Charlie Britten's writing blog

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.

elinor300

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.

Old style Kindle, with keyboard

Old style Kindle, with keyboard

Available from macmillan publishers.  In passing, Dear Reader, please note that I always try to give a non-Amazon link wherever I can for each book I review.  I’m trying to do my bit for traditional publishers, even ones as well established as macmillan.   I do this because Amazon mostly (although not always) scoop up and repackage books which other editors and publishers have done the work on, even though, I have to confess, DR, that I myself always buy from Amazon.  How else would I get books on to my old Kindle?  (Yes, it is an old Kindle now, with a keyboard and no touch screen, but I don’t intend to replace it until it conks out.)

Published early this year, ‘The Life I Left Behind’ is  crime fiction.  Following a long prologue, the book opens with the murder of Eve which appears similar to the brutal attack carried out on Melody Pieterson some years previously.  Both women –  and the dead woman in the prologue – were found wearing a gold chain with a little bird in a cage.  The story moves from Eve to Melody to Eve, back and forth repeatedly, with the result that, for some time, the storyline takes some time to get going.  Eve is bitter to the point of petulance and Melody messed up, unable to move on from her attack, and under the spell of a wealthy but controlling fiance.  At first they are difficult to love but, as the story develops, so do they, with the result that these characters grow upon the reader.  However, DI Victoria Rutter remains a shadowy figure; the only things we really know about her is she agonises about neglecting her children and she likes drinking bad coffee.  In my opinion, for a detective, she doesn’t occupy enough space in the book.

Someone has already been convicted of the attack on Melody and at first the reader is led to believe that he has struck again, but, as the story moves on, doubt creeps in.  Later on we are led towards an obvious murder suspect but there is another twist yet.  The well-structured plot and Colette’s great skill in conjuring up detail, of working through every little part of every action and of every scene, and of portraying emotion in seering intensity, lifts ‘The Life I Left Behind’ out of genre crime fiction into something more literary.

Do I recommend ‘The Life I Left Behind’, Dear Reader?  Yes, definitely.  Colette’s blog is here.  A former journalist and broadcaster, this is Colette’s second novel.

New Bridge at Mostar, Bosnia

The new bridge at Mostar, Bosnia.

Me myself, I spent a focused and enjoyable last Sunday afternoon and evening editing old stories and subbing.  (I usually find subbing a tense business.)  It was good to have the run of the house to check printed pages of snail mail subs in peace and quiet and a log fire on which to burn mistakes.   And, I’ve just learned that ‘Youth Imagination’ has accepted ‘Last Hot Chocolate in Mostar’, although it won’t appear until the March or April edition.  Hurray!

 

 

 

 

 

We all know about it being ‘a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife’  (‘Pride and Prejudice’, Jane Austen), but there are many many others equally stunning, from proper literature, non-fiction and all the other sorts of writing.  The Pride and Prejudice example is so popular – and  the most quoted – because it accurately presages the novel to come, not just that it’s about middle class characters seeking husbands, but that the writer is funny.  The famous Jane Austen wit.   When you read articles/attend courses on writing, you are always told how important it is to get the first line right – attracting the reader’s attention, drawing the reader in.  Miss Austen, however, hit the mark straight off – amazingly – without MA in Creative Writing, scribbling by herself, long-hand, in rural Hampshire.

Jane Eyre (Charlotte Bronte)

‘There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.’  On the face of it, this is the blandest of bland openings.  Is it such a big deal that they couldn’t go out on one particular day?  Initially, it was the ordinariness of this opening that I liked.  I myself have a predilection for novels with very plain titles.  (I wanted to call one of my own stories ‘A Family Day Out’, until wiser counsels (who didn’t share my unusual preference) got me to rename it ‘Cut to the End’.)  For me, a boring title or first line flags up a story about people and character, rather than a piece seeking to wow me with fights and car chases, exotic locations and fanciful creatures, and other themes which would bore me rigid.

‘There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.’  There’s more to it than its ordinariness.  Feel the constraint, the claustrophobia, the closing off of one small respite.

Mrs Dalloway (Virginia Woolf)

‘Mrs Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.’ Once again, we are reading about escape, a century later, this time from the chores associated with staging a formal dinner party, to lose herself in the flower markets of London. ‘What a lark! What a plunge!’ the text goes on.

Rebecca (Daphne Du Maurier)

‘Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.’ This one hits the gut straight away. What is Manderley? What’s special about it? Why is mc not there now? Why can she only dream about it? Again, this first line sets the tone. Straight away, I get it that we’re in romance territory, a man and love, drama and tragedy.

