Charlie Britten's writing blog

Review of ‘A Terrible Tomboy’ by Angela Brazil (sort of).  ‘A Terrible Tomboy’ is available here by the way.

What we historical fiction writers dream about are sources informing us of exactly what we need to know in order to write our story.  Mostly, we don’t lack sources on major political events, because these are easy to find, but details of everyday life, precise details synchronised very exactly in time, without which our novel feels unrealistic and unconvincing, and plots and characters fall apart.  These things are particularly hard to dig up – sometimes literally, in the archeological sense.  What we know about how people lived in centuries long ago is largely down to chance.  For example, much of our knowledge about how Romans lived their lives derives from what was buried under molten lava when Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD.

I am currently preparing to write a school story, of the traditional sort, based at a girls boarding school in the first half of the twentieth century.  How wonderful it is, therefore, to find a book like ‘A Terrible Tomboy’, which is not a novel at all, but more a succession of events in the life of a pre-teen girl living in genteel poverty on the English-Welsh borders in the 1900s.  (I have already reviewed author Angela Brazil’s autobiography.)   This was Angela’s first publication and, although she later became known as the first writer of school stories for girls, this was not one of them.  Prefixing every chapter with a highbrow literary quotation, Angela describes everything as she sees it, the landscape and what grows on it, how people ran their households, how schools were run, what they wore, what tools they used and how, attitudes and opinions, what people enjoyed and valued.  Of course, primary sources like these can be subjective and need to be balanced against others, but Angela never tries to deceive, embellish or even gloss.  She writes with that mixture of innocence and confidence redolent of someone living in the Britain during the time of the British Empire, on which the sun would never set – obviously.

It was a world in which twelve year olds were generally at peace with their world and their likely role within it.  Peggy Vaughan (the terrible tomboy in question) and her brother Bobby, without the distractions of electronic media, not even television or radio, liked nothing better than their pets and to play outside, spotting wild flowers, and also wild birds and insects… which they would then capture and stick on a card.  The underlying point of view was that the natural world was wonderful and exciting, but theirs for the taking.  Although The Abbey, where they lived, was falling down around them and their poor father was struggling financially, being saddled with debts and mortgages incurred by profligate ancestors, they were Vaughans and better than those around them – better, however, in the sense of having higher moral standards.   These are attitudes which we in the twenty-first century, not only do not share, but regard as repugnant, and we find it difficult to write characters who think this way.  Nevertheless, in my opinion, we must, because that’s how it was.   What I cannot stand is right-on, politically correct modern opinions emanating from the mouths of people, albeit fictitious people, living many decades or centuries earlier.  The worst example ever was in a Children’s BBC programme I watched in the 1990s which included a girl knight.

Notwithstanding all these things – or maybe because of them – ‘A Terrible Tomboy’ is a wonderful resource for writers of historical fiction.  I have often considered setting up a resource-bank, of things I have experienced, things I have heard my parents talk about, and other people I have met, and I would hope to gain insights from other people’s experiences as I needed them for my writing.  To give an example, everyone knows that GIs billeted in England during World War 2 caused havoc amongst local British girls, but my mother used to tell me about how shy black American soldiers were at dances and that, if she danced with one, all his black friends would line up to ask to dance with them.   It’s these sorts of details that can make a historical piece real.  I thought about writing my next post about British elections, setting down everything I observed from voting myself, watching election results and being a poll clerk and presiding officer.

Another thing I have learned about researching historical topics is the value of images.  A picture truly can tell a thousand words.  Even when browsing for an image to go with this blog, I found a wonderful resource on early twentieth century schoolgirls.

Back to ‘A Terrible Tomboy’, if you wish to consider it as literature, it has no real storyline and the one bit of plot at the end is implausible, but, given the tone of the rest of the book, very predictable.   Enid Blyton, many decades on, wrote the same sort of stories, with defined characters and plots that worked.


Veruthrendellry sad to hear that Ruth Rendell died yesterday, aged 85, following a stroke in January, from which she never properly recovered.  With her first book ‘From Doon to Death’ published in 1964, Ruth was the first of a new generation of detective writers, who had moved on, from what Lucy Worsley in ‘A Very British Murder’ called the ‘Golden Age’ , towards modern character-led fiction.  Her writing fell into three categories:  crime stories featuring teddy bear DCI Reg Wexford, other crime stories and non-detective fiction which she wrote under the pen-name Barbara VineMuch has got into print over the last twenty-four hours about how Ruth liked to explore the ‘dark side’ of human nature and I know people who won’t touch her books because they are too dark.  Usually I am the first one to be squeamish and always wary of what may be called ‘psychological thrillers’, but Ruth, like Dickens, always knew how far to go and when to draw back.

