The main attraction of the Budleigh Literary Festival was the master class given by the renowned writer Hilary Mantel. On 21st September about fifty of us sat in the pretty Church on the Green to hear from Hilary about her life in writing. I have tried to distil four hours into a few hundred words, but I hope I can give a flavour what she said.default
It took her five years to write her first novel ‘A Place of Greater Safety’ eight hundred pages documenting the lives of the lawyers who made the French Revolution, but it wasn’t published for twelve years and not before she had published other novels which publishers thought marketable. Her own story she hoped would encourage others to write. She believed the starting point of any piece of creative fiction was the desire to bring into being the novel/short story etc.
She put her novels together like a collage, often using a board to pin index cards in different colours as an aid. She sometimes felt like she was in a nursery school with different coloured pens and pencils, cut outs from papers and magazines to create a mood board. She never plotted her novels in any detail but didn’t necessarily stick even to that – ‘the best ideas come when you are writing.’
She believed that a writer’s voice came from ones personality and ones experiences modified by technique. It helps to learn to live with the incomplete. One doesn’t have to resolve everything. Mobilise the reader’s sense of the possibilities in your narrative. Always say ‘yes’ to your ideas first.
She advised against showing your work to friends – ‘you don’t have to account to the outside world.’ If you do, listen to the advice and nod, take it away with you and think about it.
Plot is simply what happens. Characters must be interesting and have the capacity to act, grow and change. They should want something, struggle towards it and change in the struggle. Screen writers are good at holding attention – what happens next? She thought books about screen writing could be helpful.
One can tell if the structure is wrong when one is bored with it. Look for the turning points and ‘be wary of a book that doesn’t write itself.’ If it seems wrong, put in a drawer – ‘they change in the dark.’ If you have a split narrative one needs to get the reader so involved with one strand before switching to another.
Dialogue is not what people actually say but should have the appearance of being natural when it is contrived. Don’t tell characters in dialogue what is already known – each line should be unexpected. Think of every point in each exchange as potentially different. Think too about the characters age, status and education. Create dialogue for the not so articulate. Use word order and syntax to show different language or dialect. The odd word is enough so that you leave the reader feeling secure.
Memoir is the same art but with you as the main character. Decide on a theme and the aspect you want to write about. Should be authentic but not tell everything – the reader is not entitled to know everything about you. The alchemy is the art of turning the individual experience into the general.
Characters should grow organically. How does the character think, how does he protect himself. Each one is many sided. Hilary gave the example of Cromwell – a cloth merchant, a banker so when he looks at someone’s clothes he sees the quality of the cloth and knows its price.
The challenge of writing is the gift of being there – the sight, the smell, the noises. Look and listen before judging.
Dame Hilary was gracious and generous with her advice. I am sure everyone there was inspired to write more and better.
Keeping it Short.
Most writers agree that writing short stories is one of the most difficult writing forms. Two writers, Kirsty Gunn and Chris Power were to talk about how they make their stories complete and compact whilst drawing you into the tale. I was hoping to get some clues as to how to write short stories, a form I am not happy with. Instead both writers talked about their latest books.
Kirsty Gunn has written both short stories and novels. Her latest being a novel ‘Caroline’s Bikini.’ She said she found no difference between writing the short form or a novel – she used the same method, writing one short story after another. In ‘Caroline’s Bikini’ which is a book about writing a book, she keeps avoiding the action, leading the writer on to expect something to happen. She was interested in real lives and how imagination can transform everyday life. Fiction gives us the ‘a world on a page’ and allows the reader to get behind the reticence human beings display. She read a few pages from her novel which has footnotes to actively engage the reader.
Chris Power’s book of short stories Mothers’ began with an anecdote his mother-in-law had related and when he began to think about mothers he found the real people more complex than the traditional image. The stories all concern mental health which he examined with a ‘cold eye.’ There are three stories about the same character at different stages of her life. He hadn’t considered them as a novel.
