Wednesday, 31 December 2014

What have I learnt from 2014? Sharing thoughts about getting back on track when life derails you.

Sunset at Sennen, Cornwall
So, here we are again, at the cusp of the year, the transition point where we look forward and back. As I review the past twelve months, I rejoice in many things: the love of family and friends, a comfortable home in one of the most gorgeous cities on earth, professional progress, two significant writing competition wins, a growing network of supportive writing allies.

However, 2014 has also been a ghastly year. I started it with fine, overly-ambitious plans. In January a very dear friend went missing. Many weeks of agonising anxiety later, her body was found. I struggle on a daily basis with this, because she was a special, joyous person who’d been such a significant person in my life – and now she was gone, far far too soon, into the dark. A couple of months after her funeral, my brother-in-law, staunch, cheery, loyal and loving, devoted to my sister, had died – his death also completely out of the blue.

Shock and grief derail you. In despair and devastation, work is something to cling to. It gives shape to the days, it provides distraction. However I have at times taken on too much, driven myself too hard. I’m not one of life’s delegators – I always want to do it all myself. Over the past three years I’ve trained myself to work at dead of night – I’m a natural owl anyway. But I’ve taken it too far and for too long, to the detriment of health and concentration. And apart from the spurts of creativity which led to those competition wins, my own writing has ended up like the relative you haven’t rung in ages. Week by week it becomes more difficult to pick up the phone.

So what now? No resolutions – I don’t feel brave enough for those. Resolutions are broken and you’re burdened by that breaking. When I ran my workshop/retreat in St Ives in the autumn, we agreed it was better not to talk of ‘goals’ and ‘targets’ so much as anticipated ‘benefits’ from what we do.

Here, then, are how I hope to create benefits in my life in the coming year:


I need to find a better work/life balance and a better balance between helping other writers and paying attention to my own creativity. I don’t want to feel exhausted all the time. I want to refill the well and dip the bucket into the well.


I’ll continue to run my workshops in Oxford because I absolutely love face-to-face teaching and interaction. I’ll be running my second Fictionfire by the Sea Writers’ Workshop and Retreat in April and I can’t wait to see St Ives again. I’ll be teaching at the Writers’ Festival at the University of Winchester in June and in July and August will run creative writing summer schools on two Oxford University programmes. I’ll continue to edit and appraise manuscripts and mentor writers, of course, but will be wary of over-commitment in these areas.


I have so many stories waiting to be written or waiting to be revised and published. I won’t set specific dates but I will aim to get more of my work out into the world this year, not locked into hard drives and tucked into folders. The important thing, whether I have two readers, two hundred or two thousand, is to make the work available on my own terms.

How to do this? I have to learn to inhabit my own stories once more. When working on a client’s manuscript, in a way it becomes my manuscript – I have to live inside that story to discover its achievements and its flaws, to evolve suggestions for improvement. It’s an incredibly rewarding process and it’s a great responsibility when a writer entrusts their work to me – but at the same time, it puts me at a mental distance from my own imagination and my own plots and characters.

Re for revive

To sum up, 2015 means rebalancing of elements and rediscovering of joy – I hope. I aim to redefine the structure of my time, because I’ve slipped into a habit of being in Fictionfire mode seven days a week. I need to set aside days for my own writing and days for being free of all of it. I want to read more – I want to rediscover splurge-reading, from cover to cover, not getting through a book in sporadic, interrupted segments.

Someone very wisely said to me recently that I need to try treating myself as I would a client. So, balance, focus, kindness, honesty, nurturing myself instead of hectoring myself – I will try to incorporate these into my writing life.

As the New Year dawns, you might like to examine how you balance the elements of your life. Do you give yourself downtime? Have you evaluated where you stand and where you want to go and analysed how to optimise your chances of getting there? Bereavement makes us take a step – no, several steps – back from our own lives. Where are you in your life’s journey? (I hate to use the ‘j’ word, but it actually is the best metaphor for how we see our life-stories unfolding). If you’re young, you see numerous potential routes ahead and the sheer choice may dizzy or alarm you as much as excite you. If you’re older, those choices may have narrowed and you may worry that you chose the wrong paths. Is it too late to retreat? Can you make the best of the path you’re on? Can you choose another?
Sunrise over St Ives Bay

Take the long view of your life. What do you want to achieve with it? Achievement doesn’t need to mean money and glory. Achievement is that sense you have within yourself, quiet and satisfying, that you’ve made progress, that you’ve added something to the significance of your life that wasn’t there before.

I wish you balance, focus and the joy of creativity. I wish you love and fulfilment. I wish you every benefit you would wish for yourself in the coming year.

