Lincolnshire

The author’s reader

Annika, best test reader!

Readers are, of course, the most important component of an author’s life: without readers there would be no point in writing. There are, however, two kinds of reader. As well as the wonderful readers who pay authors the compliment of spending time on reading their books after publication, most authors also have personal – or test/beta – readers, who read the book on behalf of the author to make sure that it ‘works’.

I’m particularly fortunate in that Annika, my chief test reader, is German. Although she speaks English fluently, it is not her mother tongue. As she says, “I read every word because it’s a foreign language and otherwise I would not understand the full meaning of the sentence.” She proof-reads the books at the same time, and sometimes goes back and reads a passage twice because she has been struck by something odd about it. She checks for inconsistencies in the narrative, often double-checking with other passages in the book she’s reading and in the DI Yates novels that have preceded it. For example, in one of the early books she thought the timescale didn’t work, so she went back and took notes of all the events that were supposed to have taken place within a certain time period, to make sure they were feasible. “The characters did four or five things on a single day, before lunch! I remember thinking they had squeezed an awful lot in.” I altered the timescale of the events she mentions. She adds, however, that there have been occasions when the narrative didn’t seem quite right to her and then when she went back it was actually ok. She also checks practical details – travel arrangements, which flights go from which airports, whether the time it takes to get from A to B is doable.

Her favourite DI Yates novel is Fair of Face – “because it’s so unusual”, but she says she likes all of them, for different reasons. She reads more books in German than in English, because it’s more relaxing for her, but when she reads crime it’s mainly in English, because most crime fiction available in German is translated from English and she would rather read it in the language it’s written in. It takes Annika about two weeks to read one of my books, reading approximately two hours a day. She estimates that she spends about twice as long on them as an English reader would and probably a third more time than if she were just reading them for pleasure.

Annika usually reads the Yates novels in typescript and she checks details in previous novels from the typescripts she worked on originally, because it’s quicker for her. “I often think I should read them in print, to see what you made of my comments! They’re suggestions only, you’re bound not to agree with some.”

I asked her if she learns anything from them – do they, for example, give her a feel for what it’s like to live in Lincolnshire, a county that she doesn’t know well? She says the books do give her an idea of what the area I write about is like, but “I can’t tell if it’s realistic – in that if I went to live there, I don’t know if it would be like that”. (I don’t think it would – on the whole, I don’t write about people with a similar lifestyle to hers.)

She says that all authors should have a test reader to look out for inconsistencies. She adds that I’ve improved – she’s finding fewer mistakes in the more recent novels than in the early ones.

Annika’s own tastes in reading are eclectic. She likes Jan-Philip Sendker, a German author who has described evocatively what it’s like to be a westerner in Asia. “The quality of language when I’m reading in German plays a higher role for me than when I’m reading in English. But I don’t like high-flown or pretentious writing and, generally, not ‘classical’ authors – I don’t like Goethe or Schiller. For this reason, poetry often doesn’t ‘speak’ to me. I liked Der Schwarm, by Frank Schätzing, but I didn’t like his other books nearly as much when I tried them.”

There are exceptions to her preference not to read books in translation. “I really loved The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak, which I read in German.” That is a point on which Annika and I can agree wholeheartedly!

So, without Annika, I’d miss out on a very shrewd aspect of the editorial process; my editor similarly values the fact that Annika’s unique skills and linguistic viewpoint work in tandem with his scrutiny and together they are a formidable team in support of DI Yates!

Murders in the Fens

As I mentioned on Friday, the talk that I gave at Sleaford Library was the last in my series of six talks about Murder in the Fens, four of which were prepared to celebrate National Crime Reading Month (NCRM). As I don’t like giving the same talk twice – I don’t believe it is ever possible to replicate the momentum if you deliver the same words again – for each of these talks I researched a different Lincolnshire murder that, in the eyes of the police, remains unsolved. This post offers a brief account of each of these ‘murders’ – though I think that only three of them deserve to be so called.

John Bailey was a country doctor who lived in Long Sutton and was murdered in April 1795. On Tuesday 21st April he went to Tydd St Mary, a village about four miles from Long Sutton, to visit a patient. Early the following morning, his horse returned home without him. Following a report by a servant girl that she had seen a man lying in the grass on the side of the road, a group of local residents went to look for Bailey and found him where the girl had indicated. Alive, but with horrific head injuries, he tried to write something in the silty soil, but could not do so and shortly afterwards died. The motive appeared to be theft, though only the doctor’s watch was missing. There was a nationwide search for his killers and several people were arrested, but no charges were brought. Arrests, incidents of mistaken identity and false confessions continued to plague his wife and son for many years afterwards.

In 1979, Gordon Snowden, a sixty-year-old petrol pump attendant at Sutton Bridge Motors, was attacked at 2 am on 17th April. The motive appeared to be robbery – the cash till with all the takings was stolen. The police made no headway with solving the crime and never announced any suspects. No longer even regarded as ‘cold case’, it has now been archived. In other words, however tragic Gordon Snowden’s murder and however outrageous, it has become a statistic. It will never be reopened.