Ruth was one of an interesting gang of female crime writers living in East Anglia, albeit at different times:  Dorothy Sayers (Witham),  Margery Allingham (Tolleshunt D’Arcy) and PD James (Southwold).  Even though Reg Wexford lived in Sussex (although Ruth had no connections there that I know of) and later in West London, places in northern Essex and southern Suffolk, close to where Ruth spent her adult life, also feature in many of her stories.  Equally sadly, PD James died just a few months ago, in November.  I understand that the two were great friends, both of them attending the House of Lords regularly, on opposite benches – Ruth Labour, Phyllis Conservative.

Ruth, a churchgoer, would understand that in the midst of death we are in life.  (Yes, I know I’ve quoted that the wrong way roPrincess on board stickerund!)  Many congratulations to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge on the birth of their little girl, also yesterday.  No name yet, but whatever they select will be top of the name pops for next year.  Wills and Kate, consider all the poor teachers who, for the next eighteen years, will have several girls with The Name in every class.  Think particularly of teachers in Essex, and how whatever you choose will sound with an Estuarian accent.  And you wouldn’t put a  Princess on  Board on your back windscreen, would you?  (No, that would be really just too Essex.)

Available from Virtual Bookworm.  The author also has a WordPress blog.

Born to American parents working in the diplomatic service, Alicia Collier had never felt sufficiently settled in any one place to call it home.  The nearest she came to it was when attending high school in Bogota, Columbia, and, when she was required to move back to the US, to university in Virginia, she fell for the only Latino around, Jorge Carvallo.  At the first opportunity, Alicia rushed back to Columbia, believing Jorge’s vague promise of a job in tropical biology at Bogota University, only to find that no such post existed and that in Latin America women’s careers were considered not to be important.  Soon, Alicia and Jorge, now married and expecting a baby, moved to the remote coffee plantation, Las Nubes, on the edge of the rainforest.   At first all was well, but with volcanic ash (ceniza) suffocating the coffee plants and family profitability and the strain of parenthood, Jorge started to feel restless, wanting to do a Che Guevera on his motorbike, whereas Alicia couldn’t bear to leave the coffee plantation, because at last she’d found somewhere she belonged.

The story arc for A Place in the World is straightforward, albeit understated against a backdrop of volcanic eruptions, bandits, narcos, wild animals and, above all, the ever present danger of getting lost in the rainforest.  Many things might have happened yet didn’t.  This is a very honest novel, which seeks to chronicle a young woman’s battle with old fashioned social attitudes and male waywardness, her battle to keep the plantation going, against the elements and accepted ways of working which went against what she understood about ecology.   The author, who is herself an American environmental scientist, did not go in for hype or thrills.  Viewed negatively, you could say that this is a story about an American woman who came to sort out the backward Latinos, but this would have to be balanced against Alicia’s love of all things South American and her accepting attitude towards the indigenous people.

Hut in village in Amazon

Hut in village in Amazon

Kitchen in hut in Amazonian village

Kitchen in hut in Amazonian village

I was persuaded to download A Place in the World after reading about it on Hilary Custance Green’s  blog, Green Writing Room, at a time when I was feeling somewhat fragile because my own son had just departed for several months in Ecuador and that part of the world generally.  I suppose I was seeking out a ‘feel’ of Latin America and I certainly got it, the terrain, the climate, the people and the attitudes.  He is still there and to the right are a couple of photos of what it is like in the rainforest further south, beyond a town called Pulo.

On another topic, an article in the Daily Telegraph yesterday (Monday, 21 April 2015) about writers confirmed my worst fears.  According to a study carried out Queen Mary College, University of London, only ten per cent of writers are able to live on their writing alone and seventeen per cent of us earn nothing at all.   Do read the article.

