That’s how it feels at the moment with my WIP. Not a walk by moonlight on a gravelled road, but a stumble through the briars with a torch – or a flashlight if you’re American.
Historically, I’ve been a bit of a sucker for ‘how to’ books and plotting charts when it comes to writing. Last year I wrote myself into a dead end so many times that I resumed the quest for the perfect outline template, only to overwhelm myself with pages and pages of typing. Far from being a reassuring set of ideas ready for me to shape into prose, they’ve been a noise of detail that’s drowned out the tune of the story.
So I’m writing off an outline that fills less than a page of my notebook. I know where my heroine is going geographically and emotionally, I know some of the characters she’ll meet and some of the folklore and history I’m drawing on, I’ve made a few notes to carry me through to the next main plot point, but that’s it.
I’m no longer writing with the dread that this will be another thousand words that’ll be put in the bin. It’s progress towards feeling the shape of the story. It’s a weird process, though, because it feels like I’m taking a long walk in a night forest, guided by a torch with half-drained batteries.
Still, isn’t life like that in reality? Especially at the moment. The five year plan, the month by month plan, are all erased. We’re working out our lives a few days at a time.
New, smart, modern buildings mixed with pretty colonial bungalows behind fencing, grand buildings propped up with giant crates and vacant gaps. Attempts to use the gaps creatively – wall paintings and pop-up art installations – didn’t hide the devastation, and many of them had become temporary car parks.
The cathedrals were sad affairs. Fencing round the Anglican one, a hollow wreck, heaved the symmetry of the square off-balance, leaving room only for a horseshoe of fast-food caravans in the remaining space. The catholic one fared better, the angels on its parapet holding on grimly. The powers-that-be in each institution have puzzled for a long while over whether to demolish and start again or restore. Restore has been the decision for the Anglican, but that lies in the future.
The Arts Centre made a similar decision, while embracing the opportunity to modernise systems like the heating. Here, many studios are up and running. The restaurant where we’d marvelled over a nasturtium salad was still a hive of scaffolding and sawing, but we enjoyed the quirky café, newly furnished with oddities that harked back to its days of study and research.
We visited Quake City, a museum that charts the story of the earthquake and aftermath. Here, we followed a narrative showing the courage of victims and emergency workers and the cheerful work of student volunteers clearing up after. People we spoke to in the city told us of portaloos for weeks afterwards, of rents soaring as those made homeless looked for somewhere to stay, of insurance claims taking years to come through, of people sleeping in their cars, homeless even now. Sobering, too, was our visit to the east side of town. Their neighbourhood condemned now as unsuitable for buildings, homeowners had to leave their homes behind to be razed and grassed over. The area is like a curious parkland now. Straight lines of shrubs mark the boundaries of dismantled properties. Empty roads go nowhere. All you can hear is birdsong.
The area we’d lived in before was less affected, and suddenly I was recognising roads and strips of shops. Travel through the Port Hills has been affected, with one road blocked off permanently, but there are still plenty of opportunities for walking or driving, so we spent Christmas Eve exploring the Banks Peninsula. In search of Pigeon Bay, we found ourselves on a gravel road that twisted and turned, falling away sharply at one side. It was a relief to return to tarmac. At Diamond Harbour we explored the coves, then fuelled up in a café overlooking the cricket ground. Here was another prime example of a small town: as well as the eatery and sports field it boasted a playground, a hairdresser and a library.
And so on to our last stop, Auckland, a city we’d explored only once before, thirty years ago. We flew in on Christmas Day. Our chatty driver who ferried us to our hire car insisted we needed to visit the Night Market for its street food.
The biggest city in New Zealand, Auckland is much like many other Western cities, a mixture of old and new, grand and mundane, and plenty of retail therapy. While the young people emptied their purses in the shops, we oldies pursued more sedate activities. One day we explored the forested areas to the north of the city.
The next day we took the ferry to Devonport across the harbour, where the rich live and the less rich enjoy the bookshop and the views.
The Night Market, said Google, is held in a different location each night, across the city. This particular evening it was in Papatoetoe.
On arrival, it didn’t look promising. Apparently it was underground somewhere. Inside the shopping centre doors were closing and at a stall in the middle of the hall three young assistants dismantled a Christmas tree. There were a few people walking purposefully towards the escalator, so we followed them down. For a minute or two we thought we’d gone completely off-track: we’d descended to an underground car park. And then we saw the stalls, over on one side. Rows and rows of food stalls lit up the concrete dungeon offering every form of fatty food and neon-coloured drink your heart could desire – doughnuts and dumplings, hot dogs and hoi sin, burgers and bubblegum tea. For five or six dollars a diminutive stall owner – mostly Asian and a few Eastern European – will pack a polystyrene box with more food than you will ever be able to eat. It buzzed with families, friends and couples viewing, choosing or crowding onto the picnic tables that ranged one side. As the young folk disappeared again, to make their own choices, we found a vacant bench and tackled our mountains. A couple asked to share our bench and offered us doughnuts – she’d expected one for her money and had been given six! Half an hour later we’d made two new friends and agreed, laughingly, that we’d meet up again there on our next visit. And why not? Thanks to Facebook, we’ll be able to make the arrangements once we’ve saved all over again!
It was an unexpected and delightful way to end the adventure that both confirmed and refuted the saying that you can’t go back. We’d visited areas that had been favourites before and areas that were new to us, some changed, some much the same as they’d been before. We’d changed, too, in what we wanted out of a destination. Which places will we revisit on our next trip? It will be interesting to see if Christchurch, for instance, has chosen to leave the colonial days behind and build in a new style, one that looks forward rather than back.
Part 2 – in which we cross the Cook Straits to the South Island, visit a ghost town and find our travel plans disrupted by a landslide.
