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.
I am going to digress from the excitement of London and tell you about the sleepy town of Budleigh Salterton. I say sleepy as everything is closed by seven o’clock. However for a few days each year it is alive with talks on literature, biography and memoirs, politics and power. I didn’t go to all the talks but every day I went to something.
Grammar has never been my strong point and I hoped a talk by David Crystal might give me some tips on how to get it right. But, no we were treated to a thesis on the verb ‘to be’ or perhaps ‘not to be.’ Later that day Hilary Mantel ( the festival’s president ) talked about writing history as fiction and the journey she has been on as her novels were transposed to the theatre and television.
The next day I went to a workshop on writing a family memoir. I was hoping to get some help in finding sources for a possible novel about my grandfather. We did get some information about that and I hope I can pursue writing a fictionalised account of my family in due course. Then a look at contemporary fiction Amanda Craig’s The Lie of the Land and Paula Cocozza’s How to be Human. The talk centred around the issue of keeping a novel truly contemporary when it can take a few years to write. In the evening we had the privilege of hearing the lawyer Dr Shirin Ebadi, the Nobel Peace Prize winner, talking about her experiences at the hands of her country’s government.
By Friday morning we had moved from writing about the present to writing about the past as Sarah Perry (The Essex Serpent) and Tim Pears (The Horseman) talked about their novels. They talked about how their stories developed. Sara Perry said for her the facts served the story and she kept her research to a minimum as it was second to the impetus of the story. The sense of place was important to both writers. Perry described her book as a love letter to Essex, the county where she was born. Tim Pears was brought up in Devon and he said he relied on his memory of the place.
Lucy Hughes Hallet who is well known as a biographer talked about her novel Peculiar Ground. The novel was very character driven and she liked to have them slightly on the outside of the events as that gave them perspective. Then we were back to memoir and two different authors writing about their family life and in particular their fathers. The books were Keggie Carew’s Dadland and Miranda Doyle’s A Book of Untruths.
On the political front a talk by Bridget Kendall on the Cold War. Not only did she provide her own perspective on the events of that era but also, as a result of making a programme for Radio 4, from those who experienced it first hand. Finally Alan Johnson talking about his life in politics as an MP and a Minister in the Blair/Brown governments.
Next year the Festival takes place from Wednesday 19th to Sunday 23 September.
It’s summer and here in Devon it is the time for Literary Festivals both large and small.
I spent the whole of Monday at beautiful Dartington Hall where the Ways With Words Festival has held for the last twenty years. The highlight of the day or rather highlights among so many stars were the talks by Jill Dawson and John Goodby. Jill Dawson talked about her latest book ‘The Tell Tale Heart’ and explained how she works from real life events into fiction. She talked about writing in the gaps between the known facts. I think all writers do that to a greater or lesser degree. After all facts don’t have feelings and it is in that unknown place the writer can work.
I have been trying to read Dylan Thomas’s poems from a collection I bought many years ago at the boathouse in Laugharne South Wales, where he worked. The collection says on the cover that it ‘contains most of the poems I have written, and all, up to the present year that I wish to preserve.’ The collection was published in 1952, a year before his death. I have been struggling with them so I was pleased to listen to John Goodby talking about Thomas’s use of word with multiple meanings, and his use of puns. I wanted to know if the collection was chronological as I found it hard to equate the poems I was reading (I’d got as far as Death has no Dominion) with ones like Fernhill and of course the humour in Under Milk Wood. Professor Goodby said I should wait until his annotated collection of Thomas’s poems is published in October which includes other poems and demonstrates how he developed over the years. It does make one query whether the author is the best judge of his own work? Is he too influenced by his own mood at the time?