On May 22nd 1934, Mrs Ethel Major, of Kirby-on-Bain, near Horncastle, made her husband Arthur his customary ‘tea’ of corned beef, bread and butter. Shortly afterwards, he became ill and was soon unable to stand or speak. Two days later he had a seizure and died. The police discovered that Ethel had received anonymous letters telling her that her husband was having an affair with Rose Kettleborough, their neighbour. Police eventually concluded that Ethel had poisoned her husband, using as their main source of evidence an anonymous letter from the same person who had written to Ethel about the affair – which might have been Rose Kettleborough herself. Ethel pleaded not guilty to murder, but was hanged on December 19th 1934 by Albert Pierrepoint, the crown executioner famous for the compassion with which he treated convicted prisoners. Ethel Major was the last Lincolnshire woman to be hanged. Today the evidence against her would be deemed insufficient – and there are many people living in the Horncastle area whose ancestors always doubted her guilt. Horncastle people apparently divided into ‘Rose’ and ‘Ethel’ camps – though there was only circumstantial evidence that either was to blame for Arthur’s death.

Beatie Simpson, who was twenty, and a nineteen-year-old girl who was not named by police were both employed at a tobacco factory in Nottingham. In 1922, they travelled to Mablethorpe for a fortnight’s holiday, which they rashly extended by one week, even though they knew this would result in dismissal from their jobs. According to the girl who survived, they made a suicide pact because they could see no way out of their dilemma and both took Lysol while they were still staying in their seaside boarding house, which was owned by a blacksmith and his wife. Beatie Simpson was badly burned in the mouth and stomach by the corrosive liquid, but the doctor who carried out the post-mortem said that it would have been the effects of the poison on her heart and nervous system that killed her. She left a suicide note. It is not clear why the nineteen-year-old girl survived, although when the girls were discovered attempts were made to force them to drink salt water to cause them to vomit, and apparently Beatie’s mouth was clamped so tightly shut that she could not be made to swallow it. The coroner ruled that the girl who did not die was guilty of murder, as suicide was illegal at the time. The logic of this is hard to understand today: the coroner’s rationale was presumably that if a crime had been committed and someone could be made to pay for it, they should. However, the nineteen-year-old girl was eventually acquitted.

Barbara Grice died from a ruptured liver following a trip to Billinghay Feast (a kind of fair held annually near Sleaford) on 17th October 1956. Tantalisingly, I can find nothing more about this crime – I don’t even know why the police classified it as a murder. Was Barbara Grice pushed from one of the fairground rides or attacked by someone? In any event, no one has ever been charged with her murder.

Lastly, a twenty-six-year-old man named Charles Trier died in Gainsborough in 1995 during a game of Russian roulette. The police charged one man with his murder, then released him owing to lack of evidence. From my perspective, this barely counts as an unsolved murder, although it raises some interesting questions: for example, if you play Russian roulette of your own free will and die as a result, is the cause of your death murder, suicide or an over-developed gambling instinct? If you were coerced into playing, that of course is a different matter. Lovers of ‘The Deer Hunter’ will no doubt have a view!

Of these six deaths, I think that only John Bailey’s, Gordon Snowden’s and, probably, Arthur Major’s – although forensic science was not as conclusive in his day as it is now – would today be classified as murders. Beatie Simpson’s suicide certainly would not, unless it could be proved that her faculties were weak and the nineteen-year-old girl had unduly influenced her; the circumstances surrounding Charles Trier’s death are too uncertain to determine whether he pulled the trigger of his own free will; and Barbara Grice’s demise, as I have indicated, remains shrouded in mystery.

Murder in Horncastle and Mablethorpe

Conviviality in the very friendly library at Horncastle!

Yesterday was an exciting day for me. It involved a very early start – in perfect early summer daylight, the gentle sunshine gradually getting stronger – as I travelled to the first two of the four library talks I have been invited to give in Lincolnshire to celebrate Crime Reading Month.

The first was scheduled to take place at the library in Horncastle, which is a fine old market town of brick, mellow stone and painted rendered buildings.

Post Office building, complete with guerrilla knitting!

It was also my first visit there. It was market day – I love Lincolnshire markets! – and I had time to buy new potatoes (‘Boston potatoes’), the rich local soil still clinging to them, and some strawberries.

Buying potatoes: “You want washed or dirty? Dirty? Help yourself.” Lol.

The event was very ably hosted by Helen, the library manager, and Donna and Hannah, two of the library’s librarians.

Helen, Donna and Hannah: In amongst and engaged with everyone.

