Charlie Britten's writing blog

When Katie Devine meets her doctor for sex in his consulting room, they are interuppted by three prurient schoolboys who have climbed a tree to watch, but manage to fall through the skylight.  This is not comedy, however.  Katie’s abusive husband, Hank, murders the doctor in his own home.  Losing her job as school administrator and therefore unable to afford to continue living in her trailer, Katie returns home to Cedar Branch, where she grew up, to live with her brother, Sam.  Hank’s truly evil brother, Ray, pursues her, alleging that Katie harmed her own teenage children and nobbling witnesses who might give evidence against Hank.  The storyline builds to stupendous climax, which lurches from crisis to resolution back to crisis, taking some astounding turns and twists, underpinned by Brenda’s thorough understanding of Quakers and their theology… but I’m not providing a spoiler.

This is Brenda’s second novel, following The Quaker Cafe.  ‘Home to Cedar Branch’ is more ambitious than ‘The Quaker Cafe’, which had overtones of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’.   It’s a story about the white underclass, what Eminem called ‘trailer trash’, a sector of society that hasn’t featured in many novels I’ve read.  (I’m being careful here because I’m no expert on American literature.)  The moral compass is very broad, condoning Katie’s affair with her doctor, because she’s in an abusive relationship, and applauding her for suing his estate for professional misconduct.   On the other hand, we have the Quakers’ robust moral tone, especially regarding violence, and their stoic bravery during the crisis at the end.  I don’t think we can really call this Christian fiction.  quaker

‘Home to Cedar Branch’ involves a huge number of characters, some of whom only feature for a few pages, or even a few lines.   It’s the American custom in literature suddenly to plonk a police officer, or a bystander, into the middle of the action, with lots of details about who he is and his everyday life, then abandon them.   Some characters, like the elderly Quaker farmer, Leland Slade, are always there but only take the stage much later.   Others deserved more wordage, like Katie’s daughter, Savannah, a devout Christian who allowed her uncle to insinuate himself into her good graces by implying that her father had turned to Jesus and was innocent anyway.  Her sense of betrayal later on is under-played.  Similarly, Katie’s son, Dusty, who won’t speak to her, indeed won’t come out of his room, is too easily sorted out by good wholesome Sam and Quaker friend Ben.   The Quakers don’t appear until late in the story and this works.  I was disappointed that, out of the major characters in ‘The Quaker Cafe’, Billie had a minor role only, and Liz Hoole, the main character, was omitted altogether, even though her husband and son featured.

Another feature I enjoyed, in both ‘Home to Cedar Branch’ and ‘The Quaker Cafe’, was the way in which the American love of sport, particularly basketball, is incorporated into the lives of the characters.  Very authentic.

Although this is not a literary work, we writers have much to learn from Brenda’s writing technique, particularly her splendid descriptions of characters and their actions, like when Anna, the elderly Quaker, a ‘barrel of a woman… balanced herself by putting a hand on the end of each pew’.  This is where characters come alive.

Great stuff.  Thoroughly recommended.

I cannot find a direct, non-Amazon link to this book, but do take a look at the reviews on Brenda’s website.

By the way,  I’m on the ACW (Association of Christian Writers) More Than Writers blog tomorrow (13 September 2016).  Do drop in.  You don’t have to be an ACW member to comment.

I retired on Friday, 11 September 2015, that is, almost a year ago.  I’d been with the same further education college, part-time but mostly full-time, for twenty years, teaching IT to 16-19 year olds who thought they knew everything about computers.  And most of their parents believed they did too.  This time last year, I was looking forward to a short holiday in Bruges… and then nothingness.  My beloved aunt in Canada asked me what I was retiring to and I sort of busked it, saying I’d be all right.   It’s been a funny old year, and now is time to take stock.

This is what I’ve done over the year, roughly in date order:

Green TickLooked after beloved grandson for just three weeks, plus a few odd days.  ‘Being there’ for him, as I anticipated, was just not very practical, seeing as he and my daughter live in Sussex.   Also, I’m not very good at playing with toddlers.  I run out of ideas very quickly.

