Monday, 1 October 2018

Wise words and old wives' tales

Going for a walk in the autumn sunshine today, I noticed that the holly trees were bright with berries and it got me thinking : Does this indicate that our lovely summer is going to be followed by a bad winter?  So, when I got home, I went online and looked up this old wives' tale.  Nowadays, it is thought that early and abundant holly berries are a result of a good spring and a mild September rather than an indicator of future weather, although there are a host of other superstitious associated with holly that are quite fascinating.


Christian symbolism connected the prickly leaves with Jesus' crown of thorns and the berries with the drops of blood shed for humanity's salvation. In Celtic mythology the Holly King ruled over half the year from the summer to the winter solstice, at which time the Oak King defeated the Holly King to rule until the summer solstice again. Holly was also believed to have protective properties, being commonly brought into the house to guard against malevolent faeries and was frequently left uncut in hedges to prevent witches running along them.



But whether holly in abundance in autumn is a forecaster of bad weather or not, berries of all sorts at this time of year undoubtedly brighten up our hedgerows as well as providing a good source of nutrition for birds like thrushes, blackbirds, redwings and fieldfares - and magpies too! You can read more about this colourful bounty for birds on the  RSPB website .




And the wise words in the title of this blog? Once more, these come from the wonderful Kate Walker.  I submitted a partial of my WIP to Mills and Boon last week, and this meant a revision of the one-page synopsis I'd sent in to the RNA's New Writers' Scheme back in July. The timing was perfect, as Kate had just posted a helpful guide to writing a synopsis on the RNA Facebook page and I had this next to my computer as I developed my synopsis. The main point of Kate's advice was to keep it simple and include the important things :

Tell the story from the emotional timeline, putting in the emotional turning points. The editor doesn't need huge descriptions/backstory/family connections but she does need your hero and heroine and their emotional journey, viz - 

  • Who are they?
  • Where do they meet ?
  • Why do they meet?
  • What keeps them apart?
  • Why?
  • What makes it worse?
  • Why?
  • Why do they fall in love?
  • What resolves it ?

Focusing on that vital question - why? - really helped me to produce a synopsis that, for once, I was happy with and felt worked - thank you yet again Kate :)


Friday, 7 September 2018

Signs of Autumn

Taking a stroll along the Mawddach river today, I found I needed not only a warmish coat but also a hat and gloves. It wasn't cold exactly but there was a keen breeze and, as I walked, I noticed sure signs that summer is finally coming to an end.

The leaves on the trees are still green but their rustle was a dry one and they are beginning to fall.  Flowers have bloomed and faded, the river is full of water after the long hot summer, and the cricket field is being prepared for the last match of the season next weekend.


The heating isn't on at home yet but the mornings and evenings are feeling cooler now so it is only a matter of time. 

However, even though the heatwave is already a distant memory, my summer has been a productive as well as a pleasant one.

I took a fortnight off from one of my part-time jobs during August, with the goal of completing three chapters of one of my two WIPs. By aiming at a thousand words a day, and sometimes writing even more, I managed to do that this week. Now comes some polishing and final edits, prior to submitting it later this month.

So, although the end of summer is always a bit sad, autumn is a lovely season. The colours of the trees, the sharpness of the air, and those long cosy evenings indoors are things to look forward to.  And, as the nights draw in and the mornings get darker, I will be switching my focus to my time-slip novel, with a view to reaching 30,000 words by Christmas.

What are your autumn plans?


Tuesday, 7 August 2018

A literary trip to the past

I'm currently reading a selection of books by Dorothy Whipple, having accepted an open invitation to 'read along' by author Clare Harvey, who is reading all nine of this forgotten writer's novels currently in print as part of her blog series My Summer With Dorothy.


I have to confess I'd never heard of Dorothy Whipple, or if I had, had forgotten her name. Maybe not surprising, as her heyday as a writer was in the 1930s and 1940s.  I'd heard of one of her books, They Were Sisters, because it was made into a 1945 film of the same name, and being a fan of old black and white movies, and of James Mason- oh, that voice! - I'd seen it but so long ago, I don't remember much about it.

