction and non-fiction in my library.

 

 

 

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Celebrating the Age of Misadventure

My new novel, The Age of Misadventure, is out today. I really hope everyone will enjoy it. Grateful thanks to all the people who are with me on this journey – wonderful professionals, family, friends and so many people I am so glad to have come to know through writing novels. I have always wanted to write and I’m living the dream every day. I’ve just finished writing another novel, which I’m really excited about, and I’ve plans to write two more this year. They all contain characters in their golden years along with other characters too, of course. We live in a wonderful, diverse work and, although I want to have a diverse cast, I don’t want to miss out on the opportunity to create an older protagonist or two who have arrived at that age where they care little about what others think and revel in their own capers for the sheer joy of it.

It was for my mum, Irene, that I wrote my previous novel, A Grand Old Time. She loved to read so many books – they helped her to escape the daily routine. She was my Evie Gallagher, or at least, she was the Evie she could have been in another time. I’d have loved it if she’d been able to take off to France in a campervan and have those adventures. She’d have been just as feisty and as mischievous, and I knew exactly how Evie would behave because my mum would have been that way too. I haven’t finished with Evie entirely – she’s irrepressible, and I have a feeling she may be back.

In my new novel, The Age of Misadventure, I wanted to suggest that everyone should have fun, whatever their age. Georgie, at fifty five, has tried to harden her emotions, having been disappointed in love. She reminds me of so many women I know and respect – strong, gritty and independent, tough in order to shield herself from being hurt again but by the end of the novel, she has softened. There is a second chance for her. But it is the character of Nanny Basham that I really hope people will take to their hearts.

I wrote the character of Nanny Basham with my Dad in mind. I lost him a couple of years ago. He’d been living on his own, managing to be independent until the last few years. Then, like Georgie in The Age of Misadventure, it fell to me to cook his meals, do the shopping and sort out most aspects of his life. Many of Nan’s disgruntled words at the beginning of the book are his too. Being old and living by yourself, eating meals for one in front of the TV and not putting on the heating because it’s expensive is no picnic, and it’s often difficult for people in that position to feel positive about life.

So I wanted to allow Nan to have some freedom, and to enjoy herself. Inside the lonely woman living from day to day is a woman who has another life to live – she craves company, fun – she likes to party. And I wanted The Age of Misadventure to be exactly that, Nan’s chance to party.

Of course, a frail older lady now, Nanny Basham has a past and she has loved and lost. Her life is to some extent about memories. But I want my older characters to believe they have a present time to enjoy and in The Age of Misadventure, Nan has the time of her life, both on the road trip and in Sussex. She lives a completely different lifestyle: surrounded by people, she feels pampered, important and she is happy. It is no wonder that, at the end of the novel, she says that she would rather be on the run and in danger and have fun than go back to sitting in front of the TV by herself with a meal in a box.

The Age of Misadventure is a road trip, an adventure, a comedy romp and the story of three generations of women finding out what they want from life. As ever, each day is a lesson and from the difficulties we experience comes learning. Bonnie is a much more likeable character by the end of the novel, when she has learned to be independent and when she discovers who she really is, rather than being content to reflect what her husband wanted her to be. Similarly, when Georgie puts her guard down, she is warm, loyal and funny, and yet she remains a lioness, fiercely protective of those she loves. Jade, still very young,  moves to the next stage of her life, becoming independent and carving out a future with her new partner. Nan relishes being with others, having company, and by the end of the story we hope she will enjoy herself now, living each day in her own riotous way but with a heart of gold.

Having been through an adventure together, all the characters are ready to celebrate life in the present. I believe that we should try to celebrate every moment in our lives whatever age we are and whatever our circumstances. It’s not always easy though, but books can help, as they helped my mum to dream when her life was all about routine. And that is where the older protagonists come in, having characters who misbehave, who enjoy every moment, who – even in their older years – refuse to fade into the background and be quiet. Hopefully we’ll all become older people as life expectancy increases. And perhaps we’ll benefit from characters like Nanny Basham and Evie Gallagher: new role models, older characters in novels who are flawed, who fight against adversity and come through triumphant, perhaps a little scathed, but positive and having learned something important about life.

