10 Highlights of Swanwick 2017

Goodness! Swanwick seems like such a long time ago now. It’s crazy how just six weeks ago today, I was sat in the foyer at The Hayes putting together welcome packs for all the delegates.

If, like me, you’re already excited for the 2018 school, here’s another story from fellow Swanwicker Elizabeth Hopkinson to help fill the darkening days of Autumn:

Swanwick Writers’ Summer School really is the week that keeps on giving.

I first attended twelve  years ago and every year something has happened there to change my writing life. 2017 has been the best year of all, with so many good things to take away and follow up at home. My writing year is already different because of Swanwick.

Here are 10 highlights:

1. Winning 2nd Prize in the Short Story Contest. Not only did I take home a fabulous (if heavy) framed certificate, but also a free critique from Writing Magazine. And during the week, I was able to chat to Jonathan Telfer of Writing Magazine about the best way to use it.

Congratulations to Elizabeth, who won second prize in the Swanwick Short Story Competition for 2017.

2. Running my own contest via the Swanwick Facebook group, to name the children’s’ novel that provided our cat Sootica’s name. (Sootica the Witch’s Cat by Ursula Moray Williams). The prize was a proof copy of my short story collection, Tales from the Hidden Grove, for which I now have an extra reviewer!

3. My 1-1 with John Lamont. Thanks to his advice, I have already begun to visualise the future I want. (Although I did get some funny looks photographing myself in Waterstones for the new Pinterest board!)

4. An invitation to join Yorkshire Writers’ Lunch in Huddersfield.

5. The tag line to my trilogy-in- progress brilliantly nailed by another Swanwicker over dinner: “The Magic Flute meets Farinelli Il Castrato”.

6. Getting a wheelchair-using beta reader for my trilogy. He read the first book in just a couple of days!

7. The opportunity to be part of Chasing Unicorns, a charity anthology in memory of former Swanwick chairman, Katy Clarke.

8. Procrastination-Free Day. I didn’t have the stamina to go past 2:30, but I got so many plot problems fixed. And I got stickers!

9. Learning how to be a journalist with Simon, on the Swanwick Standard. I wrote a piece for my local paper as soon as I got home.

10. Being able to revisit Swanwick whenever I want, thanks to Steve Barnett’s YouTube videos.

Thanks again, Swanwick! You’ve been amazing!

Elizabeth Hopkinson has had over 60 short stories published and won several prizes. Her first novel Silver Hands was published by Top Hat Books in 2013 and this year she has published an ebook of previously-published stories, Tales from the Hidden Grove. Elizabeth is a regular member of the Swanwick Writers’ Summer School, where she has led a number of workshops. She lives in Bradford, West Yorkshire, UK, with her husband, daughter and cat, in a tiny house that is being taken over by books and artwork.

Website: elizabethhopkinson.uk
Twitter: @hidden_grove
Facebook: ElizabethHopkinsonAuthor
Blog: hiddengroveextra.blogspot.co.uk
Goodreads: www.goodreads.com/author/show/3029262.Elizabeth_Hopkinson

Newsletter: tinyletter.com/hiddengrove
Patreon: patreon.com/elizabethhopkinson

Lizzie Borden Comes to Swanwick – Maggie Cobbett shares her fancy dress story from the 2017 school

Another stories from a fellow Swanwick alumnus. This week, it’s Maggie Cobbett’s turn, sharing with us her fantastic fancy dress outfit!

Shopping for fancy dress often turns up the unexpected. This year’s Wild Wild West theme seemed to call for Calamity Jane, Belle Starr or Minnehaha, but I fell in love straightaway with the axe murderess outfit based on the story of Lizzie Borden. (Yes, I know that she lived in Massachusetts. Surely some poetic licence is allowed at Swanwick discos?) The sleek black dress had long puffed sleeves and a high collar featuring a cameo brooch. It came with a voluminous net underskirt, lace-up waistcoat and mini hat with a half veil. The axe was an optional extra.

It wasn’t long after my arrival at The Hayes that certain drawbacks became apparent. The first of these was that I’d offered to co-host the Prose Open Mic, which was due to begin immediately after that evening’s speaker and would certainly overlap with the disco. With no time to change in between, I had to choose. The Lizzie Borden outfit won, of course, although I did get some odd looks in the Main Conference Hall during Cathy Cassidy’s talk on writing for children. Before that, though, there was the difficulty of actually getting into the dress with no one to help me. My room at the top end of Lakeside seemed curiously isolated. Having been told on several occasions that The Hayes was fully booked, I must have had neighbours, but I never saw or heard them. To add to the difficulty, the hearty nature of Swanwick food had started to have an effect on my already far from sylph-like figure. It took a series of painful contortions to squeeze myself into the dress and do up the long zip at the back. Fixated on the possibility of a ‘wardrobe malfunction’, I hardly dared to breathe out all evening.  The hat was a worry too. Held on with a wing, a prayer and a handful of hair grips, it obliged me to walk around like a Victorian schoolgirl in a deportment class. Did I mention that I was also wearing a pair of tight high heeled boots?

I hope that the writers who took part in the Prose Open Mic were not intimidated by the sight of me officiating with an axe in my hand as well as a borrowed egg timer and bell. Jennifer Wilson and I ran a tight ship and, by keeping to five minute slots, were just able to fit everyone in. The closest I got to the disco afterwards was the bar. I wouldn’t have dared to dance anyway, of course, but there was plenty of fun to be had admiring other people’s imaginative costumes and posing for photos

It’s just as well that I saved my energy for struggling out of the dress later on. Maybe I should have sought a volunteer to come to my room and unzip me but then again maybe not. We can’t all be as lucky as Poldark’s Demelza!

You can find Maggie at her online home here. She is also on Facebook.

A Swanwick Story: Patricia M. Osborne

In 2015, two members on a writers’ forum, Corinne Lawrence and Shirley Cook, tried to convince me to attend Swanwick Writers’ Summer School.

Patricia celebrates her debut novel, House of Grace.

Although I loved the sound of joining them, I dismissed it due to the long train journey and a connection change at London. In 2016, they tried to persuade me again and suggested I enter a poem to the annual writing competition to try and win a place. I sent in a poem leaving fate to decide whether I should go to Swanwick or not. However once Corinne and Shirley booked their places, their excitement was too infectious and before I knew it my place in Lakeside accommodation was secure.

Once my booking was made I set about requesting my dietary needs and Pauline Mason the secretary was more than helpful. I was ready for my journey. I’d booked the early coach from Derby Station but unfortunately my train let me down. Once again Pauline looked after me and booked me onto the later one. Thankfully I arrived in time and was met by the lovely Lesley Deschner. Both Pauline and Lesley are great ambassadors for Swanwick.

Unfortunately, I missed the welcome meeting for White Badgers but my writer friend, Corinne Lawrence was waiting to greet me. Both Shirley and Corinne looked out for me all week. It was fabulous to finally meet these two lovely ladies after sharing work over the previous two years.