All were wonderfully hospitable and knowledgeable about the history of the town and famous people who have lived there: I discovered, for example, that the poet Alfred Lord Tennyson was born at Somersby, near the town. The audience – some of them members of the library’s book club – was also formidably knowledgeable, as well as being avid crime fiction readers. After the formal part of the talk, the discussion ranged far and wide. Over tea and biscuits, we managed to talk about local murders, discrimination against women, why I use a pseudonym, local tycoons and local customs – including an explanation of the fascinating ‘ran-tanning’, something I had never come across before, even though I am Lincolnshire born and bred. It was an ancient practice adopted by the neighbours of a wife-beater, who would surround his house and make a racket by beating on pots, pans and farm implements until he treated his wife with more respect. If he transgressed again, the process was repeated: an early version of Neighbourhood Watch and vigilantism combined which was probably more effective than calling the police today. It might be worth a revival.

I stayed talking with the Horncastle audience for so long that I only just made it to Mablethorpe for the afternoon event.

The light and airy new Mablethorpe Library.

Kathy, Manager of the recently built and very well-stocked library, and her colleagues had gathered an impressive audience which consisted of local people across the age range, including several children.

An animated and warm welcome from Kathy.

Once more, there was a lively discussion which covered many topics –  again accompanied by tea and biscuits – after the main talk. This audience was interested in the process of writing, how to get published and how authors exercise their rights over the more unusual outputs of publishing – films, TV scripts, audio etc.

They particularly wanted to know whether, if I sold the film rights to my books, I would let the film company alter the characters and the endings of the books. (My answer was a resounding ‘No!’ 😉) They said they had often been disappointed when they’d watched films of books they had read, only to discover that the script writer had “mucked about” with the author’s story.

One of the young women present and two of the children were aspiring writers who wanted to know how to get their work noticed. One of the children had already won a writing competition. Ebony, her sister, presented me with a tiny, fluffy feather, which I have carefully brought home. I think it is beautiful. I suggested that they should start a blog and post on it often, sometimes supporting other writers, attend festivals, book themselves into author surgeries at events and, above all, exercise patience, courage and self-belief! Regular readers of this June CRM series will see that I have ‘borrowed’ many of these tips from others who have contributed to it.

For this series of Lincolnshire talks I have carried out some research to find an unsolved murder which took place in each of the towns in which I am speaking. As I still have two more talks to go – I am at Long Sutton library next Monday (13th June) and at Sleaford library on Friday 17th June I won’t today bomb the blog by introducing a spoiler that tells more. I shall, however, write a post about these murders – some of them very unusual – when the talks have all been delivered.

Huge thanks to Helen, Donna and Hannah and Kathy and her team for all the work they put into making these talks a success and for their magnificent hospitality. Massive thanks also to all the members of the two marvellous audiences. I hope that some of you will find this post, read it and like it – and that we may meet again. Kathy has already expressed enthusiasm for my suggestion of including a writers’ workshop next time I come.  So, two more exceptional library teams that are awe-inspiring in their people skills, organisational flair and warmth of personality. Well done, Lincolnshire!

And a very special thank you to Ebony. I shall treasure the feather!

Three great librarians and what makes them tick

The lovely Gainsborough Library

This month I shall be lucky enough to give talks at four Lincolnshire libraries: Horncastle, Mablethorpe, Long Sutton and Sleaford. The first two are on Thursday. In the first instance they were arranged by Lynne Kershaw, who has welcomed me to Gainsborough Library several times. When I was last there I asked Lynne and her colleagues to describe what it means to be a librarian.

On 24th May, it was my privilege to be invited to give a talk on crime fiction at Gainsborough Library in North Lincolnshire. I had visited the library before and was looking forward to the warm welcome that the librarians, Lynne, Fabi and Jill, always provide.

A relaxed interview with librarians Fabi and Jill

Between them they have devoted fifty-one years to the library (Lynne has worked there for twenty-six years, Fabi for nineteen and Jill, seven). I asked them what inspires them. What makes them so committed to their jobs?

They said they love reading and books, being with people and helping those who use the library. They are much more than advisers about and dispensers of books: their patrons confide in them and often need their support to help sort out problems.

“There’s a lady who’s been using the library for a long time who told us she had been bereaved. She was very lonely and needed to get more activities into her life. We put her in touch with people who could help her. Now the only free day she has is Tuesday.”

These librarians are particularly devoted to helping children. “We want to inspire people to read. It’s a real joy when children want to come in and choose books to read. There are still many families who have no books at home.”

The library has set up a writing group of a special kind. Led by a journalist, it aims to provide therapy for people who are depressed or suffering from a disability. And many people who visit the library regularly come to use the computers. Being able to access computers has become a crucial element of all library services since applications for government benefits switched to online. Often people who are entitled to benefits don’t have computers of their own and, quite frequently as a result, they don’t know how to use them. The librarians have had some training in assisting with this, but the technology is always changing and it’s sometimes hard to keep up with it. A ‘computer buddy’ therefore offers sessions in the library on Mondays and Tuesdays. The library is made available to other groups and societies who want to use it, too.

Lynne, who is the library manager, said that her mum used to bring her to Gainsborough Library when she was very small – she thinks from the age of seven. Recalling what the library was like then, she remembers that all the books were catalogued in card index files and there was always an old bloke smoking a pipe who had come in to read the newspapers. (The library has kept its collection of old newspapers.) After she left school, she worked in a bank; then, when she had her first child, she looked for a job in the library and has been working there ever since.

