Eliza, Betty, Bess and Lizzie



Elizabeth, Elizabeth, Elizabeth and another. What’s with all these Elizabeths? Did godparents also promise that infant boys would always choose a bride called Elizabeth?

There was great, great grandfather John who managed to marry two Elizabeths.
Were the parents of Suffolk limited in their knowledge of other Christian names? Did they secretly yearn to call their daughters Karen, Kim or Kylie, but the parish clerk could only muster the noble Elizabeth in the register.

What did they call themselves? There must have been some variation with all these Elizabeths living in such a small village as Assington.
Then when the wives bore girls what did the Williams and Johns name them? If your mother is Elizabeth why not your daughter?

Just a smidgeen of information of these 18th and 19th century ancestors sends the mind into imagining Eliza, Betty, Bess and Lizzie sweeping their cottages, hanging out the washing, gossiping in the street, hastening on Sundays to St Edmund’s church. And perhaps dreaming of a wild card name for their next daughter.

Death of the Imagination?


Apparently Anthony Horowitz, author of Foyles War and the popular Alex Ryder series of teenage spy novels, is bemused at being told by a US editor that ‘it’s inappropriate to draw from experiences other than his own’. In other words, he must write only about Jewish gentlemen currently in their sixties.


It is true that Jane Austen’s brilliant works were based on acute observation of her milieu, that Dickens had first-hand experience of the darker side of Victorian London, and that Tolstoy’s own father, as a veteran of The Patriotic War of 1812, would have shared his experiences with his son.

But what is this blinkered editor thinking:

  • That J K Rowling is a secret wizard?
  • Surely Hilary Mantel lives in contemporary England, not Tudor London?
  • Neither Pat Barker, nor Sebastian Faulks were born during World War I, so how did they re-create its tragedies so vividly in Ghost Road and Birdsong?
  • Likewise, Helen Dunmore wasn’t in Leningrad in 1941, yet somehow managed to write The Seige with power and sensitivity.
  • Jacqueline Wilson transported herself successfully into London’s eighteenth century Foundling Hospital with Hetty Feather
  • Jessie Burton succeeds in ‘impressively evoking the oppressive society of the Dutch Golden Age’ in The Miniaturist.
  • Sarah Perry uncovers a fantastical tale set in 1893 in The Essex Serpent.
  • Francis Spufford magicked eighteenth century New York into rivetting re-existence with Golden Hill.
  • David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas surely tops them all, with a narrative ‘circling the globe and reaches from the nineteenth century to a post-apocalyptic future’.

I am as bemused as the talented Mr Horowitz. Maybe these writers are simply all wizards.

Anglican Women Novelists: a treat in store


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The bodies were discovered at eight forty-five on the morning of Wednesday 18th September by Miss Emily Wharton, a 65-year-old spinster of the parish of St Matthews in Paddington, London, and Darren Wilkes, aged 10, of no particular parish as far as he knew or cared.

This, the irresistible opening sentence of A Taste for Death by P. D. James, was among the excerpts in the handout at a scintillating lecture given by Professor Alison Shell entitled ‘Anglicanism and Women Novelists: A Special Relationship’ at the Barbara Pym Society meeting in London on 7th May.

Crime and humour: these seem to be the predominant threads in Anglican fiction. Spinsters loom large … we were treated to excerpts from Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers and of course Barbara Pym.

Professor Alison Shell  is currently co-editing with Judith Maltby Anglican Women Novelists which includes essays on P. D. James, Rose Macauley, Barbara Pym and others from Charlotte Bronte onwards. The good news is that it’s being published by Bloomsbury early next year, so there’s not long to wait for what sounds like a fascinating study.

Nothing to Declare … or is there?