At Swanwick I was never lonely. I was concerned that I may find it a bit intimidating with around two to three hundred delegates but in fact it still has that intimate family feel and sense of belonging. Everyone is so friendly and when it’s time to go home, no one wants to leave.

Ahead of the course, a brochure is sent out that contains the week’s programme with so many fantastic courses offering choice and variety, something for everyone. In fact it’s hard to choose a favourite. Existing Swanwickers love this moment and get out their highlighting pens with excitement. For my specialist course, I chose Alison Chisholm’s poetry and booked a one to one session for feedback. I recommend this to anyone who writes poetry.

While at Swanwick, for the first time ever, I took part in an Open Mic and again those experienced in Open Mics supported and gave me confidence. The fancy dress disco isn’t to be missed either. Last year’s theme was ‘Heroes’. I went as Cleopatra and loved dressing up. This year the theme was The Wild West.

Food is included with the accommodation booking: breakfast, lunch and dinner along with coffee and tea throughout the day. It’s a real treat if you’re the person at home who does all the cooking. Mealtimes are another chance to meet new faces and chat about writing. I stayed in Lakeside and found the rooms a decent size with reliable wifi and I had a comfortable double bed. I was only a few yards away from the lovely lakes. Lakes are one of my favourite places to be and where I find most of my writing inspiration.

This year I managed to recruit a couple of my own writer friends as white badgers. I looked forward to becoming a trailblazer and I was ready to make the newcomers feel at home in this beautiful Derbyshire setting where writers come together.

And let’s not forget the famous Swanwick bookshop. I was inspired by the volume of books written by Swanwick writers. Those who had gone down the Indie route were more than happy to advise how they went about self-publishing. It was this encouragement that pushed me to come home and get my act together with my debut novel, a family saga, House of Grace.

My second visit to Swanwick in 2017 was even better than my first. This was helped by meeting an online writer friend for the first time after working together for over six years. Swanwick is a place you meet old friends and new, have fun, learn, grow in confidence and do as little or as much as you like. You will hear people talk about the Swanwick Magic, they are not wrong.

I managed to release my novel in March 2017 and I was proud to see it in the Swanwick book room this year amongst those of other Swanwick authors. You never know, by 2018 I may have two novels in there.

You can find Patricia on Facebook and Twitter. Alternatively, her online home is here.

 

 

 

 

More Swanwick Memories: Jennifer Wilson

Continuing the theme of sharing stories from my favourite writing event of the year, I am joined today by Jennifer C. Wilson.

I remember meeting her in 2016 when, as a fresh-faced White Badger, Jennifer told me her story over a drink in the bar. I am absolutely thrilled that she returned to Swanwick in 2017, and she has kindly agreed to tell us why.

Swanwick Memories, by Jennifer C. Wilson

I’d been thinking about going to Swanwick for about eight years. Each year since signing up for an adult education creative writing class back in Hexham, I’d download the programme and even pick out the courses I’d go along to, and yet, never quite got as far as booking. Now, I know that being published isn’t even remotely hinted at as being a requirement to go to Swanwick, but after my debut novel came out in October 2015, I decided that I had finally ‘earned my place’, and in January 2016, finally went ahead and booked up. I am so glad I did.

With my usual lack of punctuality, I got to Derby station three hours before the coach to Swanwick was due, and still remember the blind fear on receiving the email advising that the bus was now going to be round the back of the station, not the front, and “to let people know” if we saw them at the station. Cue a very awkward half hour trying to work out who might be going to Swanwick, and who might just think I was weird for approaching them and talking about buses… Luckily, I found some fellow Swanwickers, and next thing I know, we’re nattering over a cuppa in the Pumpkin Café. Not only did they show me where the bus was, I was also escorted to the Lakeside Reception, shown how to find my room, then taken back across to the main house to find where the other White Badgers were being welcomed with a (by now much-welcomed) glass of wine.

The rumours were true then – Swanwick really was full of friendly, helpful people. Less than an hour after arriving, I definitely felt I belonged.

That feeling didn’t leave me throughout the week, as I met friends I’m still happy to be in touch with (and already looking forward to seeing them again in August 2018!), and enjoyed even the passing five minute conversations which seemed to happen every time you looked slightly confused or lost.

As for the courses and talks – I came away from each and every one feeling so inspired. Either to try something new, with a new idea to play with, or an increased understanding in how to improve what I was already working on. For my first year, I chose ‘creative non-fiction’ as my specialist course for the week, and have since produced a book proposal which I intend to keep working on, and thanks to Sue Moorcroft and Michael Jecks’ courses, the manuscript for my second novel felt so much tighter and improved, ready for submission. In my second year, I returned to Sue’s course, this time on popular fiction, and also enjoyed this blog owner’s fun and informative course on writing intimate scenes.

I think the biggest thing about Swanwick though is simply spending a whole week in the company of other writers. I’m lucky that my friends and family are really supportive of my writing, but there’s a limit to how much even the most supportive person can take! At Swanwick, everyone is more than happy to discuss (at length) the books they love and loathe, the writing techniques they use, and how they are getting on (or otherwise) with their latest project. I got as much from chatting over lunch and in the bar after workshops as I did from the courses themselves. The subsequent online chatter and support via the Facebook group is great too, keeping the community spirit going throughout the rest of the year.

After booking for August 2017, I had started thinking I would skip a year, try somewhere new, do something different. I won’t be. This year, bringing two writing friends along made the whole thing feel even more like a community, and by Sunday lunchtime, we’d agreed that it could become ‘our annual thing’. Seeing them be as excited as I had been last year was just brilliant. I even volunteered with one of the open-mic nights, so felt even more a part of things.

Yes, I’ve come away exhausted again, but hey, at least we have Saturday and Sunday to catch up on all that sleep we miss when our brains are too busy plotting…

About Jennifer

Jennifer is a marine biologist by training, who spent much of her childhood stalking Mary, Queen of Scots (initially accidentally, but then with intention). She completed her BSc and MSc at the University of Hull, and has worked as a marine environmental consultant since graduating. Enrolling on an adult education workshop on her return to the north-east reignited Jennifer’s pastime of creative writing, and she has been filling notebooks ever since. In 2014, Jennifer won the Story Tyne short story competition, and also continues to develop her poetic voice, reading at a number of events, and with several pieces available online. She is also part of The Next Page, running workshops and other literary events in North Tyneside.

Jennifer’s debut novel, Kindred Spirits: Tower of London, was released by Crooked Cat Books in October 2015, and Kindred Spirits: Royal Mile was released in June 2017. She can be found online at her blog, on Twitter and Facebook, as well as at The Next Page’s blog. She’s currently working on her first self-published effort, a timeslip romance featuring Richard III (of course).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Atwood’s Masterpiece Brought To Life

*** SPOILER ALERT *** DO NOT READ THIS POST IF YOU ARE WAITING TO SEE THE FIRST EPISODE ON CATCHUP TV!

I was in my early twenties when I first read The Handmaid’s Tale and I was utterly horrified by the concept of Gilead, the dystopian world in which Atwood set her groundbreaking novel.