Green TickI’ve become more active in the ACW (Association of Christian Writers).  Tick.   I’m competitions manager.

Green TickI’ve cleared out just one room in our house.  I seriously believed we were going to sort out the whole house, and the attic and the garage…  Well, my husband could do the garage… and the attic.  Reader, he didn’t.  And I didn’t, except that one room, although it included the filing cabinet containing all our papers.

Green TickI did Nano.  I wrote my 50,000 words in November, but, of course, that’s not long enough for a proper novel.  You’ve finished but not finished.  I eventually finished the first draft at the end of February, but editing still needs doing.

Green TickI visited India.

Green TickI found some part-time work.  Tick.  An enormous tick.  And what am I doing?  Teaching IT, but to adults, not to youngsters, which is different, and still time-consuming.

Green TickI’ve done more at church.  I’m secretary of the PCC and have, so far, led two services.  I’m also studying the Course in Christian Studies (which is an Essex thing, a basic course in Christianity and the church).

Green TickI’ve joined a real face-to-face writing group.

Green TickI’ve learned to live on a lower income.  When I retired, my head knew that I would have less money, but my heart didn’t.   If you’re earning a reasonable salary (I never earned mega bucks) and extremely time poor, you spend, just to survive.  In the first six months after retiring, I had to buy two computers (one for my son, who has much less than I  – in fact, I don’t know he survives) and one for myself.  These purchases almost broke me.   This has been the biggest thing for me.  Now I budget like Silas Marner, to the penny.  If, over the last twelve months, I haven’t bought your book, I’m sorry, but that’s the reason.

Green TickI’ve started to learn programming.  They laughed at me at my old college when I said I wanted to do this.  It’s been an ambition since about 2000.  My dear friend, Felicity, will tell you how I attempted Visual Basic in her classes in 2003, but, although I passed City and Guilds Level 2 under her guidance, she found me ‘not a natural’.  Now I’m making slow progress through Python.

Green TickI’ve been on lots of walks.  This is husband-driven and ongoing.

 

Things I haven’t done:

XI haven’t submitted lots of short stories and have them published, only a few.

XI’ve haven’t sorted out the garden.  Reader, there is some good stuff in there at the moment, like my dahlias, my roses and my tomatoes, but a lot of weeds and nettles too.

XI’ve never had a story accepted by a woman’s magazine.  Although I’ve written several and I’ve, just this last week, finished a nostalgia piece, I’ve not tackled this properly.

XI haven’t redone the church website.   It’s still on the list of things to do.

XI haven’t cleared out the kitchen cupboards.  (They really need it.)

XI’m not doing any regular exercise, eg swimming or keep-fit.  (Ooh, I should’ve added  put on weight in the things I’ve done.)

 

So, do I recommend retirement?  Yes, on balance, even though I’m still working part-time.  I do believe that part-time is what people in their sixties need.  They’ve still got a lot to give, but they’re not so career-driven and want to do other things than work.

The Secret of Lakeham Abbey (cover)You may recall, Dear Reader, that some time ago, author Sally Quilford made a guest appearance on this blog.  At that time, I hadn’t read ‘The Secret of Lakeham Abbey’ (the book she was promoting) or its prequel ‘The Dark Marshes’, so, now I have read them, I’m reviewing both, in this post.  I always prefer to read books in order, so I tackled ‘The Dark Marshes’ first.

These two novels are the start of a mini-series, concerning the Marsh families and Lakeham families, although the action in ‘The Secret’ occurred approximately a hundred years after ‘The Dark Marshes’, so no characters appeared in both.  I would’ve been quite OK reading them in the wrong order, as there was very little reference to ‘The Dark Marshes’ in ‘The Secret’, except a garbled, rumour-based version, which readers of the previous book would know to be incorrect.  I think the point that Sally was trying to make was that ‘mud sticks’ and nobody’s interested in the truth, especially if it’s less sensational.  If I have to choose a genre for these two books, I would go for historical crime, because the action in both takes place over fifty years ago and both have a crime theme, particularly ‘The Secret’, which is Agatha Christie-like, in that everybody gathers together at the end while the detective evaluates who did what.  However, only a few references are made to historical events.  Both novels are written as a series of testimonies, written by characters stating their different points of view, resembling letter or diary format, but not quite.