So I didn’t learn much about how to write short stories and it didn’t turn me into t fan of them either, but I bought ‘Caroline’s Bikini’ and discovered another writer whose book I loved.
Reluctant Consent my second novel is now available on Kindle. Here is a brief outline.
Barrister Cassie Hardman is being stalked by an unknown male. She doesn’t know why but there is some connection to the defendant Paul Sadler, who faced trial for rape.
Cassie struggles with the unwanted invasion into her life as she works on a murder trial – her most important case to date. Each communication forces her to relive her role in the Sadler trial.
How does a woman like Cassie cope with defending a man accused of rape?
Can she overcome the distress caused by her stalker and defend the accused in her current to the best of her ability?
Can the stalker be identified before she comes to any harm?
I did like Helen’s first book, but don’t seem to have got round to reading anymore. Must put them on my TBR list.
Perfect Silence by Helen Fields
Originally published: 23 August 2018
Author: Helen Fields
Published by: Avon Books
Genre: Crime Thriller
Page count: 432
Reading dates: 18-22 September 2018
Star Rating: 5/5
When silence falls, who will hear their cries?
When a body of a young girl is found dead, dumped by a roadside a gruesome discovery is soon made: the outline of a doll is carved into the victims skin. DCI Ava Turner and DI Luc Callanach are tasked with trying to solve her murder, When another young victim is taken, leaving her baby abandoned, a doll made of skin is found tucked in the babies pram and it is soon clear the police are dealing with a serial killer.
At the same time, a string of homeless people are being attacked, having their faces cut, often while under the influence of Spice. Links are drawn between the homeless victims…
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I went to see the film last night. I’d read the book when it was first published and did say in a review that I thought Ian McEwan had done a brilliant job of portraying the life of a lawyer – in this case a judge. The film is perhaps even better. Emma Thompson is superb as the judge Fiona Maye. Every advocate knows that moment as one walks into the courtroom – one’s personal life, ones feeling left behind. Emma Thompson gets it just right.
The scenes in court reflect the real world. One could say that the robes aren’t quite right but the behaviour is. A High Court Judge in a tetchy mood is not to be trifled with. It also demonstrates the emotional cost for lawyers dealing with these very difficult cases, not just in the family courts but in the criminal courts as well.
The setting of the film in and around the Royal Courts of Justice and Grays Inn are as I remember them. Elegant buildings, a haven from the rough and tumble of every day London, set around manicured lawns.
I don’t spend a lot of time looking at the reviews for Crucial Evidence or for Trial and Errors but this one is very recent — the end of last year.
On Trials and Errors the reviewer says:-
Reality and fallibility of the British legal system
This is a tantalising taster of Margaret Barnes’ novel ‘Crucial Evidence’, its way prepared by reminiscences of our flawed legal system during the author’s career as a barrister. The writing style is wry, often humorous – and peppered with some frustration and flashes of anger at the idiosyncrasies of those in an exalted position who are out of touch with the lives of those they judge and yet wield power over the accused and their dependents’ lives. Looking forward to reading the full manuscript
He must have gone on to read Crucial Evidence because this was the comments he made about the book.
Margaret Barnes has used her experience of the British legal system to produce an unusually absorbing narrative. While there is no soaring arc of villainy versus innocence, the trial of a naive young man for a murder he did not commit is both emotionally and intellectually stretching. The economy of the writing still allows empathy with the characters, and the insight into law practice in Britain leads to some uncomfortable recognition. Looking forward to more from this adept and informed writer.
Crucial Evidence is available on Amazon for £1.98 for Kindle and £1.88 for the paperback.
In the Guardian on Saturday, the playwright David Hare wrote about his ideal theatre. https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2017/dec/30/david-hare-my-ideal-theatre . I’m not sure I agree with all his proposals. Why shouldn’t a new theatre be in central London? There are already a number of theatres in the suburbs, Hammersmith Lyric for one, but they struggle to draw the audiences for untested plays. There is an excitement about going to the theatre that is enhanced by being in the centre of a theatre-going culture. Coming out into the street after a great performance along with many other theatregoers is exhilarating.