Fictionfire Literary Consultancy - the new series of Focus Workshops in Oxford will be announced imminently. Fictionfire by the Sea Writers' Workshop and Retreat in St Ives in April - places are already very limited. Sign up on my website to join the mailing list for news of workshops, courses and new developments.

Photographs copyright Lorna Fergusson

Thursday, 11 December 2014

Author interview: Katharine E. Smith - juggling tasks and jumping off the page

I'm delighted to welcome Katharine E. Smith to Literascribe today. Katharine runs Heddon Publishing, freelances as an copywriter, editor and proofreader, has two very young children and, oh, has found time to publish two novels as well! Her second novel, Looking Past, has just come out. In this interview we discuss, among other things, the challenges of multi-tasking and a shared love of St Ives.

Welcome to Literascribe, Katharine. As writers we often struggle with balance – you’re juggling writing, running a business and looking after small children. Could you discuss the challenges you meet and how you deal with them in order to keep your writing productivity going?

It’s definitely a juggling act. I know that’s a real clichĂ© but it’s true. My children are two and five so really do need immediate attention much of the time. They have to be my priority and I wouldn’t have it any other way. However, I have two days a week when my two-year-old is in nursery so those are my official work days, and I prioritise my paid work for Heddon Publishing and freelancing during those days.  I work from home and I must admit I relish coming home to an empty house and being able to get my head down, uninterrupted, for a few hours. I also fit in little bits here and there, whenever I am able – great for emails, that sort of thing, but for editing, proofreading and writing I need space, time and solitude.
Katherine's covers feature commissioned artwork
 by Catherine Clarke
Then there’s my own writing. This I do in my ‘spare time’ (i.e after children are asleep, dinner’s been eaten, and when I probably should be in bed). My great ambition is to get to a point where I am at least partially earning my living from my books I don’t think it’s likely right now as I simply don’t have enough time for the amount of marketing and promotion I think is necessary. I have managed to complete and publish two of my own novels in the last few years, alongside two pregnancies, and starting two businesses… putting it that way it appears that good things come in twos for me. Having said that, I hope I’ll be writing many more than two books (two children and two businesses is about right though).
As you can imagine I don’t get a lot of time for housework…

The view from The Island, St Ives
(copyright Katharine E. Smith)
I know that setting is absolutely crucial in my stories and I see you’ve chosen Cornwall as the location for your first novel and Yorkshire, your home county, for your second. Which setting has been easier to describe?

I’d say Cornwall has probably been easier, because it’s the place I feel most drawn to, and where I’ve actually done a fair bit of my writing. My parents still live in Yorkshire and I do love it, but there’s just something about Cornwall… particularly St Ives. I know I’m not alone in feeling as I do about Cornwall and I just find that when I’m there I feel really alive. I hate saying that as I think it makes me sound a bit pretentious, or just a bit mad, but it’s the best way I can describe it. I feel like I’ve got loads of energy and ideas seem to come to me easily. I’m sure that’s partly just being on holiday but I really do love being there.

The roofscape of St Ives features on the cover
Writing the Town Read tackles interesting subjects: you have relationship drama and self-discovery but also powerful social issues – gangs and terrorism. Did you feel this made the novel cross-genre – or no particular genre? Did this reinforce your desire to publish it through your own imprint? How did you set about marketing it?

I struggle with genres. I always plump for ‘Contemporary Fiction’ or ‘Contemporary Women’s Fiction’ but they are both so general. And also I don’t really believe my books are solely for a female readership. I suspect that their subject matter will appeal more to women than men although I’ve had excellent reviews from an ex-US Marine so I reckon that’s a pretty manly vote of confidence! Writing the Town Read comes up in the Mystery and Romance categories on Amazon, neither of which are quite right though there are elements of both in the book. I got a one star review from an American reviewer whose only comment was ‘not a clean romance novel’!
I did send Writing the Town Read off to a number of agents and I received some good feedback, particularly from one, but in the end they thought that my main character, Jamie, wasn’t immediately appealing enough. That is kind of the point with Jamie – she is a bit annoying and opinionated but her heart’s in the right place and she does learn throughout the book that there isn’t always a precise right or wrong.
I had a growing interest in self-publishing and I was approached during my maternity leave during 2012 by an author called Michael Clutterbuck, with regards publishing his book Steaming into the Firing Line. It’s a book of short stories about the days of steam, and this became the first Heddon Publishing title. Mike took a chance on me, allowing me to work on this when opportunity allowed, and the rest is history. Heddon grew from there and I decided that if I didn’t find a publisher by my birthday last year I’d add my own book to the Heddon titles – which is what I did.
In all honesty I’m still working on the marketing side of things! I really don’t have a great deal of time for marketing my books, and I wish I did, but I do my best. I have had the cover re-done this year, by an excellent artist – Catherine Clarke – who has also done the cover for Looking Past. I think this has really helped, and I had an excellent result from a free promotion recently but I’m still chasing the elusive recipe for marketing success.