As her books are rather expensive to buy, I ordered a few from my local library and was immediately transported back to the 1970s, when the mobile library that used to come around at 11am on the dot every Friday morning was the highlight of my week - when I managed to get that day off school, of course.

The copies of Dorothy Whipple's books I've got out on loan date from the late 1970s and early 80s, and they have those unique chunky hardback covers and that special aroma that took me straight back to those days with a surge of pleasure and nostalgia.



As a child I read voraciously, not Dorothy Whipple obviously, but pony books by the hundreds. And, like those popular pony book authors, the Pullein-Thompson sisters, Whipple's books are as readable now as they were when they were first published.  I suspect that some are more easily accessible than others, but her writing is quite wonderful, her narrative flows smoothly and the depth she gives her characters really brings them to life on the page, despite the distance of time.

It is also the picture she gives us of the period that makes these books so very enjoyable. The passing of a way of life, the yielding of one generation to another under the looming shadow of war in The Priory, kept me turning the pages long into the night.  Even with the rather predictable and whimsical ending, the book is very satisfying, and so far, the only one I've finished.

I've just started Greenbanks, which didn't immediately draw me in like The Priory did, but now I'm in, I'm hooked, and I may be posting again soon with the next installment in my particular Whipple summer!  Many thanks, Clare, for introducing me to her :)


Tuesday, 17 July 2018

RNA Conference 2018

As a writer, the annual conference is definitely the highlight of the year for me and, surprisingly, it seems to come around quickly each time. This year was no exception and, from counting down the months, then the weeks, then the days, suddenly I was packing and wondering which shoes would go with which dress!


Welcome with Nicola Cornick and Jan Jones

This year, the conference was in Leeds Trinity University, a campus just outside Headingly. Leeds is a lovely city but I didn't see anything of it beyond the train station. Horsforth, where the campus is located, was really nice though, and I enjoyed a short and pleasant walk from the train station to the campus with HMB author Rachael Thomas .









The conference sessions were useful and enjoyable and included a double presentation from Mills and Boon. This began with editors from the longer 'Trade' imprint giving a summary of the recent rebranding of the company, and concluded with the Series editors outlining the requirements of the different lines.






There was also a very illuminating session with Nicola Cornick in conversation with Barbara Erskine. I must have been the only one in the audience who'd never read Lady of Hay - something I intend to remedy immediately!









I also really enjoyed Liz Harris' session on pacing, which is something I always struggle with in my writing.  Her presentation was both useful and fun, as - in her own words - she'd gotten to grips with animation now and her analogy of pacing being like peeling an onion was an entertaining and invaluable one.

As always, the industry appointments were many and varied and making a choice was difficult. I got three in the end - reserve appointments with Mills and Boon longer series editor Anna Baggaley and independent editor, Laura Gerrard, and my first choice with Kate Bradley from Harper Fiction. All of them gave encouraging and helpful feedback on my timeslip chapter, which is an exciting new experiment for me, and I came away feeling encouraged but also with the realisation that I'll have to write the rest of it now!


Sunday, 8 July 2018

Baby Birds

Abandoned robin's nest

Over the last couple of months, we've been very busy on the nature reserve where I work answering phone calls from people who have found a baby bird and don't know what to do with it.  And the answer we normally give, unless it is injured, is do nothing and leave it where you found it.  The often harsh-seeming law of nature is that a third of baby birds don't make it, and that's why songbirds lay somewhere between 5 and 12 eggs, depending on the species.  The bigger the bird the fewer the eggs, with birds of prey only laying 2-3, or even just one.








Mink taking off with a goose egg




The bird breeding season is balanced to perfection, with birds delaying the laying until the optimum time and then prioritizing the raising of their brood according to conditions. If food is plentiful and predators few, then most if not all the chicks will make it; if food is scarce and predators are many, then the adults will feed only the strongest and biggest chicks to make sure that some at least survive.





