As the year grows older, is autumn everyone’s favourite season?

The sharp scent of autumn has been on the air for several weeks now; it began before the first of September. My social media feed is inundated by glorious russet-coloured photos, pictures of damsons and apples, posts rejoicing in autumn, the cooler weather, the beauty of falling leaves, the abundance of berries and fruits. It seems that many people love the mellow richness of autumn months, the way the cooler weather heralds opportunities to have fun, such as Hallowe’en, Bonfire Night, Thanksgiving and eventually Christmas. (I’ve already heard the first Christmas song on the radio.) (Slade, of course!) I know people who live abroad in beautiful climates who long for the changeability of an English autumn.

I think that, to a limited extent, there’s a lot of love for the autumn months because, this year, everyone’s spring and summer have been heavily affected by the gloom that surrounds Covid-19; naturally, there is hope for some improvement in the latter half of the year. But also, there seems to be an optimism and joy that comes in September that I find fascinating: despite autumn bringing the end of holiday times and warmer weather, people enjoy the arrival of moderate temperatures and the opportunity to experience the changes in nature.

I used to have a theory that people are happiest in the season they were born. I love the heat; I could spend the entire summer on a beach; I can laze happily under the sun and, in truth, I don’t like being cold. I was born slap-bang in the middle of summer. I know a woman, born in October, who loathes the sunshine; another friend, born in spring, loves the soft rain, the pleasant weather and the sense of new beginnings that comes in April. Whether my theory had any sense behind it or not, many people seem to love autumn unless, of course, they’re worried about going back to school. There must be a lot of trepidation felt by students, teachers, parents at the thought of the new term – that’s for another blog post, however: I send them all my very best wishes.

Autumn has wonderful bright weather when it’s not raining; it’s ideal temperature-wise to go for brisk walks, twigs crunching underfoot, leaves whirling and tumbling. We can enjoy the taste of hot soup, hearty casseroles, log fires, hot chocolate drinks for months to come. The football season begins; we can binge-watch a whole series in front of the television; we can read for hours by the fireside; we can wear chunky warm clothes; we can bake; we start making plans for Christmas, for a new year, hopefully for future summer holidays. What’s not to like?

Each season brings its own special form of happiness; it’s important to enjoy spring for its freshness, summer for its warmth and relaxation, autumn for the gift of mellowness and winter for the pleasures of hibernation and comfort. It’s lovely being outdoors in all weathers; there’s something cleansing about rainfall, celebratory about sunshine and thrilling about intense cold, as long as we are healthy and safe.

When I’m writing, my desk is next to a window and I look out on trees, a field and the sky. I’m constantly reminded of the changing weather and evolving seasons, and I love the chance to use the power of the weather in my writing. In A Grand Old Time, Evie travels to France in her campervan during the summer months; naturally, the story ends as the first flake of snow falls. Nanny Basham’s adventure is in the late winter months, finishing at Easter. The Five Hens hit Paris in springtime. In The Old Girls’ Network, Barbara and Pauline meet Bisto in summer, where Winsley Green is at its most active and exciting. In Heading Over the Hill, Billy and Dawnie arrive at ‘Maggot’ Street in June, with plans to move into their dream house by Christmas. As seasons change, so do characters’ circumstances and lives, and their progress is often reflected by nature and external changes. All seasons are wonderful, as are all stages and ages: change is natural and we hope that change can be beneficial, rewarding and positive.

Most of my central characters are older people; I love the fact that they share optimism about the future and that, as the seasons change, they often change too. They may become more rounded people, happier, healthier; they may find new love or friendship or new learning; they may experience new places, fun, laughter, mischief and a few tears on the way.

My main hope is that the protagonists in my novels will be received as characters, wise characters, experienced characters, characters who’ve lived a long time, but not just  ‘old’ characters. I recently had a discussion with friends about age, asking them at what age do we ‘become old’? Answers included the following replies: ‘forty’, ‘sixty’, ‘seventy’, ‘eighty’, ‘a hundred,’ ‘when you feel old’, ‘when you get your pension’, ‘when you give up trying’. No-one was really sure. My own response is that I don’t really care about numbers: what I do care about is challenging the perception of less opportunity and worth that sometimes goes with ageing. When we reach a point in time where age isn’t seen as a reason to make negative judgements about people and the word ‘old’ isn’t seen as detrimental or an insult, we’ll have arrived at a place where it doesn’t matter what age people are; it only matters that they are healthy, safe, happy and loved.

