This week, I’ve been obsessing over characters’ names and why it’s so important to get them right. Just like plot, setting, research and characters, each requires a depth of understanding from the author which never makes it to the page.

What makes a name work? Here are ten things I’ve learned.

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Actors often quote a snippet of advice. Memorable names follow a syllable pattern. Three in the first name, one in the second. Jeremy Irons. Emily Blunt. Harrison Ford. Virginia Woolf. Cormoran Strike. Rosamund Pike. Atticus Finch. Orlando Bloom. Vivien Leigh. Beatrice Stubbs.

Names carry all kinds of coded messages and subconscious associations which can make a name become an essential part of the character. They must feel right, for the writer and the reader. Colours, animals, professions all trigger feelings of trust, affection or suspicion we may not even realise. Sirius Black. Scarlett O’Hara. Cat Baloo. Mike Butcher. Dickens was a master of character encapsulation within a name.

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Class, age and type can be encapsulated in the right nomenclature. Florence Flannel, aged retainer in a Cornish murder mystery, conjures the gnarly-knuckled old maid with no need to resort to comic West Country accents. Whereas Elizabeth Abernethy, lady of the house, carries a whiff of crinoline, corsetry and conspiracy.

Similarly, choose names to fit era and genre. Fantasy identities require as much creativity as historical fiction requires research. Slatibartfast meets Hrothgar. Chick lit heroes tend to be one-syllabled: Dan, Tom, Sam, Rhett, Mark and Will whereas heroines generally need two: Bridget, Sophie, Katy, Lucy, Vianne or Sally will do nicely.

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Two characters or more who begin with the same initial make the reader’s life harder. Marianne asked Madeleine why Mary Jane was at Michelle’s funeral because Michael had promised Martin he’d keep her away. *flicks back to dramatis personae*

Technicalities matter. When you have a character whose name ends in S, what happens with the possessive? James’s gun, Nicholas’ trousers, the urinal of Degas. If a first name ends in a vowel and the surname with a consonant, how does it sound? Mara Bellena, Mar Abelena, Marabelle Ena?

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Sounds matter. Read the names aloud. If the name is tricky, but you need it to be so, offer the reader an insight as to how it sounds. When my detective encounters an Angolan DNA expert called Conceição, she notes the pronunciation with a mental bridge – ‘cats say miaow’.

Characters rarely need to remind themselves of their own relationships. Hence using terms such as ‘sis’, ‘boss’, ‘cuz’ are an irritating authorial effort to remind the reader what s/he already knows.

Cultural resonance must be accommodated. I got on marvellously with my local doctor until we crossed the first name bridge. ‘You can call me Adolf’.

Collect names. Curious name crop up everywhere: signposts, streets, shops, election posters, newspaper stories and even in junk mail. Watch and write down those that trigger your own imagination. You may not use them for years, but when you do, they’ll have the same effect on the reader.

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tales-of-the-cityWeeks of grey skies, freezing fog and a bout of flu – it should have been the ideal time to tackle my TBR pile. Instead, I picked up Tales of the City and didn’t stop until I’d finished Sure of You, the sixth in Armistead Maupin’s series set in San Francisco. Why?

Because I love these books. They’re perfectly structured, terrific fun, filled with wonderful characters and sharp dialogue. Best of all, they are familiar. They comfort me.

Just as I reach for pyjamas, Heinz Tomato Soup or a hot toddy for solace and soothing, there’s a whole section of my bookshelf I’ve labelled as ‘comfort reads’. It’s an eclectic selection.

heinz-tomato-soupJane Austen beside David Baddiel, Bill Bryson next to Nancy Mitford, and Stella Gibbons is sandwiched between Iain Banks and Kate Atkinson. If I’m poorly, sad, tired or run down, it’s to these pages I run for a hug. So what is it about these books that make me feel better? What exactly is a comfort read?

Book bloggers, readers and writers were kind enough to share their old faithfuls and the variety was surprising. Childhood favourites, classics, chick lit, escapism or crime seem to be our reliable pick-me-ups.

Here’s a selection of choices and I now have a new list – To Be Re-Read.

Children’s Books

secret-gardenPerhaps it’s an emotional echo of when someone else looked after us, but Winnie the Pooh, Enid Blyton, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, Dr Seuss, Judy Blume, Roald Dahl and Maurice Sendak are solid favourites amongst the reading community.

Yes indeed. I buy copies of Where The Wild Things Are for all my favourite small people.

Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book for me. Its subject is incredibly bleak (a little girl whose mother has died spends the summer with her father and her grandmother, who is preparing for her own death) but it’s so beautiful and homely that it cheers me up every time. It’s the darker cousin of her Moomin books and it breaks my heart and heals it all at once – Cassandra Jane Parkin

Classics

Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, To Kill A Mockingbird, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Le Grand Meaulnes, Grapes of Wrath and Under Milk Wood all seemed popular in my unscientific study. Is it because we know what’s going to happen and relax in the knowledge of certainty? Or it is because we know and love the rhythm of the words in the case of Lee, Shakespeare and Thomas?