A ferry connects north and south of the country, sailing sedately out of Wellington and navigating the islands and inlets of Charlotte Sound. In Picton, where the ferry docks, we’d booked a luxury flat for a few nights, and were all agreed we’d have happily stayed longer. If our son really does become a millionaire, I’ll credit staying here gave him that taste of high life that spurred him on. The sun shone, the sky was blue. The only cloud was a gentle enquiry from a friend, via Facebook, asking whether we were OK. White Island had erupted, and a boatload of tourists were missing. We were many miles away, across the Cook Straits, but the news that unfolded each day was sobering.
It was time to head West, the road crossing and re-crossing the Buller River. Deep turquoise, it runs through rocky chasms and under wide bridges, and dawdles in wide beds between pebble pastures.
Our destination this time was the ghost town of Denniston.
I’ve mentioned Jenny Pattrick before. Her first novel, the one I bought on our previous visit, is ‘The Denniston Rose.’ I’d read it as we journeyed round, and when I’d finished it, I told Mr W about it.
“Oh, Denniston’s a real place,” he said. “We weren’t far from it last week.”
So Denniston was a must-visit this time.
A half hour drive out of Westport, it thrived on the coal industry between 1880 and 1967. Up on the Rochfort Plateau coal was loaded into wagons that then slid almost vertically down an incline of 518 metres to the bottom, where it was taken by train to the coast. It was illegal for people to ride it, but many risked it anyway.
A community formed round the miners. You could say life was bleak. On the rocky ground it was hard to grow fruit, vegetables or flowers. Coffins needed to be lowered on top of coal mines to be buried on lower, softer ground. Furniture had to be brought up via the coal wagons. But it’s interesting what their priorities were. Before a proper road was built, they’d established a hotel, a school, a police station and the School of Mines and Working Men’s Club. There was a strong ethos of education and socialism, and though girls were expected to look after the home, they were also encouraged to excel at school.
It always amazes me how quickly nature reclaims the ground. An earthquake a year after the closure covered part of the upper incline. Iron wheels and wagons litter the site, but of the homes there, little remains – half a wall here, a flight of angled steps there with nothing at the top. There are two homes further up the hill, set so far back from the historical area that they are quite out of sight unless you drive further up the mountain road.
From Westport we were headed for Wanaka. The coastal road winds through wild forests, dipping down to wet, empty beaches, where scattered homes watch the sea spray. Storms had brought down a landslip, blocking the second half of coastal road and sending us back east for a long detour that took us over Arthur’s Pass and the wonderful South Island Alps.
The hills of Otago look bleak and barren, but when you get up close you’ll see they’re covered in grassy tussocks, green in the centre, gold-tipped. Wanaka, our destination for the night, sparkled with light and lake. The journey had taken us twelve hours, and every twist of the road brought us a new vista of glory.
Wanaka is famous for a museum and a tree. The museum is Puzzle World, full of optical illusions 2D and 3D. Being a wordy woman, I was particularly intrigued by the ambigrams – to quote the museum information itself, “a typographical creation that presents two or more separate words within the same physical space.
Next stop, Queenstown.
The first time we visited this tourist destination, we’d travelled the coastal route. After days of tiny towns where Saturday lunchtime marked the start of the weekend and everything closed until Monday, Queenstown – full of bars and restaurants, lights and laughter – was a welcome break. It’s probably more a mark of my age than a change in the town, that now I found it loud and touristy. You can also spend a small fortune here on extreme sports. Most of the activity on offer involves throwing yourself off something – high wire, hang gliding, bunjee…Fortunately, there are also walking opportunities, whether up the mountain track (who needs a gondola?!) or round the lake.
You can also escape to Arrowtown, because this delightful little place a short drive away preserves many buildings from the Gold Rush era, including the tiny homes of Chinese gold miners.
When Jack Tewa, a Maori shearer, discovered gold in the Arrow River at the spot that became Arrowtown, his employer, William Rees, asked him to keep it a secret: Rees was keen to complete his shearing without the drama of a gold rush. Tewa kept his word but others made a similar discover and the news spread. By the end of the year 1,500 miners camped by the Arrow River, flooding in from all over the world. Men and women also flocked to offer services: the miners lived hard lives, but they needed to eat and they liked to drink.
One of the women was Julia Eichardt, born in Ireland, taken to Australia by her mother. Starting as a barmaid at the Queen’s Arms hotel, she married the owner and continued to run it after his death as Eichardt’s. A no-nonsense woman like many female New Zealanders, she seems to have been equally famous for throwing drunken customers into the ‘stone jug’ (a room, mercifully, not a receptacle for beer) and opening an extension fitted with electric lights – the first commercial premises in the world to do so – by hijacking the town’s water supply and running it through a pelton wheel. It makes sense to me that New Zealand was the first country to allow women to vote for Parliamentary elections.
The next stage of our journey took us east once more, with scenic stops. Kawarau Bridge is THE place to bungee, but today the one person who’d paid up stood shivering and crying on the edge, and we felt like voyeurs watching, so we moved on. Roaring Meg is a stream that drives a hydroelectric power station as it merges into the Kawarau River. Pines on the slope above it have been condemned as wildings, like various other swathes of non-native timber. Once they were planted by colonials to remind themselves of home and provide materials for building or burning, but the birds and small creatures that had thrived on the local flora began falling in number. Sprayed with chemicals, the pines stand dead, waiting to fall and rot away – a ghost forest. The sun was out as we reached Lake Tekapo, with its photogenic chapel and fields of lupins.
We were bound now for Christchurch, our home in the 90s. As a couple, we’d arrived with two rucksacks and a lot of hope. Living in a former motel, a unit with shower, galley kitchen, living area and bedroom, we’d worked a variety of jobs to pay the rent. We were looked after by lovely friends from the church we went to on Sundays, and I was welcomed by the local writers group. Christchurch was designed to be the perfect English town, with its roads named after bishops and its gorgeous Gothic architecture. We were both fond of lingering in the town square, with the cathedral as backdrop. If you were lucky, the bagpiper, in full tartan regalia, was away. If you were really lucky, you could hear the famous Wizard with his soap-box oratories, proving that shopping causes wars or selling his maps of the world from the Kiwi point of view. Then it would be time to find coffee or lunch, maybe in the old university, converted into an arts centre. Here, Ernest Rutherford, first person in history to split the atom, experimented for his masters in the former cloakroom, because there was no formal physics laboratory.
