Football, Superstition, and the Writing Game

Footballers (and fans) are notoriously superstitious. From wearing lucky pants to drinking frog juice, the game is riddled with irrational beliefs and habits, many of them linked with the post hoc fallacy.

FreeImages.com/Diego Sinning

A Buddhist monk and his entourage have been regulars at Leicester City’s King Power Stadium to bless the pitch and distribute lucky charms to the players. Now the monk’s amulets and talismans are credited with Leicester City’s phenomenal success in the Premier League.

Authors may like to think they’re an intellectual cut above mere footballers, but many persist in the same kind of magical thinking. Here are some common rituals and beliefs:

FreeImages.com/Marcia Rogriques

1 Keeping pencils sharpened to a perfect point. On one level this makes sense. The sharper the pencil when you first put it to paper, the longer you can write without stopping. Pencil-sharpening is also the archetypal displacement activity. But a lot of writers go much further than that, believing good karma to be inextricably linked with stationery choices.

John Steinbeck would keep exactly a dozen perfectly sharpened pencils on his writing desk. He favoured the hexagonal type which produced calluses on his fingers, so his editor sent him round pencils instead. I’m told he never used them.

Mustn’t scoff. Alongside my needle-sharp pencils, I keep a stash of special paper clips. When starting out in journalism, I became convinced that my work had a far higher chance of being accepted if I attached it to the covering letter with a brightly-coloured paper clip. These days every article I write is commissioned, and I don’t even use the post, but it’ll take more than that for me to go back to plain clips.

FreeImages.com/Danilevici Filip-E

2 Keeping quiet about your current project. There’s some logic in this too. Talking about your writing can sap creative energy. Unfortunately social media seem to demand it of authors, which can lead to much angst. And the posting of cat pictures instead.

Mishmish with Post-It notes

3 Not tempting fate. Creative visualization is all very well, but since when did imagining yourself receiving the Booker Prize actually lead to success? Exactly. Arrogance is a hideous trait that can only lead to bad karma.  

Bad karma is closely linked with the Evil Eye. I was raised in the Middle East where the Evil Eye is responsible for almost every calamity you can imagine, and then some. As my mother explained in her first book Cocktails and Camels, if someone admired your new dress and you then spilt coffee all over it, it’s not that you were clumsy fool. It was the Evil Eye. If your felucca got stuck in bulrushes which had been there, as everyone knew, since the time of Moses, it had nothing to do with poor seamanship. And, it goes without saying, if you had three daughters and no sons, that was obviously the Evil Eye too.

Cocktails & Camels, by Jacqueline Cooper

Blue beads with an eye on them can offer some protection against the Evil Eye. Also called Nazar amulets, these are common throughout the Middle East and North Africa.

FreeImages.com/Kerem Yucel

Imagine my surprise when my own mother, instead of arming me with beads for success with my fiction, actually tempted fate. This was years ago, when all I’d done was send off in the post for some guidelines on writing romantic novels. Even before I had even written a single word, my mother promptly crowed about “My daughter, the successor to Barbara Cartland.” I cringed in the certain knowledge that my writing career had been jinxed for all time.

As a scientist, I really should know better, but old beliefs die hard. Fast-forward the tape of life and my thirteenth and fourteenth books are about to come out. There’ll be no fanciful boasts from me on publication day. June 30 will find me sitting with my sharpened pencils and a rainbow of paper clips.  

A lucky amulet would be handy too.

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Just How Fictional is Fiction?

There’s a socking great disclaimer at the front of my novels.

“This is a work of fiction. All characters and events in this work, other than those clearly in the public domain, are entirely fictitious. Any resemblance to any persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.”

The real bits should be obvious. All you have to do is check out Marylebone, or amble down Hampstead High Street.

Hampstead Butcher & Providore

I’ve made up almost all the rest. Not that readers believe authors’ protestations.

Friends and family are apt to dissect published novels with an eye on ‘real life’. Even Ian Fleming, I’m told, suffered from this problem. People don’t just ask “Am I in it?” They go straight for “Which character am I?” I have half a dozen friends who believe they’re the single mother from One Night at the Jacaranda, and one who still thinks she’s the femme fatale.

Waitrose Marylebone

“I’m Geoff,” insists my husband Jeremy. He has no discernible similarities with the doctor in my novels, though someone did once call him Geoffrey by mistake at a party.

Of course authors draw on reality when inventing their stories. Jane Davis says her favourite description of fiction is ‘made-up truth’. Her next book My Counterfeit Self was inspired by the plight of UK atomic war veterans. She even mentions many of them by name, but her book is still made up, and all the better for it, in my opinion.

Finnish author Helena Halme also uses the truth as a springboard for fiction. Her romantic series The Englishman is based on her own life story of meeting her Navy husband and moving to the UK. The prequel The Finnish Girl is now out, but, like the others in the series, reality has been fictionalized to provide the right pace and tension for a novel.

