Friday, 31 January 2014

A beginning, a middle and an ending

For starters – I owe you an apology. Last Friday one of those Google thingies where they ask you whether or not you want to take advantage of something popped up. I do wish they wouldn’t do this. Anyway, I was busy and wasn’t really paying attention and I hit the wrong button. The result was that G+ snaffled the comments on the blog which meant that you couldn’t leave your thoughts except through G+ (which, as far as I am concerned, is a very bad idea). It was drawn to my attention about six last Friday evening but then took me a while to sort out what had happened and a bit longer to find our how to put it right. So, if you did try to leave a comment and couldn’t, I’m sorry. I shall be more careful next time Google asks a question. Having said that, I find what Google does is very good indeed so I am not at all anti.

They say that every story should have a beginning, a middle and an end. Well, a few weeks ago I mentioned “the desert” – the middle of writing a novel – so I thought I would look at these three stages from the writers point of view.

Everything you write needs a beginning, a middle and an end. Some of us use devices to make life easier (like always ending with a blog dog) but that is really cheating. So, here goes.

The Beginning.

This is marked by a huge surge of excitement as new ideas form and new characters chatter away in the background. Who are they? Where are they? What are they doing? We dash about in the car looking for them and have as much fun in drawing blanks as we have when we “find” (to use an old hunting term which is, I suppose, no longer “PC”).

Then it is time to start writing and that means setting the scene and making sure that the characters jump off the page so that the reader becomes a part of the unfolding story.

But is there really a story? Is there enough going on here to make a full length novel? Will Dinah, Marcia’s agent, like it? Will Linda, Marcia’s publisher, like it? Will Emma, Marcia’s editor, like it? Will the readers like it?

The excitement is, however, diluted by a sense of terror.

The Middle

The scene is set, the characters are known and we are on our way. Now there is the need to produce about fifty thousand words as we trundle slowly and steadily towards a conclusion. This is the worst part in one respect. It takes huge self-discipline to sit down each day and write for six or seven hours. With any luck there will be breaks but these will be because some little detail is required and a visit to the book’s location is the only way to make sure that is properly recorded.

If this is a desert for the writer, what will it be for the reader? How will they manage to struggle through this middle section?

The sense of despair is, however, diluted by a sense of terror.

The End

Now the whole novel is there in the mind’s eye. All that has to be done is to write it. One is reminded of a comment that Iris Murdoch made to her husband, John Bayley. “The novel is finished. Now all I have to do is to write it down.”

In some ways this is the worst bit for Marcia. “Will someone steal mu computer?” (It wouldn’t matter if they did – I keep the text backed up on mine and on a memory stick which is kept in a very safe place where no burglar would think of looking.) “What if my computer crashed and died for ever?” (Still wouldn’t matter – see above.) “What if something happened to me and I couldn’t finish it?” (Very valid concern.)

So we enter into the manic writing phase. Usually Marcia’s writing day starts with working through what she wrote on the previous day (she calls this “polishing”) and sometimes working right through from the beginning because some later idea needs to be introduced, given a foundation. Marcia calls this “threading”. Both take time and then she will write from between one to two thousand words.

Not during the end. Now she is running on overdrive. No polishing, no threading just writing at break-neck speed – anything upwards of three thousand words a day. Then, when she gets to the end, she can relax and go back and do all the polishing and threading that is required.

That sense of terror is, however, enhanced by this new sense of terror.

It has been said that whenever you go into a writer’s study you can smell the fear and the despair. Well, I know that to be true for the two of us but I can’t speak for all the others.

Does all this apply when you are writing about crime? I shall look into that and report back.

Our blog dog is called Zulu. He is a Patterdale Terrier and was, when this picture was taken, about to enjoy his Christmas lunch. I know it’s a bit late but “Happy New Year, Zulu”.

Friday, 24 January 2014

An unexpected encounter

Marcia and I had a meeting at Dartington last Monday. Once this was over we popped into the Roundhouse there for a cup of coffee.

Dartington Great Hall from the gardens.
It was, as you can see, a day of sunshine and showers.
I do not have to tell you that I am always on the look out for a blog dog and so you will not be surprised to hear that when we left and I saw a likely candidate sitting attached to a motorised wheelchair, I just had to stop and ask for permission to take his picture. You will see the result below.