‘The Dark Marshes’ concerns Henrietta (Hetty) Marsh who is much sinned against, by almost everyone else, yet remains sweet and gentle in an authentic Victorian way, inviting to tea her two aunts, who have plotted against her for years, because they might be lonely.   Some of the most intriguing passages are from the testimonies of the aunts, who use Capital Letters quite Randomly and display every Small-minded Prejudice of their own time, and those before and after.  The plot is complex and involves many different characters, but Sally holds it all together in her usual adroit fashion.

‘The Secret of Lakeham Abbey’ has a tighter plot and shorter timeframe.  The protagonist – the detective – is fourteen year old, wheelchair bound, Percy, who seems to have swallowed a thesaurus (lexicon, onomasticon).  Generous, vulnerable and tenacious, he is determined to clear the name of housekeeper, Anne Pargeter, who has been convicted on two counts of murder and, moreover, is pleading guilty.  He is a delight to read about.  Some of the most emotive passages come from letters from Anne herself, however, resigned, composed but fearful.  Both Percy and Anne belong to their own era, immediately post WW2, in that they are stoical and plucky, not sorry for themselves or introspective.

Here are the links to ‘The Dark Marshes‘ and ‘The Secret of Lakeham Abbey‘.  Both are Amazon links, which goes against the grain with me, but, I understand that ‘The Dark Marshes’ was self-published through one of the Amazon self-publishing arms, and the website of Crooked Cat (who published ‘The Secret of Lakeham Abbey’) is being refurbished at present.  (Sally must be furious!)

You can find these two books here: ‘The Woolworths Girls’ by Elaine Everest and ‘Atonement’ by Ian McEwan.

I can’t tell you how long it’s taken me to get those two links up and running, using the iPad and Premier Inn wifi on one bar!  I’m disappointed only to be able to give you the Amazon link for ‘Atonement’ but I’m sure that the Booker short-listed author will survive.

A strange coupling, you might think, and an accident of circumstance that I happened to be reading these two books at the same time – together with Sally Quilford’s ‘Dark Marshes’ which I will continue next.  I don’t often read more than one book at a time, but I found that each provided relief and contrast to the other, particularly making me think about  what is Lit-era-ture and gets one on the Booker shortlist.  It also led me to ponder a Facebook post by Sally Quilford of a few days ago, which I hope she doesn’t mind me sharing.  Sally writes genre fiction, and does it very well, with numerous books to her name.  (This pathetic wifi won’t allow me to look it up and find out exactly how many.)  But Sally, who has taught me in the past, is now embarking on a creative writing degree at OU, amongst other things, to confront the dreaded literary genre.  (Whoops.  Literary is the opposite of genre fiction, isn’t it?  Wash your mouth out, Charlie!)

‘The Woolworths Girls’ is about girls working at Woolworths, as you would expect.  It’s a great concept for a novel, which, together with the girls in purple uniform on the cover, was what attracted me to it.  It seems to attract a lot of other readers too because I was sixth in the queue for this title when I reserved it on Overdrive.  Set in the Kentish Town of Earith and at the outbreak of World War 2, it chronicled the fortunes of Sarah, Freda and Maisie, in love and war, literally… but not literaturely.  This was genre fiction.  It had a distinct womag feel, actually.  Like all successful, traditional stories for women, it had a warm family feel at its centre. Ruby Caselton, Sarah’s grandmother, was the rock to which all the girls resorted in times of trouble, although I did wonder exactly how many rooms she had in her semi in Earith.  The storyline rattled along, admittedly with huge gaps between plot happenings, improbabilities and some things which didn’t ring true.  For instance, why weren’t the girls called up for war service, as my mother was, and made to join the women’s forces, the Land Army or work in a munition factory?  But the characters were well-defined, distinct and belonged to their era.  In fact, they displayed a valiant wartime spirit.  The only character who didn’t work was Sarah’s snobby mother.