Do you edit and proofread your own work, given that’s what you do professionally, or do you ask someone else to bring a fresh eye to it?

I do actually do the majority of this work myself. I feel like I should be able to, given that it’s my profession, however I do also acknowledge that I’m that bit closer to the work and more likely to miss something. Luckily I have my dad and mum who are always willing proofreaders and, I’m sure Dad won’t mind my saying that he can be quite a pedant. I’ve also had a trusty band of beta readers working on Looking Past, who discovered an excellent typo – ‘an udderless boat’. Although to be fair, the boat probably didn’t have udders so it wasn’t strictly untrue.

What do you like and dislike about being an independent publisher?

I like the freedom and the flexibility that comes with independent publishing. It enables anybody and everybody to become published if they wish. I enjoy the way that authors retain control of their books. For my own books, I get to decide what goes into, and comes out of, them – and the authors I work with at Heddon have that control as well. I will always consult authors on major editorial suggestions and they have the final say.
The downside, I suppose, is the world of marketing independent books which seems so vast, and I’m only now really starting to try and find my way around it. Whilst I make it clear to the authors I work with that I can only do so much with regards marketing, I would still like to have some more tried and tested methods which I could share with them, as well as use for my own ends…

What do you most love about writing?

I just love writing. That’s not a great answer, is it? But I love sitting down and knowing roughly what I want to write about then finding all these words and ideas flowing onto the page/screen, which seem almost to come from nowhere.
It’s exciting and I just really enjoy it. I do like a bit of peace and quiet and losing myself in my writing – so I can get a bit grumpy if interrupted. Writing can be a good way of venting frustration. I’m getting better at expressing myself verbally but writing always had the upper hand for me. There is more time to think about what you are writing, whereas speech is immediate and usually spur-of-the-moment, and it can easily come out wrong. There is usually more time with writing to get it right.

What’s your favourite piece of advice for writers – or your favourite quotation about writing?

OK, I didn’t have a favourite quote prior to this but I’ll be honest and say I Googled ‘quotes about writing’ and unsurprisingly there are a lot of good ones! I’m going to use this one because I read her book when I was at primary school and I reference it in Looking Past – and I think she is someone who wrote for the best reasons, and whose writing will, I hope, always provide meaning and food for thought for us all.

“I can shake off everything as I write; my sorrows disappear, my courage is reborn.”
Anne Frank

 Thanks so much for agreeing to be interviewed on Literascribe, Katharine, and good luck with all your writing and publishing activities!

Writing the Town Read

Looking Past

Katharine's blog, Jumping off the Page:

Heddon Publishing website:

I totally echo what Katharine has said about St Ives - and bookings are now open for my next Fictionfire by the Sea Writers' Workshop and Retreat in April. If you're keen to recharge your creative batteries in Cornwall, visit to find out more!

Thursday, 20 November 2014

Author interview: Alison Morton - the road that led to Roma Nova

Today, I'm delighted to welcome Alison Morton to Literascribe. I've enjoyed meeting her at the London Book Fair and the Historical Novel Society Conference and she's a fellow member of the Alliance of Independent Authors. Alison's a writer of alternative history, so I was interested in what led her to write about her imagined Roma Nova, where women are very definitely in charge of a country which preserves the customs and language of ancient Rome, but in the 21st century. I'm sure you'll find Alison's answers to my questions on her writing process fascinating.

 I often find that people attending my workshops or classes are already experienced writers, but that experience was gained writing reports or for professional publications. When they turn to writing fiction, they may feel challenged by the relative freedom it presents. What led you to embark on your fiction-writing career and did you meet with any problems as you made the transition from non-fiction to fiction?

I’d fiddled with words much of my life - playwright (aged 7), professional translator, article writer, copywriter and local magazine editor. As a translator and editor/project manager, I’d worked in every register, level of formality and voice you can imagine. My longest piece of work to date had been my history masters’ dissertation.

The novel writing  trigger was pushed in reaction to a particularly dire film in 2009.
‘I could do better that that,’ I whispered in the darkened cinema.
‘So why don’t you?’ came my husband’s reply.
Three months later, I’d completed the first draft of INCEPTIO, the first in my series of Roma Nova thrillers. I didn’t have a clue what to do with it.

I wasn’t particularly fazed by the idea of writing fiction; My method of writing is to see a picture in my mind then describe it; I’m very filmic! But in 2009 I knew less than nothing of the craft of writing novels – structure, genres, show don’t tell, narrative thrust, goal, motivation, conflict - and had to set about learning this new trade. I joined the Romantic Novelists’ Association New Writers’ Scheme, enrolled on an Arvon Foundation commercial fiction course and attended conference workshops such as at the Festival of Writing at York.