If we needed to stretch our legs (and Mr W always needs to stretch his legs) we’d head the other way for the Port Hills, that brood over the town. At the start of the 20th century Harry Ell, aware of the declining population of native flora and fauna in the country, designed a series of resting places here to encourage others to explore and appreciate the area. As with many big projects, only a part was realised, but the houses that were built are splendid. At the foot of the hills sits the Sign of the Takahe, a Gothic wonder with stained glass windows, offering a restaurant and coffees. Higher up is the Sign of the Kiwi, a café with Tip-Top ice-cream, the best in the world. The Sign of the Bellbird and the Sign of the Packhorse offer simple shelter with no refreshments.
We’d been back since then, with our children, and spent a week revisiting all these wonders, though the Wizard and the bagpiper had retired. Not long after that the city was devastated by two earthquakes. We’d seen pictures on the news, and heard from our friends of the psychological impact. We weren’t sure what to expect on our return this time.
Tune in to Part 3 to read about post-earthquake Christchurch and Auckland’s night markets!
This was the question I was asked countless times as we announced our month-long trip to New Zealand.
Perhaps, to our friends, it’s the reason that makes most sense for spending over twenty hours on a plane. The truth is that we’ve visited before, once for a holiday, next for a sort of belated gap year, then to show our children, and each time we leave we vow we’ll return.
Because, when you stumble out of the airport in clothes you’ve worn for two days, teeth furry, hair lank, you’ve landed in perhaps the most beautiful country in the world, where finding an ugly spot is a challenge, where every sweep of the road throws open a new vista – jagged peaks, sharp chasms, wild forests.
Though we’d flown into Auckland, we chose to drive straight out in search of Te Aroha, a small town to the south, a discovery we’d made in our last visit. At the foot of a sacred mountain sits the Edwardian spa, utilising the hot springs. There is nothing particularly pretty about the town itself, but it is friendly and equipped with cafes, a bar, an Indian restaurant, and a supermarket, with a book group once a month – surely the basic necessities of life? Here, we breakfasted each morning in a garden that rose to meet the base of the mountain then stretched our legs with walks around and up it. As the path steepened, a distant roar, like traffic or a waterfall, grew louder. At the top stood a mighty transmitter: the roar was the wind buffeting its giant metal frame.
The landscape on the drive south is carved by plate movement, softened with rain and sun. At Hukka Falls we admired the billowing waters and at Taupo the serene lines of the lake. Our destination this time was Raetihi, a former timber centre now fallen on hard times, though our rented house, a few miles out, looked out onto rolling fields where sheep grazed, Mount Ruapahu sketched onto the sky like Japanese ink work. When darkness fell, it was absolute.
Tongariro National Park consists of the peaks of Tongariro, Ruapehu (snow-tipped when we rose the next morning) and Ngauruhoe, Mount Doom in the film of Lord of the Rings. There are plenty of opportunities for walking around here, and our son made the most of the second one with his new camera. We were instructed to walk well ahead so as not to be in the film, so what he actually composed is a mystery to us. All we could hear was the scrunch of gravel under our feet, and the single note of a birdcall.
Lovely, jagged hills flattened out into an ordinary landscape by lunchtime as we resumed our drive south, but Wellington sits in a bowl of hills. New Zealand’s capital threw rain and wind at us for the first day, so we explored the shops, and here I found that the author I’d discovered on our last trip had written a handful more titles. I’d spent a happy hour or more before the trip loading up my kindle, but I couldn’t pass by the chance to buy another Jenny Pattrick. This writer first published in her sixties, with a title that is still a bestseller in the country, so she’s become a role-model for me.
The next day was clearer, and we took the cable car to the top of Mount Victoria, where I left the rest of the family in the planetarium and explored the botanical gardens that run round and down the mount.
Te Papa museum is another must of Wellington, and while Mr W explored the exhibitions on volcanoes and icy places I wandered through the displays about the wildlife of New Zealand, until the relentless list of birds hunted into extinction overwhelmed me and I took refuge in the section on immigrants.
I have a curious fascination with the European pioneers of New Zealand. It’s not just my love of history, but a feeling of inferiority when I read about the women particularly, doing battle with household tasks and farming with minimal equipment and pregnancy after pregnancy. I came across this wonderful poem many years ago by Ruth Dallas. It’s called “Photographs of Pioneer Women,” and you can read it here.
The rain had cleared as we emerged from the museum into daylight and the present time. We walked along the harbour and puzzled over sculpture and pavement poetry. I don’t understand this one, but I like the sound of the words.
In Part 2 we cross the Cook Straits to the South Island, visit a ghost town and find our travel plans disrupted by a landslide.
Although the aims of the Pre-Raphaelite Society were to paint in a style reflecting art before Raphael, the main attraction for me is the subject matter – both the legendary material and the women who sat for the paintings and drawings. An exhibition, then, that promised to show how these women were often artists in their own right was going to appeal to me. And to hundreds of other women, too, judging from the crowds I rubbed shoulders with. A few men peered too at the small, framed sketches and information tiles.
I set off with expectations of undiscovered or overlooked paintings by Elizabeth Siddall, Annie Miller, Fanny Cornforth and their contemporaries. “Models, artists, makers, partners and poets. Discover the untold stories of the Pre-Raphaelite Sisters,” said the website. No, it doesn’t say painters. I find it interesting how we often remember impressions rather than facts, and in this case my impressions were coloured by my own interest in paintings over tapestry and ceramics. In fact, I came away feeling there were two types of women represented here: the wives and muses, who were also creative – I saw an embroidered purse, an unfinished tapestry, an unusual bodice, and lots of paintings of these women, by men– and the women who were more famous than their husbands, such as Joanna Boyce Wells and Evelyn de Morgan. At a quick glance, what divided them was class. The women painters had the money and the encouragement from family to take their art seriously. Perhaps also their class gave them the nerve to sell, not give away. And yes, dear reader, I am aware of my latent snobbery here, looking at embroidery and clothes-making as not real art.