So I’ll continue to write about fun characters that are in their golden years, as well as some other characters that are not. Perhaps that’s how the world is and should be – it’s about inclusion and celebration. To some extent, Nanny Basham was written for my Dad, Tosh. But really and truly, she is written for all of us. May we all live long enough to enjoy our later years when, like Nan, we have earned the right to be who we are – funny, feisty, a little outrageous and very much ready for some misadventure.

judyleigh-26a

 

 

My top ten reasons why I love writing novels…

I’m an avid reader. I’m the sort of person who will read everything: all genres, crisp packets, adverts on buses. I have my preferences, of course – I love anything by Gerard Manley Hopkins, Shakespeare, Jeanette Winterson, Ian Hancock, Roddy Doyle, Sarah Winman, the Brontë’s, Zola, Turgenev, Cecelia Woloch, Kamila Shamsie and lots more. Reading is fuel for the mind, the imagination and the emotions. I can’t read enough.

Reading also helps me as a writer. I start from the place that someone has written something as a gift and as a reader, I have the joy of unwrapping it. It has taken them a long time and their work has come from a special place in the writer’s creativity. I extract everything I can from it, like a nutritious meal. Mostly I love lots about others’ writing and, if I don’t, I can still learn about the style, the craft. Other people will love a book I don’t get and so I seek to find out what it is about the novel that hits the mark with readers. Very rarely, if I can’t get into it at all, I put it aside, like some people do with Brussel sprouts. It’s not for everybody but it’s not my style to be negative.

Then, of course, writing books has given me so much to be grateful for. I’m learning about the craft and the industry all the time. My next novel The Age of Misadventure is out this month and I’ve just finished writing another novel I have so much love for, so it is a good time to reflect and pick my top ten reasons why I love writing. Putting them into an order has been difficult, and of course, I will find more reasons as time goes by and there may be a top twenty. But here we go. My top ten:

10 Holding the baby. It is a powerful moment when the novel stops being a series of pages on the PC and first takes the form of a book. The writer can actually hold a copy, touch the printed pages, read the familiar first lines and the acknowledgements and think ‘Wow – this is real.’ To be able to take the book in your hands is incredible, turning it over and realising that you did this yourself – (well, not entirely by yourself – more of that later.) Then the book arrives and it’s in German, Czech, Italian, Japanese, Swedish, and the Canadian edition. I’m so grateful to so many people.

9 Being asked to talk about the novel. I’m quite a humble soul really and to be asked about my book is something that triggers a strange reaction. I’m being allowed to talk about something I’ve created and people are really interested in it. It takes some getting used to. I’ve done radio interviews, which I love, and a few signings and talks at book shops and universities. It’s a little bit scary and a little bit surreal when people ask How did you think up that character…? And why did you make this happen at the end..? But I’m overwhelmed that people have invested the time and interest to read and think about my novel. It’s a real honour.

8 The cover. Being shown an artist’s visual interpretation of your novel, and design which an expert believes will encapsulate the story and persuade others to read it is a great experience. My daughter is a talented illustrator and I’m always overwhelmed by people’s artistic talents and interpretation, and the time it takes to create the final piece. It is a joy to reveal a cover, and quite an emotional moment. Then, seeing the way the cover is designed for release in other countries is an experience that takes my breath away.

7 Being outside and being inspired. One of the greatest joys of writing a novel is that I have the freedom to choose how I schedule my working day. I’m quite driven, so I don’t spend lots of time in the bath or gazing at the sheep in the fields but I do make myself stop, in order to think and to recharge. The beach is a favourite place to go for thinking time, or on the moors, where ideas will blow through like clouds and I become clearer about what I want to write. I’m lucky to have a campervan so that I can travel, research my work and just let thoughts move around.

6 Laughing out loud at my own story – and even crying. If my own writing can move me, then it might move a reader. I find myself laughing aloud at what I’m typing sometimes and that’s a good measuring stick. Characters such as Evie Gallagher and Nanny Basham, and the three main characters in my latest novel, have all made me guffaw. When I’m editing and I know the story so well, it is another good time to test the waters. I shed a tear at the end of A Grand Old Time and Nan’s story about her past in The Age of Misadventure made my heart ache. I think the central issue is that I care about the characters – always flawed, dented by life’s experiences but optimistic and feisty, they deserve something special and that’s what I’m aiming for by the end of the novel. Of course, it won’t always be a happy ending for all of them…

5 Starting a new novel. Like a first date or a new love, a new novel grips the writer and you can’t get enough of it. I just want to write all the time, I’m so full of enthusiasm and energy to tell the story. Of course, I have dumped a few novels on the way at 20,000 words. Filed might be a better word. But if I’m not bursting with excitement, then probably the reader won’t be.