Writers are often advised to write the book they’d like to read – is that how it was for you?

That was exactly so! I’d found one book about an alternative modern Rome, Romanitas by Sophia McDougall, but it dealt with empires and was rather dystopian. I grew up on The 39 Steps, Dennis Wheatley, Leslie Charteris’s The Saint, and Anthony Hope’s Ruritania, not to mention Georgette Heyer. I wanted the ‘caper’ story with a strong, if cheeky, female protagonist, but in a modern, egalitarian Roman society. So I wrote one. Then a second, and a third…

Stories frequently start with the writer thinking ‘what if?’ When you started writing INCEPTIO, had the premise come to you first as a ‘what if’ moment and you had to come up with the characters and storyline to fit, or did Roma Nova and Carina’s story come about a different way?

I’d wondered about a female-led Roman society in my head since I walked on my first mosaics at the age of 11 in the heat of northern Spain at Ampuras, but it stayed a fantasy in my head until that cinema trip. Our creative brains are wonderful in that they can entertain scenarios light years away from reality without anybody else having the least inkling.

Two things had bubbled away in the same pot over the years: true female empowerment, and Rome. Being realistic, the ancient world wasn’t going to be the right setting for such an independent woman hero like Carina. But I couldn’t abandon my fascination for Rome, so I modernised it.

Readers enjoy entering an internally-consistent fictional world and that’s part of the appeal of your Roma Nova stories. I love the way you’ve meshed the ‘real’ world with your imagined alternative. What did you most enjoy about the process of invention? Did you come up against any particular problems when interlinking the real and the imagined? 

One of governing principles is to remember that people are people whatever strange environments they live in; they must appear to live naturally in their world whether it’s a futuristic colony on Mars or Medici Italy. Of course, people are the product of that environment and socio-economic and cultural backgrounds. My Roma Novans keep the family structures, their engineering and technological skills, their robust attitudes and their ideas of service to their state which were key facets of ancient Roman life. 

Sandals, honey cake, senate and forum, keeping the gladius as a military skills training weapon, marrying in a ceremony with fire and water remind us of Rome, but their equivalents can be found in our normal 21st century life. However, it has to be plausible and always in context.

I confess to scattering some linguistic jokes like calling the cops ‘scarabs’; I’m a linguist that’s the sort of sad thing we do. If people spot them, that’s an extra level of enjoyment for them. If not, it doesn’t affect the story one whit.

You’ve said ‘although you don’t put it in the book you have to have worked it all out in your head’. Part of the power of good historical writing is the iceberg aspect – nine tenths is never seen. Did you ever find yourself having to edit out backstory and world-building aspects because they got in the way of the story and its pace? If so, did you find that painful or frustrating?

The story and the characters are the most important thing. The setting must interact and flavour the story, but not in an intrusive way. I have a total horror of the info dump and have been known to throw a book at the wall for that reason. Drip-drip is the best way; the character investigates, or information is fed in via conversation, the tutor/ingĂ©nue scenario, the ‘conflict because the character didn’t know’ scene, letters, reports, discoveries and of course a character’s wonderment at how different things are in a new environment.

I tend to concentrate on the story when writing and find I actually have to put backstory and world building elements in. I live in Roma Nova in my head, so forget sometimes that others don’t!

You belong to various writing organisations: the Romantic Novelists’ Association, the Historical Novel Society and International Thriller Writers. Do you feel that, working as a self-publishing author, you have more freedom to go cross-genre like this?

Definitely! When I was submitting work to agents, many liked my stories, but didn’t know what genre to place them in to market them. I had just written the stories I wanted to write. Today, I realise I must look at genres if I want to sell books. Having a foot and/or hand in different camps is a big plus for marketing and visibility. The other benefit is that you learn what’s new in each genre and also learn to look at similar issues through different lenses which is enriching for your writing.

I see you have an agent for subsidiary and foreign rights. How fruitful has that been for you? Would you recommend other self-publishing writers to find an agent to represent them in this way?

Well, slow progress so far, but a lot of interest. I decided to seek limited representation, as I didn’t have the time or knowledge to pursue the sale of these rights. Having a book deal across the pond would be a bonus for me. I already sell in the US, but wouldn’t it be nice to be on the shelves in B&N?

You now have three Roma Nova thrillers out, so I would assume you’ve created a loyal –and hungry! – readership. Where to now? Will you write more Roma Nova stories, or are you going to be mulling over the ‘what if’s of other historical periods?