I’m guessing that we want to remake the women involved in the Pre-Raphaelite movement into a model that fits early twenty-first century ideals and preoccupations. “Sisterhood”, for a start, suggests these women knew and supported each other. Some of them seem to have socialised together as one half of a couple, but others were less friendly; for instance, Rossetti’s sister Christina, and wife, Elizabeth Siddal, did not really get on, even though both were poets. There’s also the narrative of how dreadfully they were treated by the men who they modelled for – pulled from obscurity then thrown to the wolves when they got troublesome – and seen as tragic saints rather than talented beings. The radio play “Unearthing Elizabeth Siddall” (Radio 3) had Siddal climbing out of her grave and demanding, “Look at me” – as a woman in her own right, not just a muse. But this exhibition showed these women’s partners as supportive of their creative talents. Whether this support was undermined by flirting and infidelity is another matter.
The thing I took away from exhibition, and from The Legend of Elizabeth Siddal by Jan Marsh, an acquisition from the shop, was this: how two people can look at the same thing and get quite different pictures in their heads.
Exhibit A: vaguely aware of the face of Fanny Cornforth from various calendars featuring Rossetti’s paintings, I was surprised to see that the sitter for the picture on the right here is the same as the sitter on the left. Rossetti’s Fanny has the same cupid lips as all his women, giving her the soulful he clearly admired, while Holman Hunt’s Fanny has a square, almost masculine forehead and a bold gaze.
Exhibit B: Here is Fanny again, this time painted by John Roddam Spencer Stanhope in “Thoughts of the Past.” The information panel tells us the title “invokes regret for lost innocence.” She certainly has an intense gaze, and her hands grip her hair and a hairbrush tightly. But that grip could mean a whole range of things. I rather thought she itched to brain someone with the hairbrush.
Exhibit C: a different Fanny here, Fanny Eaton. She was of Jamaican descent, daughter of a slave and a white man. Yet the roles she took in Pre-Raphaelite paintings make her, left to right, Indian, Arabian and Semitic.
I started reading The Legend of Elizabeth Siddal on exiting the gallery and am now a third of the way through it. So far it’s been fascinating. One woman, leaving little documentation of her own because of her obscure background, has been reinterpreted over and over in the decades after her death, each time to suit the obsessions of the age. Jan Marsh is quite clear that this is no attempt at a biography, rather a journey through the development of her legend.
I’ll finish this article with one observation and two pictures unrelated to my theme.
First, two designs by Georgiana Burne-Jones, called “Death and the Lady,” intended for a collection of Gothic stories that would be written and illustrated by Georgiana and by Elizabeth Siddall. They are delightfully macabre.
Secondly, I loved this photograph of Marie Spartali Stillman and her son, Michael. That direct stare is neither Madonna nor Magdalen, just confidence in her right to look at the looker.
Last, a reflection on seeing “the real thing.” A quick Google search will bring up more works of art by these women than the exhibition contains, with no expense or travel. But there’s something special about seeing them face to face, so to speak. The cloakroom attendant told me he’d been most struck by the lock of hair kept from Elizabeth Siddal after death. For me, I replied, seeing a page of their own writing really brought home to me that these were living, breathing, imperfect, unique people. As are we all.
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about historical fiction. My childhood reading included the inspired works of Henry Treece, Leon Garfield, Geoffrey Trease and Rosemary Sutcliff, and my teens were filled with the swashbuckling tales of Georgette Heyer and Baroness Orczy. I’ve found adult HF a different matter; the weighty volumes that linger on pillage and destruction are not for me at all, and I shy away from those that dwell bleakly on the injustices of our ancestors. (Maybe this makes me a lightweight. But one of the joys of reading is the escape from the grievances and chores of my everyday world.) The historical fiction I’ve enjoyed lately has been mixed genre: blended with mystery, suspense, romance or fantasy. A wonderful find was the Sophie Rathenau series, where thriller meets Rococo meets romance meets quite a bit of swashbuckling, and not all of it by the men.
So I’m delighted to be able to welcome onto my blog David Neilson, author of the Sophie Rathenau series, which currently stands as The Prussian Dispatch, Lay Brothers and newly-released Serene.
Here is the blurb for The Prussian Dispatch.
With nothing in her purse, Sophie Rathenau can’t refuse work, even from a down-at-heel pimp. But tracing the woman who’s gone off with his document is a chancy business. A gang of Prussian maniacs are hunting for it too, as well as thugs from the shadowy Versailles Club, and a Polish countess desperate to preserve her country.
Caught up in an international conspiracy, Sophie’s only weapons are her sardonic tongue and an old cavalry pistol. But it’ll take more than those to find the dispatch, keep a vengeful Chancellor at bay, and deal with a past that threatens to engulf her.
As well as being the creator of one of my favourite fictional characters, David is very supportive of other writers. We met on the writers’ forum Scribophile (also highly recommended) and I’ve really appreciated his feedback on my own writing, particularly on structure and on elegantly balanced sentences.
David, can you tell us a little about yourself first?
I’m retired from teaching in a Glasgow college, live nowadays on the Rhine, and haven’t so much come late to writing as to actually getting books finished. I found this pretty tough years ago, with work and life such a terrible distraction, and I couldn’t stick with anything. It wasn’t until a distinctive setting occurred to me, the Vienna of the later eighteenth century –with Sophie announcing herself as the main character a moment later – that I could get things moving.
Sophie is such a wonderful, rounded character – brave, sharp-tongued, warm-hearted with a vulnerable underbelly. Have you drawn on anyone, alive, dead, real or fictional, to develop her?