‘Atonement’ is set roughly in the same period, but in a Woodhouse-lookalike country house,  with less self-belief than Woodhouse and less likeable characters, even though  each character was described in tedious detail.  I understand, from a novel-writing site I’ve been visiting recently, that authors should write down answers to a hundred questions for each character; McEwan did his hundred – and more – for all characters, I’m sure.  He also described every setting minutely, taking, in one instance, three pages to tell us about the scenery as two charters walked from the country house to a lake, then related the incident, which was the reason for the scene, in about one page.   I must admit, Dear Reader, that I skipped a lot, and I don’t think I missed much.  This lack of balance bothered me.  There was another section, one meandering event after another, describing the retreat to Dunkirk of the British Expeditionary Force, which went on for chapters, without saying very much, or rather making pints that could be made in one chapter – I skipped the latter part of that too.

In our family, ‘Atonement’ is one of those stories that everybody loves to hate.  I found it better than I expected.  After the boring soldiery bit, the story moved on to nursing in London during the war, which I found much more interesting, but that may just be my personal taste.  At this point we also got to the actual ‘atonement’ itself, which promised to be exciting, but failed, in my opinion, because it wasn’t properly justified.  I have to say I found the plot unbalanced because it took us about 200 pages to get to the inciting incident, there was no proper crisis and the resolution took place too quickly.  So that’s Literarure.  That said, for a writer, there is much to learn from McEwan’s descriptions, even if there were too many of them.

So we have to go and start off our day now.  We’re going to Hardwick House in Mansfield.  I’ll finish with a photo of the inside of the Richard III Centre in Leicester, which is housed in the building of the school where my dad used to teach.

RIchard III Centre, Leicester, relict of  Alderman Newton Boys School.

More Cliches

WordPress stats tells me that it’s eleven days since my last confession… er… my last post.  Oh dear, oh dear.  Bad Blogger, me.  Two nights ago, I started writing a follow up to my post of 2 May, about cliches, but, being very tired, I rambled.

First, the additional character cliche:

Down to Earth Yorkshiremen yorkshire-rose-cropped

He calls a spade a spade, speaks as he finds and treats you as fam’le’.  He says things like happen and by gum and regards all bloody southerners as unfriendly.   The Brontes, living in Haworth most of their lives, never felt the need to mention this stereotype – funny, that.  Interestingly, WordPress’s spellcheck recognises Yorkshireman but not Yorkshirewoman.

Me, I was born level with the Wash, in Leicester, where we address each other as me duck and have our own special word – mardy – for sulky and uncooperative.  Children in my primary school were forever going mardy.  The people of the East Midlands, who have no delusions of grandeur yet still a strong sense of identity, tend to be devastatingly and unsentimentally realistic, imo.  Btw, the former Roman city of Ratae (how’s that for awarding reps?) has produced just a few writers:  C P Snow, Su Townsend, Joe Orton (playwrite, one of the ‘Angry Movement’) and – a treasure I have just come across in the last few days – Susannah Watts, an Anti-Slavery Poet of the early nineteenth century, who wrote The Slaves’ Address to British Ladies

Think, how naught but death can sever
Your lov’d children from your hold;
Still alive- but lost forever
Ours are parted, bought and sold!

(You see how I rambled?)

The other cliches (below) are standard word/phrase cliches:

Aircraft DoorsDoors to Manual

This is supposed to be a snobbish reference to Carole Middleton, mother of the Duchess of Cambridge (Kate), having once been an air stewardess.   Whoopety-doo-dah!  Is there anything wrong with being an air stewardess?  My sister-in-law has worked for Virgin Atlantic for twenty years and – do you know? – we still speak.

