Sunday, 31 October 2010

Finish writing your book

This evening, I found myself looking over my blog and feeling depressed. One reason I keep a blog is so that I write regularly. It's good practice and sharing the things I have stumbled across and explored keeps me excited and motivated.

So what depressed me? In the course of writing this blog, I have started and semi-abandoned about five different stories. Semi-abandoned because I haven't given up on them, precisely. It's just that between about 20,000 and 30,000 words, I've sort of run out of steam and hit a temporary hiatus. Or I have got excited by something different.

First there's my spy romance - that was my first writing start, a Georgian spy romance. I researched it to death but I couldn't get the writing to come real. So then I moved onto a contemporary vampire spy romance, but I was struggling to make my hero well... vampy enough and to get into the head of my heroine. Then there's my selkie romance... that starts quite strongly, but then I get a bit stuck. What next? A failure of imagination.

I am DETERMINED not to abandon my current work: Perdita Moon, my heroine does seem real to me. I'm not getting too bogged down in research and I'm not trying to force myself into a formula. I'm just seeing where my fingers (as averse to pen) takes me and I am enjoying the process (though I do need to get the outline out of my head and onto paper).

I think I have learned something along my stop and start journey. I think my craftsmanship has improved and I think I understand myself better as a writer now. I'm not trying to be anyone else, precisely but allowing my own style to emerge which is hugely satisfying.

I remember going through this process with photography - struggling to emulate photographers I admire, who when it came down to it were not me. I have had to find my own mojo so to speak and I have. People come to me as a photographer because they like my style. I'm not even sure I can describe it, but they like it and I like it. I know emotionally when I am going off piste with photography - when I stop enjoying it and it feels like a chore. I'm going to remember that feeling and also remember the satisfaction of feeling good about a typically me image and try to apply that to writing.

I am getting there. I don't want to be hubristic or call a jinx down upon my head but I think my current story is me. The characters have sprung up from my own experiences and I'm not trying to force a style or formula that isn't me. I've found a voice that works for me - for now. One thing that has helped me do that, is writing in the First Person. Having that deep point of view is helping me to walk in the shoes of my character and because of that the right words come out of their mouths and I know how they would and wouldn't behave.

I am committed to completing this one. I REALLY want to do it. I don't want any more blog posts where I write "I'm working on a...." only to look back six weeks later and realise that it is another abandoned project. By this time next year, I want to have a finished piece of work in my hand.

If it's not great, it doesn't matter. Like with photography, I am learning. I am improving my writing style all the time and I'm reading books with a critical eye, noting elements I like and don't like, picking up tips on presentation and composition.

Poor or average work can be improved on. Nonexistent work cannot.

Here are a couple of articles I found when despairingly googling 'Not Finishing Writing Book.'

How to Finish Writing Your Book

20 Inspiring Quotes To Help You Finish Writing Your Book

Saturday, 30 October 2010

Farewell Eva Ibbotson

I was sad last week to read of the death of Eva Ibbotson who is one of the authors I fell in love with at an early age. The first Eva Ibbotson book to enter my greedy hands was A Company of Swans (1985), which combines the exotic lushness of the amazon, with whimsically drawn and utterly convincing characterisation. The next was A Countess Below Stairs , which made me entranced with Russia, showed me the power of beautiful hair and still has the ability to make me laugh and cry alternately.

Even in Eva Ibbotson's romantic novels magic shimmers below the surface. Her heroines are always offbeat, vibrant and full of belief in something - whether it be good food, joy of dancing or simply love. er heroes are thoughtful, intelligent and often wounded. Her incidental characters are humorous, lovingly drawn - aunts with bristling moustaches and big hearts, eccentric teachers and revolting cousins. There is often a theme of triumph over adversity: whether this be the horror of war (The Morning Gift), the loss of family and fortune (A Countess Below Stairs) or cruel guardians (A Company of Swans).