Lynne, Gainsborough Library Manager

They organise as many events as they can cope with. ‘My’ event was obviously about crime fiction. Many events are intended to keep children reading: they were preparing for a sequence of Platinum Jubilee events when I was there. They will also launch a Summer Reading Challenge, which will last for six weeks. A separate event is planned for each week and children are encouraged to read six books in the period. Each time they read two books, they receive a prize, and a certificate when the challenge finishes.

Despite all this activity – and very hard work – the librarians say that it is sometimes difficult to explain how librarians and libraries add value. They are continually having to justify their existence to the government and others who scrutinise the (relatively modest) costs of running a public library service. “It’s hard to define qualitative work.”

As an author, I can say librarians have certainly added shed loads of value for me – and, I’m sure, for other authors, too. It’s not just the joy of being welcomed to a place where my novels are really appreciated or the buzz of being invited to talk about writing – though both are of course important – it’s achieving the holy grail of being able to interact with readers in the flesh, of having the chance to ask them what they like to read, who their favourite authors are and what they think of individual books. In my experience, readers pull no punches – but they are also amazingly generous. The amount of time they are prepared to spend on reading my books and afterwards thinking and talking about them is truly humbling. It may sound trite to say it, but readers are the lifeblood of writing; and authors would attract far fewer readers if librarians did not devote every day to promoting their books.

National Crime Reading Month and www.christinajamesblog.com

The Crime Writers Association (CWA) and the Reading Agency have built on their brilliant lockdown idea of designating June as Crime Reading Month (CRM). This June, crime writing of all kinds will be celebrated in bookshops, schools, libraries and museums and at special events. CWA members are all encouraged to engage in some kind of activity to celebrate crime writing and reading, however small – it could be something as simple as encouraging a local library or bookshop to mount a crime fiction display – or large – the festivities culminate with the announcement of this year’s Daggers Award winners. More information about individual activities and events can be found at Events – National Crime Reading Month. It is worth checking this site every day, as exciting new projects are continually being added.

I think CRM is a very exciting concept and I am planning to participate by offering a new blog post every day during June on some aspect of crime writing, reading or publishing. Most of the posts will take the form of interviews with people prominent in these areas and I have many great interviews already lined up: for example, with Richard Reynolds, the doyen of booksellers specialising in crime fiction; Dea Parkin, the secretary of the CWA; and Lynette Owen, the distinguished editor of Clark’s Publishing Agreements, as well as authors, book lovers, bloggers, librarians, publishers, policemen and more booksellers. I have been invited to take part in several events myself and shall be covering these, too. There are still a few spaces left in the latter half of the month, so, if you would like to take part in an interview for the blog, please let me know.

I’ll write one or two posts about certain aspects of my writing. Questions that I have been asked are: ‘Why do your books describe the towns and villages of Lincolnshire as they were when you were growing up, even though the novels themselves are set in the present?’ and ‘What is the fascination that Lincolnshire still holds for you as an author, when you say you moved away many years ago?’

I’ll pick up on this later in the sequence. In the meantime, I do hope you will find time to follow the posts and enjoy them. The series will begin tomorrow with the Richard Reynolds interview. Why have I started with a bookseller? The post itself explains.

Stimulus for a story…

The Crossing

In South Lincolnshire on the afternoon of 28th January 1970, the countryside was enveloped in thick, freezing fog. It made the roads treacherous and there were protracted delays on the trains. Driving in country lanes was especially hazardous. Although some level crossings had already been fitted with so-called ‘continental barriers’, with relatively sophisticated warning systems, most were still simple five-barred gates operated manually. The practice in country districts where there wasn’t much traffic was to leave the gates closed against the road. Vehicles wishing to cross had to summon the crossing-keeper, who usually resided in an adjacent lodge-house tied to the job. Such an arrangement existed at Sutterton Dowdyke, a tiny hamlet a few miles south of Boston and east of the A16.

On 28th January, the regular Peterborough to Skegness train was considerably delayed by the fog. The driver of a tanker lorry owned by the council who regularly travelled on Dowdyke Road rang the bell to summon the crossing keeper to open the gates. The driver and his mate had been sent to empty a cesspit in the area and, task completed, were now returning to their depot. The crossing keeper, a woman in late middle age, came out and chatted with them briefly before opening the gates. The driver eased the lorry onto the crossing (most crossings at the time were notoriously bumpy) and was sitting right in the middle of it when the train came thundering through the fog, which had muffled the noise it was making until this moment, and flung the lorry into the air. The train was derailed. It ploughed into the lodge-house and turned the building one hundred and eighty degrees on its foundations. The lorry driver’s mate was killed instantly; the lorry driver himself was taken to hospital, critically injured.

Miraculously, the crossing-keeper was not hurt, but collapsed at the scene and was also taken to hospital, badly shocked.