Flavoursome

Whenever I hear this, I think of added salt and sugar.  It has a good flavour does very well.  Better still, try and describe the taste.  If you’re trying to include all senses in a piece of writing, flavoursome does not cut it.

Health Issues

If someone has health issues, he/she is not feeling very well.  Say so.   Essex students sum this up very well.  Tutor: “Where’s Dylan today?  He’s not in class.”  Other student’s answer:  “Nah.  He’s well ill.”

The Latest Thinking

Usually used at work.   It means This is what the bosses want us to think.  I’m going along with it, because I want to stay in this job/I really don’t care.   I haven’t thought it through, though.  A few months down the line, the organisation will be in chaos because whatever it is doesn’t work – but, never fear, the next latest thinking will come along soon.

Finally, a word about the word for…

Toilet

Apparently, we mustn’t say toilet because upper class people say lavatory, as in a Conservative sitting on top of a volcano.   It’s a very long time since we bothered about what posh people said and did.   Don’t the lavatory-sayers sneer at ‘the toffs’?  Such people must be so insecure that they don’t like to admit that they urinate and defecate.  Real old money has no such problems.   Should they need to avail themselves of the conveniences, they will normally say so at several decibels.  “Frightfully sorry.  One just simply must have a crap.”

Reading this through, I wonder if I’m just being old fashioned.  I hope not.  Anyone else have any cliches they would like to share with us?

The week after next, we’re off to Yorkshire (if they’ll still let me in after this post) where we hope to visit the Bronte Museum at Haworth, via Leicester, where I hope to visit Abbey Park, setting for my short story Burnt Down, which appeared on Sudbury Newstalk.  I’m on the ACW More thanWriters blog on Saturday 13 August, btw, writing about modern slavery.

Shocked to see that it’s ten days since I last posted.  When I look at my stats I see my viewings are a round 0.  Hardly surprising, really.   I’ve been busy – when have I ever written that before?  During last week, we have visited our daughter, son-in-law and grandson, come back and taught a class, then prepared the house and garden for a thirtieth birthday barbecue party for my son.  Dear Reader, I weeded the patio and three flower beds – the ones that could be seen from the barbecue – LOL.  On Saturday, I was doing (some of) the cooking for my expected visitors when I checked my phone, only to find that my Google calendar had me down to lead Intercessions at church, at a service I’d intended to skip the following day.  A different sort of writing, that; seriously, though, as I’ve found out recently, there are many opportunities for writing devotional material.

I’m still promoting the current Association of Christian Writers (ACW)/ Street Pastors comp, Today’s Good Samaritans.   Although the deadline’s fast approaching (this Sunday, 31 July), there’s still time for you to write one thousand words, fiction or non-fiction, on someone putting the Christian ethos into action.  Very cheap to enter – £3 for first submission – and, if you have time, £2 for a subsequent entry.  First prize £20.  You don’t have to be a Christian to enter.  After all, who’s checking?  For more information, visit http://www.christianwriters.org.uk/competitions

In my last post, I was all upbeat, with my ‘Five Outstanding’ subs, but pride comes before a fall.  Two of those subs have fallen on stony ground already, one outright rejected and the other getting nowhere in a comp.  The comp in question was Helen Yendall’s Blog About Writing  Random Word Writing Competition.  I wasn’t disappointed, because my story, which I wrote very quickly wasn’t the best, but what Helen wrote in her feedback stopped me in my tracks… because it was so obvious, I should’ve thought of it myself and I’d heard something along the same lines before, many times, at school.

Half the 32 entries used a skyscraper for their setting. After a while, all those skyscraper stories (and one poem) started to blend into one another. If you can be original and different, your story will make more of an impression on a judge. And 5 of the skyscraper stories were set in – or made reference to – New York.

Now what do you suppose I’d written about?  Not the building of the Empire State Building, surely?  How could I be such a prat?