Does size matter? I don’t think so. Some productions work well on a small stage, others need a large stage and auditorium. Do a younger audience want to be close up to the action? Certainly, the live transmissions of opera would suggest that does change the experience whether it would change the audience and attract younger people I don’t know. My experience in a provincial town suggests not. It is the older generation that goes to these transmissions whether the opera or the theatre. What does attract a younger audience is an actor they know from television eg Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet.
I too would like to see new plays although I enjoy new productions of the classics when they speak to today’s world as they so often do. In fact when it comes to policy while I agree the state should be a patron of the arts, is there not a danger that playwrights would then pander to the whims of politicians, something from which even Shakespeare was not immune. Is it wrong that the National Theatre should produce musicals? There have been some wonderful productions by great directors giving a new life to that genre. David Hare seems to reject the idea of a theatre that is commercial as well as subsidised. What about a play like ‘War Horse?
I think his approach is too purist and would simply create a theatre for an elite instead of entertainment for all.
I love the live theatre. Nothing compares with the buzz generated by great actors playing great parts on the London stages. I first went to a theatre when I was sixteen, taken by my school to see Macbeth after the Scottish play had been the subject of our ‘O’ level exams, but it is not that I remember. The play that gave me my love of theatre was the RSC’s production in 1961 of ‘The Devils’ starring Dorothy Tutin and Richard Johnson. I can still picture the scene where Sister Jeanne (played by Tutin) kneels at the feet of the priest Father Grandier (Richard Johnson) after he has seduced her.
I would love to see a theatre in every city and the main companies do more on tour. I saw that production of ‘The Devils’ in Manchester. Again on a school trip. That’s something governments should support.
My ideal theatre would be more practical. More comfortable seating and good sightlines where ever you sit. Theatres that don’t use ‘airline’ type pricing or use ticketing agencies that add such high fees for booking with them. Decent wine and light snacks both before and during the interval. And finally more ladies loos.
Another Christmas Letter this time for December 2015
We have had a comparatively quiet 2015, no book published, no property sold and no exotic holidays. We are settling in at Catkins, but the work we want to do to extend the dining room into the conservatory has still not happened – there have been difficulties with finding a builder who can do the work at a price we think is reasonable. In the end, the builder who did the work on Old Venn for us has stepped into the breach and we hope the work will start in January when we are away.
We did get away but only for quite short breaks; four days in Madrid visiting museums and eating some great meals. A week in Brittany at the HPB site Hilguy Manor; walking and eating. In September we went to Morocco for a week courtesy of Saga – we were not the youngest. The holiday was a mixture of gardens, art and guess what, eating. This time we went to a cookery class as well.
Margaret began to wonder what had happened to her Australian penfriend, Carol. Facebook came to the rescue; Margaret posted the story of the friendship and photographs of two of the envelopes. The post was shared over 30,000 times and resulted in the discovery that Carol had been living in the UK for the last forty years! We were able to arrange a meeting at her daughter’s home in Somerset.
The trip to France wasn’t quite our last holiday with Rudi. We went to Cornwall for two days to see a production at the Minack Theatre. The play at the Minack was rubbish but the venue is amazing. Fortunately, the weather was good and we had another couple of days doing some of the SW Coastal Path.
We had a beach hut In Exmouth for six months; it was the subject of a demolition order. Although the weather was not wonderful we went about twice a week for coffee and stayed for a couple of hours reading and watching the kite surfers out in the estuary.