Sophie isn’t consciously based on anyone, though every so often I’ll catch in her an intonation, a reaction, that seems familiar from somewhere. I know that her sheer relentlessness owes something to the woman I’ve been married to for over thirty years. Sophie is an active component in my psyche, in that I sense her presence whether I’m writing about her or not, and, once the historical differences are taken away, our perceptions of the world, even our tone of voice, are the same. Mind you, I don’t imagine that her virtues are mine. Her resolution, her constancy, all of her suppressed romanticism, are surely telling me that I’d be a better person if I shared that side of her nature instead of her faults, such as her quickness to judge and her impetuousness.
She’s very active for a woman of the 18c. How would you defend arguments that she’s an anachronism?
Certainly, there’s anachronism in the series, mostly linguistic, usually there to support the criminal milieu surrounding Sophie. The age of Mozart didn’t really rejoice in such developed and connected rogues, but Sophie wanted to be part of a noir series without giving up her Rococo world, so there you are: who was I to argue? In terms of what’s permitted to women in her time, I’m not sure that the books are as tendentious as they may seem. Sophie, as a widow, is entitled to handle her own affairs. Two centuries earlier, Katharina von Bora fought and won a struggle to control the business founded by her deceased husband, Martin Luther. Another strikingly relevant career is that of Aphra Behn, the Restoration playwright who spied in Antwerp for the court of Charles II. The traveller and adventuress Lady Hester Stanhope, who was born around the time of the Sophie series, did more or less as she pleased.
Sophie sounds in good company then! You dropped some tantalizing hints in your interview with Sue Seabury, saying that Sophie will in time adopt a child and take a regular lover. I’m holding on to this as a promise because Sophie’s had a pretty rough ride so far. Are you prepared to drop any more breadcrumbs?
The main thing is that Sophie is headed from the utter isolation of the first few pages of The Prussian Dispatch to powerful social involvement, even entanglement. The final line of the seventh book, if I ever get there, ought to show how far she’s come and how hard it’ll be for her to assess everything that’s happened in her life. In Serene she meets a character who seems quite incidental but who’ll change her life profoundly, a character who was present in chapter 3 of The Prussian Dispatch, except that no-one else knew she was there – herself included.
That is so cryptic. I’ve re-read Chapter 3 and I’m still mystified. No ‘if I ever get there,’ please!
Your covers are gorgeous. Who did them, and how, or is it a trade secret?
Thank you! I often wonder how they come across, and whether they might not be a little too sombre. The titling, which I like for its clarity, is a present from a designer who bailed out early, whereafter I started to run them up myself. All of the objects are from my toybox, carefully arranged and lit, shot on an iPad, and worked up on Photoshop. At the moment I’m looking for a good visual reference for the eighteenth-century baby shoes that should appear on the next cover – and not finding the task easy.
There’s another breadcrumb! Now, some historical questions. You say you feel very much at home in the era of Maria Theresia and Mozart. What attracts you to it? Mozart is well-loved, but the name Hapsburg means little to most of your English-speaking audience. Added to that, Maria Theresia doesn’t come over to me as very sympathetic in The Prussian Dispatch where she instigates a harsh ‘clean-up’ for Vienna that oppresses prostitutes. Is a dead Empire relevant to today’s audience?
I wouldn’t have liked to live then (thinking mostly of dentistry and medical progress) but I do feel an affinity with Central Europe: its food, its music, its traditional architecture, its whole atmosphere. The first time I heard Act II of Figaro I had a deep sense that this actually wasn’t for the first time, though of course it must have been. The world in which works like that arose, the Habsburg empire, is as worthy a subject for historical fiction as the English Civil War or the Georgian era, even if these periods are much more congenial to British readers. Sophie is active at a time when the balance of power is changing rapidly in Germany (to speak of Germany as a geographical area, that is, rather than as a state). It’s then that Prussian militarism and discipline as a way of life are being established, and that, needless to say, has been an important component in our global conflicts. Habsburg rule profoundly influenced European culture and history. Anyone who exults in Beethoven’s Fifth might consider that its final hymn to freedom reflects impatience with the grim Habsburg determination to keep everything battened down after the French Revolution. Maria Theresia represents a much more human side than that, however. The tale of the six-year-old Mozart climbing on a ruler’s knee is often recalled, the knee in question being that of Maria Theresia. She’s by no means forgotten in Central Europe, where her portrait can turn up in unexpected corners. I was in Bratislava last year for the first time in decades and came across a life-sized figure of the Empress, sitting in a café window.
That must have been a surreal event! Joking aside, I admit to a typical British ignorance about the history of Europe.
Although your books are set firmly in a specific period, you have deliberate historical errors in the Sophie books, and point them out in the glossary. Am I right in thinking it’s a long-running joke with the readers?
I hope so! The books are stuffed with jokes and allusions. Any opera-goer, for instance, will recognise “the general’s wife and the pretty boy she hung around with” glimpsed in a café in The Prussian Dispatch. Nor is it a coincidence that a child transfixed by the sight of Sophie holding bad guys at pistol-point goes on to write the libretto of Fidelio. There’s a sense that various hands have interposed themselves in her memoirs, and the glossary assists readers in finding where this may have taken place. I have my limits, though. A café across the river from me offers its German customers “Early Grey” tea, and while I’d love to bring that in, the warping of history implied is simply too great.
That’s a shame! What’s your philosophy on historical dialogue, and has it evolved over the years since you first started writing? It’s impossible to make it completely authentic if the original was in another language, of course.
I love authentic eighteenth-century dialogue, as long as it’s in eighteenth-century texts, be they from Goldsmith, Kleist, or Goldoni. Any characters using that style in mine tend to the shifty: that tone of voice generally arouses Sophie’s suspicions. Eighteenth-century pastiche forms but part of an overall texture which is aiming for a certain breadth and richness of its own, and at all events keeping away from a style of dialogue owing more to BBC costume dramas than the recorded discourse of the time. The approach of Richard Strauss in Der Rosenkavalier, set in Sophie’s time and acknowledging the heritage, but using tonalities quite impossible for that era, has made much greater impact on me than any historical novel. Not that it would make any difference what I think; Sophie just talks the way she wants anyhow.
