Lovelives affected by the Old Vic

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As part of its celebrations to mark its 200 years of existence the wonderful Old Vic theatre in London’s Waterloo has asked playgoers to send in personal memories of productions there.

Quite independently, two of the ninevoices have done so, Val and Ed. You can find us if you go to https://www.oldvictheatre.com/200/your-stories and scroll down.

The stories do rather give away our ages. More importantly, they show how going to the theatre can affect your love life, for better or worse ….

The Old Vic is still asking for more memories. So send them in – they don’t have to be amorous in content!

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Who Ate the Pies?

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Ecod, methinks Master Edward hath right verily strucken a hand-wrought nail upon its noddle…

Having enjoyed Francis Spufford’s Golden Hill, Ed wondered in his 8th November post how much research a historical novelist needs, and whether they should strive to use exact language and idiom. Or just wing it.

When I began my current book, set in C18 London, I spent long hours studying contemporary novelists, together with the entertaining and informative Diaries of Parson James Woodforde. I subsequently foreswore contractions, larded my first draft with the phrases and expressions of the time, and made my humble characters respectful and the educated ones God-fearing, with behaviour that was (outwardly, at least) formal. Jane Austen‘s fiction, after all, portrays an era when men and women would agree to marry before they were even on first name terms.

However, although what I’d written was comprehensible, it reminded me of having to listen to Chaucer being read out at school. It wasn’t remotely like the page-turning spiral of darker and darker mysteries that I wanted to unleash on unsuspecting agents.

I set my sights lower. After all, however much research you do, some clever clogs will spot errors. In the entertaining Upstart Crow, Shakespeare‘s dad complained that the pastry of his pie was hard and inedible. When visiting the kitchens of Hampton Court recently, I was told the delicious-looking pies on display weren’t what they seemed. They were flour and water shells, designed to cook and tenderise meat. After being broken open, they were thrown away. Did Ben Elton realise this? Does it matter? I suspicion (thought I’d throw in some archaic language) that the destitute of the day would have been glad to gnaw on them. After all, didn’t Sir John Franklin eat his own boots when starving in the Arctic in the C19?

As my husband reminds me, a historical novel is a work of fiction. I clearly shouldn’t have suffragettes throwing themselves in front of George III’s coach, or adventurers sailing to New York in a week. But, as long as the things I write could possibly have happened, my fingers are crossed. Sufficient facts important to my plot are true. I have British Library references to prove it.

Top flight historical novelists like Hilary Mantel do, of course, adopt a scholarly approach, but lesser mortals like myself can hopefully settle for something more modest.

 

(Anyone attempting this genre could do no better than invest in Bloomsbury‘s Writing Historical Fiction, by Celia Brayfield and Duncan Sprott)

 

 

Historical novels – how much research?

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Historical novels – how much research should you do, what lengths should you go to to get the details and the whole feel right?

I’ve been pondering this as I’ve just read Golden Hill by Francis Spufford, who manages to create what seemed an authentic picture of New York in 1746. How authentic it in fact is I can’t verify, short of doing the research myself. But it certainly worked for me: we learned about the city’s dimensions, architecture, weather, race relations, commerce, justice system, politics, religious observance, card games, Bonfire Night customs, and even its smells. I believed it.

To find all that out must have taken a very long time. But when to stop? Do you draw a line somewhere, and avoid venturing into unknown detail, or do you draw that line and just wing it, hoping that few of your readers will notice any errors in the areas you didn’t delve into? Can you get away with finding out what people ate and wore in your chosen period, and maybe what their houses looked like, and assume that that will so impress your average reader that they believe the rest?

Warning – I’ve recently seen an episode of ‘Lewis’ in which a fraudster who has forged an ancient Greek text is brought low because in it he mentions a constellation that was discovered only in the C17. There’s always an expert out there who will spot these lone errors …

One of the ninevoices has produced a novel set in C18 London. I know she’s done much research, and the detail seems convincing. If the rest of us think we’ve spotted an anachronism we’ve said so, but usually we’re wrong.

I once thought of stepping into these deep waters myself when I started a story set in Bohemia during the Thirty Years War in the C17. It didn’t get beyond the first chapter because my creative writing tutor told me it had too much exposition, too much scene-setting. She was probably right, but I started writing something else instead.