The Director’s Cut Company under Heather Ward has called for writer’s submissions of 5 to 7-minute monologues/duologues for the Director’s Club Showcase at Southwark Playhouse, London. The deadline is in pdf format by 6pm on Friday 19th May to: scripts@directorscutttheatre.co.uk

From the website but please read the brief carefully. There is much more to it than this short teaser …


Or is there?…

She is a free spirit.  Constantly moving, from one European country to the next.  Embracing culture and people from all walks of life.  She likes change, adventure, risk and discoveries…and she chooses when and what she gives away.  Once you encounter her your life will never be the same again.  Are you ready?

A moment with her is all you have.  And then, she is gone.


This is a unique and exciting concept, we are looking for stand out pieces that respond to the below brief.

We envisage Nothing to Declare to be a play about humanity, culture, connection, encounters, self-discovery, anonymity, love and freedom.  This woman, whose name or nationality is never mentioned, and who you only hear about from the people who have met her, moves freely and spontaneously, whenever she chooses, from one European country to the next, picking up different jobs, sharing in random and meaningful, sometimes life changing encounters, meeting people from all walks of life, remaining interested and curious, impacting those she meets, and unraveling their story…as well as her own.

Please read the brief carefully before applying.

We are looking for:

  • Monologues and duologues 5-7 minutes in length …

For more details go to http://www.directorscuttheatre.co.uk/writers/



Competitions to Enter in May


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For those of us slaving into the night on our novels (who groan at also having to produce an enticing agent letter, plus possibly an elevator pitch) competitions for debut novels do at least omit these. You usually need the dreaded synopsis, of course, but that can hardly be avoided. Unless you’re Hilary Mantel: no agent would surely have the nerve to demand one from her…

May is the month for the Bridport’s Peggy Chapman-Andrews Award. Required are the opening chapters of the novel – a minimum of 5,000 words and a maximum of 8,000 words, plus a synopsis of 300 words. First prize is £1,000, plus a written report from the judge, while a runner-up will receive £500, plus a full manuscript appraisal from The Literary Consultancy. The entry fee is £20 and the deadline is midnight on May 31st. Full details from: http://www.bridportprize.org.uk

Next up is the Yeovil Literary Prize.  They’re asking for your opening chapters and a synopsis, up to 15,000 words. Prizes are: £1,000, £250, £100, with a modest entry fee of £12. Closing date is May 31st. Full details: http://www.yeovilprize.co.uk

The Winchester Writers’ Festival 2017 want only the first three pages, plus a 600 word synopsis. Prizes: an editorial meeting with Little Brown, plus £70-worth of books; £30-worth of books. Entry fee is only £6, or £16 with some constructive feedback. This would be perfect for someone embarking on a first or new novel and the feedback offer sounds incredibly good value.  Deadline May 15th. Details: http://www.writersfestival.co.uk

New Voices First Novel Competition. 50 pages of a novel, ready for submission by a first-time writer. Prize: Start-up mentoring package worth £550. Entry fee: £10. Deadline May 31st.  Details: http://www.adventuresinfiction.co.uk

And for the short story writers:

Winchester Writers’ Festival 2017 are also looking for a 1,000-word short story with a MURDER theme. Prizes are books to the value of £60, £40, £20. They also want open-themed short stories between 1,500-3,000 words. Prizes: a telephone consultation with Janklow and Nesbit ‘to receive editorial report’; book prizes for second and third places. Winchester also have competitions for a picture book for children, a memoir, a book for children aged 8-12; flash fiction, and a competition for young writers. Each entry is £6, with the same offer of an included critique for £16. Lots of opportunities on their website: wwwwritersfestival.co.uk

Frome Festival Short Story Festival is seeking stories of 1,000-2,200-words on an open theme. Prizes: £400, £200, £100, with winning entries published on their website – and also possibly sent by them to Women’s Weekly for consideration. Entry fee: £8. Deadline May 31st. Details: http://www.fromeshortstorycompetition.co.uk

Bath Short Story Competition want up to 2,200 words on an open theme. Prizes: £1,000, £200, £50, plus a £50 prize for the best short story by an unpublished writer. Winning and shortlisted stories will be published in an anthology. Entry fee is £8, and the closing date (SOON) is May 1st. Details: http://www.bathshortstory.org.