My family and I first learned of the accident when watching the nine o’clock news that evening. The site of the accident wasn’t named, but my father recognised the lodge-house. We drove there immediately and then on to the Pilgrim Hospital to visit the crossing keeper. She was my father’s aunt and my own great-aunt.

My memories of that night sowed the first seeds of the plot of The Crossing, the fourth DI Yates novel, which I have just completed.

Christina James, happily hopping from one blog to another… #Mondayblogs

Sausage Hall

I have Jenny Lloyd to thank for nominating me for The Writing Process ‘blog hop’.  (Why do I dislike this term?  I’ve never liked the ugly sound of ‘blog’ and ‘hop’ has unfortunate ‘bunny’ associations – as if I’ve been given fluffy ears and a scut to bounce around in – hah!)  Jenny is renowned as the author of Leap the Wild Water, a widely-acclaimed historical novel focusing upon the sufferings of women and the harsh conflicts and unbearable tensions between self and society in rural Wales two hundred years ago; she’s getting close to releasing a sequel to it, The Calling of the Raven, and is already working on the third book.  Thanks, Jenny, for this opportunity to join The Writing Process and best wishes for The Raven!  (Do visit her blog at http://jennylloydwriter.wordpress.com/, which for me has wonderfully sensitive insights into her homeland, its people and its history…  wiv pitchers!)

So, here I go, with a bounce:

What am I working on?

I’m just writing the concluding chapters to Sausage Hall, the third DI Yates novel.  Like the first two novels in the Yates series, it is set mostly in Lincolnshire, though some of the action also takes place in Norfolk.  Sausage Hall is the name that the locals give the house that is called Laurieston in the novel. It is situated in the village of Sutterton and based on an actual house, which really was nicknamed Sausage Hall, because it had been built by a butcher who’d gone bankrupt in the 1850s.  My grandmother, having worked in domestic service all of her life, moved when she was sixty to Sutterton, which is about ten miles from Spalding and seven miles from Boston, to become companion to a very old lady who lived there.  The old lady had been the wife of a gentleman farmer who was twenty years her senior, so he must have been born in the mid-nineteenth century.    The house was frozen in a time warp.  It was packed with quaint furnishings, but the most astounding thing about it (though as a child I just accepted it as normal) was that the walls were decorated with many sepia photographs of the old lady’s husband when he’d been on safari in Africa as a young man.  These photographs must have been taken in the 1870s or 1880s and in many of them he was accompanied by several black women wearing very little except strings of beads.  It has long been my intention to write about what I think might have happened in this house.  When I began researching the period and the district, my plot was given a considerable boost when I discovered that someone very famous had lived nearby in the late nineteenth century.  That person appears in the novel, too. The book is set in the present, but the characters and their actions are considerably influenced by what went on at Sausage Hall more than a century ago.

How does my work differ from others in this genre?

As is well-known (especially by those who organise creative writing courses!), the genre of crime fiction is usually divided into several sub-genres.  I’m only interested in a few of these: primarily the psychological crime novel, with a slighter nod to the ‘woman at risk’ variant.  Except tangentially – for I do try to get the facts right about policing, the law and the justice system – I’m not what is known as a ‘procedural’ crime writer.  I don’t plod through all of the police action step by step, leaving no ‘i’ undotted or ‘t’ uncrossed.  Nor do I seek to hold my readers’ attention or shock them with descriptions of excessive violence or bloody massacres.  I don’t write action thrillers or spy novels.  Conversely, I’m not a creator of what has been called ‘cosy’ crime: the type of novel that those of a nervous disposition can happily read in bed at night when in the house on their own.  I like to think that, through careful characterisation and as much psychological insight as I can command, my novels explore some pretty gritty truths and moral dilemmas.  I also try to flip the crime-writing conventions on their head in various ways: for example, I tend not to tie up all the loose ends (life’s just not like that) and, flying in the face of the notion of catharsis, I don’t always make it absolutely clear who the perpetrator is.  I’ve been told by several reviewers that I’ve broken new ground in the crime genre, but I try not to stretch this too far.  For example, I don’t think it works to try to mix genres and combine crime with Science Fiction or Fantasy – a few authors might be able to pull it off, but they’d have to be very skilful indeed.  More prosaically, although my novels are set in the present, the town of Spalding in which most of the action in the Yates series occurs is the Spalding of my childhood, not the town as it is today.  This gives me the advantage of being able to write about a finite, unchanging place that only I have access to, because it is locked in my memory (with all that that implies).

Why do I write what I do?

I’m not wedded always to being exclusively a crime writer.  I’ve written novels and short stories which would certainly be pigeon-holed in the ‘literary fiction’ bracket by most publishers.  However, although the quality of my writing was praised when I tried to publish some of these (others have not been and never will be shown to anyone!), I repeatedly received feedback that I needed to tighten up on the plot and make my work more accessible generally.  I therefore decided to try writing crime fiction, because it requires a tight and carefully-constructed plot and the action itself keeps the novel moving on nicely.  The constraints of the genre provide an excellent way of creating and maintaining self-discipline in the writing.  I have to weed out the ‘purple passages’ when revising if I realise that they don’t contribute to the plot.  Once I have a sound plot, I’m also less likely to get stuck or suffer from ‘writer’s block’ than when writing literary fiction.  However, although I’m very happy writing crime fiction and shall continue to do so, I do have other plans in the pipeline as well.