What about the dialogue? Options could include:

  • Having your characters speak in modern-day English, just avoiding obvious anachronisms like ‘Facebook’, ‘celeb’ or ‘infomercial’;
  • Ditto, but with your characters saying ‘Forsooth’, ‘Gadzooks’ and ‘By St Leonard!’ every now and then;
  • Immersing yourself in the literature of the time (more research – when are you actually going to get started?) and trying to replicate at least some of its rhythms and vocabulary?

‘Have at ye, Sirrah!’

Are there rights and wrongs in this field? Advice please.

“Enchanted Isle”

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I wrote in an earlier posting about Catching the Wind by Melanie Dobson, a time-shift novel set largely in Kent and Sussex in WW2 and the present day (https://ninevoices.wordpress.com/2017/09/01/catching-the-wind-2/). I’ve just seen, through the wonder that is Twitter, an interview with the author on the Family Fiction website (https://www.familyfiction.com/melanie-dobson-finding-beauty-unexpected-places/).  In it she talks about Catching the Wind and also her newly published novel Enchanted Isle. This is also set in the past, in the 1950s, and is set in the Lake District, an area she is clearly taken with, with its inspiring “labyrinth of lakes and rich history”.

She speaks of her love of history and her need to set a limit to the research she does for her novels, so much does she enjoy that research. She also tells of her Christian faith and how that informs her writing.

The focus of Enchanted Isle is an abandoned amusement park, and “an unforgettable romance and an unsolved murder” dating from a generation before.

My copy is on order. Thanks, Twitter.

Competition Opportunities in November

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I’m a couple of days late with this – for which, my apologies, I was off on my broomstick – but here are some competitions worth entering in November.

Bath Children’s Novel Award, for 7-17 years. 5,000 words plus synopsis. Entry fee £25. Prizes: £2,000; £500 Cornerstones voucher. Deadline: 19 November. Details: bathnovelaward.co.uk/childrens-novel-award

Erewash Writers Free Entry Competition. Poem: 40 lines. Flash Fiction: max 500 words. Story: 1,500-2,000 words. Theme: Live in the Moment. Entry, as said, is free, but is limited to two entries max per person. Prizes: £25 story; £10 poetry/flash fiction, plus publication. Deadline: 23 November. Details: erewashwriterscompetition.weebly.com/2017-free-entry-themed-writing-competition.html

Fish Short Story Prize 2017.  Word limit, 5,000. Entry fee: 20 Euros. 10 stories will also be selected to go into the 2018 Fish Anthology. First prize: 3,000 Euros. Second prize: Week at Anam Cara Writers Retreat, plus 300 Euros. Third prize: 300 Euros. Fish also have an on-line short story writing course and a critique service. Details: http://www.fishpublishing.com

Congleton Playwriting Competition for one-act plays from new and emerging playwrights with a running time of 20-30 minutes (3,500-4,000 words). Ideally plays should have between two and six characters, but monologues will be considered. Shortlisted plays will be performed at the Congleton Players One-Act Play Festival in 2018, and the writer of the play voted the audience’s favourite will get £150. ENTRY IS FREE. Deadline: 30 November. Details: http://congletonplayers.com/

There are also always competitions to enter in Writer’s Magazine and Writers’ Forum.

And, finally, November is National Novel Writing Month, the challenge to use November to get your word count up to 50,000 words and your book properly under way. Although this started on November 1st, you can still sign up. There are badges for reaching important targets and a prize draw for people who get successfully to the end. Along the way are pep talks, support and the chance to meet fellow writers on-line. Details: https://nanowrimo.org

 

The picture, incidentally, was one of my entries into the annual Speldhurst Village Scarecrow Competition. It didn’t win, nor did it get placed (maybe it should have been featured in my Rejection Diaries), but was great fun to create. My friends tell me the likeness is remarkable, apart from the hair length.