The Bristol Prize is for a 4,000-word short story. Prizes: £1,000, £799, £400, £100. Fee £8. Deadline (SOON) May 3rd. Details: http://www.bristolprize.co.uk

Bridport also have a short story prize (5,000 words), plus one for a poem (42 lines maximum) and another for flash fiction (250 words). Fee: £10 story; £9 poem; £8 flash. Prizes: story/poem: £5,000, £1,000, £500, 10x£100; flash: £1,000, £500, £250, 3x£100. Deadline May 31st. Details: http://www.bridportprize.org.uk

Yeovil are also offering prizes for a short story, up to 2,000-words and a poem, up to 40 lines. Prizes: £500, £200, £100 for stories/poem. They also have a ‘Writing Without Restriction’ competition (see website for further information on this), with prizes of £200, £100 and £50. Entry fees: £7 for short stories and/or one poem, £10 for two, £12 for three. Writing without restriction: £5. Deadline: May 31st. Details: http://www.yeovilprize.co.uk

Storgy Magazine 2017 Short Story Competition. Stories up to 5,000 words. Prizes: £1,000, £500, £250. Entry fee: £10. Deadline: May 31st. Details: http://stogy.com

Cinnamon Press Short Story Prize: 2,000 to 5,000 words. Prizes: one year’s free mentoring, place on a Ty Newydd course. Publication. Entry fee: £12. Deadline May 31st. Details: http://www.cinnamonpress.com

There are so many opportunities in May that I’m going cross-eyed, so PLEASE check all details carefully. I’ll certainly be entering several of these competitions (ever the optimist), as will other members of ninevoices.

Remember. If you don’t enter, you can’t win.

Reviewing the Situation


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I am a review junkie. Before an anticipated purchase I will be found scouring other people’s opinion. Often the project is then abandoned and money is saved. However, I glean an insight into new characters who produce their praise or venom often sans punctuation, sans capitalisation. I visualise those who say, ‘I loved it so much I bought it in every colour. I haven’t worn it yet,’ with their wardrobes, colour-coordinated, of course, awash with identical outfits.

Then there are book reviews. Reading some, I feel I know the story and so why bother? But recently, for the first time in a long life, I immediately ordered two books, both non-fiction. The Butcher, The Baker, the Candlestick Maker by Roger Hutchinson is an account of the British decennial census since its conception in 1801 by John Rickman. Fascinating for anybody who has dabbled in family history or is interested by the changing demography of society, it is a book of facts and figures amongst which are snippets of interest and amusement.

In the 1841 census in Liverpool, four families gave Ireland as their place of birth: their surnames, McCartney, Lennon, Harrison and Starkey.

There are accounts of well-known families, among them Marks, Macmillan, Flora Thompson, and the unknown: the bigamist and those who truthfully gave their occupations as prostitute, brothel keeper, beggar. Later the suffragists would enter “domestic slave” or simply “slave” as a protest at being disenfranchised.

In 1881 when women were recruited as enumerators they were satirised by imaging a conversation between the  female enumerator and the lady of the house. Neither could keep to the point, but discussed the carpet, their clothes and pudding recipes. “I must be getting on. I haven’t done but three families all the forenoon.”

The second book is Not Just Jane by Shelley DeWess who, eagerly, awaiting a dramatisation of Pride and Prejudice, was devastated to find where she had “seen erudition, subtle wit, and quiet country vistas the director had seen flirtation and farce”. This set her on the quest to discover the now, but not in their own time, lesser-known contemporary female writers of Jane, Charlotte and Emily. (Anne, “the forgotten Brontë sister, who refused to wear rose-tinted glasses”, she places in another category.) Invariably the seven authors whose lives and works she describes turned to writing for economic reasons, usually caused by feckless husbands. Denied the cosy corner of a paternal vicarage, they laboured to feed children and to liberate husbands from a debtors’ prison. No longer household names they were once highly-regarded by William Wordsworth, Robert Southey, Dr Samuel Johnson. Now “They are not remembered, they are not canonized….What I came to understand was that, first and foremost, the game of lasting fame is an inherently unfair one.”