Book 4, AURELIA, has just gone to my critique partner for evisceration evaluation, then after those amendments, it goes to my structural editor for assessment (and no doubt amendments!), then copy-editor before going to SilverWood Books for production and publication in May. Books 5 and 6 are in the advanced planning stage and form the balance of the three-book cycle started with AURELIA.

I'm with Alison Morton and Anna Belfrage
 at the Historical Novel Society Conference
September 2014
At present, I’m settled in Roma Nova. As for future books, Juno knows!

Thank you so much, Lorna, for having me as your guest today. If any readers have questions, I’d be very happy to answer them.

Alison Morton writes Roman-themed alternate history thrillers with strong heroines. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in French, German and Economics, a Masters’ in history and lives in France with her husband. She is a member of the Romantic Novelists’ Association’s New Writers’ Scheme, the Historical Novel Society, the Alliance of Independent Authors, International Thriller Writers and the Society of Authors.

A ‘Roman nut’ since age 11, she has visited sites throughout Europe including the alma mater, Rome. But it was the mosaics at Ampurias (Spain) that started her wondering what a modern Roman society would be like if run by women…

INCEPTIO, the first in the Roma Nova series, which was also shortlisted for the 2013 International Rubery Book Award, and PERFIDITAS, the second in series, have been honoured with the B.R.A.G. Medallion®, an award for independent fiction that rejects 90% of its applicants. INCEPTIO and PERFIDITAS were shortlisted for Writing Magazine’s 2014 Self-Publishing Book of the Year Award. Alison’s third book, SUCCESSIO, which came out in June 2014, was selected as the Historical Novel Society’s indie Editor’s Choice for Autumn 2014 and has also been awarded the B.R.A.G. Medallion.

Connect with Alison on her blog
Twitter @alison-morton

Buying links:

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Writing Inspiration in the Far West: Liz Carr guest-posts about Cornwall, creativity and her cottage, An Dyji

Zelah Studio,
looking out over St Ives Bay
(photo courtesy of
Lynda Davies)
My lovely writing friend Liz Carr guest-posts about what Cornwall means to her and about her cottage, An Dyji, which she bought and renovated as a holiday let and a haven of creativity. Those of us who visit and love Cornwall will understand full well the appeal she describes here!

I discovered Cornwall when I was a child on summer holidays. Learning to body surf on Fistral beach, eating gritty cheese sandwiches, drinking soup which was either scalding hot or barely tepid from a wide-necked Thermos: these are some of my earliest memories.

As an adult, I returned to the county – and specifically St Ives – thanks to my closest friend, who so generously shared her lovely house with me and other worn-out London refugees. Zelah Studio, standing above Porthgwidden beach, will be our venue for Fictionfire by the Sea, thanks again to Lynda’s vision of her house as a place of creativity.

The Merry Maidens
The layers of Cornwall’s history fascinate me: almost hidden from modern view stand mysterious worked pieces of monumental stone – remnants of its origins as an ancient and sacred place, separate from the rest of the country. Its magical quality hooked me early on. It was very easy to imagine piskies and other spirit creatures darting in and out of the great stones of Men an Tol or dancing among the Merry Maidens. It’s still easy for me to narrow my eyes and see mermaids swimming round St Piran’s rock, luring unwary fishermen into their underwater secrets.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Cornwall’s copper and tin mining industries overlaid the landscape. Now the ruins of mine chimneys, engine houses and lichen-coloured iron workings are visible on the skyline.

And today the far west has another life: as a sought-after destination for artists, writers and holidaymakers who come to enjoy the wonderful light, clean sweeps of pale sand and a turquoise sea that looks as though it belongs in the Caribbean.

In January 2014 we found ourselves able to invest in a small stone-built cottage just outside St Ives. At first sight, things weren’t too good. The house hadn’t been touched for about thirty years, and it definitely needed some TLC. But we knew it could be so different.

An Dyji
After just two months, An Dyji was reborn as a cosy two-bedroom cottage, ready for visitors. The name means ‘the small house’ in Cornish, which was its nickname throughout the works. We love being there: it’s tucked away in a hundred acres of woodland, but is only six minutes from the sea.

It’s the perfect place if you want to relax, recharge and rediscover your creativity. There’s something about being away from home that helps you to leave stuff behind and free your mind. Sighing: this is what happens to us the day after arriving. The combined effects of clean air, sparkling light and an ever-changing seascape cause muscles to unclench and jaws to unlock. The place gets in your bones and before long, you’re thinking about a new project or looking at your existing work with fresh eyes.

An Dyji
So, why not join us for a weekend exploring spirit of place, the spirit that the far west of Cornwall gives us? The programme is a unique blend of inspirational taught workshops and quiet writing time. We’ll be working with a group of like-minded people, and I’m looking forward to meeting Ann Kelley, an award-winning author who’s based locally. It’s going to be a fruitful two days, but for me the most important aspect is precious space and time.

