My fabulous colleagues at Triskele make me sound rather nice.
This is the third in our series – what each brings to Triskele Books.
January 17, 2017
Guest piece for Words with JAM magazine by yours truly, on magic book descriptions that work.
Five of which happen before you even begin to write.
January 3, 2017
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
December 16, 2016
Weeks 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.
Jane 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.
Perhaps 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
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?
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
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?
December 4, 2016
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.
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.
November 21, 2016
I went to the European Premiere of Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them.
Oh yes I did.
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.
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.
A few things I learned about premieres:
An extraordinary Tuesday night.
A brilliant film I’ll watch again and again.
The first of five? Bring ’em on.
November 9, 2016
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 […]