Like the seasons, the stages of life change from fresh to warm to mellow to cool. We can enjoy being all ages as we enjoy all seasons and all weathers. Each time brings something wonderful, fulfilling and good; it just depends on how we embrace and accept it and how we support each other.

Happy autumn. May all your seasons be abundant, safe and joyful.

dried maple leaves

Six books that inspire me to be a better writer

I spend a great deal of my time writing.  My latest novel is out! The Old Girls’ Network was released several days ago and I’ve started to edit the next one, which is very exciting. I’ve also just finished writing another – the life of a novelist is all go! – and I wouldn’t change a thing about it. But in the middle of coming up with a new idea, writing it down, editing it, tweeting about it, and talking to radio hosts, I must still make time to read. 

It’s so important to read widely, not just in order to stay constantly familiar with good writing and good ideas, but also for inspiration. I’ve read a few books by some brilliant fellow Boldwood writers. I’m so impressed with the quality of current novels by Fay Keenan, Jina Bacarr, Shari Low, Emma Murray, Gemma Rogers, Jennie Bohnet, Ross Greenwood, Mary Grand, Beth Moran, Frances Evesham and Jessica Redland, just to name a few (and there are many, many more).

But I’ve selected six books I’ve recently read, below. They each have a specific reason for being inspirational and helpful to writers, offering their own unique skills: they demonstrate how to create character, style, storyline, effective writing. It’s all here, a masterclass for authors to read, reflect and learn.

The Wheelwright’s Daughter by Eleanor Porter

This novel uses language so well to evoke place, time and character. It’s the story of Martha, who is accused of being a witch because she is adept with herbs and remedies and, when a landslide occurs, she is blamed.

The opening is incredibly gripping in its clever use of language to evoke time and place and the whole story is a perfect example of how to sustain tension and hold a reader’s interest through the quality of the writing. Characters and tension are superbly handled; it’s a well-written, well-shaped novel about a woman who is outspoken and strong in a community where small-mindedness prevails and small-minded people are eager to judge.

Twopence to Cross the Mersey by Helen Forrester

Helen’s story is autobiographical; born in 1919, she came from a middle-class Birkenhead family, used to privilege, who fell on hard times in the 1930s and lived in poverty in Liverpool. It’s a brilliantly told riches-to-rags tale, compassionate, humorous and without self-pity, in a style that is firmly rooted in days gone by but it still feels pertinent. The author’s voice is authentic: the use of language is, in fact, fascinating, as Helen uses many phrases and words now seldom used, and the world she creates is one we’d never be able to access without the primary evidence and the powerful way she evokes her story. It’s a very lucid account that reveals so much about the early twentieth century and social change, but the novel is in fact far more than that.

I know  Liverpool well and I thought I understood a little about its poverty in past generations, but the world and the lives Helen Forrester evokes in her novel are a real lesson to us all: the story she tells is very moving. Poverty has always been a part of society and it is heartbreaking to read Helen’s experience and to remember that, although times have greatly changed,so many vulnerable people continue to be let down and children still go hungry today. It’s an important and well-written series of stories about the past that still resonate loudly.

Milkman by Anna Burns

I love this book because it’s so brave, challenging and fresh. Set in an unspecified time and place, the community that unfolds as the story develops is both credible and terrifying. The writer has taken a chance with this book and it has worked so well. It won’t be everyone’s idea of a good read: it is a story of tribalism, patriarchy, religion and conformism and the Milkman himself is an incredibly scary character. 

It’s a gripping tale that is an excellent example of the writer taking its readers outside their comfort zone and making the story sing so loudly that it resonates a shocking truth about our own lives and our futures. I imagine the style and the concept won’t be for everyone but it’s the sort of book that will make many readers sit up and reflect.

Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams

This novel is successful because of its style, panache, protagonist and its political energy. The writer is not afraid to be a little subversive and it is the strength and courage of Queenie that shines through. It is about race, straddling cultures and the experiences of a twenty five year old Jamaican-British woman, told in a breezy and humorous style. This story pulls no punches, though, as it deals with the title character’s journey as she splits up with her white boyfriend and attempts to navigate the modern world and all the prejudices and difficulties that it brings in terms of relationships, experiences and self-worth. It is strong, moving and superbly written from the first page to the last.

Circe by Madeline Miller

Not only is this book excellently researched, but it is also a strong cleverly-told tale about a character who defies others’ restrictions and expectations. This is a beautifully constructed and written story, which evokes character and place so well and is powerful in its ability to draw the reader in and to create empathy. Circe is a nymph, she is immortal but she is a woman who is scorned and isolated because she does not fit the mould others dictate for her. She learns to become a witch – it doesn’t happen by magic – and she develops power, strength and independence, which makes her a force to be reckoned with. A cleverly written story which is gripping and inspirational in so many ways.

Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge

I had to include this book. It’s an interesting read for its wisdom, its logical arguments and clarity. As writers, we are always trying to make what we write accessible and meaningful to readers, and not to overcomplicate what we are saying, but to explain thoroughly and accurately. This book is very well-written, but it is so much more. In a time when a ‘white lives’ banner is flown over a football stadium and some Facebook posts demonstrate that there are people who don’t understand the issues at stake, Eddo-Lodge explains her perspective perfectly: it’s not just about discrimination and prejudice, it’s also about power and institutions and the meaning of privilege. This is an important, powerful and relevant book, and it offers a necessary dialogue to be continued so that we can thrash out the best way to end racism.

Novelists and Tour de France riders have something in common…

Authors read a lot – it’s part of our continued professional development, if you like. But it’s more than that – reading’s an obsession. I learned to read at three years old– my mum taught me and I was a receptive learner – I would read everything from cereal boxes and advertising hoardings to any magazine or paperback I could get my hands on. I read the Bible, the Qur’an, the Reader’s Digest, The Daily Mirror – if it had words, I’d read it. By the time I was eight, my favourite novel was the Black Tulip by Alexandre Dumas. I found it in the school library, a tatty old red book with crumpled covers but  the characters, the tension, the setting transported me to a place I’d never imagined could be and I was hooked.

In Primary school, I read novels by Blyton, Coolidge, Montgomery – all the stories my mum read in her childhood and thought I’d love because they had role models of imaginative, intelligent and sensitive girls. At that point, I was still developing my literary tastes and I knew no better. It was a book so I lapped it up, enjoying some stories more than others but devouring every word from start to finish.

As a teenager, I experienced what happens when the angel of literature spreads her wings wide. Books leapt towards me from libraries, from junk sales and charity shops. I read Salinger, Harper Lee, Bashevis Singer, the Brontës x3, Solzhenitsyn, Camus, Sartre, Donleavy, Kerouac.  I loved them all. And then I read Jane Austen and formed a strong opinion.

In my early twenties, I had a friend who adored Austen. She was a vibrant woman, a strong personality, from Puerto Rico, so she adored the eccentric Englishness of Austen. My friend loved to reflect on the role of women in British society at that point in time: their power, or lack of it, and the simple ways they could assert themselves. We had long conversations about it. She explained how she enjoyed Austen’s style, her pace, the language, the setting, the way the romances unfolded. I couldn’t see it at all. To me it was just a boring tale about privileged women with not much else to do except fuss over societal mores and wait around for a characterless man with a lot of money to pay attention to them.

Later, much later, I read The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. I loved it. It was an exceptional novel and I enjoyed every moment. Particularly, I adored the character of Boris, who was unpredictable and funny. The story was well told, pacy and plausible. It was one of those books I couldn’t put down, a laugh-out-loud, glue- your-eyes to-each-page book. So I sought out two more books by Donna Tartt – The Secret History and The Little Friend. I wasn’t really motivated by one and the other I couldn’t finish. I pondered a long time on why I loved The Goldfinch and didn’t like the others and I decided, finally, that it was simply just me. Liking books is a subjective thing and while The Secret History might have been ideal for some readers, it was just not my type of book.

