Friday, 27 December 2013

Last of my 2013 blogs

This morning I had an appointment with the audiologist: frankly I have to accept that the chances of her – it could have been a him, of course - being able to provide hearing aids which enable me to understand what people are saying to me are not good. The problem is that a hearing problems fall into two categories (possibly more, I am no expert): loudness and clarity. While the hearing aids amplify the voice of the person to whom you are listening (and also amplifies everything else) it does nothing to help with clarity. So often when I say ‘I can’t hear you,’ I don’t mean that at all. What you are saying sounds like gibberish.’ would be more accurate but probably not overly guaranteed to make friends and influence people. Still, there are a new breed of hearing aids available now and it is possible that these may be of more use.

One of the problems is that the hearing aid microphones are beside my ear and therefore nowhere near the mouth of the person I want to hear. I have found the best answer is to use a wonderful system to communicate when I am in a one-to-one situation such as at home with Marcia. This comprises two units: the one she wears has a microphone – near her mouth – and a radio transmitter. I wear the radio receiver to which I listen using ear buds. The real problem is that it is a bit tricky in group situations when poor Marcia has to try to keep me up to speed with what others are saying. Well, I look forward to the new aids and hope that combined with a fair ability to lip read I shall once again be fit to be in company.

The main audiology department is down in Plymouth but they hold clinics in Kingsbridge (thank goodness) which is far easier for us. Anyway, it also meant we had a good excuse to go and eat lunch in The Boathouse at Torcross. This is one of our favourite places as it overlooks the sea on one side and Slapton Ley on the other.

Torcross where these buildings are now protected by a sea wall.
This photo by my friend and one time colleague Sarah Perring
It is even more important than usual because Torcross is one of the places in the book that Marcia is working on at the moment. One of the delights here is the freshwater lake that lies behind the narrow shingle bank that separates it from the sea and on which the road runs. It is a wonderful habitat where there are many different species of water birds. As far as the new book is concerned, I am told that you will read about one known as Puddleduck who now lives in the village and, quite right, pops into The Boathouse for a meal every now and then.

The Boathouse at Torcross
There was another reason for wanting to drive along the coast to Torcross. I have been trying to get some footage of big seas crashing over the sea wall that now protects the village and, as some you will know, a number of deep depressions have swept over the UK in the last week or so: each one bringing with it heavy rains and gale force winds. The tide was almost at the top as we drove out of Kingsbridge and, even better, the sun shone down out of a fairly clear blue sky.
Not water birds.
These two were sitting on our table when we arrived at The Boathouse.
It was not to be: as we approached the coast I realised that Start Point was taking the brunt of the weather and the seas in Start Bay were nothing special. Then the sun went behind the clouds and, as we sat eating our lunch, the rain returned. Still, the day was far from wasted: as always when we visit the location of the book-in-progress, Marcia’s characters tell her things hitherto kept secret and she returns with new and fresh ideas.

And here they are again with Justine (left) and Ziggy.
Marcia and I – and all her characters (including the nasty ones) – wish all of you a Happy New Year: may 2014 be good to you.

This inquisitive face belongs to a Tibetan Terrier Cross called Liquorice.

Friday, 20 December 2013

In the deep mid winter . . .

As I sit in front of my computer writing this blog, Marcia is sitting with her laptop writing about the Royal Regatta in Dartmouth. Outside is a typically mid-December drear of the sort only too common on the south west shoulders of Dartmoor. No sun, of course, but no defined clouds either: instead the sky is a uniform dirty looking grey tinged with yellow - rather like the smogs we used to have when most houses were heated with open coal fires in the days before the clean air acts came in to force. No rain, although it lashed down not long ago: just mizzle (a combination of mist and drizzle).

Back at Regatta time we had brilliant sunshine, eternal blue skies and it was hot on hot (as they used to say in the old days). Thus Marcia has had to create a world that is so different from the one surrounding us: a world of happy holidaymakers on the embankment catching crabs or just watching other people catching crabs, people on the beaches playing with their children or plunging in and out of the sea and more energetic souls walking the coastal footpath or pumping pedals on mountain bikes.

Come Easter, and Marcia will be writing about Christmas, about now, in fact. This triggers off a memory that I may have shared with you before (in which case I apologise). Imagine Easter Sunday in the (then) small village of Avonwick. Marcia used to live in the Old Bakery there and had sold it many years ago to Sally and Brian. We had moved back into the village nut, obviously, in a different house. Marcia leaves to go down to the church as Sally is passing on the same errand.

‘Hello Sally,’ says Marcia. ‘Are the girls home for Christmas?’

There is a long pause and then, ‘Marce, it’s Easter.’

‘What? Oh, sorry. How silly of me. I have just been writing about Christmas.’