Like many collies, Boogie is totally on the ball – alert, intelligent and ready for anything. Unlike many people who have to cope with life in a wheelchair, Philippa Armstrong is equally alert, intelligent and ready for anything. Most of the “anythings” in her life have to do with her dogs: there are two more which we shall meet one of these weeks.

I am sure that many of you have seen dog agility competitions either in the flesh (or should that be ‘in the fur’) or on television. The handlers look to be as fit as the dogs as they race around the course, guiding their dogs over, around and underneath the various obstacles they have to overcome. All handlers, that is, apart from Philippa – the only handler to control her dogs from a wheelchair. In these rings she competes on level terms with able-bodied handlers (about two hundred of them) and she is surprisingly successful: she has competed in two national finals.

Now, think about that for a moment. It is hard enough training dogs when you can work close to them but Philippa has to control them from her wheelchair which, to be blunt about it, just isn’t fast enough or agile enough to stay close to the dogs. That means she has to control them from a distance which, in turn, means that both she and her dogs have to be that much better than the competition to have an even chance of success. If you want to read more about her, click here.

Snowdrops heralding the spring
This mahonia, meanwhile, seems to think it is still autumn.
After this bit of doggy portraiture, Marcia and I went for a short walk through the gardens at Dartington before returning back to our computers. There we found the first signs of spring just around the corner: snowdrops just visible, the first crocus poking shy heads above the ground, a couple of male blackbirds shouting at each other and then taking off to chase each other through the shrubs and trees. Ignoring them was a robin, intent on enjoying a late lunch, and overhead the rooks were chattering amongst themselves.

Driving back home the sunset was astonishingly beautiful and because we had taken Marcia’s car I was able to just sit and watch as the colours of the clouds hanging over Dartmoor changed from white to the palest of yellows and then through a pink suited to some mythical princess to an almost angry red. Suddenly, as if a light had been turned off, more rain clouds gathered overhead and we were hardly inside the house when the heavens opened – again. The end of another memorable day.

Boogie - I hope to offer you another one of this chap in action quite soon.

Friday, 17 January 2014

The last line of the book

The other day, Marcia said to me, ‘I know the last line of the book.’

‘Oh, when did that happen? Just now?’

‘No,’ she shook her head. ‘A few days ago but I wasn’t sure I had it exactly right until just now.’

‘So you know how it ends?’

‘I think so but I still don’t know how they all get there.’

You will remember from last week that she is about half way through the writing part of this novel. The question that springs to mind is: ‘Just how does this work?’

That is something I have brooded on in the past and never found a sensible answer but today I think I can see how it does work. Perhaps, anyway. Let’s see whether this makes any sense.

You are standing on the top of a hill. The view is incredible: directly in front of you the is a deep valley, in many parts it is wooded but there are a number of areas where there is open pasture in which animals graze and other fields where wheat and other crops are growing. You can be sure that down there, hidden from your view, there is a river running through the valley and looking across at the other side you suspect a number of smaller streams running down the sides of the hills to join it. 

Then there is the hill top opposite. It is a fair distance away but by peering through your binoculars you can see it is a smoothly rounded feature and a small cairn of stones has been built up there to mark the summit.

That summit is your destination. Looking down again you decide on the route you are going to follow but, of course, apart from the first few hundred yards, you are really guessing as you have no idea what you will find on the way . . .

. . . what diversions will be forced upon you, what fascinating distractions will draw you from the direct path, what obstacles you will find that hinder your progress. Above all, for how long will the present state of excitement at the prospect of the journey and the arrival at that cairn last. As all explorers know, there will be times when you really wonder why you are putting yourself through so much pain and suffering but there will be others when the heart sings and you would be in no other place.

So it is that Marcia knows the beginning and she can see her destination in the distance. It’s the bits in between that are going to provide the challenges.

This is without a shadow of a doubt the largest Pekingese I have ever seen. He is, as his name implies, huge. That name? Well, Maxmegapod, obviously. However, I am told that when he is feeling kindly he will answer to Max.

Friday, 10 January 2014

When the night wind howls

When the night wind howls
In the chimney cowls,
And the bat in the moonlight flies,
And the inky clouds,
Like funeral shrouds,
Sail over the midnight skies . . .