How does my writing process work?

Following on from what I’ve said in the paragraph above, plot is very important in crime fiction.  Once I have an idea for a novel, I work painstakingly on the plot, often during my long annual holiday in France, until I am satisfied that I can make it work.  I will usually also draft a half-page outline for each chapter.  I don’t always stick exactly to my original plot afterwards, but, if I change it, I make sure that the changes don’t create inconsistencies elsewhere in the novel.  I don’t start out by conducting the research.  Although I do research the background to my books thoroughly, I tend to do this as I go along.  This works better for me than conducting the research at the outset, because, like most writers, I am easily seduced by reading.  It’s very easy to spend several days on what you might like virtuously to term ‘research’ when what you’re actually doing is enjoying yourself by feeding a curiosity that far exceeds the requirements of the novel!  I’m a firm believer in writing every day if possible, though I don’t set myself huge word targets.  I’m satisfied with 1,000 words a day or a little more.  I revise constantly – the first revision usually takes place on the same day as the original writing, and I’ll often revise it the next day before I start writing again.  Thereafter, I revise in groups of chapters – every time I’ve completed, say, the next eight or ten chapters, I’ll revise this group as a single ‘chunk’ of writing.  Often I do this on long train journeys.  Finally, I revise the whole book all the way through, sometimes more than once, keeping a sharp look-out for inconsistencies and other solecisms and sharpening up the text.  Then I hand the MS over to my husband for checking.  He is an even fiercer critic of my work than I am and, as well as weeding out inconsistencies, will scrutinise the grammar, punctuation and syntax.  Although I don’t always agree with his suggested revisions, his contribution is invaluable.

‘Ere, Valerie, your turn!  Have some fluffy ears and a white fluffy tail and go hopping!  I nominate Val Poore @vallypee for this excitement.  She’s both a teacher of English for business and academic purposes and a historic bargee… sorry, she owns a historic live-aboard barge in Rotterdam and has turned her rich experiences in England, South Africa and The Netherlands into both funny and serious stories, both autobiographical and fictional.  One, The Skipper’s Child, recently won the Wishing Shelf Silver Award.  Respek!  You’ll find her faring along the European canal system or simply soaking up the atmosphere of Oude Haven, here: http://wateryways.blogspot.co.uk/

Oh, as for blog-hopping, I don’t know quite how it happened, but Jenny’s nomination for today coincided with Bodicia’s very kind guest blog opportunity here.  I had to use a bit of the same material for this post on my site, so I hope you will forgive me for that.

Into Lincolnshire, for the Wolds Words Writers’ Workshop…

Louth Library, Lincolnshire

Louth Library, Lincolnshire

The writers’ workshop that my husband and I jointly led on Friday 18th October was part of the thirteenth Wolds Words Festival. It is a flourishing event that takes place annually in and around the pretty market town of Louth. The workshop was scheduled in the library, an impressively busy place in which the considerable bookstock was displayed most invitingly. The library staff were all great: extremely helpful, both to those attending the workshop and to their regular library users. It’s one of the most successful small libraries I’ve ever visited and clearly the librarians work hard to achieve this.
We said that we would work with up to twelve participants and the workshop quickly sold out (though not everyone actually made it on the day). We were asked to focus on two aspects of writing: crime and using local history in fiction. We heard that a workshop on plot construction that had taken place on the previous day had also been very successful.

Wolds Writers' Workshop

Wolds Writers’ Workshop

Wolds Writers' Workshop

Wolds Writers’ Workshop

As a warming-up exercise, I gave the group some of my own tips on how to get published. As I’ve already offered some of these in this blog and shall be writing about others in more detail in future posts, I’m not covering them again here. Similarly, I’m not including my tips on how to incorporate local history into fiction here, saving them for a separate post.

Wolds Writers' Workshop

Wolds Writers’ Workshop

We moved on to discussing why the participants had chosen the workshop and what they hoped to get out of it. Their answers were, perhaps not too surprisingly, very similar, and boiled down to a single joint ambition with three further ‘sub-wishes’. The over-arching goal of everyone present was to see their work published. One of the writers had already had poems published in anthologies; one had published a factual account of the sea some twenty years before and one had contributed short stories to an online magazine. None of the others had had work published. Two had written novels, but neither had been successful in finding a publisher.
The ‘sub-wishes’ were perhaps even more interesting: they each concerned confidence, or the lack of it. They included the expressed desire to write something that was worth reading ‘at all’; the fear that a certain flaw – in one case, an inability to write convincing dialogue – was an insurmountable stumbling-block; and the suspicion that the author’s take on life was too left-field ever to find a publisher. To these doubts, I replied that almost everyone can write something worth reading if they work at it hard enough; that ‘flaws’ can be overcome or minimised, again with hard work; and that many readers prefer a more unusual viewpoint to something more conventional, though I agreed that this may make it more difficult to attract a traditional publisher.