The real problem is, of course, to remember what it was like in August when writing at the end of December and remembering what it was like in the run up to Christmas when writing at the end of March. The answer, in Marcia’s case, is to take lots and lots of notes: taken in very small notebooks – one of which is always with her in much the same way as I always have a camera with me.

Thus this week we have been down to Dartmouth and Torcross to check them out so that, come Easter, Marcia will know what was what and where and how it felt.

Talking about Christmas, Marcia has written you a short letter to which I would like to add my very best wishes to you all. Some of you have had a rather difficult time recently: may 2014 be a year of peace, health and happiness.

Hello everyone,

A sudden drop in temperature, a spatter of hail against the window, and - just as suddenly - the sun appears from behind stormy, gold-edged clouds just moments before it sets behind Ugborough Beacon. Its light gleams on the last of the rosy fruit on the crab-apple tree and briefly touches the tips of the tall firs with fire. Sunset at four o'clock: tomorrow will be the shortest day. So much to anticipate: the first snowdrops, daffodills, new-born lambs but -before any of those things - Christmas.

May I wish you all joy and peace, and offer many thanks for all your support and encouragement. It is so wonderful to hear from you all, to have your good wishes, and to know that we all go forward together into the New Year. I hope it will be a happy one.

Many blessings and much love


 Our blog dog is known to all his friends simply as Alfie, which is a bit of a comedown for such a handsome Bedlington Lurcher but there you are. The explanation probably lies with his owner whom I met in Totnes despite the fact that he hails from Par which is near Tywardreath down in Cornwall where he runs an antiques business known as Temeraire Antiques. For further details click here (which means that for two weeks running I have linked you to a business but I promise it will not become a habit).

Friday, 13 December 2013

A novelist's voice

I saw a rook today, with a straw in its beak, and I was visited by an inexplicable, unnamed longing; the kind of poignant yearning that one associates with the anguish of youth rather than with the sensible placidity of middle age.” Thus starts Facing the Music written by one Willa Marsh (otherwise known as Marcia Willett).
Facing the Music

In the early days the stories just poured out of Marcia once the dam had finally collapsed and whatever it was that was holding her creative spirit decided that the time had come to let go. In those days she was published by Hodder Headline and they were bringing out a new hardback every six months – Those Who Serve in 1994, Thea’s Parrot and The Courtyard in 1995, The Dipper and Hattie’s Mill in 1996, Starting Over and Second Time Around in 1997. It was Looking Forward (the first book of the Chadwick Trilogy) that broke this mould. Publishers don’t really like trilogies and it was a huge sign of Headline’s confidence in Marcia that they agreed to this one even though it was obvious that these were going to be difficult books to write and the time had come to slow things down a bit and publish annually.
Amy WIngate's Journal

Actually it was even more phenomenal that that sounds. Somewhere along the line, Marcia had found time to write a number of short stories for, amongst other publications, The Mail on Sunday. There is a big difference between writing the sort of novels that Marcia writes (which are character driven – called “vertical writing”) and, for example, adventure or crime novels (which are plot driven – “horizontal writing”). Short stories have to be plot driven.

Vertical writing is very frightening. Indeed, if you attend a writing course you will be told that “writing into thin air” is, quite simply, wrong. It isn’t but the ability to do it and pull it off is very rare: I, for example, simply don’t have it: Marcia has. It goes something like this: two “known” characters are brought together in some situation and the writer “listens” to how they react to each other and records what happens. This is easy enough to imagine if you are thinking about a couple of close friends or relatives. You know how they work and you would be able to make a good guess at the outcome. From then on every interaction is treated the same way which is why a novelist can be convinced that A is going to marry B only to be shocked to discover that this is not the case. A wants to marry C and B is . . . well, that depends on who B is: deeply upset, relieved, indifferent.
Sisters Under the Skin

Anyway, Marcia was well ahead of herself so she decided to take one of these short stories to see whether she would like some extended horizontal writing for a change; the chance to explore something completely different. Her agent asked her what she was doing.

“Nothing”, said Marcia, innocently.

“Rubbish,” rejoined Dinah. “Tell me, you’re writing something, aren’t you?”

“No, not really.”

“What does that mean?”

“Well, its not a proper book.”

At which point Dinah insisted she see the manuscript. She agreed that it was not a “Marcia Willett” but that it ought to be published. She offered the manuscript to Sceptre and they wanted to buy it. The problem was that this could not be published under the name of Marcia Willett and we spent a few totally hilarious days trying to come up with something suitable. Finally it was Dinah who came up with the answer: Willa Marsh. That first book, Amy Wingate’s Journal was to be followed by three more, including Facing the Music.
The Quick and the Dead

Thus it was that we all realised that there where two voices inside Marcia: one who was hooked on vertical writing (Marcia – who is a really nice person) and one who yearned for some horizontal writing (Willa – who has a rather wicked and naughty streak).