(From the comic opera Ruddigore: lyric by W S Gilbert)

This last week, it has been the weather that has dominated the news and, as you can believe, our lives. Without wishing to become embroiled in the arguments surrounding global warming or climate change or what have you, I am convinced that there is much more energy in the atmosphere than there was. We seem to experience more gale force winds for longer periods of time and with even more powerful gusts than hitherto. These gales seem to be carrying more rain which must have been picked up by the wind as it crosses the sea. We are told that this is due to the jet stream being stronger than usual. I am happy to accept that but where is all this extra energy coming from?

After a good deal of thought, I realise that other than there is only one sensible photograph to put here other than the blog dog so, instead, I am showing you some rather self-indulgent pictures of the sky.
For the record, but mainly because we have kept away from the places we knew to be affected, we have come through unscathed. Having said that, there was a tree down over a lane we use every time we go into Totnes which, it seems, missed a passing car by inches.

One of our problems (if that is the right word in this case) is that Marcia enjoys a worldwide readership. This means that we are acutely aware of the effects of extreme weather events no matter where they are happening. It seems such a short time ago that we were worrying about people in Australia whose homes were threatened by the forest fires which resulted from a prolonged drought. Now it is North America that is taking a hammering - and not for the first time. We have been watching the weather maps for the other side of the pond with growing concern and we find ourselves worrying about you all.

We are also thinking about readers in the UK. So much water everywhere with people being flooded time and time again as rivers burst their banks or in coastal areas by high spring tides made even higher by low pressure and the strong winds overpowering sea defenses.

We seem to be over the worst now and so yesterday we popped into Totnes to do some shopping. Incidentally, while we were there we bumped into Storm who, as you may remember, was our blog dog back in August. He and his people live on a barge that is moored up Old Mill Creek. Despite the awful weather, they all seem to be thriving.

We had heard that the High Street had been blocked because of problems with a property. It turned out that this was the one in which the shoe shop “Conkers” lives and which is next door to the bistro we often use (and used yesterday) called “Rumour”.

"Conkers", between two bistros, Rumour up the hill and La Fouchette, is now the site of intense activity. They are getting on very well and it should be as god as new within a few more days.
It seems that the front was thick plaster on lathes of wood nailed across timber frames - all has been there for a few hundred years so you can be sure that over that time all the nails had rusted away and the timbers had begun to rot. Then came this awful weather and I am told that the whole of the front started to shake away with bits of plaster hitting cars and falling into the road. Rapid response by the authorities ensured that the road was closed before anyone was hurt and a team of scaffolders arrived on site very quickly to shore everything up. Now builders are busy seeing what needs to be done by way of repairs.

People love the old medieval houses we have in places like Totnes and Dartmouth. What they don’t always realise is that the reason we have them is that until very recently nobody could afford to tear them down and build something more sensible. Then they began to be cherished (rightly so) as a window into the past but the costs involved in repairing them when things go wrong can be astronomical – especially if you bear in mind that they have to be repaired in accordance with some very strict laws laid down in regard to what are called “Listed buildings of historic interest”.

On the wall under East Gate was this. Why?
Now for some rather more cheerful thoughts. Not surprisingly, we have received lots of emails from readers who have loved Postcards from the Past. Marcia is, of course, delighted that people are enjoying it and really thrilled when told that, as a result, they have re-read The Christmas Angel. These emails are arriving at a very good time. Most authors dread “the desert” or the middle bit of the book. The excitement associated with having a new group of characters has worn off and the finishing line is far to far away to act as a motivator. That leaves self-discipline: getting in front of the computer and hitting the keys even when the very last thing you want to do (ever again) is sit in front of a computer and hit the keys. Marcia, as you would expect, has that self-discipline which is why every year, on time, she delivers another wonderful novel. You help hugely by leaving comments here and sending her your emails: please keep it up.

This week's blog dog is a Jack Russell who answers to the name of Rizla. When we were in Totnes, we bumped into Storm who, as you may remember, was our blog dog back in August.

Friday, 3 January 2014

Hello 2014

It is conventional, at this time, to look back over the last twelve months and list the highs and the lows - and then to look ahead and consider what it is hoped will be achieved in the next. Well, since we have shared the former here on a weekly basis there seems little point in going through it all over again. As to the future: I am no prophet so all I could write about would be hopes and they are always the same every year. 