Robust baby swallows


 Our 'humanizing' of nature causes our emotional and compassionate reactions, but the best chance of survival for a fledgling that's left the nest early is to let it alone.  The parents are probably nearby and will continue to feed it on the ground.  Granted, a predator might get there first, but that is the law of nature. And the predator is doing what every living thing does, hunting to live and raise its own young.






A proud mother goose!


 
At the end of the day, by rescuing baby birds, we are robbing them of their best chance of survival, ie, learning to adapt to their surroundings and learn the techniques that only other birds can teach them.  It can be heartbreaking to see predated eggs or fledglings being carried off by magpies. So I always remind myself that magpies are living and sentient beings and are entitled to survive too!


Many thanks to the wardens of RSPB Ynys-Hir for their stunning photographs!

Friday, 15 June 2018

Some recent good reads


Occasionally, I go through phases of reading purely for pleasure and two books I enjoyed recently were An Ordinary Gift and Fairlights by the wonderful Jan Jones.

These are romances, beautifully written, with gripping plots and a twist of the supernatural that, for me, really added an extra element of satisfaction.  An Ordinary Gift is a gentle love story with a hint of time slip and a tension that at times lifted the hairs on the back of my neck :

"New job. New town. New house. Everything Clare needs for a fresh start. She could do without the ghosts, though... Determined to put an unhappy love affair behind her, Clare moves to Ely in the Cambridgeshire Fens to catalogue an early music library. But why does the house she rents in this ancient city feel so familiar? Who is singing Gregorian chants that only she can hear? And what can she do about her growing attraction to Ewan, the site manager of the library, when neither wants a rebound relationship?"



What I especially loved about the book was the way Jan brought the historical city of Ely to life, making the archival setting positively thrilling.  Through Clare, we too see the ghosts and hear the chanting. When she puts her hand on the wall of the house, we experience what she does to the extent that our skin tingles too.   A warm and engrossing story and Jan's mastery of her craft and her excellent story telling takes this book into another realm altogether. 


Fairlights is also a romance with a supernatural touch. Underlying the day-to-day renovation of the old castle, there is an edge of mystery and a tension that builds and builds to a nail-baiting climax. In the Pele tower, Sorcha finally conquers her greatest fear to save the man she loves - with a bit of help from the fairwives: 

 "The fairwives faded away like a gentle, warm caress. I would write this, I vowed. I would write this in the account. My daughters, my sons' wives, they would need to understand. Because the fairwives were still there, layered in the past. I could feel them in my soul. Someday I would be one of them."

Beautifully written, intelligent and compelling reading, just what a romance story should be - with that something special that makes these two books stand out from the crowd.

Monday, 7 May 2018

Definitely a heatwave!

Admittedly, at 22C degrees indoors and just 18C outdoors, the heatwave seems to be more  applicable to southern England than to northern Wales!  But here too, it is glorious summer weather at the moment.  I've got a day off today, (which I've devoted to writing but more of that later) after working over the weekend at RSPB Ynys Hir near Machynlleth. It's been heavenly on the reserve during this lovely season, when birds are singing and nesting, bees are buzzing and butterflies fluttering, and a carpet of wildflowers is covering the woodlands.

As per every spring, a pair of Oystercatchers are nesting on a wall outside one of the estuary hides. They've bred there for the last five years and, despite their choice of site being completely exposed, have raised their young successfully nearly every time. Currently, they are sitting on three eggs, the male and the female both taking turns to do the sitting.  Osytercatcher eggs are large so the incubation period is long, around 26 days, and the young are dependent on their parents for food for at least six weeks after fledging, sometimes not being fully independent until they are six months old.




One of the other May highlights at Ynys Hir are the bluebells that appear in abundance in late spring.  Talking a walk around the reserve is not just a feast for the eyes; the heady scent of these lovely native flowers is overwhelming in places, and the vibrant blue colour scheme is interspersed here and there with sorrel and wood anemone, two other native flowers that are found in ancient oak woodlands. So if you fancy a spring walk full of the delights of nature, or would like to take advantage of some of the reserve's upcoming events, do pop onto the website :
www.rspb.org.uk/ynys-hir




And what of writing?  I've been determined to finish a book this year and this morning, I wrote those magic words - The End - on my manuscript and it sent off to the  RNA's New Writers' Scheme .  But there's no resting on my laurels - the annual conference is coming up in July,  so I'll be starting on a chapter for the industry appointments very soon. And, of course, mulling over my next book . . .

