How to Plunder Your Memories to Write a Book

For some people, a life story emerges as an autobiography or memoir. My aim was more modest. I planned to use some of my oldest memories to write a novel set in Egypt. It was never intended to be all true. While a convent education taught me not to lie, I used to be pretty good at embroidery, if I say so myself.

To aid my recall of fading memories, there were all the old photos that my mother had left me. I therefore dived into the cupboard under the stairs for the afternoon, finally emerging not with leather photo albums from 1955 but a mountain of dust and a couple of old cat toys.

In my experience, recollections have a habit of surfacing on their own now and again, usually in the small hours. Experience also tells me that, if I don’t jot it down at the time, I won’t remember it in the morning, hence what I call my amnesia pad on the bedside table. It’s not that easy to find in the dark and I’m apt to send water glass flying as I scrabble about for paper and pencil. There! I need only scribble a couple of words to nudge me in the morning and I can go back to sleep.

When the alarm goes off a few hours later, I make out the words Magic Marker

Which make no sense. I don’t think we even had Magic Marker in Egypt back then. Over a strong coffee, I try to work it out. The two words I wrote evoke the heady smell of a pristine Magic Marker and the hot tears I cried when I accidentally hit my mummy on the forehead with it. We both thought I’d marked her indelibly. At the time, neither of us quite understood how skin works. I was seven years old. I don’t know what Mummy’s excuse was.

Neither of those reminiscences is quite what I’m after. I resort to Wikipedia as an aide mémoire but, although I learn the history of the Magic Marker and the reason it smelled as it did (early versions contained xylene and toluene), it doesn’t help. I may as well have scribbled wild goose chase on my amnesia pad.

When my own recall lets me down, I sometimes consult my beloved aunt with whom I have a close bond. She clearly recalls what happened years ago, even if her version of events often contradicts mine. “At Suez, your mother was desperate not to be evacuated,” she tells me. “And Papa pleaded with the authorities for her to be allowed to stay in Alex.”

Which is totally weird since I remember with crystal clarity that Mummy had packed our bags and we spent all day at the docks in Alexandria. While she begged to leave on the US Sixth Fleet, I clutched my teddy bear and kept whining to use the bathroom. My mother’s negotiations were partly successful. Our suitcases made the trip.

Timing goes AWOL too when delving into memories. “You never know your mother’s dog, did you? Boogie got run over before you were born.”

My aunt sounds very sure, but this time I can prove her wrong simply by rolling up my sleeve and displaying a scar that’s still there more than half a century later. I had got up too quickly from my potty and accidentally stepped on Boogie’s tail. No wonder he bit me on the elbow.

Aunt is unconvinced, but I have a trump card. It’s a photo of Boogie with me and my best friend (also called Carol).

My aunt studies the picture. “That doesn’t even look like Boogie.”

From this joyous collaboration come as many as three lines of writing, most of which I cross out.

So my book The Girls from Alexandria will have no dogs and no Sixth Fleet. Even so, it will still be redolent of the Alex I knew, with vendors selling charcoal-grilled ears of corn by the sea, the seafood restaurant at Abukir, next door’s cockerel with his random commentary on the day, trams laden down with human cargo both inside and out, handsome men wearing a fez even after President Nasser banned its use, and the eternal cries of “Roba bikyaah!” from the rag-and-bone man touring the neighbourhood with his donkey and cart.

The novel won’t be out till early next year, but here’s what my new publisher has to say so far.  Introducing: Carol Cooper

 

Janet and John Go to the London Book Fair

Do you like book fairs?

Janet and John do. John is an author. Janet wants to work in publishing.  This is their first time at the London Book Fair.

“Gosh,” Janet says. “It’s very big.”

“That’s what they all say,” John says.

IMG_2620.JPG

Olympia is huge. There are 25,000 people here. Exhibitors come from all over the world. This year, the market focus is Indonesia.

John knows all about Indonesia. “It is a country a long way from London,” he tells Janet.

The first stand is Harper Collins. Someone smiles at Janet. So Janet foists her CV onto the person from Harper Collins.

Naughty Janet!

dav

Helpfully, people have their names and their job titles on their conference badges. John examines several people’s chests closely to find one he wants.

John pounces on an unsuspecting woman whose badge says AGENT, and thrusts his lovingly prepared manuscript into her hands.

Ever hopeful, John!

DSC00710.JPG

“I need a coffee and a doughnut,” Janet says.  Janet drags John to the nearest café. 

“But not at those prices,” Janet says.

“Well, I’m going to splash out,” John says.

“See you when you get back from the toilet then,” Janet says.

By the time John returns, Janet has met two friendly people, studied a floorplan, and found out more about the London Book Fair.

“John, come quickly,” Janet says. “You must go to Author HQ.”