Then came the day when the two voices began to merge – in The Children’s Hour – and Dinah decided the time had come to move Marcia on to a new publisher: Transworld. Since then Marcia’s books have become slightly darker, slightly more edgy (and therefore slightly more close to real life) as she has allowed characters to come into focus who, in the early days, she would have banished. Despite this I am sure all her readers would agree that she holds onto those two characteristics that are to be found in every book: the concepts of redemption and hope.

As I write, both Hodder Headline and Transworld have published twelve books each so the next one out – in 2014 – will nudge Transworld into the lead.

So what happened to the Willa Marsh books? Well, here in the UK they are out of print but, and much to Marcia’s delight, they have been published by one of the literary publishers in France, Editions Autrement. They have all four books in print and have now bought The Children’s Hour but it will be published under the name of that well known author in France (with reviews in La Figaro), Willa Marsh.

And what brought all this on? Well, we were in the lower car park in Totnes the other day and I saw a crow with some paper (not a twig) in its beak which it was carrying to the nest which he and his mate were busy repairing. This is a bit earlier than I would expect but I expect they know what they are doing.

Here we see Mr Pickle in the arms of Mr Fickle. Well, that's where he would be, isn't it? If you want to know more about what Fickle and Pickle get up to in real life click here. You will then learn, among many other things, that one of them has been rescued on no less than three occasions. 

Friday, 6 December 2013


Last week I said I was going to write about a trip on the River Dart I had made with my friend Roger Whitewood and to share with you some of the photographs that I took on that day.

Roger and I agreed to meet on Steamer Quay in Totnes where I would leave my car and he would (being a kind sort of bloke) drive me down the Torbay side of the River Dart to the boatyard at Noss from where we were setting out. Whilst I waited for him to arrive (no, he was not late - I was early) I took a few photographs of the buildings on the Totnes side of the river. There was not a breath of wind - and you can see why I have titled this post "Reflections"
There was a time when if Roger and I were together in a boat – be it his boat or mine – the main means of propulsion was the power of the wind turned into forward motion thanks to the skills of boatbuilders, sailmakers and (this goes without saying) the two intrepid sailors on board.

More reflections, this time near Dittisham.
Not so on this occasion. The boat was borrowed from one of the marine engineers who operate out of Noss Marina where Philips and Sons once built ships. 

Time to meet the Skipper.
I should add that Roger is a “Sparks” – a man versed in the way in which boat electrics and electronics work who, when he was a young man, sailed the seven seas as a radio operator. Now he runs a business installing, repairing and maintaining anything on board a boat that needs a few volts to make it work. Not surprisingly, a lot of his customers are also clients of firms such as Stephenson and Son who look after engines and it was one of their workboats that we borrowed which, since there was no wind whatsoever, was just as well.

Since this blog is supposed to having something to do with the business of writing novels, I thought these two pictures fitted in rather well. Top is a glimpse of "Greenaway" - the house where Agatha Christie lived - and below is her boat house which has featured in some of the Poirot films.
The purpose of the photographs was, as you will have guessed, because I want a few for the booklets I am working on. Not everything went according to plan. The forecast promised sunny intervals. It was wrong. The day was overcast and the evening drew in early so the light had gone before we finished what we set out to do. That is no disaster: it was a thoroughly enjoyable day and now we have the perfect excuse to do it again quite soon.

We weren't the only people out on the river. Top: the Harbour Master's Launch busily going about its business and below Cadets from Britannia Royal Naval College are practicing ship handling in one of the college boats. 
Meanwhile Marcia continues to chat to her new characters and to share their revelations with me both when we talk and when I am allowed to read the latest chapter. If you think you have a problem when reading one of Marcia’s books because you are forced to put it down for some utterly pointless reason (such as cooking, cleaning, shopping and so on) then spare me a thought. The book will be there when you want it. Not so for me: I have to wait until Marcia’s people have told her the next part of the story, she has brooded until she knows how she wants to tell us and then had to hit the keys until it is written. Then, and only then, can I get back to it. I tell you, the whole thing is extremely unfair. I can also say that this one is . . . well, the people are wonderful and they are as mixed up and muddled as usual, poor dears. Still, by the time Marcia has finished with them there will at least be a glimmer of hope on the horizon but not (Marcia being Marcia) any suggestion of everlasting bliss.

"Where has she gone? How long will she be?"
Jasper, attached to a pillar in Totnes' Butterwalk while his lovely mistress was doing a bit of shopping is a cross between a Dalmatian and a Collie (probably!).