Fever Pitch (Nick Hornby)

‘It’s in there all the time, looking for a way out.’ Immediately, I ask myself what is in there. I guess that ‘it’ is an emotion, and already I’m connecting because emotions always seek ‘a way out’, in order to express themselves, and already I’m guessing that this emotion is more like obsession. People and character again. I’m aware (because I’ve read the blurb on the cover) that ‘Fever Pitch’ is about football and, from my personal experience, I know following a football team is all about emotion, leading very quickly to obsession, also that football supporters bring football into every conversation.  But ‘…looking for a way out’ also suggests conflict, trying to find an escape, and hints at the writer’s complex relationship with the beautiful game.  Interesting, I’m thinking, and different.  Later on in the book, Hornby will tell us that watching Arsenal is a chore that he can’t avoid.

Five Months with Solidarity (John Taylor) (non-fiction)

Solidarnosc logo

(CC) Brian Solis. http://www.briansolis.com

‘For some reason a man was taking a photograph of a small red sign, in a sort of side alley, over the entrance to a

cream-coloured five-storey building on the main thoroughfare.  Then I realised I had found the place.’ This first-hand account of an English traveller’s short involvement with the Solidarity trade union in Poland in 1980, published while it was all fresh in his mind, in 1981, is a gem, a true primary source, and – astonishingly – still in print. Like Rebecca, that first line immediately begs questions. What place has he found? What is this red sign that someone feels compelled to take a photo of? We have to know. We have an idea because we’ve read the blurb, that it’s about Polish Solidarity trade union, whose logo was red on white. This time we’re drawn to something unfamiliar, the ‘cream-coloured five-storey building’ and – we hope – an insight to life behind what was then the ‘Iron Curtain’.

Goodbye to Berlin (Christopher Isherwood)

Christopher Isherwood himself

Christopher Isherwood himself

‘I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking…’ (Years ago, when I used to be an active member of Writer’s Dock, one of the members whose work I most admired was an Australian who used the avatar Iamacamera, although I’ve only just realised where the idea came from.) We get the idea at once of an invisible narrator, who doesn’t want to be noticed. Not only is taking in everything, without trying to impose his own slant on it, he is without conceit – unlike Leigh Fermor and Buchan below. He is the perfect journalist, who will never ‘become the news’ (as the saying goes). Then there’s the intriguing bit about ‘not thinking’. What does he not want to think about? We already know this book is about Berlin during the first years of Hitler. Is he an apologist? Is it all too much? Again, there are questions and the reader needs to know the answer.

‘My first impression was that the stranger’s eyes were of an unusually light blue. They met mine for several blank seconds, vacant, unmistakably scared.’ This is another Isherwood first line, from ‘Mr Norris Changes Trains’, the prequel to ‘Goodbye to Berlin’. If he’d put that up on a writing site, I think I would have advised him to cut the first and start with the second. I don’t care about the colour of the stranger’s eyes. He was scared and he wanted mc to do something about it. More questions which I need to know the answer.

What of Anna Karenina (Leo Tolstoy) and ‘All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way’? Well, that saying doesn’t resonate with me, nor does it introduce the novel. What of A Tale of Two Cities (Charles Dickens) and ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…’ Yep, I love it, especially when it moves on to seasons of Light and seasons of Darkness, echoing first chapter of the Gospel according to St John. But, Dear Reader, you know all of these. I wanted to make this a personal collection, even though two of my first lines are from mainstream classics.

How not to do it. ‘Dear Xan, As I have only just finished piecing these travels together, the times dealt with are very fresh in my mind and later events seem more recent still…’ (A Time of Gifts (Patrick Leigh Fermor)) The first sentence actually goes on for six lines, for heaven’s sake. What do I know about this book? I’ve no idea where he’s travelled, or what sort of travelling he’s talking about, only that he is self-regarding. The same pomposity is evident in ‘During the past year, in the intervals of an active life, I have amused myself with the construction of this tale.’ (Greenmantle (John Buchan)) Once again, we learn nothing about what might follow, only that the author regards it as beneath his dignity. (‘I have amused myself…’)

Dear Reader, I’d love to know about your favourite first lines. Do let me know.

Jam

(cc) moonsun

This afternoon, I was very chuffed to learn that my story, ‘My Friend Simon’, was a runner-up in the Short Story category of the Words With Jam Bigger Short Story Competition 2014. It didn’t win any of the prizes (£300 for first place) but I was thrilled that it nearly got there. A very good feeling. And, yes, I will sub it again, asap, together with my other entry to the comp, ‘Last Hot Chocolate in Mostar’, which no one will touch, probably because it’s about a schoolgirl running off with her teacher. All these editors who say their publications are ‘edgy’ and ‘pushing boundaries’ are too scared to touch it.

 

 

 

 

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