As you will have worked out, Dear Reader, I have struggled to find time to do any writing for quite a long time.  This has been due to an overwhelming workload.   Overwork stops you writing in lots of different ways.  It physically prevents you writing because you don’t have enough time, or just a few isolated oases, then nothing at all for weeks and weeks.  It wears you out so that you can’t write even when you do have some time; right now, I’m exhausted and trying to persuade myself that I really don’t have a headache.  Another thing is that your head becomes filled with work rubbish, like what you need to do tomorrow and which meaningless statistics you have to provide next.  All this garbage pushes out the stories that normally go round and round in your brain, so that you have nothing in there to write.

What all this is leading up to is that I do get very irritated with all those writing pundits who tell me that I MUST findGirl writer lying on grass time to write EVERY DAY.  Indeed, I’m not a proper writer unless I do Write Something Every Day.  Write anything they say, even if it’s rubbish.  You don’t have the time?  Well, here’s an idea.  Do it early in the morning, before you do anything else.

Yeah right.  I’ll think about all those proper writers writing their daily pages, as I drag myself out of bed, push my breakfast down my throat, fall into the car, then struggle through traffic so as to arrive at college at 8am and start teaching at 9am.  And I don’t have young children anymore.  Even my daughter, who is a real writer (a journalist), cannot type a single word until she has got up my grandson, given him his breakfast and taken him to daycare.

I don’t doubt for one moment that the Write Something Every Day advice works for a lot of writers – even though I’ve never been in a position to try it out.   Practice makes perfect – sometimes, but not just writing by yourself to yourself, as most of us need to learn from others as well.

Another standard bit of advice is to keep subbing, anyhow, anyway – the scattergun approach – even though there are loads of disheartened wannabe writers out there who have never had anything published.    Moreover, entering lots of comps can be very expensive.

Old fashioned writer thinkingThis leads into the next pearl of wisdom:  read the publications you intend to sub to.  Well, yes, but – again – that’s not the whole story, is it?  You can read magazines and ezines and longer works until you’re blue in the face but be none the wiser.  If you end up thinking, “Well, they take anything really,” you haven’t picked up anything at all.  Moreover, you can’t assume that, because the editor has just published something like your writing that he/she will accept your piece.  He/she might reject it because it’s too similar to the other story.  Although there is an element of luck to what gets accepted and what isn’t, there is more to placing stories than reading:  you need to analyse length, points of view, genres, themes, male/female mcs, age of mcs and general philosophy, but the pundits never tell you that.

‘Write about what you know’ is another gem.  How boring is that?  My life and experiences haven’t been all that interesting.  I’m always fascinated, and want to write about, things that are unfamiliar and even exotic.

Moan over.  What do other writers think?   I’m going to read the newspaper now, before I go to bed in readiness for getting on to the daily grind again tomorrow morning.

scottish_borders‘No Stranger to Death’ is cosy crime at its cosiest, but with incest and paedophilia, AIDS and S&M thrown in.  Set in Westerlea, a village on the English-Scottish Borders, all the characters live in the village (or have lived there recently) and know each other.  The main character is Dr Zoe Moreland, a general practitioner, a newcomer and recently widowed, who chances upon the first body on burnt out Guy Fawkes bonfire whilst out walking her dog, then upon the second body (husband of the first one) a few days later.  Zoe and her friend, Kate, decide to solve the crime, but tension rises when Zoe narrowly escapes a serious accident due to brake failure on her car. It appears that murderer has interfered with them.

Hadrian's Wall

Hadrian’s Wall

On the romantic side, Zoe has recently struck up a friendship with craggy kitchen fitter Neil Pengelly, who has recently arrived from Cornwall.  Both of them blow hot and cold and disregard the feelings of Neil’s brother, Peter.   Also, Kate discovers to her embarrassment that the detective investigating the murders is her previous (and long abandoned) ex-boyfriend, Erskine Mather, whom she (hilariously) calls ‘Skinny’.  He is one of the most distinctive characters in the story, immaculately turned out and with a wonderful dress sense, rigidly proper, as well as being good at his job.  Such a contrast to your usual shambling Noir detective.  In addition, Zoe’s position in her GP practice hangs on a knife edge, because, although the senior partner, Paul, is friendly and helpful, the other partner, Walter, is rude and hostile.  We are told, in the blurb, that the author is intending to write a series and you can see, Dear Reader, how this sort of storyline could run and run.