The Rejection Diaries

No member of ninevoices is allowed to have a short story lurking in a drawer without eight strident voices demanding it be entered into something. In consequence, a tale of mine that began life (and was rejected) as Party Girl was revised and given a tighter ending and a more intriguing title: Twenty-Six Little Bones. The tweaking must have helped, since I’ve been thrilled to learn this week that it has not only been shortlisted in the 2017 Hysteria Writing Competition, but will go into their anthology at the year end.
This highlights the fine line there can be between a win (or placing) and a thumbs down. Your cherished but rejected story might be teetering on the brink of success, so never give up on it. Revise, polish, revise, then polish again. And maybe devise a more titillating title. All this confirms what we already know: writing is hard graft and there is no substitute for persistence. For re-visiting, rewriting and polishing our work.
The Hysteria competition was, incidentally, included in my monthly Competitions to Enter post, back in August. Perhaps my experience will encourage you to take a close look at our Competitions to Enter in November, due soon, to see what opportunities it might give you.

Emotional abuse from a monster husband – and a complex fascinating heroine

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If Elizabeth Bennet is classic literature’s most delightful heroine, Gwendolen Harleth might claim to be its most compelling, and not only because she may – or may not – be guilty of murder.

‘Some readers of this history will doubtless regard it as incredible that people should construct matrimonial prospects on the mere report that a bachelor of good fortune and possibilities was coming within reach …’ here is the sentence in chapter five of Daniel Deronda in which George Eliot nods to the famous opening of Pride and Prejudice.

George Eliot’s admiration for Jane Austen was profound and dated back to her first falling in love with the philosopher and literary critic George Henry Lewes; his 1852 essay The Lady Novelists in the Westminster Review praised Austen’s novels as ‘like an actual experience of life’. For him, and for George Eliot too, Jane Austen was ‘the most truthful, charming, humorous, pure-minded, quick-witted and unexaggerated of writers’.

But the rewritten sentence in Daniel Deronda is heavy with irony and extends to some ten lines of philosophical observation about human nature. George Eliot never did anything by halves and this may be part of the reason why Gwendolen Harleth, and the 800 page novel she dominates, is not as well known as such a richly complex creation deserves.

For Grandcourt, the ‘handsome lizard’ whom Gwendolen marries to escape becoming a governess, is no Mr Bingley. Early in the novel we see him baiting one of his dogs; we know from that chilling moment how he will treat Gwendolen when he has her in his power.

Unlike Charlotte Lucas in Pride and Prejudice who marries Mr Collins with her eyes open, being both sensible and realistic about her prospects and with the strength of character to live within them, Gwendolen is a spoiled child who makes the fatal mistake of thinking she can marry Grandcourt and go on doing just what she likes.

Jane Austen doesn’t condemn Charlotte Lucas for doing what was common among women of her time, and George Eliot makes the reader feel that Gwendolen has no real choice but to rescue herself and her family from degrading poverty. But Charlotte isn’t taking what belongs to someone else. Gwendolen’s real crime is in knowingly betraying another woman and breaking a promise. Punishment for this lack of loyalty to her own sex will come on her wedding night.

Although we already know what Gwendolen is capable of when something gets in her way, whether she could have actually saved Grandcourt from drowning is left uncertain. Murderous thoughts in women towards the men who are controlling or abusing them was something that interested George Eliot, and crops up several times; even the noble-minded Dorothea in Middlemarch comes close to violence when Casaubon repulses her after he’s learnt that his illness is serious. And Gwendolen has none of the religious ardour and passionate desire for the welfare of others which ultimately governs Dorothea.

George Eliot sets her characters against a vast panoramic view of humanity and world progress, in contrast to Jane Austen’s much-quoted choice of ‘three or four families in a country village’. It is perhaps because of the extraordinary magnetism of Gwendolen Harleth as a heroine for our time that Andrew Davies in his 2002 BBC television series of Daniel Deronda concentrated on her story, rather than the other half of the novel which paints the vast sweep of the Jewish faith and Zionism. George Eliot purists might regret the decision, but the production was certainly perfect in its faultless casting and acting: Hugh Bonneville, Hugh Dancy, Jodhi May, Edward Fox, Greta Scacchi, David Bamber, Celia Imrie, Amanda Root – and above all Romola Garai with her riveting performance as Gwendolen, this most fascinating and ambiguous of heroines.

 

 

 

What to learn from rejection; as for feedback, never a lender be

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Thanks to Maggie for tweeting a link to the agent Piers Blofeld talking so helpfully on the five types of rejection (for authors, that is, not in love or life generally!). That’s at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=leHTWbBces4&feature=youtu.be. Well worth six minutes of a would-be published author’s time.