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I turn to the classics – Bleak House or if I’m really in need of it A Christmas Carol. I love them because they are so brilliantly written, they take you completely away from all the things going on in life – and things turn out right in the end – Peter Taylor-Gooby

Light, Laughter and Romance

Comfort reading for me must transport me elsewhere, hold my attention there, have strong characters and include resolution of a problem/situation and a happy ending. I don’t want to be harrowed and can’t stand misery literature of any variety – Catherine Kullmann

Writers who make my respondees and me laugh include Jeeves and Wooster, James Herriot, Terry Pratchett, Mil Millington, Marian Keyes, David Baddiel, Flann O’Brien, Sophie Kinsella, Stephen Fry and Bill Bryson.

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, it’s a magically-weird world where I can hide from whatever’s bugging me in this one – Catherine Hokin

Darkness and Drama

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Sometimes, even while feeling grey, we have the urge to go darker. Maybe reading how bad things could be acts as a cathartic purge. Apparently there are dog-eared copies of books by Kate Morton, Dostoyevsky, Stephen King, Agatha Christie, Thomas Harris, Val McDermid and Frank McCourt on many a bedside table.

Diary of a Mad Housewife by Sue Kaufman is a book I’ve kept beside my bed for years and I often reread passages. Kaufman describes a woman full of anxieties and unfulfilled in her marriage so vividly. It may seem strange that I find this comforting, but I do – Alison Baillie-Taylor

I’m also grateful to Harriet Springbett for alerting me to The Novel Cure by Susan Elderkin & Ella Berthoud. It advises which book to read according to your ailment. Brilliant idea!

And you? On the days you retreat beneath the duvet with a hot-water bottle and a mince pie, which kind of book do you reach for, in the sure knowledge it will make everything all right?

And how they make a difference to art and life.
(I hereby win most portentous subtitle of 2016)

Today I finished the manuscript and immediately started over.
As we’re amongst friends, I can call the manuscript by its real name.

Lone Wolf

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That is not a wolf

The big things are in place. Now to add all those itty-bitty small things. The mention, the letter, the look, the number, the detail, the time, the tiny pieces of the whole which keep the reader puzzled.
Crime and thriller writers have many ways of keeping track of all the consistent clues and references within a novel.

This is my sixth in a series and I’ve tried pretty much every system there is. Yet I still go back to my pencil grid. Before you make assumptions, it has highlights, Post-Its, maps, characters, research detail and an entire coded asterisk system. Colour and class. And I need that grid. For a mind better suited to character, dialogue and even scenic description, lining up endless details is like herding a thousand kittens.

Small things are important. Pebbles, jewels or jigsaw pieces, the reader collects and pockets every one. Each texture, colour and shape must be pleasing in itself and fit perfectly into the whole.

Small things make a big difference in stories.
Small things make a difference in lives.

It’s been a tough year – in both the personal and political arena.
Small gestures such as cards, letters, messages, posts, hugs, calls, visits and opinions have eased the sense of loss. A package of mince pies made me cry.

If you read this blog, I’m assuming you’re not a git and therefore it’s been a tough year for you too. Here’s a hug and a virtual mince pie.

I’m going back to the book and adding all the elements it needs to make it work. It will take a lot of effort, daily diligence and self-criticism. My own harshest critic will be me. Because lazy creates nothing.

I’m going to engage with this strange new world and do small things. It will take a lot of effort, every day, which may involve swearing, giving, supporting, calling-out, protesting, refusing or applauding. Because lazy achieves nothing.

So…

I went to the European Premiere of Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them.

Oh yes I did.

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We had an absolute ball.

Meeting old friends, spending quality time together, getting excited, sharing jewellery, handbags, fashion advice and make-up tips. Not to mention the cocktails.

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The film itself lived up to every expectation. In Odeon Leicester Square, the sound quality is so intense, your seats actually vibrate. The creatures, the acting, the story, the setting and most powerfully, the themes, held us all (regardless of age) rapt in our seats. You can read a more detailed review here.

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A few things I learned about premieres:

  • The carpet’s not always red.
  • You cannot walk on cobbles in heels.
  • Dress so you feel fabulous AND comfortable.
  • When Non-Famous You gets out of the car, you can hear the fans groan.
  • Only professionals manage to keep red lipstick off their teeth.
  • Security geezers are truly amazing.
  • Warner Bros throw fine parties – Kowalski’s Bakery won.
  • Meeting the actors when prepared is incredible. When unprepared, you dribble.
  • It takes at least 24 hours and several conversations before you appreciate the film.
  • It takes at least 24 hours and several conversations before you remember the party.

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An extraordinary Tuesday night.

A brilliant film I’ll watch again and again.

The first of five? Bring ’em on.

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I suppose the thing is, it’s hard to live a good life. It’s energetically demanding to keep negative emotions at bay, to remain open and inclusive, to feel ready to tackle difficult problems that have no simple solutions, to refrain from judging . Whereas it is so easy to fall into catastrophising, into resentment and […]

via The Self-Sabotage of the West — Tales from the Reading Room

The Woolf Quarterly held WriteCon Zürich Autumn 16 last weekend.