The plot (of the current book) is tight and well-constructed, with characters and their lives flitting in and out of the story, and no loose ends… for seven-eights of the book.  However, although the author lay one small hook very late in the story and there were no actual inconsistencies earlier in the plot, the identity of the murderer was a complete surprise.  Ditto, the very last few page, which, I suspect, Janet put in as a taster for the next book.

An interesting element to ‘No Stranger to Death’ was the inclusion of a major character who was disabled – Kate who was profoundly deaf.  Cath Nichols wrote a very interesting article about representation of disabled characters in Mslexia Issue 65 (March/April/May 2015).  I think Cath would have approved of the way Janet wrote Kate because she had a ‘normal’ character, and a ‘normal’ life as a single mother, which was not defined by her disability, even

Road on Scottish Borders

Road on Scottish Borders

though the reader was made aware that Kate could lipread, that she had to face speakers in order to to lipread and that people needed to tap her on the shoulder to attract her attention.  Although she figured in the book largely as Zoe’s side-kick, she had her own views on things and argued with Zoe frequently.  Moreover, her ability to lipread came in handy in their detective work.  Kate was definitely not there for reasons of political correctness, nor was she saintly like ‘Cousin Helen’ in ‘What Katy Did’ or magically ‘cured’.

So, Dear Reader, would I recommend ‘No Stranger to Death’?  Yes, for a nice gentle read.  Will I look out for the next in the series?  Oh yes.

Last night, we went to the theatre with our friends Helen and Nigel for An Evening with Pam Ayres.  Their choice.  Remember Pam Ayres?  She was a fixture on our televisions towards the end of the 1970s and the 1980s, reciting humorous verse.  That being the frenetically busy period of my life when I was getting married and having babies, I hardly noticed her.  I wish I had.  I should have.  Humorous verse, read by a woman?  Come on, bluecity, that was you all over.

What struck me most about Pam was her modesty.  This wasn’t about her working-class beginnings;  all too many writers reckon they came from humble beginnings and become insufferable on the subject.  On the stage by herself for over two hours entertaining us with her poems and stories of her life, Pam’s message was not ‘Aren’t I marvellous?’ but ‘I’ve been so lucky.’  In her message on the theatre programme, she writes that it’s important to write about things with which people can identify.  I quote (from the programme) ‘I don’t think it matters how ordinary the subject is, as long as you approach it from an original angle.’  She also mentions the ‘fascinating rhythm’ that words have ‘within themselves’ and how this can be harnesses to make a ‘marvellous bouncing tune’.  Thank you, Pam, for a lovely evening.

'Last Hot Chocolate in Mostar'.  Image on 'Youth Imagination' cover.

Image for ‘Last Hot Chocolate in Mostar’ on ‘Youth Imagination’ cover.

On another subject, a few weeks ago, I was thrilled to learn that ‘Last Hot Chocolate in Mostar’ has been accepted by ‘Youth Imagination’, one of the magazines published by the American Silver Pen writing forum. I was starting to believe that ‘Last Hot Chocolate’ was untouchable, too dangerous for all those ezines on Duotrope, who reckon themselves so ‘eclectic’, ‘cutting edge’ and ‘shocking’.  They wouldn’t go near at story which featured a paedo as a major character.  Here it is on the home page of Youth Imagination’, a YA ezine dedicated to ‘remarkable stories that explore the issues, the grit, and the character of teens and young adults‘.  I read around their mag before subbing (obviously) and their stuff is impressive.  As someone who doesn’t get much time to write these days, or to sub much, I am well chuffed to be there.   And I earned $10, increasing my earnings from writing during this financial year (which is about to close, btw) by… er… 100%.  Weeell, Dear Reader, I’m not in it for the money.

I have been trying to sub my story to the Mslexia Women’s Short Story Comp this afternoon but I can’t get on to the link.  The deadline is tomorrow (extended from last week).  As we all know, Mslexia comps always attract a lot of entries – a few too many for their poor old server this time, methinks.  I may try again tomorrow.  Or I may not.  It’s £10 and… get real, Charlie… probably out of my league.

What do we want when we go sightseeing?