Wolds Writers' Workshop

Wolds Writers’ Workshop

Next we read and explored four short passages from very different novels, each demonstrating some particular aspect of writing. We looked at the ‘fog’ passage from Bleak House as an example of creating atmosphere; Virginia Woolf’s description of the Ramsays’ holiday house in To the Lighthouse to establish a sense of place; a passage from Where the Devil Can’t Go, a novel by Anya Lipska, a talented new crime writer whom I’ve written about previously in the blog, that depicts her heroine’s character; and finally a piece of dialogue from my own novel, In the Family. We each took forty minutes to write a short passage following on from one of these, or alternatively any short fictional piece of our own choosing. The writings were shuffled and passed around until we had each read all of the passages; no-one knew who had written which. Each of us then told the others what we liked about the piece that we had in front of us at the end. We all found plenty to praise, which I think confirmed resoundingly that there is a writer in almost everyone. I should very much like to thank all the writers for their really enthusiastic and participative response to the occasion.

Wrights of Louth, Bookshop

Wrights of Louth, Bookshop

Copies of my books were sold at the event by the local bookshop in Louth, which I also visited afterwards. One of its distinguishing features is that its sign hangs upside down! There is a story behind this: The shop used to be a general grocery store of the kind that I remember as a child, but which has completely disappeared now. Its owner, a man called Bill Platt, who ran it for many years from 1913 until he was in his seventies, was famed for his knowledge of local history as well as for the quality of his shop in Little Eastgate. He had business acumen, too. When the sign over his shop doorway blew down in a storm, it was affixed by accident the wrong way up; Bill recognised that it quickly became a talking point and therefore a good advert and simply left it like that. A local businessman, Mick Wright, who, with his wife Carol, turned the store into a newsagent’s and bookshop, has continued the tradition!

In conversation with bookshop owner Dean Wright

In conversation with bookshop owner Dean Wright

I had a long and pleasant conversation with Mick and his joint owner son Dean, and was extremely impressed by their can-do attitude towards running a bookshop in modern times. Their strategy is to diversify without abandoning the bookshop’s essential character and to provide exemplary service; they specialise in books about Lincolnshire. I purchased several by local authors, and was extremely grateful to be given a discount!

Speciality: Lincolnshire!

Speciality: Lincolnshire!

As you can see, I’ve included a few pictures of the event, the library and the bookshop. I’d never been to Louth before: it is quite a distance from Spalding. It is a lovely old market town; having now discovered it, I certainly plan to return. If you are ever in the area, it is well worth a visit – and don’t forget to take in the library and the bookshop while you’re there!

Cuculus canorus, a welcome criminal…

Cuculus canorus
This spring continues to be extraordinary. Yesterday evening, I was out walking the dog and had almost reached home again when I heard my first cuckoo of the year. In farming communities, it’s traditional to note down when this happens, so, to be precise, the time was 19.10 on May 30th 2013. I heard it again in the early hours of this morning, just as the dawn was breaking. (In the one day left of May, ‘he sings all day’!) Every year cuckoos come to call around the village, but this must be my latest first hearing in all the twenty years of my residence. I wonder if cuckoos are also behindhand because of the late spring and whether their June ‘changed tune’ (with an extra ‘cuk’) will be delayed until July?

Cuckoos are fascinating. The name itself, so precise in its onomatopoeic evocation of the call, is exotic. They are beautiful arboreal birds, shy of humans: I’ve seen them on only a few occasions, years apart. They’re pale grey in colour, with a gorgeous dark barred pale underbelly, and have a hawk-like flight and perching posture. What captured my imagination as a primary school child and still beguiles me is their anti-social behaviour. They are the vandals and parasites of the bird world, each one performing its own microcosmic act of ethnic cleansing. The females plant a single egg in the nest of a (usually) much smaller bird, such as a dunnock or a pipit; then, when the chick hatches, it dominates proceedings, diverting with a huge and gaping maw the host parents’ attention from their own offspring before turfing the latter, eggs and/or nestlings, out of the nest, thereby guaranteeing itself a monopoly on the food supply. What is strange is that the foster parents don’t seem to notice, instead running themselves ragged to feed a chick that soon grows to be much bigger than they are.

‘A cuckoo in the nest’ was an expression that I heard a lot when I was a child. It was used to describe someone – often male – whose self-indulgent behaviour and habits were spoiling things for the rest of the family or community: a heavy drinker or a work shirker, for example. It had various gradations of meaning: it was a bit like ‘fly in the ointment’, only more so; it also had overtones of the now over-used ‘the elephant in the room’ – although the latter saying implies that no-one is prepared to mention whatever it is that the elephant represents, which is not typical of forthright Lincolnshire folk. ‘Cuckoo’ is slang (particularly in America) for ‘crazy’, hence the title of the book and film ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’; but in Lincolnshire dialect, someone saying ‘You’re a cuckoo’ (as opposed to ‘You’re cuckoo’), was paying you the compliment of calling you witty, or was amused by something that you’d just said. (A variant of this was ‘You’re a caution’.)