4. Waking up at 2 am. I love it when I wake up and characters are sitting at the end of my bed, yelling ‘So, what happens to me next? How do I manage to resolve…?’ and I spend hours working it out. Early morning is active brain time for me but I don’t mind. It’s productive and fun, so I roll with it.

3. Finishing a novel. It’s a great feeling but not a simple one to explain. Finishing a novel goes way beyond ‘Yahoo, I’ve finished – bring out the bubbly.’ There is a feeling of immense satisfaction, because I’m pleased with it and I’ve brought the novel to a conclusion and all the characters have a resolution. I know I need to go through and edit and re-edit, and I enjoy the process of improving what I’ve written. But there’s also a bitter-sweet tinge of sadness. I have to let the characters go now… they move from the smaller place of my life and into the wide world. But like children, you have to let them grow, move on and find their own way…it is a good feeling to have brought them this far.

2. The support. I can’t praise enough the people who help me with writing novels. I know lots of writers advocate self-publishing and I admire their expertise and focus. But I am blessed with the invaluable support of experts. From my wonderful agent to cheerful and skilled editors who are so experienced and helpful, to the exuberant publicist who works non-stop, I am truly lucky. The encouragement and love I receive from friends, neighbours, ex-students from my theatre-teaching days, even people I hardly know, is immense. I’ve had some really touching messages and incredible support from all over the world. It’s mind-blowing and truly wonderful. And then there is the encouragement I get from my family. At the end of The Age of Misadventure, my daughter whooped out loud and cheered at Nanny’s brave actions. My son knows every plot twist and my partner will read a chapter or two of a first draft each night, offering me technical advice about anything that has a motor engine. They are special people, my family, and I can’t thank them enough.

1. Readers. I’ve left readers until last because a book has no purpose without a reader. The readers are in my mind all the way through the writing process…will the reader enjoy this? How can I entertain, move, grip, interest, surprise my reader? It is an honour to be in the position of offering something I’ve created to someone else. And it’s not something I’m anxious about: it’s a privilege. Whoever and wherever the readers are, male or female, new to my books or not, whether they are bloggers, editors, people who’ve picked up a copy in a shop (someone told me they’d bought it on a whim because of the title and had no idea if they’d like it,) whether it features in a reading group or it’s an audio or on kindle or in paperback, I’m so grateful that I have such wonderful readers. It’s what it’s all about, the process, the ideas, the crafting, and the editing. The reader is the prize at the end of the race. So whoever you are, thank you.

 

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What I learned about writing a novel from the TV detective series Luther

As a writer, I try to learn about the craft of writing a novel from every source I can. The obvious source is reading and I try to read all the time. Each day I’m perched on my exercise bike for an hour, devouring anything I can get my hands on, and even if I have no more time for reading that day, at least I’m getting in the literary and physical miles at the same time. My favourite novel last year without a doubt was Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire, the retelling of the Antigone story. Shamsie is a writer who clearly knows how to craft a clever story.

But I am on a mission to learn and to improve my writing all the time, and that means seeking out all other means of refining my skills. And this brings me to the fifth series of Luther on TV, written brilliantly by Neil Cross. Now it has to be said that Luther is a terrifying programme. That shouldn’t be a problem for me: I was brought up with scary films and books. My mum loved everything from Bram Stoker’s Dracula to Agatha Christie. She loved the thrill of danger. It was escapism. (It has to be said at this point that my dad did not read, nor could he shift his stance from a stubborn belief in only that which he could see and touch at any moment of time, the real, the mundane.)

But since the screening of the Luther episode of the killer in the street wearing the luminous mask, I won’t to go out in the dark to put out the bins. Neil Cross deliberately targets our potential to be afraid and he unleashes the power that lies in our dread and anxiety about the unknown. He said ‘So all of the bad guys are avatars of my fears and anxieties, and once I have isolated that fear – the guy under the be- that’s a shared anxiety with so many of us – once I’ve got that initial spark of anxiety, then I begin to think about the character that could exemplify it… Who is he? Why is he doing what he is doing? What does he want? But that ultimately comes second to the scary stuff. You start with the fear and work backwards.’