If you are not a dog lover just skip this paragraph. One of the reasons we have had a quiet year is that Rudi was becoming much frailer, although he could still do a five-mile walk provided there were no hills. Indeed at the end of May, the vet had described him as remarkable when he went for a checkup. However, at the end of July, he had a number of fits which left him unable to stand so we made the heartbreaking decision to have him put down. We were both very upset by the loss of our lovely dog; he had provided us with loving companionship for nearly thirteen years. We still miss him.
Filling the gap left by Rudi, we have tried to keep walking every day and we did a few things we had put off because of him. One was a trip to Lundy; we had a fabulous if a rather long day – a two-hour boat ride each way. We also went to stay at a hotel in Rock that doesn’t take dogs and walked more of the Coast Path.
Margaret’s new book ‘The Fatal Step’ is in the final throes of editing with her writing buddy and will hopefully be published next year. Alan continues his fight with nature in the vegetable patch. The fruit bushes, however, are doing well and we had a glut of raspberries at the end of the summer.
We have volunteered to foster Guide Dogs who are being rehomed and Alan has volunteered for the Samaritans. He is still training at the moment and that has interfered with his singing, although he is still a member of Chagford Singers and he has been taking much-needed singing lessons.
We promised ourselves that when Rudi died we would take the opportunity of a long trip abroad and so we are off on 13th January to Singapore for four days and then Australia. We are staying in Sydney, outside Hobart and in Melbourne having arranged property exchanges with our London flat. Then two nights at Uluru (Ayers Rock) before making our way to Perth to stay with friends. We return to the UK on 29th February.
Our next task then will be to find another dog.
The book has not yet been published but hopefully next year and it will be called Reluctant Consent I think.
The round robins sent at Christmas usually provoke groans as the writer’s family’s achievements are enumerated in great detail. Mine however have a loyal following as I describe the ups and downs of our lives. We have always been ready to laugh at ourselves and we hope our friends laugh with us. I thought you might like to read some of my earlier letters in the run up to Christmas 2017.
If 2015 was quiet, the same cannot be said of 2016. It started with the sad news that Margaret’s rediscovered penfriend Carol died on Boxing Day. Margaret was pleased she had made the effort to find Carol and that they got to meet.
Planning and packing for the trip to Singapore and Australia took up the first two weeks of January. Margaret hates packing and there was a lot of huffing and puffing before she finally made her choice of what to put in her suitcase. The trip worked really well, our flights were all on time and staying in other peoples’ homes gave us a glimpse of the Aussie way of life.
That was particularly true in Perth where we were staying with our lovely friends Bev and John. We got up early to go swimming in the sea, notwithstanding sharks, and then after drying off, coffee at some local café. It was John’s birthday while we were there and we celebrated with dinner at the Royal Perth Yacht Club which had a curious outcome. One of the guest was quizzing Alan about where he worked in the UK and he said Sutton, to which the other guest said one of the State MP’s was from Sutton. Of course it was Bob Johnson who had been the Mayor of Sutton before he emigrated. Alan contacted him and we had lunch in the Parliament building with him and his wife Sue.
The work on the house did not begin while we were away. The conservatory was knocked down at the end of May. We sold it on ebay. The work finished in the last week of November. Rather longer than we expected. We are delighted with the new room and the canopy over the front door. Currently we are waiting for our decorator to finish the painting, new furniture to arrive and the books, tables etc to be recovered from storage. Hopefully we will be using it by Christmas.
We volunteered to foster Guide Dogs for the Blind while we looked for another dog. We had Siba for a week over the New Year and then Polly. Polly had been retired early because of her health and we had her for two months in order for her to see the vets and to organise the best treatment for her. Her teeth were in a very bad way and she had twelve removed. There is real pleasure in watching a dog revert to being a dog rather than a living guide and we are full of admiration for the way these animals suppress many of their natural instincts. Polly left to go to the IOW where we hope she is enjoying her retirement.