He also speaks of the need for harsh feedback on one’s work. Quoting an unnamed author, he advises, “Never seek feedback from someone you’d be prepared to lend money to.” I’m not sure I’ve worked that out yet.

(Incidentally, and at the risk of causing embarrassment, I’ll add that Maggie’s tweets on writing and the frustrations and satisfactions thereof themselves always repay study. https://twitter.com/maggiedavieswr1 )

 

 

How Proust can change you into a best-selling author

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It seems that self-promotion is now part and parcel of being a writer, whether self or traditionally published. But where should the line be drawn?

Discovering that Marcel Proust, the creator of the iconic In Search of Lost Time, cunningly wrote a critic’s review citing the first volume Swann’s Way as a ‘little masterpiece … almost too luminous for the eye’ will hardly shock anyone in the business today. Proust was just ahead of his time.

Authors are bombarded with advice on how to promote their books, especially on social media. While it isn’t ever suggested that posting fake reviews of their own work is a good idea, the advice to authors is relentless, even ruthless, enough. There is no room for shrinking violets in this game.

Readers certainly like to be informed about a new book by an author but they may well begin to feel annoyed and manipulated if the chasing is too hard-boiled. Like ‘an insane cuckoo clock’ was the expression describing it that caught my eye when researching the subject on the internet. Is this what marketing on social media can turn into? The last thing many writers feel like being part of.

But I can feel Proust egging me on. Maybe not to write a lyrical review about a ‘little masterpiece’ of my own, but to point to a couple of prize-winning short stories in ninevoices’ writings. Maggie Davies’ Till Death Do Us Part won a Henshaw Press competition and Tanya van Hasselt’s Marshmallow Truth won the subscribers ‘Changes’ competition in Writing Magazine. Whilst the writing style in the latter story is nothing like that of my two self-published novels, it was both fun and fulfilling to try something new. Thank you Writing Magazine for this encouragement. 

If God Spare My Life…

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My husband’s recent re-ordering of our modest library led me to rediscover this powerful book by Brian Moynahan about religious intolerance and the brave man who translated the word of God into English.

Moynahan’s heart-stopping biography of the young Gloucestershire tutor forced to flee England in 1524 in order to safely translate the Bible into English is as much thriller as history. It brims with exhumations, double-agents, whispered confidences, poisoned soup and brutal burnings. There are unfamiliar glimpses of Anne Boleyn alongside the familiar autocratic ones of Henry VIII. Sir Thomas More, sadly, does not come out of it well. Indeed, it is less familiar figures like Thomas Bilney, who show unimaginable heroism. It is not an easy read. There is faith. Hope. But scant charity.

The agents of Tudor England caught up with Tyndale in the end. On the 6th October 1536, in Vilvoorde, just outside Brussels, he was bound to a stake with iron chains, with a noose around his neck. In the brief period he was allowed to pray, Foxe tells us he cried out  in a loud voice: ‘Lord, open the King of England’s eyes.’ He was then strangled and burned, although it is said he was still living as the flames engulfed him. His executioner was instructed to add fuel to the flames until the body was utterly consumed, after which even the ashes were disposed of (probably in the nearby River Zenne) to obliterate any traces that might remain. His words, however, will surely survive as long as we have the English language. His prose has enriched the work of writers from William Shakespeare to Alan Bennett and has lessons even for stumbling novices like myself.

Tyndale’s unique contribution was that he was translating the Bible into English for the first time from the original texts in Greek and Hebrew. Moynahan ‘s biography makes particular mention of his use of verbs: ‘…he wrote at the infancy of the written language [for] it was common for people to read aloud, even when alone; and it is this habit, and Tyndale’s studies in rhetoric at Oxford, that accounts…for the charm and thunder that soar from the English Bible when it is spoken from the lectern.’ [Tyndale uses] ‘verbs where less flowing writers use nouns and adjectives…creating a cadence and sense of immediacy.’

This terrific book is still available, though now only on eBay or through specialist bookshops. It is not the easiest of reads, but it is rich with lessons, not only for those seeking to know how even the ‘boy that driveth the plough‘ came to have first-hand access to the Bible, but for those striving to write prose with a powerful punch.  We must follow Tyndale’s example: short words; short sentences, and, above all, those potent verbs.

This Friday will mark 481 years since Tyndale’s death. What better time to remember a brave and gifted man, and everything we English-speakers owe him.