Much of this can be said to have stemmed from Eva Ibbotson's own life as a Jewish Refugee. The atmosphere and characters which bring her novels so richly to life spring from her own experiences, of cafes populated by refugees (Cosmo's in Finchley Road) desperately searching for wiener schnitzel. Eva also also had the experience of being a square peg in a round hole - she studied physiology at University but on her marriage left it behind her with relief and eventually turned her hand to fiction.

Eva didn't publish her first novel until the age of fifty, but as a writer she blossomed and continued writing until her death this October at the age of 85. Her last novel will be published posthumously this year. She is an inspiration.

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Grottos and Tea Houses: an 18th Century Wonderland

You would imagine, having a passionate interest in pre-20th century lifestyle and customs that I might have noticed a Palladian Mansion sitting on my doorstep. Unbelievably it has taken me three years to do so and even then, I stumbled across it by accident, much like Lucy stepping through the wardrobe into Narnia.

This happy accident occurred a couple of weeks ago, when we were on a family walk along Brunstane Burn and decided for a change to walk up into the fields beyond. It was then that the hidden treasures of my local neighbourhood started presenting themselves to me. The first thing we came across was the "Ladies Walk", which stretches across a field at the back. This promenade is apparently unique in Scotland. It's a raised, brick walkway which once stretched from the main house across pastureland to a viewpoint of the Firth of Forth. This image by Derek Harper shows the west side of the walkway.

Intrigued, we explored further, walking the holly-studded woodland which circled the field. The next thing we saw was the ruins of a shell grotto. This is the thing that really caught my imagination, providing a direct physical link back the 18th Century. Grottos are at the epicentre of the 18th Century Rococo movement - the very word Rococo was created from two French nouns related grottos: rocaille, the rockwork found in caves and grottoes, and coquillage, the shellwork which adorned them.

Jonathan Prown and Richard Miller write:

Naomi Miller describes the grotto as the realm of endless contradictions, a place that, like the rococo style itself, is defined by an inherent lack of definition. The grotto provides shelter and protection, yet evokes mystery and fear. It is a site of contemplation and poetic inspiration, but also the arena of intellectual chaos; a sacred underground temple, but also the location of Bacchic orgies. Miller [Naomi Miller, Heavenly Caves: Reflections on the Garden Grotto] suggests that ultimately the grotto is best understood as “a metaphor of the cosmos,” something that can be experienced but never fully understood. The grotto and, by extension, the rococo represent places where Apollonian ideas about morality confront primal Dionysian desires and where the rational, classical mind comes unraveled.

The timing of this particular discovery was about as perfect as it could be. The main character in my current story, Perdita Moon, is a very proper lady living in the London of 1825 and her secret love of the art and architecture which grew from the Rococo period is one of the things which hints at her wilder blood.

One peep around the next corner and we saw the facade of the house which is depicted at the top right of this post. I have since discovered that this house, Newhailes, is a National Trust for Scotland property and the former of home of the Dalrymple family. There is a good article about the house on the Undiscovered Scotland website. You can be sure that come April when the house reopens I will be having a good look around it.

Time pressing we walked back along the burn which ran through the Dalrymple's 18th Century Rococo water garden. The final site we came to was the remains of the Tea House - a neo-classical summer house overlooking the burn.

I am now looking forward to many enjoyable afternoons rambling through the estate dreaming up plot lines and characters to populate the ghostly buildings all around me. What a wonderful find!

Friday, 22 October 2010

19th Century Bonnets

I am really enjoying two fantastic books this week, Jane Shelford's The Art of Dress and Stella Blum's Ackermann's Costume Plates: Women's Fashions in England, 1818-1828. The latter depicts a particular period of Ackermann's Costume Plates in all their glory along with mouthwatering descriptions.

The full colour plates from this period of Ackermann's can be enjoyed online here, courtesy of the Romance Reader at Home.

The two books work brilliantly in tandem with each other. Ashelford goes way beyond the basic costumes by placing the fashions of the era in their social and historical context. Her book is peppered with stunning photographs from the National Trust's costume collections, bringing contemporary descriptions to life.