The Finnish Girl by Helena Halme

Fiction certainly benefits from an injection of fact. That’s what makes it relatable. I lost all faith in a story where the NHS doctor ‘worked shifts’. In those days, hospital doctors often worked a one-in-two rota. Going to work on Friday morning and not leaving till Monday evening was called many things, but a ‘shift’ it was not.

(I can’t help thinking a lot of non-fiction could do with a few facts too. Books on curing cancer with carrots really should move to the fantasy shelves, but that’s another story.)

A novelist invents stuff, but it needs to be right. While I can’t define ‘right’, I had to make that call with the image on the front of my forthcoming novel Hampstead Fever.  Cover designer Jessica Bell suggested adding a little red boat to the pond. The flash of red on the water seemed a delightful counterpoint to the red hat and red lipstick. But the pond in question is Hampstead Heath’s Number One Pond. Luckily one my sons, a local councillor, knows all about Hampstead’s ponds. As he explained, only the Model Boating Pond is a model boating pond. Cute as it was, my little boat had to be hauled out of the water.

Hampstead Fever

Being right is more about authenticity than fact. Being authentic, or so the Oxford dictionary puts it, includes

“Made or done in the traditional or original way, or in a way that faithfully resembles an original.”

Ain’t that the truth?

Getting an Author Photo

Soon after emerging from the editing cave, blinking in the light, came two realizations: I would need to do some publicity, and I needed a new author photo.

It’s like that advert about changing your mattress regularly every eight years, when it dawns on you that the last time was a bit longer ago than you imagined.

pic 10

No, the FotoMat won’t do (not that kind of FotoMat, anyway). It’s strictly for driving licences, passports, and the FBI wanted list.

Neither will a selfie taken holding one of your own books and grinning maniacally. And definitely not the charming efforts taken with best mates in a giggly stupor.

IMG_0434 (1)

My husband declined to volunteer his skills. I didn’t need high-res images of thumbs. I needed a professional. Enter the brilliant Mat Smith Photography

Two hours with Mat and his assistant Anna taught me a lot. I have yet to study the results, but this I know:

1 There is such a thing as too much sunlight. Who the hell wears sunnies in an author photo?

FreeImages.com/Michell Botetano

2 Have lots of outfits to change into, but don’t use your entire wardrobe. Every single garment you choose for the photoshoot has to earn its keep.  No massive flowers, busy patterns, or shouty diagonal stripes. Consider the image you want to project (friendly, intellectual, offbeat?). Think too about the outfit in its own right. Or, as Mat and Anna would have it, “What does it SAY?” This is the best question I’ve ever heard about clothes, and I plan to take it with me every time I go shopping.

3 Avoid too many props. You don’t need to wear a stethoscope to convince people you’re a medic.

Hewlett Packard Rapaport Sprague stethoscope

4 Smile. It’s your natural face-lift. I base this advice on the fact that I look decades older if I keep a straight face. 

FreeImages.com/hamidreza ahmadi

5 Look into the camera rather than the distant horizon. It will make you look interested rather than aloof. Yes, this applies even if you have one dropping eyelid (most people do).

6 If you pose in the street, people will wonder whether you’re a celeb. It’s neat to have some publicity material to hand them, even if it’s from your last book.

One Night at the Jacaranda

Heading for the Political Graveyard

As most readers know, London will elect a new mayor on May 5. One of the candidates will end up sitting pretty in City Hall while the others could be heading for the political graveyard.

Which is all the excuse I need to show you a few cemeteries and tombstones.

First up is Grover Cleveland, best known as the only president of the USA to serve two non-consecutive terms.

Grover Cleveland, Princeton Cemetery

Aaron Burr, the third vice-president of the USA, served alongside Thomas Jefferson. He shot dead his opponent Alexander Hamilton in a duel.  Burr died a nearly forgotten man. He’s now in Princeton Cemetery while Hamilton is on ten-dollar bills.

Aaron Burr, Princeton Cemetery

Not about to be forgotten any time soon is Karl Marx, buried in Highgate Cemetery.  Karl Marx, Highgate Cemetery

Among the other notables nearby is Saad Saadi Ali, the Iraqi Communist leader, left-leaning even in death.

Saad Saadi Ali, Highgate Cemetery

I really like this memorial to Douglas Adams, also in Highgate Cemetery.  

Douglas Adams, Highgate Cemetery

Anyone know this more obscure writer, buried in St Brelade, Jersey?

St Brelade's churchyard, Jersey

Here lies the Swiss novelist, racing driver and pioneer of the anti-vivisection movement, Hans Ruesch.

Hans Ruesch, cimetiere du Petit-Saconnex, Geneva

If you’re a Londoner, remember to vote on Thursday.  

William Foyle, Highgate Cemetery