It works for me.
Thank you so much for visiting my blog, David.
Thank you, rather, for the opportunity!
I do hope I’ve inspired my readers to investigate further. As some extra incentives, click here for the trailer for Serene, Sophie’s latest adventure, and here for a free Sophie story.
Thus says Bevis – or it could be Butt-head. You will have to imagine the snigger as he says it – whichever one of them it was.
I do like words. I love words. They are tools and sometimes weapons, used to do good and harm.
Beneath the rule of men entirely great
The pen is mightier than the sword.
To me, the goals of literacy and the learning of English should be to understand how to use language and how to recognise and be wary of its abuse. I’m not talking F-words. I’m talking about how clever people – politicians or journalists, for instance – use words to manipulate or deceive. To me, Boris Johnson’s Brexit bus is a prime example. Never mind if he lied about the money that goes to the EU. The carefully worded slogan hints at funding the NHS rather than the EU, without promising that he would actually implement the redirection of funds. I believe many people read it as, “If we leave the EU the NHS will get more money.”
I taught Functional Skills for many years, and I love how it teaches the identification of bias and inference, fact versus opinion rather than the identification of techniques Dickens uses to present the character of Pip in Great Expectations. Yes, I’d love new generations to grow up appreciating quality literature; but the reality seems to be that they are growing up loathing Pip, while still being vulnerable to manipulation by twisters of words.
Words are also the gateway to knowledge, which in turn leads to better health, better job prospects, better relationships. In A Christmas Carol the Ghost of Christmas Present lifts his cloak to show Scrooge two children – Want and Ignorance. Of the two, says the Ghost, Ignorance is the more to be feared.
Martin Newell, performance poet, quoted this passage today at a rally in Chelmsford to protest at the proposed cuts to the library service in Essex. A third of the county’s libraries are threatened with closure. Newell himself grew up as a forces child, his family constantly moving. Taking books with them was not an option, so one of the first things they did in a new area was to enroll in a local library. Libraries were vital for him for learning to read. Backing him up, a local headteacher spoke about the importance of libraries as spaces for young people to study and revise for their exams. He talked, too, of a study that shows we retain more and lose ourselves more in a text if it is a physical copy.
I do hope that doesn’t mean you, dear reader, will skim this text then forget about it. Because library services across the UK and indeed across Europe are threatened with closure as councils seek to save money. If library closures go ahead, we lose so much. We lose books for our little children to learn to read with. We lose safe places for our older children to linger in, developing a love of reading. We lose knowledge for our teenagers to grow with. We lose a resource for those who can’t afford new books. We lose access to materials that will inform and enlighten.
We lose a resource that helps us open our minds to the world: to say no to manipulation; no to half-truths; no to prejudice.
I’m delighted to host an interview today with Jayne Davis, author of the Marstone Series, historical romance spanning the eighteenth to nineteenth centuries with a big dash of adventure. The first of the series, Sauce for the Gander, came out on Kindle yesterday. A standalone book which is loosely linked to the series, The Mrs MacKinnons, debuted last year and has already built up a firm fan base. Jayne, welcome to Queens, Quotes, Quills and Quests. Tell us more about the Marstone series.
Jayne: I started writing fiction for fun, and had drafts of novels called Playing with Fire and The Mrs MacKinnons done before I decided to take things seriously and knock them into shape to be published. I dealt with The Mrs MacKinnons first, and in that process I learned a lot about marketing books.
One of the things I learned was that books in a series sell well – readers like familiar characters. An important secondary character in Playing with Fire also has a walk-on role in The Mrs MacKinnons (the Earl of Marstone, for anyone who has read the latter). I thought he would make a good linking character for the series, so I went back in time and wrote the story of how Will, who later becomes the Earl of Marstone, falls in love and ends up in the position we see him in later (I’m not going to say what that is as it’s a bit of a spoiler for the novel). His story is in Sauce for the Gander. Playing with Fire is set 16 years later, so I want to write about one of Will’s sisters for Book 2, and Playing with Fire will become Book 3. I have ideas for one or two more books after that as well.
Lynden: Excellent. The series is growing. What made you choose historical romance as your genre?
Jayne: I enjoyed Georgette Heyer and Jane Austen in my teens, and always wanted to write stories in this era. There are a lot of restrictions on the characters that we do not have, and these can provide great possibilities for stories. I’m not only talking about things like lack of women’s rights, but also more mundane things like no analgesics, letters taking days to reach their recipients, going abroad taking weeks or months, if you weren’t shipwrecked on the way, and so on.
Lynden: That’s very true. I’d not looked at history quite like that before. Now,you’re clearly very productive (I know this because I can view all Jayne’s draft novels on Scribophile, the online forum we both belong to.) What’s your way of working? Do you have a daily routine, or does writing fit in with other commitments?
Jayne: I started off as an engineer, then became a teacher, then a publisher of school science text books. During this third career I started writing some of the text books and discovered I was quite good at it. So after only a few years in that job I went freelance, and I’ve been earning a decent living by freelance writing ever since. I’m lucky in that I can accept work or not, and can usually say I only want to work half days – this leaves me half of each week for fiction writing, and even more time when I haven’t any science writing on.
Sadly, I’m still very poor at making use of my time. I waste too much time on the internet instead of buckling down and getting on with it. I do try to buckle down and get some writing done each morning, but it doesn’t always work!
Lynden: Ah, that’s a very common problem among writers. How about ideas? Where do you get your ideas from?
Jayne: I don’t know – they just come! Not always when I want them to, though. Odd things can set off a train of thought. For example, I was on a walking holiday in Wales last year – 5 days across the middle of Wales in beautiful countryside. I got to thinking about a few Regency Romances I’d read where a heroine was threatened with the punishment of being sent to an aunt in Wales or, in one of Heyer’s books, going to said aunt for protection against a horrible father. So the ‘aunt in Wales’ of this trope appears to be rather dragonish (quite appropriate for Wales, really). Then I got to wondering what would happen to my heroine if she found when she got there that the aunt wasn’t the dragon that her father thought, and the plot for An Embroidered Spoon was born.