Who knows what might happen?

You can find out more about An Dyji and book accommodation there, whether you're attending Fictionfire by the Sea or not, at 

Fictionfire by the Sea Writers' Workshop and Retreat, 17-19 October 2014 in St Ives - details here. Bookings close on 15 October.

If you can't make it to Cornwall, Fictionfire Focus Workshops in Oxford, Oct - Dec 2014 are here.

Guest-speaker at Fictionfire by the Sea is Ann Kelley - see my post here.

(All photographs, except where noted, copyright Lorna Fergusson)

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Writing the spirit of character and place: Ann Kelley guests at Fictionfire by the Sea

Ann Kelley
I’m delighted that award winning novelist Ann Kelley is going to join us during my Fictionfire by the Sea Writers’ Workshop and Retreat in less than two weeks. I first met Ann a few years ago, during one of my visits to St Ives and she kindly invited me to her gorgeous clifftop home overlooking Porthkidney sands and the Hayle estuary. It’s a stunning location, though not without its hazards – up there Ann has survived floods, a landslide, a lightning strike and part of their roof blowing away!

Ann is the sort of person who’s naturally gifted both with empathy and with an incredible sensitivity to location. Her house was full of quirky, unusual and beautifully presented objects and artworks. She’s a photographer and poet as well as a novelist, and this can be seen in her eye for composition and selection, for lyrical celebration, for economy, for precise and lovely images.

‘If you lie down and put your ear to the beach, you can hear the surf booming through the sand.’ (The Burying Beetle)

A view like this is worth a landslide or a lightning strike!
She has written three books of poetry and runs poetry workshops. She gave me a copy of The Poetry Remedy and I found it both moving and helpful in a recent period of stress and grief. She’s also written YA fiction – her latest novel, Last Days in Eden, was published in July and her previous teen books are Runners, Koh Tabu and Lost Girls.

However, for me, it’s all about the Gussie books: the series of stories tracing the experiences of a young girl suffering from incipient heart failure – this was inspired by Ann’s own son Nathan, who sadly died after a heart-lung transplant but who seems to have been a most extraordinary person. Gussie is an equally striking character. Her situation is grievous but her spirit is never bowed. She is a creature, quite simply, of joy. She’s cheeky, rebellious, imaginative, often solitary, eccentric. She celebrates life – and this is where Ann’s talent comes into play for she shows us what I suppose we would call ‘mindfulness’ in action. Gussie, aware that her illness may limit her lifespan, doesn’t intend to waste a second. She notices everything from the tiniest insects through to the undercurrents in the adult relationships around her. She’s endlessly curious, not always tactful, but always lovable. You root for her from start to finish. When she gets the chance of an operation with the potential to save her life, you’re willing it all to go smoothly.

When I read the Gussie books, I found her character compelling of course – but I was also seduced by the mesmerising descriptions of location and the fine detail of the natural history in them. In an interview, Ann described the books as ‘a hymn of praise to this place’ – to St Ives and its environs. And I tell you this, these novels get better every time you go back to them!

I hope you’ll join us at Fictionfire by the Sea, from 17th to 19th October, for our workshops, for quiet time to write and to hear Ann give a reading and answer our questions about her aims and practices as a writer.

Ann’s website is

The Gussie series of novels: The Burying Beetle, shortlisted for the Branford Boase Award; The Bower Bird, winner of the Costa Children’s Book of the Year 2007; Inchworm and A Snail’s Broken Shell.

‘It’s exciting to be here when there’s a strong wind blowing. The rooks look like broken umbrellas or black tattered cloaks, thrown away and tumbled by the gusts. The gale shaves the tops off the waves and sends the spray flying back into the sea.’ (The Burying Beetle)

Come and hear Ann – join us at Fictionfire by the Sea Writers’ Workshop and Retreat 17th to 19th October, in a beautiful artists’ studio by the sea in St Ives. Workshops will focus on how to stay true to your writing dreams and how to evoke the spirit of place – but there will be lots of time as well for you to simply write! Full details and how to book are at

Don’t forget my October to December programme of Focus Workshops in Oxford starts this Saturday (11th October)! Details at

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Historical Novel Society Conference London 2014 Part 5: Myths, Ivory Towers and a Curious Quiz

Panel chairperson Kate Forsyth with Jessie Burton
So, my blogposts arrive at last at HNS Conference Day 2 – Sunday 7th September – and a most intriguing, rich discussion, ‘Confronting Historical Fact with the Unexplained’, chaired by Kate Forsyth and featuring Jessie Burton, Essie Fox, Deborah Harkness and Professor Diana Wallace. I found this debate intensely interesting and the thoughts and opinions of the speakers really well-formulated.