Some of the Ackermann's plates which are most enjoyable are those solely devoted to the etchings of flamboyant 19th century headdresses. The descriptions are as delicious as the menu at a Michelin starred restaurant:

Bonnet of royal purple terry velvet or velours epingle; the brim has a corded satin edge; the crown high and rounded at the top, and partially covered with a fichu of velvet, bound in satin and ornamented with a small twisted silk cord of the same colour. The trimmings in front are large; the centrer one is long and narrow, concealing the termination of those on each side. Bows of pearl-edge satin ribbon are disposed about the crown; long strings of the same inside the brim.

Cap of pink and white crepe lisse, with a double border and broad strings of same. The crown is high; the back part of white crepe lisse, full and arranged by five flat pink satin bands placed perpendicularly, and inserted in the pink satin band at the bottom of the coul. The front is formed by bouffants of alternate pink and white crepe lisse, interspersed with pink satin ornaments of a paplionaceous shape, with a profusion of winter cherries of alkakengi, and rosebuds above

The story I am currently working on is set in 1825 and hats are VERY important to my heroine, so having access to these details is invaluable.

There are a ton of fantastic resources on line for the exploration of Ackermann's and also to indulge in millinary delights.

Lynn McMasters' website has a wonderful article on the turban, the Costumer's Manifesto has a great selection of Ackermann's fashion plates and Katherine's dress site is a fantastic resource with some beautiful visuals.

Sunday, 17 October 2010

Myth recycled - Vampires, Selkies and Disney's Hercules

In keeping with my yoyo-ing between supernatural fiction and historical romance, this months I've been delving deep into the world of faerie and also finding out more about the fabled seal people known as selkies. I have, for some time, been working on a selkie-related story... only to find out halfway through that strictly speaking I can't use the word. At least not unless my story is set on Orkney, which it isn't. My selkie is more of an Irish type, which makes him a merrow (in the anglicised form) or something like moruadh or murĂșch if going for the more romantic gaelic version. The only problem is then I get into language difficulties - I'm not a gaelic speaker and it has also sorts of complexities relating to the gender of words etc which I could really quickly get bogged down in. Plus, merrow people bob about in little red hats and their menfolk are supposed to be astoundingly ugly... which doesn't fit with my hero at all. So what do I do? Give up on my seal man and start over?

Without wishing to stamp on anyone's cultural heritage, I find myself keen to define my own supernatural universe. Obviously it's more convenient to do so, but also I'm conscious that it almost goes against the nature of myth to attempt to fix them in an approved canon, like a literary fly in amber.

My academic background is in ancient greek drama and I remember my university tutor getting really excited about Disney's Hercules coming out at the cinema. Of course, I was all ready to turn my twenty year old nose up at such heresy but she had a completely different view on it. She was fascinated to see what Disney's interpretation of the myth would be, because myths are constantly evolving and the way they are represented tells us something important about the society doing the telling.

You can apply this to the huge craze for vampire fiction at the moment. It isn't the first time. Vampires were a big hit in the 19th century too - but then it was all about exploring the themes society repressed... sexual fantasies, exchange of fluids etc:

"The fair girl went on her knees and bent over me, fairly gloating. There was a deliberate voluptuousness which was both thrilling and repulsive, and as she arched her neck she actually licked her lips like an animal... I could feel the soft, shivering touch of the lips on the supersensitive skin of my throat, and the hard dents of two sharp teeth, just touching and pausing there."
- Chapter 3, Bram Stoker's Dracula

Compare and contrast with this century's most successful vampires, Stephanie Meyer's Cullen Family, who function as a repository for old fashioned family values, for restraint, self denial and responsibility:

"I’m sure all this sounds a little bizarre, coming from a vampire. But I’m hoping that there is still a point to this life, even for us. It’s a long shot, I’ll admit. By all accounts, we’re damned regardless. But I hope, maybe foolishly, that we’ll get some measure of credit for trying."
- Chapter 2, Stephanie Meyer's New Moon

It could be argued that the popularity of Meyer's vampires with certain sections of the population suggests a longing for a time when relationships seemed to have more permanence and the personal challenge of self restraint and discipline, was one which was highly valued.