Lynden: I wonder why so many Regency aunts lived in Wales? How curious. My next question is, what’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received? And what’s the worst?
Jayne: Best – first drafts can be fixed, just keep writing and get on with it.
Worst – that’s harder. Probably the most useless and irritating was an American critiquer who ignored my comment about the work being written in British English, and added a . after every Mr and Mrs in the chapter.
Lynden: Mmm, that doesn’t sound wildly helpful. Whose writing do you admire most? I’d be interested to see if it’s an author in your genre or not.
Jayne: That’s a difficult question! At the moment most of my reading is within the genre I write, or non-fiction books about the period. So I’ll give you a fiction answer – Courtney Milan and Emily Larkin both write excellent stories with characters I can believe in, and both good for period detail. Larkin has some paranormal elements in her stories that I don’t normally like, but she does it well.
Lynden: I’m not familiar with Emily Larkin. I’ll have to look her up. Tell us more about your freelance work. What are the similarities and differences between writing fiction and non-fiction, in your experience?
Jayne: My non-fiction is all commissioned. School textbooks these days are a huge undertaking, with all sorts of teacher support materials and worksheets, so the authors are very much part of a team. There is a detailed writing brief that sets out not only what needs to go in each section (based on the curriculum), but also the educational features needed, how many illustrations I can use, and so on. And a schedule for when each bit has to be delivered. So in many ways that is far easier than fiction writing, and someone else does all the proofing, publishing, marketing and sales.
But it’s nowhere near as much fun as thinking up characters and telling their stories (and in some cases having what were supposed to be very minor characters elbowing their way into the story!)
Lynden: That’s so true! So, Jayne, thank you for visiting. If this piece has whetted my readers’ appetite, where can they find your books, and for those of us who are suckers for a shiny cover, is paperback an option as well as Kindle?
Jayne: The Mrs MacKinnons is available in Kindle, Kindle Unlimited and in paperback from Amazon. It can also be ordered from bookshops in paperback.
At the time of writing, Sauce for the Gander is only available in Kindle and Kindle Unlimited, but will be available in paperback soon.
I’ve delayed so long in writing this blog post that I find it now coincides with Reading Ireland Month – a lucky coincidence for me!
City breaks are perhaps the best solution to the problem of a family holiday with two older teenagers keen to remind us of all the downsides to breaks in the UK. The Wade family all found something interesting here, although our tastes only collided at dinner time. It’s possible I made a mistake not visiting Dublin’s Leprechaun museum like our daughter did, but the city’s literary delights that I did visit offered me a wealth of visual and creative delights nonetheless. Photos can largely tell the story of this visit.
We arrived on a wet Sunday afternoon, and while our teenagers elected to make the most of their hotel beds, Rick and I visited Merrion Square, the park Oscar Wilde overlooked as a child. He’s honoured by a flamboyant statue (statues are big in Dublin) and a pillar covered in some of his outrageous and insightful quotes. Do I agree with the one second from bottom in this photo? If so, my day job is far less worthy than I thought!
Our trip back to the town centre took us past a sculpture commemorating Ivar the Boneless, founder of Viking Dublin. Viking surnames of the heroic era are rich and strange, and Ivar’s is one of my favourite. There are many stories and theories as to how he got his name, but I favour the wilder ones that have him carried into battle on a shield due to his inability to walk: in this one, his military daring was clearly stronger than his physical strength. The legends of Ivar link with those of Ragnar Hairy Breaches, whose murder purportedly caused the Viking invasion of England and through Ragnar to the Saga of the Volsungs (Ragnar’s wives included Sigurd and Brynhild’s daughter) and the rich family line of East Anglia (one of the legends of Ragnar’s death has him murdered by a courtier of Edmund, last in the royal line that might link back to Beowulf. There’s a story here I mean to write one day.
As well as statues, Dublin is rich in wall murals, and these too commemorate the literary heritage of the city.
But the frontages are just as delightful.
A must for book lovers is the Book of Kells exhibition, housed in Trinity College Library.
The book itself is under glass and so only one spread is viewable, but there is plenty of information in the exhibition, supported by large photos from this or other examples of medieval book illumination.
Here is one from the 13c, showing a professional vellum-maker showing a monk one of his sheets for book production, while another is being stretched on a frame waiting for the vellum-maker to scrape the hairs off it with the curved knife leaning against it. Another shows and illustrates a lovely poem about a writer and his cat. The bond it celebrates is celebrated today via social media, but the cat’s role as cat-catcher has been replaced by havoc-maker. As I write this, our cat is sitting on my folder of research.
The highlight of the exhibition, however, for me, must be the library itself, a celebration of books and authors. I want to climb a spiral staircase, pick a book and sit at the top reading.
St Patrick’s Cathedral is full of visual delights, including a manuscript of Handel’s Messiah, which had its first ever performance here, in 1742. It went on to be a popular item at London’s Foundling Hospital, where the ticket fee went into the charity’s funds. Libby, in my novel ‘Foundlings‘, would have heard it many times. My photo of the music didn’t come out very well so here’s some street art to illustrate it instead.
Dublin is rich in architecture from the age of Handel, and Georgian doorways are everywhere.
However, for me the highlight of our holiday was a visit to Fourteen Henrietta Street, which deserves a blog post to itself. Watch this feed!
This month I bring you an author interview, a chance for my readers to meet Julian Elliot, pen name J E Klimov, author of the Aeonians trilogy. It’s morning here, and Julian, you’re on the other side of the Atlantic and might still be asleep! It’s thanks to the wonders of modern technology that we can have this conversation. Julian, it’s lovely to have you on my blog.How long have you been writing, and what made you start?
Julian: I’ve been writing since the seventh grade. It was a huge year for creativity. I always loved spinning stories, although most were made in the form of hand-drawn graphic novels. Then, I played Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, and I just had to write a fan-fic of that! Once I started writing, I couldn’t stop!