Each of the speakers talked about the kind of HF she writes and about how she transforms what are often ancient and traditional tales into something appealing to the modern reader. This took us to familiar territory: one of the key areas of discussion during the conference was that of understanding and portraying the people of the past. How do we bridge the gap between our modern sensibilities and old belief-systems and codes of behaviour?

Deborah Harkness
Deborah Harkness, an academic who’s turned to fiction-writing, knows ‘how limiting a fact is’ and how for historians ‘it’s all about the interpretation’. This came up at the London 2012 conference too, when Philippa Gregory compared HF with the kinds of books historians write. Both forms require what Deborah calls ‘historical empathy’, an understanding of ‘where facts stop and imagination and interpretation begin’. Historians, she says ‘really are writing fiction most of the time.’ Kate Forsyth reinforced this notion: historical fiction is ‘history set to music’. Jessie Burton says ‘novels hit the bloodstream quicker than a didactic exercise'. Deborah advised academics (such as a certain David Starkey, anyone?) to ‘stop standing in ivory towers and throwing rocks’.

Professor Diana Wallace and Essie Fox
Essie advised writers to be aware of the social conditions of the era they’re writing about by reading contemporary stories – for her, these included The Water Babies, The Little Mermaid, Varney the Vampire and Hindu myths. Deborah said, very cogently, that ‘power isn’t a thing, it’s a set of relationships’ – this, of course, is why the getting or losing of power makes great fiction.

Power relationships exist between the sexes. Historical fiction can address the objectivisation of women and the limits of their freedom. Diana talked of the sense of guilt she felt about reading HF when she was younger, the feeling that if she read Georgette Heyer she should do it on the quiet. She feels that HF used to be neglected because it was seen as women’s fiction. A.S. Byatt’s Possession changed perceptions: literary critics started to take HF seriously. She pointed out that it’s always assumed that Sir Walter Scott was the father of HF but many were writing it before then, including women. HF can fill the gaps, ‘tell the story from the other side’.

The panel also discussed myth and fairy-tale as triggers for fiction. (One of my favourite quotes on this has always been Angela Carter’s claim that she put ‘new wine in old bottles’.) Deborah was fascinated by the occult sciences lost or sidelined by the advent of modern science. She thought about how in the 1500s people had a certain world view which included believing in mythical creatures. She started to wonder how such creatures could live in the modern world and not be noticed – before she knew it, she was writing a novel. Essie talked about serendipity – how she enjoyed reading Angela Carter and Gothic fiction, how she was drawn to the fusion of HF with magic realism, how a visit to Wilton’s Music Hall led her to the theme of lost love and the atmosphere of dark secrecy. Kate quoted J.R.R. Tolkien: ‘History often resembles myth, because they are both ultimately of the same stuff.’

The heroic quiz panel!
 James Heneage, Anthony Riches
 and Cathy Rentzenbrink
After a workshop where I learned that the word ‘feisty’ meant originally ‘breaking wind’ (note to self, do not describe any heroine in such terms from now on), the conference was rounded off by a hilarious Historical Fictionist Quiz, with Jon Watt as quizmaster. He pitted the panel – James Heneage, Cathy Rentzenbrink and Anthony Riches - against the audience. Yup, the whole audience! It was a joyous way to round off proceedings and one which I hope will be repeated in future conferences, particularly if a photo of Sean Bean in his prime as Richard Sharpe features again …

Charlie Farrow and Richard Lee
Katherine Clements and Dianne Ascroft
With Alison Morton and Anna Belfrage
Many many thanks to Richard Lee, Charlie Farrow, Jenny Barden and everyone involved in organising another successful and very happy conference. Thanks once more to the short story competition readers Carol McGrath, Ouida Taafe, Charlotte Betts and judge Ian Skillicorn. I loved the chance to meet old friends (Doug Jackson, Dianne Ascroft, Essie Fox, Anna Belfrage, Alison Morton, Emma Darwin, Hana Cole, Helen Hart, Henriette Guyland, Katherine Clements, Liz Fenwick, Margaret Skea) and new (Mary Tod, Katherine Lim, Helen Hollick), although of course, afterwards I realised there were several people there I had wanted to meet but somehow missed.

All good wishes to the organisers of HNS Australasia and HNS North America next year. I’m already looking forward to HNS London 2016! As Bernard Cornwell said at HNS London 2012, ‘It’s got a great future, history!’
By the way, did I mention I'd won a prize ...?

Part 4 of these posts is here
Part 3 of my reports on HNS London 2014 is here and Parts 1 and 2 are here and here.

Here are my posts on HNS London 2012:
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5 
My upcoming Fictionfire by the Sea workshop/retreat in Cornwall is here.