Moving into worlds which sit upon or within our world, gives us the opportunity to examine marginal or sensitive aspects of our society in a safe setting. We can transpose our curiosity to supernatural beings and explore our fantasy lives by doing so.

Which leads me back to my selkies (or murĂșch as I am currently favouring, name-wise). They are who we want them to be.

Thursday, 7 October 2010

Good reasons to...

...prop your eyes open with match sticks.

I'm tired today. Sandpaper-skinned, hollowed-eyed, dry-mouthed tired. These horrifying symptoms and my yet more horrifying appearance are of course due to a binge. Not, as you might be forgiven for thinking, an alcoholic binge but a reading frenzy. The sort of reading frenzy prompted by raging premenstrual hormones combined with a stressful week at work. I'm sure I'm not alone in finding that my credit cards leaps more readily from my purse when I'm feeling particularly hormonal. My menstrual cycle is most definitely Amazon's friend (and best customer).

The binge started early this week, after a weekend shopping frenzy. Somewhere after tucking up my toddler, making the lunches, finishing off some work and er... morning, I devoted myself to feasting on one of the few Eloisa James' Your Wicked Ways I hadn't yet read (delicious). I fitted in a couple of hours sleep somewhere along the way. Wednesday should therefore have an early night, but after photographing an Spa event, I found myself longing for the succour of a comfort read. I duly plunged into Anya Seaton's Avalon .

The recollection of Avalon was prompted by a sisterly discussion the wake of India Knight's blog post about comfort reads. The parallel's between India's list and our formative reading matter were sufficiently close to make us wonder if she had in fact, secretly grown up in the same house as the six of us. It's a great list. But it overlooks Avalon, which we concluded was a terrible oversight. Having remembered it, it behoved me to re-read it, so here I am doing so.

My other indulgence of this week or - as I like to think of it - investment, was in a small library of 18th and 19th century fashion plates. The postman was good enough to bring me a lovely copy of Vyvyan Holland's Hand Coloured Fashion Plates 1770-1899 which has some wonderful primary source visuals. But just in case I ever needed a handbag sized alternatively (the Glamour Magazine, to Holland's Vogue), I also got a teeny tiny copy of Lesley Gordon's A Gallery of Fashion, which has the advantage of being printed in colour throughout. I am now waiting with baited breath for the arrival of Stella Blum's book about Ackermann's costume plates. It will be pelisses a go go in my household, though if I start sauntering forth with ostrich feathers in my hair I will know it has all gone Too Far.

The consumption of all this reading matter is rather challenging. Somehow it has to fit in between two jobs and a daily hour or so's writing. Something has to go.

And for now?

That would be sleep.

Sunday, 3 October 2010

Original source materials (Regency)

I have just been taking a wander through t'interweb to explore what original source materials from the regency (and Georgian) period are available online. There are quite a large number of well known sites devoted to historical costume which feature original fashion plates from Ackermann's etc. A few honourable mentions include:

* The Constumer's Manifesto
* Fashion Era
* Cathy Decker's Regency Fashion Page

But of most interest to me at the moment are the number of Regency and Georgian letters which have been published online:

* Eunice and Ron's Letter from the Past features a fascinating array of pre-victorian letters, plus information about postage and postal services.
* The Bevan Family letters are a project of the Regency Town House and are an archive of the Bevan and Dewar families between around 1820 and 1870s.

Lastly, it's worth pointing out a couple of sites which features a wide range of primary sources. Top of the list is A Web of English History by Dr Majorie Bloy, which is particularly good for primary source material on politics but coversa a wide range of other aspects too.

For more primary source images by Ackermann, please see the Dictionary of Arts and Artists.