Fast forward twenty years, and I still find it disturbing, macabre and terrifyingly possible in today’s society.

Due to a nuclear catastrophe, there are a limited number of women who remain fertile, known as Handmaids. They are sent to somewhere called The Red Centre to learn how to submit themselves to a family where the wife cannot have children. It is explained to them that their role in society is to bear surrogate children on behalf of these wealthy but barren women. Dressed in an outfit not dissimilar to that of a nun but scarlet red, they are to perform something known as The Ceremony on a regular basis. Essentially, the Handmaid is held down by the arms of the wife on the bed and raped by the husband.

The horror on Offred’s face tells us she despises what is happening to her, but she is wise enough not to struggle. What good would that do? More interesting is the reaction of the wife after the deed is done and the husband has left the room. She throws the Handmaid out of the room too, and we are party to a moment where the wife becomes emotional. Is she hurt because it is difficult to watch her husband being intimate with another woman? Is she hurt because of her infertility which has driven them to this situation? Does she feel her own lack of femininity, her inadequacy at being unable to bear children? But she is a woman too and in Gilead, her status is no higher than Offred’s, although she is married to a wealthy man. She too has no choice over what happens to her if and when a child is born. The human race must continue, at whatever the cost.

It was great to see Atwood herself taking a cameo role in the production, delivering a slap across Offred’s face during a training session at The Red Centre. The image is hazy and blurred, but the silhouette is unmistakeable.

At the end of the episode, we learn that Offred’s friend from before the disaster, Moira, is dead. Offred channels her anger and grief towards a man who has been convicted of raping a Handmaid. Supposedly, there is nothing to protect the Handmaids at their conscripted homes with families but out on the streets they are not to be touched.

Offred is first to deliver a blow to the convict and, between them, the Handmaids beat the man to death. It seems this act of uncontrolled violence succeeds in ensuring that the Handmaids remain calm during their given assignments. Channeling their aggression in this way seems their only release from what is happening to them.

Perhaps one of the most frightening things about this Gilead place is that the Handmaids are all given new names, to remind them that their lives from before have no significance here. We learn that Offred’s real name is June and her child has been taken from her. There is a sense that she is biding her time until an opportunity arises for her to get her back. Roll on episode two; I hope I have the stamina to continue to watch the whole series.

***

POSTSCRIPT

The reality is that now, over thirty years later, there are women in the  real world today who have no say over their bodies, who are vessels for child-bearing and have no control over their own destinies. Female Genital Mutilation and the abortion of female foetuses are horrific truths that continue to this day, in a city or a town near you, even here in the UK.

And some folk think that feminism is outdated and unnecessary…

A Swanwick Story: Julia Pattison

Regular visitors to this blog will be familiar with my frequent mention of a place called Swanwick, a village in Derbyshire, UK, and home to the longest-running (we believe) writing conference in the world.

It has been an integral part of my own writing journey and, since taking up the post of School Archivist last August, I was interested to learn how much the Writers’ School has influenced other delegates. So, I sent a request via the newsletter for people to share their stories.

The beautiful and inspirational Julia Pattison responded with this most unusual tale:

I first met Clifford Beck at Swanwick Writers’ Summer School back in 1999. He became a good friend, and over the years he’d tell me anecdotes of his time as a Far East Prisoner of War.

Julia with Clifford, Swanwick Writers’ Summer School, 2004

At Swanwick 2004 we were sat on our favourite bench enjoying a chat in the summer sunshine, when he mentioned that the following August 15th 2005, it would be the 60th Anniversary of VJ Day. With a deep sigh that touched my heart, he went on to say that it would be his dream to stand once again on the Bridge on the River Kwai, not as a prisoner this time, but as a free man.

He had planned to go with his wife Esther, but sadly she’d died some years previously, and his son Nick didn’t want to make the journey. On impulse, I said that we could make his special pilgrimage together the following Easter holiday, and the seeds for the journey were sown…

Not far short of his 90th birthday, his health had deteriorated considerably since our conversation that summer day at Swanwick, so although he had hoped to walk across the bridge, he was content to walk the few steps up to the entrance of the Bridge, where a kindly passing tourist took our photo to capture his dreamed- for moment. We then spent some time in the beautifully kept Kanchanaburi Cemetery where he said prayers over the graves of some of his fellow FEPOWs who had never made it home. Afterwards we were met by Rod Beattie, the founder of the Thailand-Burma Railway Centre ( honoured with the MBE for his research )  who gave us a private tour of the Centre. I recall that Clifford became particularly emotional when Rod took him into a reconstructed cattle truck, as it brought back vivid memories of his horrendous journey from Singapore.

The Bridge over the River Kwai

He never did get to Swanwick in 2005, or to go with me to the Beth Shalom Holocaust Memorial Centre near Laxton, Nottinghamshire, but died in June 2005. His son Nick comforted me by saying how much the trip had meant to his father, and that despite being so unwell, he had been determined to make the pilgrimage back to the Bridge on the River Kwai in March 20015 – probably with the same spirit that had stood him in such good stead during his time as a FEPOW. He had died a happy man, and had been looking forward to meeting everyone at his beloved Swanwick Writers’ Summer School.

Rest in Peace Clifford, a true officer and a gentleman, and an inspiration to all who knew him.

It was a privilege to help him fulfil his dream, and to record his story for the history archives.

Lest we forget.

Julia Pattison

You can purchase Clifford’s memoirs, written by Julia, at the Amazon UK store here.

The Tempest v Hag-Seed, Margaret Atwood rewrites a Shakespeare masterpiece

As a Patron of the Royal Shakespeare Company, I am lucky enough to get advance notice of the next season’s productions and when I learned that the RSC were performing The Tempest, I was thrilled. It’s not a play I had seen before and nor did I know the story.

Imagine then, if you will, how excited I was to learn that one of my favourite authors, Margaret Atwood, had been commissioned to rewrite the story of The Tempest in novel form. Bingo!

The Tempest starts with a great storm, during which the King of Naples and his entourage, including the Duke of Milan, are shipwrecked. Watching this drama unfold is Prospero, the former Duke of Milan, and his daughter, Miranda.

It becomes clear that Prospero has conjured the storm himself with the help of the sprite, Ariel, because this group are his enemies. Indeed, the Duke of Milan is in fact his brother, Antonio, who betrayed him for the title of Duke some twelve years previously.

Now, to Hag-Seed. Our Prospero has become one Felix Duke, renowned theatre director who gets unceremoniously sacked and ends up working in a prison where he teaches Shakespeare to the inmates. His latest project is… Yup, you guessed it, The Tempest.

Felix’s Miranda is not real, she is a memory he has recreated and transposed into the present as a mechanism to deal with the grief at losing his daughter.

Estelle pulls strings for Felix, both inside the prison and in organising the visit of the politicos. She is the Ariel to Felix’s Prospero, creating the ‘storm’ which brings them to him.

Just like Prospero, Felix exacts his revenge during the production but afterwards feels strangely unfulfilled. The result is an anticlimax. What does this teach us about the nature of revenge, methinks? Is it really worth it? Or shall we just hold our heads high, despite the injustice inflicted by those who wronged us?