A wonderful, stimulating day of ideas and discussion where 30 writers came together to learn and share.

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Origami bookshelves by Sarah Buchmann

Lindsey Grant guided her group through the complexities of writing Memoir and Non-Fiction. This is a subject which requires an experienced tutor with an awareness of how traumatic some personal experiences can be.

Thankfully, as an ex Program Director of NaNoWriMo and memoirist herself, she steered a professional course between sharing individual stories and keeping the group focused.

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Memoir & Non-Fiction workshop

In the Fiction Masterclass, Jason Donald packed structure, story, plot and prose into one intensive day.

Tragedy begins with harmony and ends with chaos. Comedy is the reverse.

His insights into Plot v. Story, the difference between the Hero/Heroine’s Journey and the significance of subplots intrigued me.

Main plot carries story, sub plot carries theme

In the afternoon session, we turned our attention to our own writing. Jason asked us to edit 3-5 pages of our work in progress.

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Fiction Masterclass

First we weeded out all the bad habits (every author has a crutch in terms of words, phrases or sentence structure). Next we whipped out all those unnecessary filters.

Felt, wondered, decided, seemed are all filter words which distance the reader.

Finally, participants worked in pairs to create fresh, surprising prose.

This exercise was such a success, I’m sharing it here.

Write down ten words which express emotional states in your story. Eg, frustration, loneliness, jealousy, passion, triumph…

Write down ten words which appear in the environment of your storyworld. Eg, ice, sea-salt, wind, fur, shells…

Take one from each list and combine them into a sentence, using an image featuring the latter to evoke the former. Don’t mention the emotion, just hint at it. Write five sentences, sometimes a question or a negative. Amongst them, you’ll find one you can use or develop.

Hermit crabs scuttled their shells sideways at his approach, as if even they shunned him.

Her smile, sea-salt in his wounds, expressed nothing more than pity.

Swap lists with a partner. Give them your lists and see what five combinations they create.

 

Finally, writing workshops always result in such fabulous goodies!

Origami books, a syringe pen and a dead body pen holder. My kind of weekend.

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In a month when bad news came in threes (and I’m not talking about presidential debates), I realised three things.

  • The support of female friends is invaluable. I love the guys too but the girls rock. Especially after losing a loved one, each in their own way reminds me they care.
  • No relationship is without conflict. All my closest friends and I have had occasional disagreements: politics, ethics, behaviour, or which dishcloth to use for wiping up red wine. Just like any couple, it’s how you deal with these flash points that defines your respect for one another.
  • Friendships can survive long periods of neglect, much like my garden, and burst into bloom once more.  Memories, photos and Facebook act as great fertiliser.
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Colours for Cooty – The celebration of my Mum and her exceptional life

A fellow writer recently discussed the awkwardness of ‘unfriending’ a person. Not on social media, but in person. I get that. On three occasions, I have ‘consciously uncoupled’ from people whose influence became more negative than positive. On each occasion, I felt lighter, happier and couldn’t understand why it had taken so long. But true friends I will treasure forever.

Seeking comfort in books, as is my wont in times of trouble, I went back to female friendships. I re-read many and sought out certain passages which touched me the first time. Here’s a brief list of my favourites for you to curl up with. Ideally with a comfy blanket and a bowl of tomato soup.

The Pursuit of Love, by Nancy Mitford

A fictionalised account of the Mitford sisters, this insight into upper-class British family life in Downton Abbey through a child’s eyes. Fanny’s love and friendship with Linda and her sisters is a joy.

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Temples of Delight, By Barbara Trapido

Everyone should have a Jem. A bright, lively rulebreaker who enters Alice’s life like a firework. For an all-too-brief but thrilling period in her young life, Jem opens all kinds of doors, then disappears through one.

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Accabadora, by Michela Murgia

An ageing seamstress who operates as the opposite of a midwife (she helps souls leave rather than arrive) has no children. She adopts Maria, whose family can no longer afford to feed her. The two women learn much from each other, and learn how to manage life as a single woman in rural Sicily.

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The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery

Two women of different generations and even class, Renée is the concierge of a Paris apartment block, who outwardly conforms to what her residents expect. On the 5th floor, Paloma is planning her own suicide before her thirteenth birthday. Two women with a shared curiosity for the meaning of life.

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My Brilliant Friend, by Elena Ferrante

Also set in Sicily, this book offers an exceptional insight into the world of blood feuds and family roles but the theme is closer to The Pursuit of Love. An apparently unequal friendship turns out to be more balanced than it seems. A painfully accurate rendition of what a good friendship really is.

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Only Ever Yours, by Louise O’Neill

Both bleak and comforting, this vision of the future where women compete on every level is uncomfortably close to reality. The warmth of female friendship, the love and loss of a true friend is resonant throughout. It’s pitched as YA, which is a good thing. All young women, and men, should read this. It has a message for us all.

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