Lynden: It’s a common theme – so many writers get the bug as children. I know you’re going to tell us later what you did with that fan-fic, so I’ll move on to my next question. We ‘met’ when we both worked on the first JL Anthology. These are a series, all fantasy, put together by the Just-Us League, a group of writers who met online. I believe you have stories in several of these. Tell us more about them.
Julian: Joining the Just-Us-League was one of the most monumental experiences of my writing life! Everyone I met has been incredibly supportive and helpful. I can’t recall exactly how we came into starting anthologies, but I was 100% in from the start. Currently, I have four short stories published in these JL anthologies:
The Guardian’s Secret in “From the Stories of Old” (JL Volume 1): For my first fairy tale retelling, I wanted to dive deep into a Japanese folk lore. It challenged me because I was terrified of not serving the original story justice; however, I learned a lot through the editing process and am very proud of it.
The Fate of Patient Zero in “Between Heroes and Villains” (JL Volume 2): This is hands down my favorite. Keeping in the theme of superheroes (or villains), I wanted to create an origin story for a science fiction series that I will be working on soon. The characters are near and dear to me, and it was interesting to explore what would happen if humans played around with their genetics too much…
The Charcoal Cat in “Of Legend and Lore” (JL Volume 4): I decided to enter the ring once more with another fairy tale retelling. I wanted to steer from the main stream and found yet another endearing Japanese tale. It also had cats in them!!! The story follows a young misfit whose artwork literally saves his life.
Soul of Mercy in “Secrets in Our Cities” (JL Volume 6): Ah, paranormal/urban fantasy. I haven’t dabbled in this sector of the fantasy genre; however, I had a storyline tucked away in my to-write list that was worth trying out. It wasn’t novel-length, so a short story fit perfectly. This story follows a teenager named Gabby who flips out when she discovers she already has white hair. An angel with an unusual name pops into her life and bestows upon her the title “Soul of Mercy”. Gabby needs to put spirits to rest before they wreak havoc on the human world. I took a light-hearted approach when writing this, and I also channelled my inner Ghost Busters. It was a lot of fun.
Lynden: Wow, you really flexed your genre muscles there. I have a story in the first anthology too, and saw that several reviewers particularly loved your story. Meanwhile, you published your debut novel, The Aeonians, which won the Purple Dragonfly award. You have two books out in this trilogy now, don’t you? What are they about?
Julian: Yes, I have the first two novels out, and fingers crossed that the final instalment will be released late 2019. Remember when I mentioned that fan-fic back in 7thgrade? Surprise! During my first NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), I chose to recycle that fan-fic and transform it into my own unique story. Silver Leaf Books picked me up and helped me work on expanding it into a trilogy.
In short, The Aeonians is a story of a tomboy princess, Isabel, who inherits an armlet containing four precious stones that possess the powers of wind, water, earth, and fire. As she struggles with her new responsibility that she never wanted, an ancient enemy labelled as the Aeonians breaks from their cursed prison to reclaim the country that they believed was theirs. Isabel runs into Bence, the captain of the Aeonian Army, whose questionable allegiance leads her into a cat-and-mouse game up until the very end.
The second book, The Shadow Warrior, came seamlessly as it follows Bence and the consequences that followed his actions from the war. He tries to run away from his problems while Isabel faces a new threat to her country.
Lynden: Congratulations on those publications – that’s a massive achievement. And best wishes with the launch of the final instalment. I gather you’re branching out now into romance, is that right?
Julian: That’s correct. It seems like a far stretch from fantasy to romance, and it probably isn’t the best idea when trying to “build a brand”; however, the romance isn’t being written for my brand-sake. In my endless list of fantasy and science fiction ideas, there was always a desire to write one damn good romance. I’ve been through a lot the last few years, and this side project is a way to channel my new energy.
Lynden: I’m sorry to hear you’ve had a bad few years. I do hope the project really inspires you.
I remember you said another source of inspiration is your career – as a pharmacist. Can you give us an example?
Julian: I really couldn’t have gotten into a more boring career… or so I thought. I’ve spent many years working at a pharmacy before becoming licensed (about 12 years total?!?), and I’ve seen and dealt with a lot of things – things that make you say that cliché phrase: “Truth is stranger than fiction”. While I can’t give exact examples at the moment, it’s the unique interactions with customers and co-workers that really inspire my range of characters. Think of a pharmacy version of the famous television series, The Office.
Lynden: You’d better add that to your ‘to-write’ list! Now, I understand you love travel and other cultures. What country or culture have you found most intriguing, and why?
Julian: I’ve found Chinese and Japanese culture the most intriguing. As a disclaimer, I am half Chinese and considered a first-generation Asian American, so I already was brought up with knowledge of Chinese culture. Growing up, I embraced it. I learned the language and looked forward to the Lunar New Year even more than the regular New Year!
In 2008, I was lucky enough to fulfil my dreams and travel to China. Since then, I’ve visited the Great Wall, Beijing, Hong Kong, my nana’s hometown, most of Taiwan, and finally Japan.
I appreciate the deep cultural history and fantastic architecture. Everything is so colorful and meaningful. I remember bringing a sketch pad to the Forbidden City in Beijing. The statues, palaces, and stories behind them were inspiring. I found this to be the same when I visited Kyoto. I rented a bicycle and must’ve visited at least a dozen temples, large and small. There’s just something so mysterious and noble about the East, from their perspective on life (including family and medicine), clothing, mannerisms, to music. Finally, I appreciate their love and attention to food. Real, authentic Chinese and Japanese food are prepared with love and packed with intense flavor.
Lynden: That sounds like a fantastic trip. I expect we could trace all sorts of details in your writing that were inspired by your travels. It’s been great to talk, Julian. All the best with the launch of your last Aeonians book, and with your new venture into romance!
You can find out more about Julian by following her on Amazon or her blog. If you sign up for her newsletter you’ll get regular updates and writer tips. You can find out more about The Aeonianshere.
You can find out more about the JL Anthologies here.