All in all, a fantastic production of The Tempest by the RSC, as one would expect, and an amazing work by Ms Atwood. Again, no surprises there. Well worth the time on both counts, if you have the opportunity.

To Walk Invisible: a Tribute to a Yorkshire family

Goodness! If you want heart-wrenching drama, you need look no further than the North York moors. Last night I watched To Walk Invisible, a BBC dramatisation of the life of the Bronte sisters.

To my shame, although both Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre are two of my most-loved ‘classic’ novels, I must confess I knew little of the struggles of their respective authors’ domestic lives.

I was introduced to these classic novels partly by my mother, but also due to reading lists for English Literature classes at school. I read Jane Austen many years ago (during my school days, in fact) and her novels enjoy legendary status across the world, even today. But she produced stories that examine the quest for a suitable matrimonial match among the genteel English society into which she was born. They are hardly life or death situations, per se.

Austen couldn’t possibly have imagined the frustration of three sisters, united only in their despair for their wayward brother as he succumbed to his demons doing his level best to tear the family apart as he did so.

Few women back then published novels. George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans), writing around the same time, wrote under a pseudonym in order to be taken seriously. The Brontes were a well-educated family for their position, being daughters of the widowed Reverend Bronte, but their education appears to have been somewhat haphazard, starting off at a school, but then being removed by their father and taught a little at home after their two older sisters (Maria and Elizabeth) had contracted tuberculosis.

It occurs to me that perhaps it is only in enduring the seemingly bottomless pit of such torment that we, as writers, find tales of such extraordinary passion. They do say that it is only by knowing sadness that we can identify happiness when we find such a thing.

I shall ponder on this thought as I begin compiling my Must Do list for 2017.

Item #1 – a visit to Haworth!

Swanwick 2016 – The Magic Continues…

The Hayes Conference Centre, Swanwick, Derbyshire
Swanwick Dinner
Communal dining room at the Hayes. Picture courtesy of Geoff Parkes (far left in the photo).

Sadly, I didn’t get to go to the Swanwick Writers’ Summer School in 2015. I had a very sick cat at home and no idea how long she had left on this mortal plane so, as heartbreaking as it was, I decided to stay with her in her final weeks. It was definitely the right decision.

No such emotional trauma this year, thankfully, and I couldn’t wait to bundle up the car and head off to Derbyshire for another memorable week of friendship nurturing and raucous laughter. I wasn’t disappointed.

After the initial settling in period, it was time to get my books across to the book room. This year was the first time I had my own book to sell, which was wonderful experience. So, too, for Mark Iveson and his non-fiction book Cursed Horror Stars.

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Mark Iveson and me, proudly displaying our own published books in the Swanwick Book Room for the first time.

The first full day saw me sat in a fascinating specialist course on Character Psychology with Steve Hartley. Such a great course, packed with interesting material for creating interesting characters for our stories.

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The incorrigible Phil Collins appreciating how I managed to pour myself into a corset!

Monday evening during Swanwick week features the infamous Fancy Dress Disco.

I do like this photo of me with dear friend Phil Collins. I can’t remember how much I had to drink by this point. I certainly wasn’t sober!

This year’s theme was Heroes and Villains. I chose Maleficent (any excuse to get out my corset); Phil’s pirate outfit turned a few heads too!

 

I set out to make sure I attended short courses which I felt would be of direct use to my own writing experience. This year, Michael Jecks gave phenomenal instructions about plotting and tips for bulldozing through writers’ block. I came away refreshed with lots of ideas for my novel.

Similarly, lovely Sue Moorcroft‘s course gave invaluable insight into the finer points of writing fiction. All in all, it was an exhilarating, if not exhausting, week of learning.

On the last day, after the AGM and the raffle to win a free place at Swanwick the following year, everyone disappeared back to their rooms to dress up for the Dregs Party. It’s a great excuse to bring out those cocktail dresses and a few of the guys even brought their tuxedos for the occasion.

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Dregs Party on the hallowed Swanwick lawn. Thankfully, the rain stayed away!

Some exciting things to note for me personally this year: I made my acting debut! A very small part during the renowned Page to Stage extravaganza was quickly followed on the last night by the Final Night Pantomime.

Written by Simon Hall, The Battle of Writers’ Block tells a humorous tale of an aspiring but self-conscious writer, Trevor, who is trying to write a novel. Haunted by the twin sisters of Doubt and Success, he is persuaded to take a trip to Swanwick Writers’ Summer School, where he receives the inspiration to finish his story. Lots of gags and a healthy dose of innuendo had the audience howling with laughter, thankfully!

Cast of this year’s pantomime, The Battle of Writers’ Block, written by Simon Hall. L-R: Lesley Deschener, Phil Collins, me, Simon Hall, Cathy Grimmer, Marion Hough, John Lamont. Photo courtesy of Louise Cahill.

Finally, the opportunity came along for me to play a part in helping the school. The archivist was wanting to step down, and so a vacancy popped up for someone organised who can help collate all the various documents that Swanwick has amassed over its 68-year history. I am looking forward to taking on this challenge and I’m hoping to start getting it into some kind of electronic format soon.

Swanwick Lawn
Chatting on the lawn. Picture courtesy of Geoff Parkes

All in all, it was another fantastic Swanwick experience, full of friendships. Special thank you to Geoff Parkes for the use of a couple of his photographs in this post.

Hope to see you all next year for another week of writing mayhem!

Interview with Elizabeth Ducie, on the release of her novel “Counterfeit!”

I first met Elizabeth at the Swanwick Writers’ Summer School in August 2013. After chatting with her on several occasions, I was struck by her story and her methodical, business-led approach to writing.

I am thrilled that she has agreed to be interviewed for my blog, and I wish her all the best for her new novel, Counterfeit!

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1. Hi Elizabeth, can you tell us a bit about yourself?

I am a late starter in terms of writing fiction. I spent more than thirty years as a scientist in an industrial setting; and although I wrote many thousands (possible millions) of words during that time, they all had to be factual. Then, one day I woke up and thought “I want to do something different; something creative”. So I started writing short stories and at the same time, began mapping out ideas for Gorgito’s Ice Rink. I am a Brummie who moved to London, then Kent, but now resides very happily in a semi-rural setting in Devon.

 

2. I love your blog. Did you set it all up yourself? If so, what tool do you recommend for other aspiring bloggers?

I have set up a number of different blogs and websites over the years. I set originally set Elizabeth Ducie up myself using the free platform Blogger. I also had a separate website which I wrote using SiteBuilder. These days, I tend to use WordPress, which can be used both for dynamic blogs and static pages. If it’s a fairly simple application, I use the free version, wordpress.org, although it’s always worth spending a small amount on a proper domain name, which is more professional-looking.

Recently I decided it was time for a complete upgrade of my online presence, and engaged Natalie Harris of Mebmelon to run the project to integrate my blog and my website. We used the paid-for software, wordpress.com, which has more functionality; I am delighted with the results and now that it’s up and running, I’m back to managing it myself.