The week she left we adopted Lily, a six year old Springer with a few issues. We were given a long behaviourists report on her which was almost unintelligible. We decided the only way to deal with her problems was to go back to basics. So Thursday night is Dog Training Club at the Scout Hut in Exeter – chosen because the floors are washable and therefore suitable for small boys and dogs. We have enjoyed going and Lily has passed her Kennel Club Bronze good citizens award. We still haven’t sorted out all her problems!
We went to Cornwall to the Minack again. It poured down but we were well prepared and with raincoats and a picnic blanket the wrong way up we kept dry. The play/musical had a terrible plot but the actors were all students at the Central School of Drama – some amazing talented youngsters. The other trip was to Dunster on the edge of Exmoor. We stayed at the Lutteral Arms which is very dog friendly. The weather was warm enough for us to have breakfast in the garden every day. From the garden we could walk out into the park of the castle and the woods beyond.
In September we spent a week at the HPB property at St Simeon on the edge of the Champagne region. There are so few tourists the locals are friendly, almost unheard of in France. Lovely cottage and a great swimming pool as well.
Back in Devon we hired a beach hut at Budleigh Salterton. We went every day as the weather was very warm. So warm we both went swimming in the sea and not in wet suits! It’s the nearest thing to having a holiday without having to pack a suitcase. Margaret loved that.
It was the Budleigh Literary Festival during the time we had the beach hut. Some very eminent writers were speaking all lured to Devon by the patron of the Festival Hilary Mantel. Margaret introduced herself to Hilary as they have the same degree Bachelor of Jurisprudence from Sheffield University and they chatted about how they ended up doing this rather unusual course.
October we set off for St Petersburg again with our friends Rachel and Michael. This time flying and staying in a city centre, at the Astoria. We can recommend the hotel for its location and the staff who not only spoke very good English and were very helpful but also had a sense of humour. We spent two days with a guide, Liudmila, doing the tourist route, but we had one day to wander round the city, trying to get a taste of life in a museum piece. So many mansions all turned into Exhibition Spaces – what does one do with redundant palaces? We ate in local restaurants, some good, one terrible, and very expensive wine.
Alan has joined the Exmouth Choir; a much shorter journey than driving to Chagford every week. He is now a fully fledged member of the Samaritans which takes up a few hours every week, including some night shifts. Coming back from his 12-3am shift after a weekend of heavy rains he misjudged the flooding of the River Clyst (car came through the water on the opposite carriage way) and wrote off the Volvo. He wasn’t hurt only wet feet. At least the decision to change cars has been made for him.
Margaret’s next novel is being rewritten but she has published on Amazon a short book of the stories from her blog. The book is called Trials and Errors and is available as a paperback or on Kindle.
The vote to leave the EU and the election of Trump as the next President has left us feeling uncertain as to what the future hold. Keep calm and Carry On is probably the only approach.
The highlight for me was the talk by crime writer Sophie Hannah. Her talk was entitled The Nuts and Bolts of Crime Writing and she did indeed talk about her own writing techniques. She starts with an irresistible plot hook, usually some psychological obsession. There is often a strong component of real life. Her latest book Did you see Melody came about because of an incident when she was given the wrong room in a hotel which was already occupied by someone else.
Details matter, such as choice of names for characters. As the new novel is set in the USA she chose a name which was pronounced differently in the UK. The inspiration for the book came as a result of a case which was reported widely in the USA but not in the UK.
She is a great planner and writes the whole book in note form before she does her first draft. Provided the events she describes can happen at least once she was ready to use that for her plot. She described how when she was searching for an agent and publisher, she received advice about how unlikely her plots were and she was almost ready to give up when her husband suggested she tried a man who would just say yes or no. So she did. He said yes and sold the book before she’d signed anything.
She wasn’t interested in cataloguing urban crime. She didn’t like red herring, but preferred the reader to mislead themselves. There are those Poirot books as well and she told us how she came to be asked to write those by Agatha Christie Ltd. Perhaps that’s another post.
She was an interesting speaker, her talk highlighted by personal reminisces, often very funny.