The rejection of the other piece, about a middle-aged Christian woman who wins ‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire’ and is challenged by having so much Tomatoes in my greenhousewealth, was more disappointing, because Christian short story markets are very limited… unless you know differently, Dear Reader.

However, I’ve managed today to edit another story and knocked it into some sort of shape in readiness for another comp.  Also on the agenda is compiling a video all my iPad clips of my husband playing in an organ recital, my last class (tomorrow) and writing another story for my real, face-to-face writing group.  The topic is indecision.  I have a few ideas, although none of them are consolidating.  However, I don’t think me not being able to decide what to write about would be good material.  I’ll leave you with a photo of my tomato plants in my greenhouse; they’re bigger now, with little green tomatoes on the stems.

I’ve just read an amazing post from one of the blogs I follow, Campari and Sofa, in which one of the writers explains that nothing much has happened in her week, but then goes on to highlight some interesting things which had caught her attention.  Well, Dear Reader, nothing much has happened in my week either, although I have subbed four pieces of work over the last week, and, together with a competition entry sent on 29 June, I have Five Outstanding, as we used to say on Chapter Seventy Nine writing site, for the first time for a couple of years.  I seem to be writing all the time, or looking at markets, but don’t have much to show for it.  As well as preparing worksheets for my lessons (which does take time), I’ve written a post for the ACW (Association of Christian Writers) More Than Writers blog, the ACW members E-news (not yet available), and an article for my church magazine.  When Mslexia came out, I entered all calls for submissions and comps they published in their magazine on to my subbing database. Waste of time, you might think, and so did I at the time, but I’ve looked at the information over and over again, picking out markets and working out when and where I need to sub.  I’m now looking at other similar lists and incorporating them.

I’m also Facebooking and Tweeting furiously about the ACW/ Street Pastors Today’s Good Samaritans competition – see cat-as-good-samaritan https://uk.pinterest.com/pin/322288917065113618/picture right.  (You know I can never resist a pic of a cute cat!) With the deadline 31 July, there’s still time to enter.  One thousand words, please, fiction or non-fiction, on someone putting the Christian ethos into action.  Entry fees:  £3 for first entry, £2 for subsequent entries.  First prize:  £40.  Not to be sniffed at!  You don’t have to be a Christian to enter.  In fact, we in ACW would be delighted to hear from non-Christians – give us some feedback on how we’re getting on.  Also you don’t have to be a Brit;  believe it or not, God does work operate outside UK.  For more information, visit http://www.christianwriters.org.uk/competitions

Over the previous three weeks, we in the UK have been unable to take our eyes and ears away by the political blockbuster being enacted in front of us.  Even Euro 2016 and Wimbledon have been knocked thoroughly into touch and into the tramlines (respectively – thought you might enjoy the puns!).  Of course, we did rejoice at Andy Murray winning Wimbledon – briefly – and, before that, roll our eyes at England losing to Iceland at football (which should’ve really drawn the tabloid column inches) but there was always Something More Exciting going on in Westminster.  I must admit I’ve enjoyed it all; I’ve got as big a buzz from the BBC News app notifications on my phone as from emails and Facebook.  When the news broke about the terrorist incident in Nice and  the attempted coup in Turkey, I realised why.   All that stuff about Brexit and government reshuffles was democracy in action, people talking to each other, even if they were occasionally being insulting.   Now we’re back to ISIS, terrorism and totalitarism… and I’m even hesitating about putting that last bit in, for fear of reprisals (not sure what sort of reprisals).

Another non-event in my week is that, with all the computer work I’ve done recently, I’ve given myself RSI again.  Hey-ho.  I’ve been very lucky to avoid it for a long time, over a year, in fact.  This afternoon, I’m going to do the garden, which is in a Terrible State.  In The Dark Marshes by Sally Quilford, which

weed_under_net

tomatoes_greenI’m reading at the moment, the two maiden aunts use Capitals randomly, usually to emphasise a Point, so I shall do the Same.   I think I’m cultivating Weeds under Nets, but my tomatoes are doing OK – see Pictures Either Side.

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