 

3. Can you describe a typical day for you?

I’m very much of a lark, rather than an owl, so I am usually up before 6am. I’ve been working hard on my fitness levels over the past year, so on weekdays, I will head either for the swimming pool or the gym for an exercise class. Then after breakfast and a catch-up with my husband, Michael, I fire up the laptop. I try to concentrate on my writing during the morning, and if I can get a solid 4 hours in, then I judge it as a successful session. Then I do all the administration and marketing in the afternoon. We live in a small town, where there’s always something going on, so I’m often out in the evenings, but if not, I chat to Michael while he cooks supper. We tend to read and listen to music rather than watching television, but will usually end the evening with one or two episodes from our latest Box Set.

 

4. How much of yourself have you included in your stories?

Well, they do say you should writer about what you know. My novels are set in the pharmaceutical industry; both they and some of my stories are set in locations in which I’ve worked; and many of the minor incidents I describe come from real life. However, I try hard NOT to write too much of myself into my characters, because if I do, it inhibits what I can let them do. When I first wrote Gorgito’s Ice Rink, I wouldn’t let Emma have a boyfriend, or any fun, because I was scared people would think it was autobiographical. In the end, it was Michael who said: “for goodness sake, it’s called fiction for a reason!” But when I write my character studies, I make a point of giving them characteristics that make them different from me.

 

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5. What gave you the idea to write Counterfeit?

I worked in Southern Africa in the early 2000s, on a project for the Commonwealth Secretariat, although we were trying to regularise pharmaceutical manufacturing regulations across the region, rather than concentrating specifically on counterfeits. I saw many shocking things while I was there, but came to realise that a straight-forward Western European right and wrong was not always correct or practical. I developed the theme initially as a 6K words story but quickly realised there was much more to it than that.

 

6. Do you keep a journal? What kind of things do you write in it?

I don’t keep a daily journal usually. However, when I am away from home, I often do a hand-written account of my travels and things that go wrong, or amuse me. Then when I’m back home, I convert these into a series of daily blog posts.

 

7. Could you tell us your favourite book that you have read recently?

I’m glad you specified ‘recently’. I find this such a difficult question to answer when it refers to everything I’ve ever read. I’ve just returned from a working holiday to Portugal and took the opportunity to catch up on my reading, which has sadly suffered in recent months while I’ve been concentrating on Counterfeit! I can’t pick out one single book, but Alison Morton’s Roma Nova series of historical novels was brilliant; and Annie Murray’s Meet Me Under The Clock introduced me to my home city but in an era before I was born. However, my absolute favourite at the moment is the Dark Tower books by Stephen King, especially book 7, which brought everything to a close. I am so in awe of that man and his writing.

 

8. Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?

The industry is evolving at such a speed; the opportunities for writers have never been as wide as they are now. There is the traditional route, with agent and publisher; there is the completely independent route where you do everything yourself. And there are many options in between. Consider all of them and decide which is right for you. Do NOT see self-publishing merely as a fall-back position if you can’t get an agent. I made a positive choice to go independent, due to issues of control and speed of publication, and have never regretted it. But, whichever route you take, make sure the final product is as good as it can be. You owe that to your readers and to your writing.

 

9. What can we expect from you in the future?

I will be writing book 2, Deception!, and book 3, Corruption!, in the Suzanne Jones series and hope to launch them in 2017 and 2018. I will also be re-launching all my other books on a wider distribution platform.

 

10. How can we get hold of you online?

My website is: www.elizabethducie.co.uk;
I am on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube;
I am always happy to chat to readers and can be reached at elizabeth@elizabethducie.co.uk;
Details of Counterfeit! and all my other books can be found here.

Thank you so much Elizabeth!

Interview with Peter Jones, on the release of his novel: The Truth About This Charming Man

29103615Author Peter Jones has been a significant part of my writing journey. He was the guy I went to for help with formatting and uploading my very first offerings to the global phenomenon known as Amazon, which I did under my pseudonym.

Therefore, I am truly delighted that he has agreed to be interviewed for this blog and to talk about his new book The Truth about this Charming Man.

The novel charts the antics of one William Lewis, an aspiring actor, who has dreamed of treading the boards for about as long as he can remember. He has yet to be involved with the theatre, but he still manages to get to do something of what he loves by pretending to be people that he’s not in the real world.

It’s hilarious, well-written and kept me hooked until the very last page. A very solid 10/10 from me. Here’s what Peter had to say:

 

Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

Where do I begin?!

I started professional life as a particularly rubbish graphic designer, and followed that with a stint as a mediocre petrol pump attendant. After that I got embroiled in the murky world of credit card banking as a ‘fix-it’ man. Fun times.

For the past 6 years I’ve been a full time author, with three and a half self-help books under my belt (if you’re unhappy, lonely or overweight I might just be your guy), and more recently two hilarious rom-com novels.

I don’t own a large departmental store and I’m not a dragon of any description.

 

Can you describe a typical day for you?

Most days I’m writing. I like to be at my desk, working, by 7am. By midday I’m usually beat (creatively speaking). Afternoons are reserved for post, admin, social media, that kinda thing.

Once or twice a week I’m out giving a talk at a WI, or a U3A, or a writing group somewhere – entertaining people with tales of this writing life.

 

You wrote a few non-fiction self-help books before your move into the fiction market? What made you change? Was it a difficult transition?

It’s ironic. I never wanted to write self-help. That kind of happened by accident.

I was in the middle of writing my first novel (in the evenings, after work) when I lost my wife. As you can imagine that event turned my world upside down. Made me question what I wanted in life. Made me question everything.

I decided to take those fix-it man skills and apply them to my own life – to build the happier future that I so wished I’d given my wife. When some of the changes I came up with started to make an obvious difference to my demeanour a colleague suggested I ought to write those ideas down. Six months later I’d accidentally written How To Do Everything And be Happy. I self-published it (because I couldn’t be bothered with the effort of sending it to agents and publishers), and it did well. Really well. Really, really well. So much so that Audible and Harper Collins came knocking, as did an agent.

However, after three and a half non-fiction books I was keen to get back to the still unfinished novel. Naively I thought my non-fiction readers would pick up my novel out of curiosity, but I soon realised I was effectively starting again from scratch. My then agent was only interested in my non-fiction, as were HC and audible. It took me a while to find a new agent, and land a new book deal.

 

In your latest novel The Truth About This Charming Man Will comes across as a sound character with a good dollop of common sense, despite his unluckiness in love. How much is he like you? 

I like Will a lot, and yes, I suppose we do have a lot in common, although I don’t really see him as ‘unlucky in love’. He’s quite upfront about the fact that theatre is his first love – and I totally get that. If you told me I could be happily married to Kylie Minogue for the rest of my life, OR have a 50/50 chance of three book deal with penguin… I’d take the latter every time. Is that mad? I think it might be.