My upcoming season of Focus Workshops for writers, from October to December, is here.

Monday, 29 September 2014

Historical Novel Society Conference London 2014 Part 4: Writing Freedom

Douglas Jackson chaired a very topical debate on the afternoon of Saturday 6th September, considering the Scottish Independence referendum was due to take place a couple of weeks after the conference. On the panel were Emma Darwin, Elizabeth Fremantle, Margaret George, Andrew Taylor and Robyn Young, all discussing ‘Freedom, Independence and Equality’.

This is, of course, a pretty wide-ranging topic, so during the course of the session, issues of power within society and power and freedom according to gender were discussed. In terms of gender, Elizabeth Fremantle reminded us Queen Elizabeth 1 was less free than other monarchs because she was female. Katherine Parr ‘accepts that she is a lesser being’ than men, in spite of being an author and scholar. Emma Darwin pointed out the problem of having ‘a woman as your protagonist – we look at the gap in the written history but it may be a gap because there’s not a lot going on.’ It’s not good, she went on, ‘to turn every fifteenth century woman into a feminist and every fifteenth century man you’d like the reader to like into a fifteenth century feminist.’ Later Robyn Young said ‘women are ghosts in the narrative.’

Douglas Jackson
It isn’t just in the area of gender that we have to be careful as novelists: Robyn said it’s dangerous to hook modern ideas of independence onto the past. She highlighted the irony of the Scottish Nationalist Party having sought to have the independence vote on the anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn, given that Robert the Bruce, who won that battle so famously, had switched sides three times and had originally started by fighting on the English side.

Elizabeth Fremantle and Emma Darwin
This led us to another issue: the relative powerlessness of those who seem to have power. Robert the Bruce was trying to find independence within his own family. Elizabeth 1 said no to the ‘one big thing’ – marriage. Margaret George pointed out that the monstrous Emperor Nero wanted to be free to pursue acting and poetry, but didn’t have the power to do what he wanted to do. Douglas Jackson said ‘power isn’t the same as freedom’.

Finally, there is the question of the novelist’s relative freedom to portray things as they actually were, or as we think they were. Elizabeth Fremantle, dealing with Mary Tudor’s burning of heretics, wanted to ‘demonstrate’ how this made ‘complete sense’ to Mary in the context of her faith: ‘I wanted her to be fully human’. When Robyn was describing the violence of war, ‘it was difficult to know how far to go … dancing across the line of not wanting to do a disservice to history and desensitising readers. … I dance as close to that as I think I can – making it true but not over-egging it.’

Robyn Young and Andrew Taylor
All these issues play a part in our perennial interest in reading about the people of the past. As Margaret George says, ‘Everybody knows what they did but we want to know why’. Andrew Taylor refers to the ‘psychological furniture’ of his characters and how he can only approach notions ‘through the individual’. He doesn’t ‘think in terms of these huge concepts’ but goes in search of ‘the way in, the chink’ that will allow him ‘to inhabit that particular period’.

Saturday’s final event in the Hogg Lecture Theatre was a conversation between Lindsey Davis and Jerome de Groot. Lindsey gave a barnstorming performance at London 2012 and she didn’t let us down this time round, either. Many of her replies were teasing or challenging: Lindsey takes no prisoners. Those ‘lads’ writing Roman novels now might not have been able to sell their books had she not found a publisher with The Silver Pigs. Writers should ‘have a real job’ and ‘live in the real world’. They should be hard on themselves and ‘cut, cut, cut’ their work.

Lindsey Davis
She also gave practical advice and there’s absolutely no doubt that she cares deeply about her craft and is dedicated to it. A novel is ‘about people in situations’ – it doesn’t matter if they lived two thousand years ago: they’re still people in situations. As a historical novelist you ‘have to find a way where you don’t use words so modern they stand out or are anachronisms.’ She thinks ‘it is important that you should enjoy doing research. Afterwards, use as little as you can because it’s didactic and boring. The aim of using it is to make it part of your narrative.’ However, ‘Nobody’s going to know what you haven’t read. … You don’t have to know it all. What I’ve put in the books is what I’ve selected.’

When Jerome asked her how difficult it was to get out of the head of Falco, her most famous character, and into the psyche of a new character, she sharply answered ‘This is called writing. This is imagination.’

No argument there, Lindsey. We’re all dancing the line between the known and the imagined. And God, it’s fun.

Part 3 of my reports on HNS London 2014 is here and Parts 1 and 2 are here and here.

Here are my posts on HNS London 2012:
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5 
My upcoming Fictionfire by the Sea workshop/retreat in Cornwall is here.

My upcoming season of Focus Workshops for writers, from October to December, is here.