Val Poore, that most elusive of authors, at least to me on her home territory, proved impossible to find on our return after five years to Rotterdam’s Oude Haven. Not knowing when we might arrive in Rotterdam (for time for trans-European car travel is notoriously difficult to estimate) and the fact that Valerie was almost certainly at work (it was a Friday), made it unfair to alert her to a visit we might not have been able to make. As it was, we discovered that the parking meters I wrote about those five years ago had all been made credit-card-friendly (maybe someone on the city council read my blog post!) and we could relatively easily pay for our stay. (If you are out there still, council person, to have various languages – as do ATMs – on your meters would make them even friendlier!)
Anyway, we were interested to find that, aside from the meters, not a huge amount had changed. Perhaps that isn’t so surprising for a museum of vintage barges, but there seemed to be more of them, so no doubt Valerie’s two memoirs recounting her experiences of restoring and living aboard her Vereeniging have encouraged others to do likewise. The boatyard was much busier, too, as you will see from the photographs, with more going on than the repair of one raised barge.
Vereeniging looked very well, too, with her gangplank effectively repaired (Valerie blogged about its vandalised damage) so that we momentarily wondered if we dared a quick stand on the foredeck! I’m sure if we had, the neighbours would have made us walk the plank in a rather different way! We met one of them, briefly (he had just arrived by bicycle), and asked him to say hello to Valerie and Koos for us.
I can safely aver that Rotterdam continues to thrive and the vibrancy we noted on our previous short exploration is still very much in evidence, even though the weather last Friday was gustily post-stormy and chilly. Anyway, enough from me now, except to say that Valerie has been a huge supporter of DI Yates and I’d very much have liked to meet her in person. I think that she has another memoir in the making and I’m sure it will be as warm and colourful as the others. Buy one and you’ll see what I mean. If you like canals and barges and narrowboats as I do, then her wanderings (‘farings’) along Dutch, Belgian and French waterways will hold you spellbound.
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.
In the land of the Rotternauts dwelled a man
Whose hair was wondrous white;
Bewhiskered and bespectacled,
He glimmered pale at night.
And around the port he would pace with the gait
Of one who’d sailed the waves
And told his tale to anyone
He transfixed with his gaze.
Just so it happened when I peered at the shape
That rose in front of me,
He motioned me to silence
And began beguilingly:
‘There is, in a necklace of paradise isles
Beyond the eastern sea,
A jewelled piece of heaven
Where grows a magic tree.
And when the keel of the ship grinds the sands there
And rests from ocean gales
The trav’ller may find solace
And hear the songs of whales.
For the things of the sea fly in air out there
And birds swim in the deep –
Pluck flowers from the seabed
For the magic tree to keep.
And the pebbles of the land are wont to hatch
Into mammals, birds and fish –
The magic tree takes care of all
And fulfils every wish.’
And with that, the mariner vanished away!
Spell-bound, I saw them all:
Fish and birds and flowers…
And a magic tree, grown tall.
When I saw it on Facebook, I was captivated by the above Flower Bird artwork by the Dutch photographer and artist Koos (pronounced as in ‘rose’) Fernhout; it had a narrative quality and immediately conjured up for me a combination of mental images: Far Eastern art, mystical tales, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, The Flying Dutchman, the world as it was before humans minimised it, the fantastical stories of sailors returning from voyages of exploration, paradise, the next world. As you will see from the FB conversation, others were also smitten. Koos so much enjoyed the poem I felt compelled to write that he put it alongside his image, which is, believe me, quite an accolade. If you are unfamiliar with his work, you may enjoy a visit to his gallery, where you will find that he has an unerringly gifted photographic vision. To whet your appetite, I have also included an example below. Incidentally to all this, Koos happens to be a resident of the barge community I have described here. Many thanks to him for the pleasure of posting his pictures today.
[Click on pictures to enlarge them.]
Though I’m not a travel writer, I’d like to share a recent visit to a place I had previously never considered exploring, but, having read a book by a Facebook and Twitter friend and seen pictures of it on her pages, I resolved to stop and have a look at her world. I occasionally pass close to this location, but am always en route to somewhere else (Aren’t we all?), with deadlines and people to meet, and it had never before spoken to me with seductive siren tones nor even given me a glimpse of its hidden beauties and charms.
This time, I wasn’t even sure if we would manage the detour, but my husband and I started out early from Germany and covered the intervening kilometres without delay, aided by what he had always previously eschewed but which now proved absolutely essential, sat nav. Negotiating foreign cities, especially those with road systems apparently designed to doom motorists to madness, is always fraught with tension; navigating Rotterdam’s streets may be a piece of coffee and walnut to its residents, but without help or prior knowledge, the new visitor might as well be in the wilderness.
We were heading for Oude Haven, the ‘Old Port’, or the oldest harbour in the city, now home to a collection of historic Dutch barges which Valerie Poore, @vallypee, not only writes about in her books, but has lived on and restored here, for Oude Haven is a working museum with a team of enthusiastic owners, metal- and wood-working skills and the heavy gear to lift huge vessels out of the water to repair and return them to their original state.
I can tell a nightmare story of parking in Amsterdam, which perhaps I’ll relate here some other time, so we were prepared with plenty of small change to feed the greedy meters and defy the wardens, when we eventually turned into Haringvliet, which we had strolled down on Google Maps and determined as our best stopover point for the harbour; however, our research had not been thorough enough, as we discovered that the meters are not fed with money, but with prepaid cards to be got from a range of locations (however, it was a Sunday and we had no means of finding them easily). Then we discovered, by dint of guessing at the truly double Dutch meter instructions that some meters could be accessed by credit card, but we couldn’t immediately see one of those. The masts of the barges and the gorgeous array of moored boats just in front of us seemed to float off into the mists of meter mania.