So, are cuckoos lovable or not? I think that they remain a puzzle: an enigmatic variant of Nature that has got by without obeying the rules. Like people who live by their wits, they expend a great deal of energy on not paying their way: energy that could equally well be expended on working within society instead of preying on it. Instead, once they’ve deposited their eggs – each female lays up to twelve – they swan off (so to speak!) to tropical Africa, where they spend nine months sunning themselves, the ornithological equivalent of the idle rich. I realise that I’m straying into dangerously anthropomorphic territory here, but it strikes me that the cuckoo is the Raffles of the bird world.

Cuckoos are fast declining in number and I am the more excited, therefore, when I hear their call; they are so traditionally part of an English spring that I hope we don’t lose them.

Don’t you love it when a book has personal resonance!

Stone Cradle

Stone Cradle is the second novel that I’ve read by Louise Doughty.  The first, Whatever You Love, was an entirely different kind of book: a contemporary novel about child bereavement.  Stone Cradle is a historical novel set in the Fens at the turn of the twentieth century, about a Traveller family.  I bought it both because I’m interested in the Lincolnshire of that period and because it resonates with me personally, for reasons that I shall explain later, but first I’d like to say that any writer who can produce two such completely different, yet equally compelling, novels ticks several boxes for me straight away.

Stone Cradle is in part about the bleakness of being a working-class woman living in a predominantly farming community of the period.  The story is told in the first person, alternately by a female Traveller, Clementina, and her daughter-in-law, Rose, a farmer’s adopted daughter who renounces the harsh life on the farm for the spurious glamour of running away to marry Clementina’s son, Elijah.  It is one of the poignant ironies of the book that, although they share a great deal in common (including the fact that Elijah is illegitimate and Rose herself the illegitimate daughter of a mother who, like Clementina, worked hard to keep her), she and Clementina detest each other from the moment that they first meet.  This is partly because they are rivals for Elijah’s affections, even though he is more often absent than present from their lives and both know that he is a ne’er-do-well, but even more because the norms and values of each are incomprehensible to the other.  The dual first-person narrative captures this cleverly and is the more accomplished for going over the same events twice, through the eyes of each, without being repetitive.  As someone who is experimenting with this technique at the moment, I know how difficult it is to pull off!

Rose persuades Elijah to live in a house in Cambridge (where Clementina presents herself as an uninvited guest and never moves out) for several years after their marriage, but Elijah’s fecklessness and their consequent poverty force them eventually to re-join the Travelling community.  Rose never fits in.  She dies twenty years before Clementina.  At the beginning of the novel, Elijah, himself now an old man, is shown burying his aged mother.  To save a few shillings, he has Rose’s grave opened and Clementina’s coffin laid on hers.  Had they known, both women would have been appalled; the act epitomises both Elijah’s insensitivity and the privation that has followed them throughout their lives.

Two further qualities make this novel exceptional: the brilliant way in which Louise Doughty captures what it was like to be a member of the nineteenth-century Travelling community and her depiction of the period itself.  The book has obviously been extensively researched, yet nowhere does the author parade her knowledge.  One of the reasons for my being more often than not equivocal about historical novels is that, unless the author is very skilled indeed, the reader is presented with an outside-looking-in narrative: in other words, the author’s fictional take on what s/he has gained from the history books.  Worse, this is sometimes accompanied by what I call the costume drama factor, i.e., a stereotypically ‘olde worlde’ way of making the characters think and speak, probably based on watching too many films.  It takes a very talented writer not to fall into these traps, but Louise Doughty is such a writer.

Now I come to the personal resonance bit.  In her acknowledgments, the author pays tribute to the Romany museum in Spalding (of which I was hitherto unaware) and the Boswell family.  She actually gives the most noble of the Romany families in the book the name ‘Boswell’.  It is another of the novel’s distinctions that the Traveller characters are not over-sentimentalised.  There are rough and feckless Travellers, as well as ‘good’ ones, just as there are good and bad ‘gorjers’ (non-Travellers) living in and around Cambridge.  The Boswell family was well-known in the Spalding of my youth.  Their patriarch, whose first name I don’t know, because he was always referred to as ‘Bozzie’, had ceased to travel and built up a profitable scrap-metal business just outside the town.  By the time I was born, he was reputed to be a millionaire and lived in a very nice house.  I went with my father to see him on several occasions.  In those days, I think that at least some of his family were still Travellers, and some may be still.  Louise Doughty seems to indicate, however, that there is still a permanent Boswell presence in Spalding and evidently the Boswells were the inspiration behind the museum.  I am determined to visit it next time I go to Spalding.

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