When I returned from a holiday in Poland in 2008 and excitedly told friends back home that we had stood in

Solidarnosc Square, Gdansk

Solidarnosc Square, Gdansk

Shipyard Square (now Soldiarnosc Square) in Gdansk, younger people asked ‘”What?” and others “Why?”  Only one person, a soprano in our church choir, a few years older than me, allowed her jaw to drop and gasped  “Wow.”   To me, ‘Wow’ was the only appropriate response.   Even though it had been spitting with rain at the time and all there had been to look at was a huge, ugly and rusty monument and a red and white banner and a couple of photographs of Pope John Paul II, festooned with ribbons and tied to railings.  (Tied to railings?  Everything had been tied to railings in 1980.)

Cut to a few years later, to us standing on a Berlin pavement listening to our tour guide talking about the Topography of Terror (Nazi) museum in front of us, when we realised we were standing right next to a half-ruined brick wall, with jagged gaps in it, as if people had tried to climbed through it.   Actually, a couple of decades ago, people had battered their way through it.  “Don’t look at the Wall!” cried our guide, who had once been a teacher.  “You are not allowed to look at the Wall yet.”

This coming summer we’re going to Cavendish in Prince Edward Island, Eastern Canada,  myself in search of a lump-in-the-throat moment, although probably not heart-stopping.  PEI is, of course, the setting for L M Montgomery’s ‘Anne of Green Gables’ and Cavendish the village on which Anne’s village of Avonlea was based.  My husband asks me what I expect to see.  A red-haired girl with plaits, of course, wearing a hat decorated with wild flowers.


Plaque to Elinor Brent-Dyer in Pachenau, Austria.

Yes, I know what you’re going to say, Dear Reader, that at least the Shipyard and the Berlin Wall are real, but that ‘Anne of Green Gables’ is just a book.   (What, really?)  Now you’re reminding me of how, last summer,  I charged around Pachenau (in the Austrial Tyrol) where the first Chalet School stories were based, seeking out a plaque to Elinor Brent-Dyer (author of the Chalet School series).  Please don’t tell my one and only husband that I want to visit the Bronte’s place in Haworth.

Often, we don’t know what we’re supposed to be seeing until we arrive.  There’s nothing wrong with this as hearing/reading/seeing things on the spot is a good way to learn, but this doesn’t provide the wow hit, which will have been warmed up by months of anticipating and imagining.  Let’s be honest, when we’re visiting a new place, we frequently miss the best bit through not knowing about it or where to find it, and sometimes we’re too hot/cold, tired or in need of the loo, and waste our time in the loos, gifte shoppes or cafes.  Other times it’s the people who are the most interesting, like the time I queued for the toilet with a wedding party, including bridesmaids and bride, at a park cafe in Potsdam.

There are also the things we take for granted.  When our son was a choirboy,  we drove every week (sometimes twice a week) along the Embankment, glimpsing the Houses of Parliament as we turned into Whitehall and then into Westminster Abbey.  Just the cradle of our democracy, Dear Reader.  Oh, and sometimes we like to walk around Flatford Mill and look at Lott’s Cottage; there was a bloke from around there called John Constable who painted, quite good really.  I also recall, many eons ago, rushing through St Peter’s Square in Manchester thinking only of getting a seat in the Central Reference Library, and not at all of the Peterloo Massacre that took place there in 1819.  (What was I studying in Manchester?  History!)

We’ve visited Auschwitz, Red Square, the Empire State Building, lots of castles, monuments, cathedrals and museums – some more interesting than others.  In 1994 we wandered around the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre in New York; having no inkling of what would happen seven years later, they didn’t seem particularly interesting.  Two years ago, we walked around sites in Hue, Vietnam, where significant events had taken place during the Tet Offensive, but, at that time, I knew nothing about the Tet Offensive, even though I had been alive (a child) when it all happened.

I’m trying to answer for myself a question I’ve been asking for a long time, which is, why do we travel and what do we hope to experience?  Although we want to be thrilled by seeing something exotic and different, the heart-stopping moments come about when we are joined with something with which we have a personal connection.   I remember the Berlin Wall and growing up with a sense of outrage that East Germans were imprisoned against it.  I recall remember following Solidarnosc’s short but cheeky rebellion against Communism in the newspaper as I travelled on unreliable suburban London trains, to and from a job which was boring me rigid. I read ‘Anne of Green Gables’, and the Chalet School series – on the recommendation of my beloved mother – when I was a naive and awkward twelve year old, struggling to cope with a new secondary school.

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