Rescue came in the form of a bluff but very personable gentleman who had just been buying flowers from the stall at one end of Haringvliet, where, he said, was a credit card meter. Not only did he walk us to it, but used his own card to meet our two-hour stay and accepted our cash payment only very reluctantly. How’s that for hospitality?
The way was now open to explore, albeit quite briefly, the harbour and to locate Vereeniging, the elegant barge belonging to Valerie. The place is a marvel of architecture, considering that most of the area was flattened in WWII. Perhaps most striking is Het Witte Huis, The White House, an art-nouveau skyscraper building designed by architect Willem Molenbroek and erected in 1897-1898, which miraculously escaped destruction in 1940 and which still towers over the port, though it has long since lost its original place as the tallest multi-storey structure; the eye is then ineluctably drawn to the astonishing ‘Kubuswoningen’ or ‘Cube Houses’, the 1984 brainchild of architect Piet Blom, just along the wharf.
But we were here, as lovers of English canal boats and boating, to look at what was on the water (or, in the case of barge Luna, raised out of it to the dockside repair cradle and undergoing some heavy metal treatment – welding was well under way, if the boat wasn’t!). The barges are remarkable, with their sheer size, huge masts and characteristic leeboards (for they are sailing cargo vessels), and we should have loved to have been able to look inside them.
Vereeniging, just about the smallest of them all, nestled in her elegant green and red livery amongst the others… and I could see at a glance what had captured Valerie’s heart about her. She seemed so much more of a living presence, thanks to my reading of ‘Watery Ways’, and her character was buoyant and bubbly, with all the sprightliness and effervescence of a gig compared to the barouche landau sedateness of most of the other boats. I can’t wait to read the next instalment of her history, ‘Harbour Ways’, now in the making! An old bicycle stood to attention on the deck; theft of about eight others has made the owner chary of leaving a valuable machine on board.
We walked around the harbour, ate and drank local beer at one of the cafés (probably not the best one!) and captured a picture of Vereeniging’s stern from across the water. Strolling back along the other side of Haringvliet, we came upon the corpse of a once-yellow bicycle rescued from the muddy depths (but unlikely to be restored like the barges!) and said hello to a ship’s cat, a ginger pirate with the capacity to leap eight feet from deck to harbour steps and to take his ease in the sun.
But time had sadly run out for further sightseeing. We had avoided the parking police, thank goodness, and sailed away to Europoort with the powerful sensation of having travelled to somewhere very special indeed. The homeward ferry was a terribly disappointing contrast to what we had just been seeing.
Valerie Poore’s Watery Ways is a book of three love affairs. Each has its highs and lows, pleasures and pains. The human one seems to be the least anguished and captures well a true meeting of minds and hearts; the others are much more fraught with complete cargoes of crises, one being the development of the author’s passion for life on the water, with its close-knit harbour community, and the other her embarkation upon an emotional journey to her own live-aboard barge.
Having enjoyed narrow-boating on canals and rivers in the UK and sailed around the Western Isles of Scotland, I knew that this book would have much to interest me. I came upon Val and her books during my own voyages of discovery into social networking. She is active on Twitter and Facebook and I quickly realised that, in addition to being a generous supporter of other authors and an astute literary commentator, she has the ability to write captivatingly of her wide-ranging experiences and many practical skills.
Watery Ways charts her experiences as a new member of the nautical family of Oude Haven, the oldest harbour in Rotterdam and home now to a collection of vintage boats, lovingly restored by their owners to standards established by a commission of experts set up by the harbour’s special Foundation. As a tenant aboard one of these barges, Val found her personal background of self-sufficiency and expertise in the restoration of wooden artefacts well-suited to the task of refurbishing and maintaining her ‘new’ accommodation.
Using a present tense narrative and both factual and imaginative description, Val enables the reader to enjoy the immediacy of the moment and presents a graphic picture of places, people and events. The atmosphere of the harbour and the characters of its quirky inhabitants are evoked in unfussy but very personal prose. The technical detail, essential for an autobiographical account such as this, is explained in terms that present no problems to the lay reader: Val’s style is precise and lucid. Though there is sentiment, her matter-of-fact manner never allows it to become cloying; we are able to empathise easily with her feelings. Her capacity to interest a non-boating audience is considerable, not least because of her self-depreciating sense of humour and her willingness to share her many discomforts and mistakes, and the occasional success. For me, she doesn’t create an over-romanticised idyll that might seduce the reader into wanting to buy a boat, but does provide insight into the delights of ‘faring’ along urban, industrial and completely rural canals. She succeeds in transmitting the strange time-warp sensation that voyagers on such waterways experience as they move along at a pace of life that belongs to ages gone by, taking days to cover distances that modern road and rail transport completes in hours. There is a magic here, for the relationship of bargee to barge is very real and just as much of an affair as one between human lover and human lover. The boats themselves seem to have individual temperaments and eccentricities.
Watery Ways provides a very reassuring and positive image of human nature, a contrast to the violence of international events such as the 9/11 atrocity, which took place during Val’s first long boat trip with her partner Koos to Lille and to which she refers with great sensitivity.
I very much enjoyed reading this book. I know that Val is working on a sequel, telling of the next instalment of her life afloat and of the complete renovation of her own pakschuit (local delivery barge), the Vereeniging. The present book concludes by describing how she acquired this vesseI and I am very much looking forward to her account of her work to make it habitable and to meet Oude Haven’s rigorous historic criteria.
Watery Ways is published by Boathooks Books, ISBN 978-1-907984-12-9