Since there are no suitable photos to go with this blog, I thought I would have a look at some taken in previous Januaries. Here we have Tintagel Head taken in 2007. Marcia was trying to find out where Julia would get rid of the little Merlin (The Way We Were). Well it was from here, a few feet nearer the edge of the cliff on which I was standing when I took this photograph.
I hope that the world will be a kinder and a more peaceful one than hitherto and that all who are dear to me (which includes those who follow my blog or email either Marcia or me on a regular basis) enjoy good health and have the inner strength to cope with whatever 2014 throws at them. As always, some of our hopes are destined to be shattered. My father was fond of quoting from poetry. This from Alexander Pope comes to mind, "Hope springs eternal in the human breast. Man never is, but always to be blessed."

Today is my father's birthday (which may be why I thought about this quote). He would have been a hundred and one. Why do I find that an amazing thought?

My father, in India during the war.
Have you ever thought that we celebrate New Year on the wrong day? Since the night of December 21 is the shortest here in the north - and the longest for those in the south - it would have been logical to start the year then but, no, we wait for a further ten days. It seems odd. Does anyone know how this came about? The moment the days begin to draw out, I begin to look for the signs that tell me spring is around the corner - 'my' year starts on December 22nd!

This is the same year, 2007, but now we are on the south coast of Devon at Torcross on a miserable day. In the background is Start Point. 
As it happened – in other words because someone got the date of New Year all wrong – 2013 went out in spectacular fashion as far as we were concerned. We live upstairs in this house where there is a kitchen, sitting room, our bedroom and one bathroom while the spare bedrooms, another bathroom and my study are at ground floor level. 

Te same day as the photo above. Slapton Ley.
Upstairs as well as dormer windows, all the rooms have a Velux window and outside the hall is a small conservatory with a glass roof.  When it rains heavily the noise is quite incredible. Well, we didn’t have rain on New Year’s Eve: we had hail. It was like being in a drum. It was a little bit worrying as well. Would the Velux windows take the strain? We could easily imagine the hailstorm joining us in the sitting room and I have a sneaking suspicion that in a few books down the line someone else will share this experience. I should add that it if that happens it will be described properly unlike the bald statement that I have made.
Two years later, 2009, and we are on the north coast near where The Children's Hour was set. At the time Marcia was thinking about another book set there which revolved around a house being built by an architect but this was one of those dead ends of which there have been many. Most of the ideas associated with this one became incorporated in The Summer House.
So now it is time to put the holidays behind us and to get back down to earth. Marcia is working well at the moment and feeling quite good about the book she is writing – well, for most of the time since there are the usual wobblies when she is convinced that it is all rubbish, that it has no plot and are we really meant to love any of these people?

The Dartmouth – Start Bay book proceeds. There are still a few photographs needed but they will have to wait until the spring now by which time all the text will be written - it's very nearly finished. 
This time last year I took the opportunity to record this Blackcap which popped in for a spot of grub. Being a female, her cap is rusty brown. Well, there had to be at least one bird to celebrate the first blog of the year, didn't there?
Then there is this video project. I think I shall try and take three separate environments (the moor, the coast and the farmland between the two) and try to shoot three videos each month: one in each environment so we can follow the changing seasons. There is, of course, the real possibility that this project will die on its feet before it is complete.

Meanwhile, I would like to tell you about Marcia’s jeans: the navy blue velvet pair she has been known to wear at book signings (and so some of you may have met these jeans). She washed them the other day and hung them up to dry. We went out. There was a gale blowing and so despite the weakness of the sun (when it deigned to peer at us through the scudding clouds) there was every chance that the washing would be dry when we returned. Most of it was but the jeans had vanished. Gone. Poof!

Had the local jeans thief been on the prowl or had they been blown away on a gust of wind? Marcia popped round to see whether they were in our neighbour’s garden. There was nobody at home but also no sign of the jeans. Could they have blown beyond that garden into the railway cutting alongside? We walked up to the bridge and peered over the parapet. No jeans.

Suddenly on New Year’s Eve, just after dark, the front door opened and our neighbour called up. With her were Marcia’s jeans. They had been blown between some plants and the greenhouse and you couldn't see them until you went inside. Now they were home again and in perfect condition. What a nice way to end the old year.

Lily May is a Norfolk Terrier. Having had a Cairn I would like another terrier but they are not really Marcia's favourite dog (being addicted to Newfoundlands has something to do with it). However, I am now informed that should we consider another dog she would certainly look at choosing a Norfolk.