A League Of Their Own, The Queen and me

Princess Elizabeth ( later Queen Elizabeth II) as an ambulance driver during WW2

Whatever your views on monarchy there is little doubt the passing of Queen Elizabeth II signifies the end of an era. For a 96-year-old woman to continue working for her country is phenomenal. She devoted her life to her service, which seemed to be a facet of the war generation who put duty first.

When I was doing research for my debut novel, Warm Pearls And Paper Cranes, I interviewed people who lived through WWII and the theme through all the narratives was the overriding sense of duty, of putting their needs aside for the greater good. This was something Maud held true to, just like the Queen.

Despite her wealth and power, the Queen had very little wriggle room to express herself, and she was supposed to be entirely neutral. I love that she engaged in a little humorous subterfuge, making political comments even though she never said a word out of place. For example, she wore a brooch given to her by the Obamas, when she met Trump; she wore a floral blue and yellow hat that looked like the European flag in post Brexit Britain; and drove the Saudi prince herself in her Land Rover. I also wonder if Paddington Bear coming to tea for the Jubilee was not just about the joke about what she had in her handbag, but also that she welcomed the bear from Peru, the refugee, at a time when the Government is making refugees criminals and deporting them to Rwanda, rather than treating them with the compassion and respect they deserve.

The lack of expression and opportunities was even more so with ordinary people. Ironically, women were only given opportunities because of war, whether that was jobs or unchaperoned access to a social life, and there would’ve been no women’s baseball team if it hadn’t been for the Second World War.

Like any self-respecting lesbian, I devoured the series A League Of Their Own desperate for queer representation on the small screen. The storyline that resonated most was that of Max and Clance, their wonderful friendship, and battling for representation and access to equal opportunities, which was denied them, despite there being an edict to help the war effort.

Although there are more opportunities for people now irrespective of race, gender, sexual orientation than there were when the Queen served as an ambulance driver during the war, we need to cling onto our rights and push for those who are denied to be who they truly are.

I did not Queue (capitalised of course) for hours to see the coffin, but I do mourn the end of the second Elizabethan age, and rue the passing of the putting-others-first war generation, and hope that we will continue to approach life with discussion across the divide and retain a sense of humour.

Of Art and Artists…

Gentileschi, Artemisia; Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria; The National Gallery, London; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/self-portrait-as-saint-catherine-of-alexandria-243732

Last week I completed the final edits on my new novel, Of Light and Love, which tells the story of a famous artist, Caro, who loses her muse when her wife dies and she can no longer paint. She has to resort to letting out a room to a younger woman, Laura, who is studying animation. It is a sapphic age gap romance, and also gave me an excuse to explore the nature of art. Naturally it required a lot of (extra) research, which was interesting, although most never reaches the page.

I thought it would be fun to include some of the paintings referred to in the book. The main picture is by Artemisia Gentileschi, who is Caro’s hero (and mine). She was an amazingly resilient woman, and despite a traumatic life she painted until old age with passion and sensitivity. Caro and Laura travel to the National Gallery in London and rave over the painting above.

Three other paintings mentioned in the book are Escher’s staircases as depicted in Relativity, which distorts perspectives and gravity; what should be coming up is going down etc. This is how Caro feels some of the time, following the death of her wife. The next painting also features a staircase, and is Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase. This was one of the first representations of movement in a painting. Caro decides she’d like to paint Laura as she dances around the kitchen when she’s cooking. The final painting shown above is one of a series of paintings by David Hockney, done during lockdown on an iPad. Laura and Caro have a “discussion” about whether you can really paint using digital media. Caro is not impressed.

Anyway, fingers crossed Of Light and Love will be out in September. In the meantime if you would like a free story, do sign up for my quarterly newsletter. Follow this link http://eepurl.com/h2Bien and receive a free copy of When Hannah met Suki. Hannah and Suki are two main characters from my debut novel Warm Pearls and Paper Cranes.

Cover for When Hannah met Suki

Exploding Out of Writer’s Block

Hindenburg disaster
Hindenburg Disaster 1937

Okay that’s a tad dramatic, but to be honest I’ve been struggling the past few days to get words on the screen, for my latest novel, working title Love in a Green Climate. Ironically, I wrote more words per day when I was on holiday in Lanzarote than I have at home with no distractions. I even resorted to clearing out part of the garage and waiting in the line for the recycling centre to avoid writing. The story is all plotted out ( thanks to the Global Wordsmiths retreat a few weeks ago) and I have written the backstory of my characters, but the words flowed as readily as bitumen, by which I mean hardly at all.

I didn’t like the characters very much. It’s an enemies to lovers tale (two people on different sides of the climate change debate) and they were just being snarky and bitchy with each other. I thought there’s no way these two would ever get together. I pushed through, trying to force them together but nothing worked. They made it very clear they didn’t want to be in the same room together, never mind anything else.