Character is always important. Idris Elba’s John Luther is a sex symbol of our time, but more importantly he’s a maverick, a flawed genius who steps outside the rules, a man of the law who sails close to the wind, breaking convention. Other characters shine. Ruth Wilson’s Alice Morgan is brilliantly contrived – a ruthless unpredictable psychopath who turns up unexpectedly and behaves outrageously.

William Faulkner said ‘In writing, you must kill your darlings’ and Cross does exactly that in Luther. Justin Ripley’s death shocked us all, as if we thought someone so loyal, so important and good-natured was exempt from being murdered, and when he was not, we were stunned and we mourned. And then came the demise of Benny, the tech expert – another martyr. Neil Cross underpins my belief that the reader should be surprised by what happens next – no character is safe, no eventuality should be predictable. And the importance of complex likeable central characters with the potential to amaze but who bring empathy and warmth and human vulnerability is not to be overlooked.

An impactful setting is something we all strive to create in our writing. Luther is firstly a visual medium, but it works on the same principle as writing. Whether it is from a camera angle or the written word, whether we are following a victim onto a bus or watching someone take off their shoes from a killer’s viewpoint under the bed, setting can create emotional impact and needs careful consideration. Cross’ work prompts me to ask myself if I can make the setting more powerful, more relevant or can I find an alternative setting that is more surprising and unexpected.

Neil Cross excels at twists and turns in storylines and having several threads unravelling at the same time. He leaves vital questions unanswered, which draws the viewer in, and he misleads us deliberately to add to the surprise at the moment of anagnorisis. My background in both theatre and writing tells me how vital it is to suspend disbelief, to keep the interest of the audience strong but to draw them out of the comfort zone and keep them guessing. In series 5 of Luther, we wonder what will happen to George Cornelius’ kidnapped son, but we don’t expect what Alice does or when and how she’ll do it. We are interested in how new DS Catherine Halliday will fare working with Luther – the signs are mixed, a tentative novice but with a cool head. It could go horribly wrong. And DSU Martin Schenk is on to Luther – he now has real evidence of his dangerous liaison with Alice.

Then there are the murderers – Vivien Lake and her evil, strange husband, Jeremy: the luminous horror mask, the needles, the eyeballs, and that incredible moment where the patient was talked through her impending heart operation by the psychopath doctor and he slipped the shocking phrase ‘diseased whore’ into the professional dialogue, much to the patient’s – and our- revulsion and incredulity. Cross is offering a master class on suspension of disbelief, terrifying the audience, misleading them and keeping them guessing, interweaving threads of characters’ action and contrasting story lines in an intricate way so that the outcome will never be clear until the shocking moments of catharsis.

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Photo by Stephan Müller on Pexels.com

I got into Luther late, and scared myself silly by watching all the earlier series in a week. Series five is no exception – it’s horrific, brilliantly contrived, the stories unfolding expertly. Most importantly Neil Cross, like any good writer, knows how to channel and manipulate his audience’s emotions, how to create the dynamic interplay between fear and hope, relief and shock, admiration and sadness and dread. He knows how to pull us in to the plot and keep us there, how to make us take sides and invest in the characters, how to force us to feel sympathy, empathy, antipathy and to steel ourselves against a huge barrage of horror. And he knows how to keep it coming.

There is a lot to be learned about writing a novel from a television series, and in particular, from Neil Cross’ Luther. Series five was excellent, and although the action is often about male killers and female victims, I still focused on the belief that the horror was real and spent a lot of it watching through the gaps in my interwoven fingers. But, like every great novel, it leaves me sad when it’s over and waiting for more, although I’ve no idea what the next series might hold. But I’m looking forward to the superb storytelling and how it can help me to refine my own writing.