This led me to think about the huge respect I have for any writer, whatever their genre, whether they are published or still at the stage of writing a novel. It is a task of incredible resilience akin to running a marathon, cycling the Tour de France or climbing Everest. There are highs and lows, joys and trepidation. It takes stamina and guts to finish 100,000 words of A novel, then go back and rip loads of it out again to make it better in the hope that someone will read it and like it.

I was at a writers’ meeting last week. An experienced and intelligent woman, who writes historical stories was talking about her methodology, how she uses a flexible formula to make her style work. Another bubbly woman, a writer of popular romcoms, was explaining how piqued she felt when an editor was critical of her story. I said little and listened a lot. These writers were discussing the vagaries of creating a popular novel. The historical writer mentioned a trope she’d used in her first novel and her intention not to use it for the future because someone had said they didn’t like it in a review. This led me to think how many books I had read, loved and yet I’d never paused to say so in any forum the writer might read. There is a whole different blog post waiting to be written about reviews and how we should respond to them as writers.

Good reviews are wonderful and I’m so grateful for people from across the globe who have said wonderful things. The Swedish lady who wanted one of my novels to become a film and wrote to my publisher to say so was the highlight of my week not so long ago. I hope someone in a position of film-making decisions is listening! Of course, there are reviews that are less complimentary, some we can learn from and some that have little use. For example, someone once wrote in a review about the best-selling novel, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, that it wouldn’t pass GCSE English Language. I doubt whether Gail Honeyman gives a monkey’s – I certainly wouldn’t, in her place. (And it’s a great book!)

Last week, I read a novel by an author I know, whom I like as a person. I loved it. It sat perfectly within its genre, the characters were well-drawn and it made me laugh out loud. But I wonder what I’d have said to her had I not liked it. I always feel a bit bad when I don’t like a book. It feels disrespectful to admit it to someone after they’ve put so much work into it that it hasn’t moved me at all. But there are some novels I really can’t get on with.  I read one ages ago, a romantic novel about a woman in her fifties who meets a new man: it was recommended to me. I hated it so much – I thought the main character was feeble, underdeveloped and the male romantic interest was a facile twit. The plot was banal and the setting unimaginative.

I felt so awful about being negative. I went back to my response to the novel and tried again. The plot was valid enough, the pace was ok, the characters inoffensive, but the outcome was still predictable and I couldn’t see any point in reading it: I’d gained nothing, finding no way of immersion in the story.

But the book had sold well, the author was quite popular. So I concluded from this that I was just not target audience. There are certainly a bunch of people out there who have bought and loved this book – it has given them that feel-good transportation to another person’s world and they have benefited from it. I should just shut up. Maybe the people who loved that book would hate stuff by novelists I adore – Dostoyevsky and Winterson, Shamsie and Doyle. My opinion is simply that – just an opinion, one person’s opinion amongst many others, and so I have to conclude that, although that book’s not for me, the novel would be a crowd-pleaser to someone in a different crowd. It would be wrong for me to dismiss a book on the grounds that I think my response is the right one or has the right to be prevalent over others who might actually enjoy it. It’s best to say nothing at all.

So I continue to read widely and enthusiastically: books I love are books that teach me something, or take me to a new place or introduce me to another way of thinking. Books I don’t like are still part of my education – I need to consider why I don’t like them and what sort of audience would relish every word. Alright, so I spend more time thinking about why I don’t like some books and less time on others – that’s natural. But I’ve now resolved never to be negative about a writer, to keep my opinions of books I don’t enjoy to myself. I don’t want to influence anyone else.

Writing a novel is hard work. It’s not in my nature to jeopardise someone’s accomplishment or spoil their pleasure.  I wouldn’t shove a stick into the spokes of a Tour De France rider while he or she was huffing and puffing up Mont Ventoux. I might even extend a hand and give them a helpful push along, or some words of encouragement: Allez, allez!  Or I might simply watch them go on their way to the finish line and hope they enjoy their journey. The going is hard enough for them – they may be a winner, achieve a strong finish or they may fall off onto hard gravel. So similarly it is with writers. I wish them all the best. There will be no harsh words from me.

 

CSC_0851