So I paused and let them settle and sulk while I did more research on the whole climate change debate. I love electric cars but it worries me that lithium, which is critical in batteries, is a finite resource and is devastating for the environment when it’s extracted. I then explored the use of hydrogen, which got a bad rep after the Hindenburg disaster in the 1930s, yet the latest technology uses smaller cells and is less explosive than fossil fuels. To be truly ecological though the hydrogen needs to be made using renewable energy. As always there are compromises and concerns, and I wanted to show this in the novel without becoming proselytising. I’ve taken copious notes, but I was still stuck on the writing.

If you don’t like your characters how can you write about them? I can’t, and I’m sure people wouldn’t want to read about them either, unless they have a very strong understanding of why they are as they are.

This morning about five am I woke from a strange dream where I was running. Although I entered half marathons and 10ks in the past, I haven’t run for about ten years because my knees have had it, but it seemed obvious that my characters needed to go for an impromptu run to break down the barriers while they sweated and competed against each other. I don’t know if it will make the final cut, but it was the breakthrough I needed to get me back on track. I was going to say “off and running” but thought that would be too groan worthy.

Finally, my characters are talking to me. But they’re feisty, strong women and don’t want to be coralled where they don’t want to go. So I’ll let them have a bit more rope and see where they take me. Wish me luck.

The Unexpected Emotions On Completing the Shitty First Draft

Finish of the Shitty First Draft…

I’ve completed the shitty first draft of my latest novel with a day to spare. The revised goal was to complete it by the end of the year, and it has been a struggle as I’ve spent a large chunk of the last few months looking after my 92-year-old Dad and my brother who has just had a major operation. I was then laid low with labyrinthitis, which sounds like it ought to by a sequel to a film by Guillermo Del Toro, but is an infection of the inner ear, so it was sit up and throw up for a number of weeks. I’m very grateful to the help of my friends and the writing retreat run by Global Wordsmiths to get me to the finish line.

After dancing around the lounge in celebration, I returned to the computer, was faced with an empty page, and felt … bereft. I’ve got a million things to do, none of which appeals, and I know I’ll motivate myself to do at least some of them later on, but I was surprised by the strength of the emotion. It’s not as if I don’t know I’ll need to rewrite the novel a few times before it is fit for public consumption, because I do, but I expected to feel jubilation and relief and a sense of achievement, not an aching sense of loss. So, after a cup of tea and a little reflection I reckoned it was the loss of sense of purpose. Not the obligations and duties which seem to increase exponentially because those are always there with their heavy reminders, but the sense of doing something that fills my thoughts and warms my soul.

Does anyone else have this sense of deflation after finishing something?

Tea with the Vicar, or How (Not) to Market a Book

View to the church

I’ve been looking after my 91-year-old dad who has just come out of hospital after a bad fall. His confidence has been knocked and we still don’t know why he blacked out, but I can tell he’s improving. He’s started working on the fiddly bits of the galleon he’s building from scratch again, and there was a whole bingo card of swear words as he was engrossed in trying to get it right.

 My dad is fortunate in that he lives in a small village with a real sense of community. He has been heavily involved in the church and parish council for many years and there is a whole group of women in the village who have been looking out for my dad. In addition to umpteen phone calls, he had people calling in with eggs, biscuits and cakes all of which he was delighted to receive. Then he wonders why he has put on weight!

One call was from the vicar. She asked if she could pop around in the afternoon. Although she took over the three parishes just before Covid she hadn’t been inside my dad‘s house before.

So, the vicar came to tea. It sounded like a cliche.

Dad insisted I get down and wash the best China and prepare the tea and homemade biscuits when she arrived. I was happy to do that, and when I joined them in the conservatory, she was already discussing the readings for the next 8 o’clock service with my dad.

I asked her what the biggest challenge was in bringing together three parishes into one.

“Having three parishes is not the problem, the biggest challenge is trying to bring different factions together in the church. There are three different factions, liberals, the evangelicals, who are probably the most active, and the traditionalists like your dad. They all want something different for the church.”

We had an interesting conversation for about twenty minutes with Dad saying he didn’t want anything to change and he didn’t want the “happy clappy” services, thank you very much.

Then the vicar turned to me. “What do you do?”

“I’m a retired accountant, and now I write books.”

Most people would leave it at that, or say “that’s interesting,” and move on. However, the vicar is one of those people who listen intently and always seem as though they are genuinely interested in what you have to say. It’s very powerful and appealing.

“What’s the book about?” she asked and nibbled on a cookie, waiting for an answer.

Ah. How would I explain this? To add a bit of context, when I first came out to my dad many years ago, he cut me out of his will and had nothing to do with me for a long time. It’s been a long road back to being accepted and part of that acceptance is that we never talk me being a lesbian.

I tried to ignore my dad’s glare, although I could almost feel his eyes boring down on me, willing me to say nothing.

I wasn’t going to be silent, so I smiled at the vicar and said, “it’s a lesfic romance.”

She didn’t blink an eyelid, clearly knowing what that was, she returned the smile and asked, “Are you gay?”

I stole a glance at Dad, who stared at me stony eyed, his mouth a straight line.

“I am, but we don’t talk about it.” I indicated my dad.

“I’m not talking to your dad; I’m talking to you.” she smiled. “Tell me about the book.”

So, I proceeded to explain it being an intergenerational story, covering the period from 1939 to the present day, with themes of secrecy, prejudice and love.