 

Will plays a number of different ‘parts’ in the book, to great comedic effect at times. To what extent do you think this mirrors the parts we all play in our own lives? (i.e. husband/wife, child/parent, boss/employee)

Blimey. That’s a deep question. Let me side step it.

Initially, The Truth About This Charming Man was never intended to be a novel. It was a five part short-story about an actor, who acts in the ‘real world’ (rather than ‘on stage’), and what happens when he’s asked to play two characters at the same meeting. But the more I wrote, the more intrigued I became by the duality of the other characters, and how – as you say – people often play different roles in their own lives. Roles that might, sometimes, require a little bending of the truth.

When my (new) agent suggested I turn the short story into a novel, I looked to that duality for my inspiration. The book then wrote itself.

 

Could you tell us your favorite book from 2015?

I read a lot of non-fiction in 2015. My favourite was Excuse Me Your Life Is Waiting by Lynn Grabhorn.

 

Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?

Stop aspiring and get writing.

 

What can we expect from you in the future?

I’m juggling a couple of projects at the moment. There’s some exciting talk about a Truth About This Charming Man film or TV series (can’t say more than that at this stage), but regardless of whether that happens or not, a third novel should be out in the not too distant future.

 

Where can we find you?

http://facebook.com/peterjonesauthor

http://twitter.com/peterjonesauth

http://peterjonesauthor.com

Happy New Year for 2016! My plans for the coming months…

Howdy folks!

Well, it’s been quite a hectic start to the year, not least because I am now the proud owner of two beautiful kittens!

Freya & Marlowe
Freya & Marlowe

Here they are, sitting side by side, as they often do, posing for the camera. Freya is the long-haired one. She’s an absolute sweetheart and adores being brushed, lying on her back in my arms, purring away. Marlowe is her stepbrother and he’s not quite so affectionate just yet. He prefers chasing all manner of things, including his own tail, round and round in circles until he gets dizzy and flops into a heap on the carpet.

They actually have different mums, but they were brought up in a communal feral setting. Thankfully, the foster mum has done a spectacular job at making sure they were handled  and well socialised before they came to me. They’ve been here nearly two weeks, and they’ve settled really well so I’m very pleased. Stay tuned over the coming months for news on their progress. In the meantime, see here for a short video.

sfep_straplineTowards the very end of 2015, I made a very important step towards my goal of quitting the day job. I took, and passed, a course in proofreading. If you, or anyone you know, is looking for a final proofread of an already polished manuscript, please do get in touch at lizhurstauthor@gmail.com for further information.

Recipients of my newsletter will know that work on the second novel in the Lost Souls series is progressing well, albeit slowly. I write in fits and starts sometimes. There will be an inspiration of some sort, and I can get two of three chapters done in one go, then I run out of steam and it sits there, neglected and collecting dust, until the next flurry of activity. I am pleased with what has made it onto the page so far, though, and my characters are developing nicely. Keep reading my newsletter for progress on the book and a cover reveal some time in late Spring.

Like so many people at this time of year, January heralds the start of the holiday booking season. I have booked two trips so far this year: Dublin and Swanwick, both writing conferences. This year’s Dublin trip in June is for a whole week this time, so I can take advantage of more of what the city has to offer. (I’m particularly intrigued by the National Leprechaun Museum!) Having missed Swanwick last year due to Lily’s illness, I’m looking forward to catching up with my wonderful writing family in August too.

So, there will be a lot going on, and a lot to keep you informed about as the year progresses. Goodness! I don’t know how I shall have the time for work…

 

op99lj 4de[p;,i8kkn ygv rfdxwsl[p0[kjt5h e (NO FREYA! Keep off the keyboard when Mummy’s writing!)

 

 

 

Gone Girl – Is it worth the hype?

I was very late coming to this particular party, I’ll admit. Plus, I often find that I don’t agree with creative works which have been highly-acclaimed in the media (the movie Forrest Gump springs to mind here – I just didn’t get it).

So, I was more than pleasantly surprised when my mum recommended this to me. She has an eye for a good story, my mother, and we often enjoy the same authors, so I thanked her for lending me her copy and I launched into it with glee.

Let me say one thing first of all: the phrase “all is not what it seems” is not powerful enough for this book. It takes it to a whole new level. Read on…

Amy is married to Nick Dunne. They are the perfect couple, or so it seems, until Amy disappears on the morning of their fifth wedding anniversary. The police believe she has been murdered by Nick, a theory which is bolstered by the fact that hergonegirl friends reveal to them that she was afraid of him. But he swears it isn’t true. On reading more into Nick’s character, we also realise he’s just not capable of anything like that.

Half the book is written as journal entries made by Amy, starting from the night they first met, and we learn how their relationship developed into what it is now. But, make no mistake, Diary Amy is very different from the woman that Nick believes he has married. And therein lies the problem with their marriage.

This is a thriller like no other. It sinks into our minds and searches through our insecurities and, like Amy, we learn that on many occasions, we too have been lured into becoming someone else for what we think is the benefit of our relationships.

This book will question how you view your partner. Do you really know them inside out? You may think you do, but do you, really? Do you support and encourage them, or do you hinder them in some way? Do you feel they stand in your way, perhaps?

As a singleton, I can ask these questions of my previous relationships and I know why they all failed. For those of you who are attached to someone, happily or otherwise, maybe you might find some of those questions difficult. But ask them you should, of yourself at least, if not your partner too.

Now, I am not saying this book will now necessarily mean that my next relationship will be a fantastic success, but I will certainly consider asking myself those questions when I meet someone new. Perhaps a good strategy as I find myself at the end of 2015 and staring a New Year in the face…

Here’s wishing you all a very Merry Christmas and a Happy and Prosperous New Year!

Liz xxx

To Kill A Mockingbird – Is it still relevant today?

I was absolutely thrilled when someone suggested we read this for my local bookclub last month.

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Having just read the sequel a few months ago, I was very much looking forward to getting into this one again. I say ‘again’ – we actually read this at school, and I remembered that I had really enjoyed it.

I have re-read a number of books from childhood recently. Regular readers may remember my post about the Lord of the Flies and how being an adult can change our perspective on a story. I did wonder if a second reading of Harper Lee’s classic tale would have a similar effect.

There were lots of things about the story which I had completely forgotten. The touching sub-plot of Boo Radley and his affection for Jem and Scout springs to mind.

I remember as a child there was a house in our street which looked a bit neglected compared to the others. It desperately needed a lick of paint and a tidy up of the garden, and that probably would have done it. But to us children it was the topic of much gossip, as was the older guy who lived there, apparently alone. We used to make up stories about how he had murdered all the other children in the neighbourhood, and we used to wonder which of us would be next. (Jeez, I just got a shiver up my spine thinking about that!)

I had also forgotten the court verdict after the infamous trial, although looking at the story as a whole, it almost doesn’t matter.

So, I arrived at bookclub last month full of lots of things to say. Inevitably, most of us thought exactly the same thing: this story is most definitely as relevant today as it ever has been.