But, for today at least, I think I'll take a few hours out and enjoy the sunshine while it lasts!  How are you spending this balmy May Bank Holiday Monday?


Friday, 20 April 2018

Not quite a heatwave . . .

At least that's what the weather people say but it's certainly felt like one recently, with cloudless blue  skies, hours of sunshine and temperatures actually reaching double figures, even here in north west Wales!  I've been lucky enough to have the last few days off work so, after my morning writing sessions, I've been taking a stroll along the Mawddach in the afternoons. It is really tranquil and inspiring at this time of year, and it is lovely to see signs of early summer at last.




The trees along the river are bursting into bud, wild flowers are lining the paths, and the bleating of lambs and the sound of birds are a perfect accompaniment to a bit of head-clearing and gentle exercise.  And this afternoon, I saw the surest sign of all that summer is definitely on the way - the preparation of the cricket pitch on the Marian fields ready for the start of the playing season.



My walk today was especially satisfying because I finished the first 'dirty' draft of my current WIP this morning.  It still needs editing, of course, and a hefty bit of digging deep to really bring my characters to life before I send it off to the New Writers' Scheme next month.  But, having not finished a book for a while, my New Year's Resolution in January was to complete a story this year without fail. So, even though it's not quite the finished product yet, typing that final full stop just before lunch felt great :)




Thursday, 15 March 2018

Writing aides

We all use them and they come in many shapes and forms.  Having taken a week away from my WIP, I returned to it this morning and, as always, found it difficult to get going again.  Writing romance is a bit like being in a relationship - absence may or may not make the heart grow fonder but it is definitely out of sight, out of mind sometimes!  So as I sat there 'making notes' I got to thinking about the props and aides that writers rely on and I discovered that I am a real creature of habit - I don't need many aides but they are always the same ones, viz:




Coffee (obviously)
A cocoa bar (it used to be chocolate before I became a vegan)
Notepad and pen (essential for those 'why' questions)
A diary (as I like to record my word count and my thoughts about my progress, or lack of it, every day)
My invaluable little pink timer (this really works for me if I'm stuck. Setting it to a twenty minute countdown magically gets me writing, anything, even if I end up deleting it eventually)



I've also realised I work better perched on my breakfast bar as opposed to sitting at the table in my carefully prepared writing corner. Well, for one thing, it's nearer the coffee and cocoa bar, I suppose. And the view out of the window to the bird feeders is conducive to writing, although equally good for procrastination too!  

I guess at the end of the day, we writers find the ways and means that work for us, whatever they may be.  What are your favourite aides?

Tuesday, 20 February 2018

Changes

I suppose Spring is a natural time for change, more so than any other season, and this month has seen my temporary job ending - along with winter it seems - at Lake Vyrnwy nature reserve.  One of the most stunning locations in the UK, it is beautiful no matter what time of year, but winter is particularly spectacular. Many places can seem bleak in February, but the splendour of the snow-covered hills and the torrent of water over the dam made for a breathtaking last few days on site.







While in between jobs, I have signed on as a volunteer at my nearest nature reserve Ynys Hir.  This wetland reserve near Machynlleth, with far-reaching views out over the Dyfi estuary,  is host to both water birds and woodland birds, including red list species like lapwing. Right outside the visitor centre are some feeders and many people go there simply to sit around the log burner, with a cup of the centre's very good coffee, and just watch the common varieties that come to feed - and the not so common.




A yellowhammer was seen there last year and at the moment there are lesser spotted woodpeckers around too. And, of course, grey squirrels and colourful pheasants pick up the occasional snack there as well.