Two Shakespeare plays, two inspirational pairs of actors but two very different theatre experiences…

A few months ago I went to see Macbeth in Stratford, with Christopher Eccleston playing the eponymous role and Niamh Cusack as Lady Macbeth. I was looking forward to it because I admire both actors and I thought it would be a real privilege to see them in roles that would offer exciting performances. I wasn’t disappointed. Eccleston was very much the plain soldier Macbeth, completely at ease on the battlefield but not so able to deal with real-life emotional issues: he was a ‘nice bloke’ who did his job, adored his ambitious wife, respected his superiors but very quickly found himself out of his depth. Cusack’s performance crackled with passion and the desire to seize life’s opportunities. They conspired together to kill King Duncan; she was strong and organised; he was loyal and troubled by his softer conscience. Then after the deed, he fell apart and she could not sustain life with the guilt she had accumulated. His performance as tortured hero who became a murderer and her descent into mental illness suffocated by guilt were superb. I should have loved the production. But I didn’t.

Then recently I saw the National Theatre production with Ralph Fiennes and Sophie Okonedo as Antony and Cleopatra. A simpler storyline than Macbeth, I expected to be blown away by the acting but less impressed by the play itself. It’s a three and a half hour long performance about two privileged and self-absorbed people whose love is obsessive and at times controlling and they both get what they deserve at the end. The actors’ performances were brilliant – off the scale, but I couldn’t have been more wrong about the production not gripping me. The text was construed in a considered, innovative fashion; the characters were complex and well-studied and the result was a powerful sizzling interpretation.

Eccleston and Cusack as Macbeth and Lady M impressed me greatly, but the rest of the cast didn’t. I invariably try very hard to see positives in an interpretation and I am always in awe of people who perform well on stage, but the production contained two thrilling actors and a weak supporting cast. Banquo’s extended silence as he heard that his children and wife had been murdered didn’t work, making him look like an actor who’d forgotten his lines, and his subsequent high-pitched wail of grief was incongruous. The directorial decision to cast three little girls as the witches never resembled the chilling corridor scenes in The Shining, where children are ethereal and scary. Imagine the ‘Double double’ cauldron scene, Eccleston acting his socks off while three sweet kids in pink onesies skipped around him chanting a nursery rhyme. It didn’t work at all for me, or for the complete stranger I bumped into coming out of the loos during the interval, who looked at me and grunted ‘What did you think? Bloody amateurish waste of my time.’

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In contrast, the three hours plus of Antony and Cleopatra flew by. Although Fiennes and Okonedo weren’t immediately likeable, they impressed as complex characters both separately and together. The play ticked all the boxes: the revolving set made the action fast-paced; the opulent Egypt and contrasting business-like Rome was a clearly effective way of transposing action and place and highlighting cultural difference. All the actors, with a special mention for Enobarbus, Caesar, Eros and Agrippa, offered a wide range of emotions and were readily believable. Fiennes showed Antony’s dilemmas clearly, troubled by loyalty, caught between his brutal military life and his turbulent passion for the Egyptian Queen. Okenodo was playful, proud, imperious and controlling, occasionally vulnerable, but always fascinating. Their ability to allow the roles to consume them in performance was second to none. Antony’s intense anger, his self-hatred and his tragic destiny consumed the audience. Okenodo was incredible: her death scene came after three hours, and it is neither a short nor an easy death to portray, but her performance was measured, powerful and poignant as she infused despair and dignity into her final scene.

The director of Antony and Cleopatra combined inventive interpretation with the gimmicks that work well visually: a lavish lake into which Cleopatra pushes Eros and creates comedy; the powerful and violent war sound effects; the evocative images and crashing waves of being at sea. The play was effective as an entity; the text made absolute sense and the characters were totally credible.

Compare the successful realization of Fiennes’ and Okenodo’s Antony and Cleopatra to the predicament of two excellent actors, Cusack and Eccleston, and a supporting wooden cast acting around a wooden table. I came away from Macbeth pleased because the two main characters had been glorious, but with a sense of unhappiness that the rest was not good enough to balance their brilliance; they had endured bravely against the challenge of what was to me a pedestrian production stuffed with random gimmicks that were not joined-up in concept and therefore did not work. In comparison, Antony and Cleopatra demonstrated what happens when two great actors perform in a production where everything gels and the result is harmonious.

I love live theatre and it is very satisfying when a production absorbs me from start to finish. It is delightful, consuming and it enables me to leave the theatre feeling that in some way, my life has been embellished. It is less satisfactory when my suspension of disbelief stops during the early scenes and I start to consider the ways in which the production could be improved while it’s still playing out before my eyes. It is interesting to see how two great actors can thrill together and separately whatever the circumstances, but how much brighter they can shine when they are given a strong supporting cast and are part of an innovative production.