*** SPOILER ALERT *** For those of you who have NOT read the sequel, please do not read beyond this point!

I came across this great article from the Huffington Post which discusses what we really think of Atticus Finch (a literary hero so great that his first name is a popular baby name for white males in the US). Especially when we learn that he does not quite deserve the pedestal upon which we have perched him for such a long time.

Consider too the recent uprisings in the US, including KKK rallies and the figures relating to civilian killings of members of the African American population by white police officers. This is very sobering reading and tells us that racism is, in fact, alive and well in certain areas of the United States. Shame on them.

Review: From Cornwall to the Andes, Barbara Webb

I don’t read a great deal of non-fiction but I was drawn to this book, partly due to the striking painting on the cover (which I later found out is the author’s own work), and partly because of its acutely personal nature.

“How brave!” I thought. “What great courage this lady must have to share such a private and emotional journey in such a public way.”

I find I am drawn to people who display characteristics such as courage and strength. Webb seemed to be just such a person and so I decided to purchase this little book.

The first thing that is clear is that the author is no shrinking violet. This is a lady who has travelled all over the world, visiting countries and cultures of which most of us can only dream.

Yet not even such experiences can shield us from the very human condition of profound grief when a loved one dies.

I can only imagine how difficult it must have been, after such a traumatic period in one’s life, to make the decision to commit to paper the journey from her late husband’s diagnosis through his death and into the unknown territory of widowhood.

But the beauty of this story is that there is no wallowing in self-pity amongst the pages. The illness and subsequent deterioration in her husband’s condition is handled with care and tenderness, which many in a similar position will find of great comfort.

Instead, we find a moving tribute to her late husband and a candid reflection of her own despair after his death. How lucky we are that the author found herself and created such a wonderful new life to share with us.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It moved me to tears on occasion, but between the pages lie also joy and hope, and this makes it an inspiration for those with a loved one also suffering from terminal illness.

You can find out more about Barbara Webb and her books below:

Website: http://www.cornwall2theandes.com

Twitter: https://twitter.com/cornwall2andes

 

Review: Labyrinth, Kate Mosse

This is easily one of the best books I’ve read this year so far, and I don’t say that lightly.

I love reading books where the action takes place along two different time lines, but so few authors can really get this right. I believe Kate Mosse has done a superb job with Labyrinth.

In 13th century France, the spirited and adventurous Alais, daughter to a leading political figure in Carcassonne, becomes aware of a greater truth that her father entrusts to her, that of the safekeeping of ancient Egyptian texts belonging to the Cathars. Her people are being persecuted, however, and she must keep the books safe from the hands of the Northern French Crusaders who are currently marching south, pillaging land and possessions as they go.

In the present day, Alice joins an archaeological dig in the Languedoc region and inadvertently disturbs a curious burial site, bringing Alais’ story to light. Everywhere she goes there are echoes of the past, threatening her sanity and ultimately, her life.

Mosse never allows the two plots to coincide. Instead, they run seamlessly alongside one another, merging only at the very end when the reader gains a beautiful understanding as if, we too have been entrusted with this sacred knowledge of a Universal Truth.

This is a great book for celebrating the role of women in fiction. Both leading characters are women, and neither is constrained by traditional, stereotypical female roles. There is a useful glossary at the back for interpreting the Occitan language (something akin to Old French, but with distinct differences), although this is hardly necessary, and her Author’s Note explains all historical references and separates the fact from fiction.

I was never a fan of history at school. Indeed, it is through reading wonderful books such as these, that the fire in my own belly ignites and I want to write my own stories about the past. I shall certainly be reading many more from Mosse, including her recent offering, The Taxidermist’s Daughter.

The Drowning Pool, Syd Moore

The Swanwick Writers’ Summer School of 2013 was a pivotal time in my writing journey. It was the first time I had visited the school, and it was a life-changing experience, both in terms of writing and in terms of the people I met there.

For part of that glorious week, I chased poor Syd Moore around the conference centre with a copy of this book. Eventually, I found an opportune moment for her to sign it for me, and I was thrilled. It was the first book I had ever owned which was signed by the author.

I have always had a fascination with witchcraft, ever since reading Arthur Miller’s The Crucible at school. There’s something about the fact that there is yet so much we don’t understand about the physical nature of the world in which we live. This makes our imagination fill in the gaps of knowledge with stories of fantasy and imagination.

The Drowning Pool gives us a rich story into this abyss of knowledge with a wonderful story about a young widow and her connection with a historical figure, both with the name of Sarah Grey. Sarah’s raw emotions shine through in every page, and her paranormal experience allows her to come to terms with her own loss. I loved the dream sequences and the historical flashbacks which are equally beautifully described and full of imagery.

I’m not usually a fan of ghost stories, but I was drawn to the witchcraft elements of this book and in actual fact, I wasn’t at all spooked out. Instead, the appearances of the ghost are well-handled and much more sentimental than I expected. Certainly, I shall be reading more of Syd’s work, and I do hope she makes it back to Swanwick soon!

Simon Hall: The TV Detective

I’m not usually a reader of crime fiction, I must admit. Not since my days of studying French, when I used to read Agatha Christie novels a-plenty in an attempt to improve my understanding of La Belle Langue. The language was easier to grasp in Christie than Gustave Flaubert, for a start.

However, since meeting Simon Hall at Swanwick this year I decided it was time to expand my repertoire of reading material. He was kind enough to sign my copy, after all. So, I wasn’t really sure what to expect when I picked up The TV Detective, but in fact I enjoyed this book immensely.

Our central character, Dan Groves, finds himself in the unenviable role of crime correspondent just as a notorious local businessman is found murdered. Loved by no one except his poor, long-suffering secretary, there is no shortage of suspects for his murder, but it takes Dan and his CID mentor, Adam Breen, some time to pin down the precise whys and wherefores.

The author’s own career as a TV reporter shines through very much through young Dan, and we can therefore assume all TV references are taken from real experiences. I particularly liked the portrayal of the formidable editor, Lizzy. I can hear her stilettos clattering down the corridor right now…!

Other reviewers have mentioned the references to A Popular Murder, upon which this novel is based. Personally I cannot comment, since I am not familiar with it.

This is a great debut novel and I am looking forward very much to catching up with the rest of the series. Thank you, Simon!

Writer With Pets: Madalyn Morgan

I met actress, writer and radio presenter Madalyn Morgan at my first Swanwick in 2013. She was one of many people I met there who inspired me early on in my own writing journey and I’m thrilled that she has contributed to my blog.

Maddie has reminded me that it’s not just the cats and dogs which share our homes which we can consider pets. Those of us lucky enough to have gardens know that the great outdoors plays host to any number of wild creatures and they too can be an inspiration.

Which came first, a love of writing, or a love of animals?

Animals came before writing, but not before acting.  Let me explain.  My first cat adopted me just before I went to Drama College in London.  I had a hairdressing salon in Rugby and the girls who worked for me insisted I took in a scruffy little stray.  I said no, but by the time the girls had fed him for a couple of weeks, they had fallen in love with him and he had taken over my flat.  Toby Two-Shoes ended up living with my parents at the pub I grew up in, when I went off to London in 1974.