And the upside of having some leisure time on my hands means more time to write.  I have been very good at sticking to my New Year's resolution of completing a book in 2018 and I have just submitted a partial to Mills and Boon. At the end of this week, I'll be heading south for another fabulous Fishguard weekend, run by the wonderful folk at Writers' Holiday.  It'll be a chance to catch up with old friends, meet some new ones, talk about writing, chill out in the bar, and of course get the benefit of the inspiring teaching of Kate Walker. 

The weather looks set fair too so, all in all, a lovely start to Spring!


Saturday, 27 January 2018

Reading outside the Lines

Do you - like me - read primarily within the genre you want to write?  Harlequin Mills and Boon publish several diverse lines, from historical to suspense, medical to nocturnal.  Aiming at the line that most interests me - Presents or Modern - I tend to read mostly within that line too, enjoying books that were published several years ago, sometimes decades ago, and also keeping up with current trends and new authors.

I was interested recently to see that Harlequin are running a new Blitz in February, this time on Romance (http://www.soyouthinkyoucanwrite.com) and it got me thinking of the books I've read outside of my chosen line and what made me place them on my book shelves, alongside the numerous Moderns.



Liz Fielding is an author who has published over sixty books in the traditional and contemporary lines but her writing somehow refuses to be typecast.  She brings a freshness and humour to her work and has been doing so ever since her first book was published, as she says "plucked out of the slush pile because my feisty feminist heroine made the editor laugh."  And it is this quirky take that made me enjoy The Secret Life of Lady Gabriella published in 2007. Who wouldn't want to find out what happens after reading the blurb at the back?

"Lady Gabriella March is the perfect domestic goddess - at least, that's what her editor at Milady magazine thinks! In truth she's simply Ellie March, cleaner and aspiring writer, who uses the beautiful mansion she is house-sitting to inspire her."


Another line I've dipped into only very occasionally is Medical, but I came across Amy Andrews' Valentino's Pregnancy Bombshell in the 3 in 1 Italians, published by Mills and Boon in 2015.  In this instance, the blurb wouldn't have gripped me particularly:

"One incredible night with deliciously  dangerous Valentino Lombardi left Paige feeling beautiful for the first time. Then Valentino arrives as the new surgeon at her hospital, playboy reputation in tow - and Paige must tell him she's expecting his baby."

So far so formulaic as regards the first line too:

"Paige Donald could feel Valentino Lombardi's gaze on her from across the alter."

But there is a tangible tension, a feeling that there is a lot lurking below the surface, right from the start, and from then on the book grips, especially when the heroine goes to bed with the hero in chapter one then leaves him asleep the next morning, following an urgent phone call, with the resolve:

"As far as she was concerned, if she never saw him again, it would be too soon."


Of course, the hero reappears far sooner than that and the developing relationship between them is done with such skill and feeling that I actually cried when the heroine tells him about the loss of her baby, the twin of her little girl who survived but is in fragile health. The hero has his own demons, and suffered his own losses too, and the growing together of these two scarred souls makes for a page turning book that is so emotionally satisfying that it transcends the particular line it falls into.

And the point of this blog?  Writing within a set line doesn't necessary have to mean stereotypical tropes or cliched plots.  At the heart of every story are the characters and their own emotional journey towards lasting love. And of course the unique and authentic voice of the author that can, and should, stand out whatever line she is writing for.


Monday, 1 January 2018

Resolutions

As someone who doesn't normally make New Year resolutions, this year I find myself making several.  And, while I aim to keep all of them, top of the list is to complete a book.

I once blogged here about the importance of always finishing a book  (April 2016 ) but for the last couple of years, I've been unable to do that. The reasons why have been many and varied but, on reflection, the main one has been a lack of focus and determination following a run of rejections.  Keeping going, keeping believing, fending off doubts and finding inspiration, let alone actually sitting down and putting fingers to keyboard, can be hard at such times.  Who was it that said that success is 99% persistence?  They might be right but alongside persistence is the support of fellow writers and friends who are there backing you every step of the way.  And, even more importantly, believing in you when you don't always believe in yourself.

So to all those fabulous people I'd like to say a HUGE thank you and wish you a wonderful New Year and all the best of everything in 2018!