“It sounds really interesting,” she said, “I’ll have to pre-order that.”

“You’ll have to shut your eyes on some of it.” I explained and she laughed and gesticulated that it wouldn’t bother her.

I have no idea if she has pre-ordered it, but I am very grateful. She acknowledged me, who I am and what I’ve achieved and wasn’t going to put up with any of my dad’s prejudices. It was the first time in twenty odd years that Dad has had to confront my whole truth (after the first disastrous time, I’ve never taken any girlfriends to meet him) and it was good for him to hear that the church has moved on, somewhat, and the vicar approves and encourages me and others like me.

Needless to say, Dad has not mentioned the conversation at all, but I think he’s had to think about it.

Afterwards, I thought how bizarre that I’m happy to chat about the book to the vicar, the plumber, and window cleaner, because that doesn’t feel like marketing. Yet I balk at having to sell myself, or go online onto the various Facebook and Twitter groups and say, hey you don’t know me but buy my book, it’s great.

That’s what I’ll have to do, though. Maybe if I can treat it as if I am just chatting with friends and they’re asking what I’ve been up to, then it will feel more natural.

Does anyone actually enjoy doing the marketing? To me it feels like selling myself, selling my soul, not letting people know about what I’ve been working on for the last year. And now it’s available to pre-order, it’s all starting to feel a lot more real.

Getting “In The Mood”

Most of our visitors never see Jerry, our neurotic cat, they just catch a glimpse of a white flash as he retreats to his nearest hiding place. But whenever I am working he appears at my side, “helping” with the writing by batting at my fingers, sitting on the keyboard, or in this case, choosing a playlist to set the tone.

My current work in progress, Warm Pearls and Paper Cranes, is an intergenerational story, part of which is set during the second world war, so it’s been fun to select old songs to get me In The Mood, or in this case, choosing the D Day Darlings rendition of We’ll Meet Again. That track has been the theme tune to this story, partly because the older couple, Maud and Bea, keep getting separated; first by the war, then by convention and work and subsequently by Maud’s family.

When I wrote my short story called Pele, for the second Lesfic Eclectic volume, I listened to Iz’s version of Somewhere Over the Rainbow, which always makes me cry. I also listened to Pixar’s Lava on repeat to get into the Hawaiian vibe.

Talking to various writer friends some can’t listen to music at all while they write, others only while they edit or do admin tasks. I probably fit in to the latter category, and if I’m not working on a particular theme I tend to listen to opera because it’s full of passion and feeling. Now, I just need to make sure I translate those emotions into my writing :0) .

Editing is Hard

The stream of consciousness writing, the word dump, is the easiest bit of the writing, for me anyway. I like to scribble when I’m half-awake in the early hours of the morning. Ideally, I’ll then drift back to sleep with the opportunity for a second go around when I wake again around seven.

But the editing is hard. Why? Because I have to chip away at a crudely shaped draft stuffed with telling and formal dialogue and turn it into something that is engaging and beautiful. Well, that’s the aim, but I haven’t hit there yet.

Of course I’m talking about self- editing, before it goes to professional editors, such as the wonderful women at Global Wordsmiths, who spare no punches but will turn a raw manuscript into a crafted piece of work. They also run some great courses and I’m hoping that next year we’ll be able to go back to Spain, rather than zoom.

So, what has helped?

  1. I’ve just bought the program Pro Writing Aid to help with the grammar, but it won’t tell me when I am going off on a tangent, or have major plot holes (and there have been a number!).
  2. To help with the readability I’ve put my manuscript in Word, under the review section there is “read aloud” which converts text to speech. It’s very helpful to listen to what is working and what is not. Despite the monotonous tone and some strange pronunciations (sake being read like the Japanese drink rather than rhyming with rake for example) it’s been great for picking up pacing errors. And I make lots of those.
  3. I’ve read lots of books about editing. Perhaps my favourites have been the Jodie Renner books and those of James Scott Bell. But if you have recommendations, I’d love to know them.
  4. I’m also a member of a critique group, a group of like-minded readers and writers who meet monthly (on zoom) and critique writing uploaded onto Google drive. We are lucky in our group that we have some professional writers who give of their time to challenge and query, and we also have fun.
  5. And finally, knowing I have a professional editor who will challenge hard, but also support and encourage.

And it’s all in the name of better writing.

So why have I been struggling? I was told I needed to go deeper and show more emotion. In other words, be more vulnerable.

As I private person I find this tricky, I’ll be honest. I don’t like “to wear my heart on my sleeve for daws to peck at,” as Iago would have it. The fact that I’ve spent a career’s worth of report writing, trying to obliterate anything emotional from my writing or working life, it’s difficult now to prise open the shell and uncover what’s in there. But I’m still seeking the pearl.

And even when I have gone deep and retrieved a feeling, it’s how to express it that isn’t already cliched or elicits the response in the reader that isn’t a yawn.

As pearls are formed as a protection of the oyster against an irritant, like grit, maybe I should just accept the irritant and learn to dive deep and see what I can uncover.

But still, I shall dive deep, prise open the oysters and seek that elusive pearl.

Anyone else struggle with this?