Skipper, of the canine literati, unprompted, reviewed a dog-training manual. His opinion was entirely subjective.

Agents Chatting, Over Coffee…

(With apologies to any agents who may be reading this!)

Erica:        I hear you’ve snagged a new author?

Dominic:   Yup. Huge talent.

Erica:        Exciting. What’s the elevator pitch?

Dominic:   Vampire lover of the Machu Picchu Mummies chats up girl on train.

Erica:        Wow!

Dominic:    I know. Vampires. Sex. Desiccated bodies. A girl and a train.

Erica:        You lucky sod.

Dominic:    She’s promotable, too. Young. Photogenic. Married to a neuro-surgeon.

Erica:        And all I’ve got at the moment is a talking caterpillar…

Dominic:    Tough.

Erica:        Though maybe the vampire thing is losing its edge…

Dominic:    My publishers reckon it still has bite. The mummy thread unravels a bit, but that should be fixable.

Erica:        Providing she’s co-operative, of course.

Dominic:    True. When they first get an agent, writers think them the best thing since chocolate fudge cake. Sadly, that doesn’t last.

Erica:        Tell me about it. The minute you want to edit their manuscript, you become Godzilla.

Dominic:   Yeah. Ask them to cut fifty thousand words, or tone down the sado-masochism and stick in a werewolf, and they go all Jane Austen on you.

Erica:        Writers, eh? But I guess we need them.

Dominic:   I know. The dream. Finding another JKR. Earning enough to buy that yacht – and never needing to plough through another mountain of bloody awful submissions again…

Lessons from the life class


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head study



‘I don’t want to see anybody continuing to draw when the model has stopped posing,’ warned the art tutor. ‘Take a break and when you come back you will see your work – and all its mistakes –  with fresh eyes.’

Some anxious members of the class took no notice and went on fiddling, adding little details, trying to ‘finish the picture’, only to become muddled and wish they hadn’t.

‘You don’t need to draw every outline; the eye of the person looking at your drawing will automatically fill in the gap, will see what is suggested for themselves.’

More advice from the art tutor which tallies with writing: we can leave the reader to work something out rather than over-explaining it. What is left unsaid or barely hinted at might be as effective as what is said.

All this is probably part of the show not tell ‘rule’ which creative writing tutors are always going on about – often tediously and over-dogmatically – but it does seem to relate to visual art as well.

The third useful thing I took away from the portrait and life drawing class happened when I had to be the model. Being confronted with how other people see you might be very good for you but it is not always a confidence-boosting experience! Do I really look as grumpy/worried/distracted as that? It reminded me that what we think we are conveying in our writing may not be what other people are hearing. We can be curiously unaware of the mismatch. Have we left too many of those important gaps? This is why we are thankful if we can rely on a far-seeing and fearless critique group to point out the truth, however unpalatable it may be. Unstinting flattery in a portrait or praise for a piece of writing is very nice but it won’t help us in the long run. Look what it did for poor Anne of Cleves.


Clever greengrocer’s


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Today’s ‘Times’ includes a letter from Michael Plumbe, former Chairman of the Queen’s English Society.  He recalls visiting a local greengrocer to complain about his “errant apostrophes”.

“He winked.  He told me passers-by often popped into the shop to complain.  Then, while there, they would buy something.  Crafty.”


You’ve got to put in the hours


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In her gripping psychological thriller Trick of the Dark Val McDermid puts the following into the mouth of one of the main characters, a most successful businesswoman:

“It always amazes me that so many people think it’s just enough to have an idea, without doing any work to underpin it. …  It’s the difference between being a good pub raconteur and a bestselling novelist. That difference is hard work.”

So says Val McDermid, author of over 30 books which have sold over 10 million copies (see http://www.valmcdermid.com/).  She should know!