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Susie Kit-Kat adopted Maddie when she was an actress living in London

My second cat, Susie Kit-Kat, was fifteen when she came to live with me.  I was an out-of-work actress and she had been orphaned when her mum of ninety-three died.  The lady was famous in South London after a court appearance for not paying her TV license.  She told the magistrates that she had enough money to pay the TV license, or feed her cats, but not both.  She chose to feed her cats.  Susie travelled with me to several repertory theatres.  She wasn’t much help when I was leaning lines though, she used to fall asleep.

Describe your pets.

My first cat, Toby, was jet black with white front paws – hence the name Toby Two-shoes.  Susie was a tabby, very soft and very pretty with big eyes.  Her lips were strange.  Most of the time she looked as if she was smiling.  A regular feline visitor to my garden is, Blanca.  She disturbs my writing so much…  She stalks the fish in my pond, so I run out and shoo her off.  She is pure white with piercing blue eyes – and she is very cheeky.  She knows I would never hurt her, so she sits and stares me out.  Only when she decides to leave, does she slink off.

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Blanca, hiding in Maddie’s wildflower garden under the apple trees

Take me through your writing day.

My day starts early.  I wake as soon as it is light, which is not so bad in the winter but in the summer, it can be too early.  However, it is as I’m waking up that I have my best ideas.  I have to write them down immediately.  Like dreams, they are very real at the time, but they quickly go out of your mind once you’re awake.

Sometimes I’m bombarded with ideas for my next book before I’ve finished writing the current one.  I was line editing my second novel, Applause, for twelve hours a day.  Stupid I know, sitting at the computer for that long is bad for your legs.  However, two nights running I was kept awake by the plot of China Blue, the third book in the Dudley sisters saga,  which I haven’t started writing yet.

“Editing Foxden Acres, I had Applause wake me up. Editing Applause, I had China Blue wake me up.”

 

In the spring and summer, I make a cup of tea and switch on the computer.  While it warms up, I take my tea and walk round the garden.  I fill the birdbaths from the water butt, put down seeds for the birds and look at the fish.  One my garden creatures are happy I go back to the computer and, with a second cup of tea, check my emails, Facebook and Tweets, before opening my writing file.  Once I start writing it’s a cup of tea and a chat to the fish and frogs every couple of hours.

 

How do your pets help or hinder the writing process, and/or inspire you?

That is a good question.  They hinder and inspire in equal measure.  I was prone to being stressed, but my pets calm me.  Fish and frogs are fascinating to watch, which is relaxing.  On the other hand, if the weather is good, I am in and out of the garden all day, which is a hindrance.  In the summer, I eat my lunch outside so I can watch them.  By then the frogs are used to my voice and will sit and watch me as I am watching them.

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Frog sunbathing on a lily pad

The fish too are used to my shape and come for food.  But my favourite time is the end of my writing day.  Around six o’clock I sit and relax by the pond with a dish of olives and a glass of wine.  Perfect.

 

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Shubunkin, goldfish, yellow and black tench

Summer is the best time for man and fish, except when you lose one.  I was heartbroken when I returned from Swanwick in August 2012 and found a beautiful red, silver and black, Shubunkin and two red goldfish were missing.  My neighbours saw a bird of prey in my garden and I guess it took them.  However, the good news is, last year I saw two tiny baby ‘black’ goldfish.  I can’t wait to see how much they have grown, if they survived the winter, which I’m sure they did.

In the winter, my workstation faces the garden and I spend far too much time gazing out the window at the birds.  I hang suet balls, seed, and nut feeders in the trees for the tits and sparrows, throw seeds on the steps for the ground eaters like Robins and other small birds, and put currents and apples out for the blackbirds.  Two beautiful little doves visit every day and what they don’t eat the pigeons see off.  I love my garden, my birds and my fish and frogs.  I never tire of watching them – and I never tire of writing.

Popping in and out several times, a day is good for a writer.  I spent far too many hours at the computer without taking a break, while I edited Foxden Acres and then Applause, and had extremely painful legs as a consequence.  Writers need to get up every hour or so and move about.

Writers with Pets: Heather Cook

Some of our favourite authors, past and present, are famous for their love of animals.

Ernest Hemingway is renowned for keeping polydactyl felines and his home in Key West, Florida, is inhabited by their descendants to this day.

Mark Twain, Doris Lessing, Edgar Allen Poe, Jack Kerouac and George Bernard Shaw all had cats too. Stephen King has both cats and dogs in his Maine home, and the French novelist Colette has been famously described as the original Mad Cat Woman.

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Mark Twain

 

In a new series of articles, I am talking to writers with pets and asking them about their beloved companions and how they inspire their creativity.

Heather Cook used to write a regular column in Your Cat magazine to which I subscribed during my petsitting days. She was a Homing Officer for the Woking and District Branch of Cats Protection before she retired a couple of years ago and continues to write books about cats.

Heather Cook, author and cat-lover
Heather Cook, author and cat-lover

Which came first, the writing or the cats?

I’ve always loved all animals and remember writing about dogs and ponies, lions and elephants as a small child. I didn’t have pets as a child because we lived in a flat in London, but I used to love my grandmother’s cats. As soon as I was able to, I had cats and because I always worked full-time it wasn’t sensible to have animals that needed constant company. Cats were the perfect companions and were I think slightly irritated to have me around more when I retired!

How many cats do you have at present?

I have 12 cats at present. 3 of them are feral cats that live outside, but they have deluxe cat cabins in the garden and at least 3 meals a day, so they’re about as feral as a suet pudding. The other 9 spend a lot of time indoors as they are mainly Special Needs cats. One was born without hind paws, two have brain damage and the others have various problems like heart trouble, missing limbs and dementia.

The aptly-named Stumpy Malone, who was born without his hind paws
The aptly-named Stumpy Malone, who was born without his hind paws

Describe your writing day.

Most mornings I sit down at the laptop as soon as I’ve sorted all the cats out with feeding, room service and medication. I deal with emails first, then look over the previous day’s writing. I do two quite different sorts of writing: the light-hearted cat stuff and poetry of all varieties, so mood comes into the equation as to what I will spend my time on that day. Depending on other commitments, I will usually spend at least 2 hours in the morning writing and a further 2 or 3 hours in the afternoon. Occasionally, I’ll have a sudden inspiration – particularly with a poem that’s been in my head for a while – and work on it very late at night.

How do the cats help or hinder the writing process?

My cats are my main source of inspiration, so they are an enormous help to me! The cat rescue work has also brought me so many lovely friends. Although sad things inevitably happen, I think that cats are very amusing animals and they insist on being written about.
On a practical level, one of my cats – Miss Tiny Trixie-Tribble – is obsessed with the laptop and loves to leap about on the keyboard. I have to save my work constantly because she is always deleting things or pinging off emails before I’ve finished. She also likes to add her own little flourishes: the word ‘ehwk’ is a particular favourite and I dread to think what it means in catspeak!

Heather Cook is the author of Evie’s Diary: A Bad Cat’s View of Life which can be purchased here.