Author HQ is on the next level up, a long way from the big shiny stands. It is almost as far as Indonesia.

“My feet hurt,” Janet says.

Today Janet is wearing snazzy heels to make an impression. The only impression they make is on her corns and her hammer toes.

FreeImages.com/Stephan Fleet

Janet and John struggle up to the Writer’s Block on Level One.

“Look,” John says. “There’s a Society of Authors stand. I think I might join.”

Now John is being clever. 

Author HQ cropped.JPG

At Author HQ, there are no seats left. To listen to a talk, John sits on the floor beneath someone eating an egg and cress sandwich.

When the talk finishes, Janet and John meet up again.  

Janet still hasn’t bagged a job, but she is cradling two bulging holdalls. One of them is full of bookmarks, sweeties, and flyers. The other bag is full of shiny new books.

“Where did you buy those?” John asks.

“I helped myself,” Janet says.

“That’s stealing. You must put them back,” John says.

“My feet hurt,” Janet says. “I’m not going anywhere.”

“Well, there’s nowhere to sit down,” John says.

“What about that nice big display over there? It looks sturdy,” Janet says.

Bye, bye, beautiful display of children’s books.  

See Janet and John run as fast as they can.

John goes back to Author HQ. The next session is called Turning Yourself into a Brand.

Sam Missingham is a publishing guru,” John whispers to Janet as he scans the carpet for space.

“I know all about branding already,” Janet says. “That’s why I’m taking lots of selfies for Instagram.”

“How does Instagram work?” John asks.

“You take pictures of yourself in front of all the different publishers’ stands, upload them to Insta, and wait for the job offers to roll in,” Janet says.

“I did not know that,” John says. “Besides, the wi-fi is a bit shit here.”

“I have a personal hotspot,” Janet says.

“I know you do,” John says.

LBF day 2

“I want to go home now,” Janet says.

“Are your bunions throbbing?” John asks.

“Yes,” Janet says. “And I have a migraine.”

“Come on then,” John says. “I’ll treat you to something special on the way home.”

dav

Don’t be like Janet and John. Do your homework before you get to the London Book Fair. And take paracetamol with you.

Could These Be the Best Ever Books for Christmas?

Well, I think these six books might be. They’re all books I’ve received for Christmas, and they’ve become my all-time favourites. What do you reckon of my choice?

1 First up, THE classic Christmas poem. This 1949 edition of Clement C Moore’s The Night Before Christmas is suitably vintage, though true nostalgics hardly need it as they know every word already.

The Night Before Christmas

2 For those after something different, there’s An Aussie Night Before Christmas. Roos take the place of reindeer, and Santa finds the traditional costume far too hot for a barbie on the beach.

An Aussie Night Before Christmas

3 Best children’s book ever, in my opinion, is Charlotte’s Web. “Where’s Papa going with that axe?” says eight-year old Fern in the opening to the tale of Wilbur the pig and Charlotte the spider who helps save him. Even if you don’t know the book, you may recognise a Templeton, the rat who never does anything for anybody unless there is something in it for him.

Charlotte's Web

You don’t agree with me about Charlotte’s Web? “That’s the most terrible case of injustice I ever heard,” I will reply, quoting Fern.

4 OK, fine. Maybe you prefer The Wind in the Willows, with Ratty, Mole, Badger, and Mr Toad? As you see, I loved this book to pieces as well.

The Wind in the Willows

5 The Essential Shankly isn’t a matter of life and death, unless you’re a Liverpool fan, in which case it’s far more important than that. Football books and biographies make great Christmas gifts, and the wit and wisdom of Bill Shankly come in handy on so many occasions, including Merseyside derbies and pub quizzes. Also useful for those who rarely do housework. Shankly used to clean the oven whenever his team lost. To be fair, that wasn’t very often.

The Essential Shankly

6 The long read. This is the sixth edition, dated 1872 – newer versions are available. At 403 pages densely crammed with text, not counting the extensive glossary, Origin of Species is probably not for everyone on your list. But I can imagine an awkward teenager getting stuck into it to avoid social interaction over the Christmas period.

Origin of Species

 

Go on. Books make perfect Christmas gifts, and your local bookshop is brimming with great ideas.

What are the favourite books you’ve received as presents? I’d love to hear from you.

What’s the Best Way for an Author to Promote Their Books?

The reality is that there isn’t one ideal way to do it. Different authors have found that different methods work best for them.

Now Richard G Lowe aka The Writing King has put together a roundup of various things authors have found most effective in promoting their books.

Here’s a link to his insightful blog post What is the best thing you’ve done to promote your books? You’ll find great tips from historical novelist Clare Flynn, Roma Nova thriller writer Alison Morton, and other authors. So, whether you write fiction or non-fiction, there’s bound to be something you can use here.

While you’re there, check out some of the other useful posts on Richard’s website.

And good luck!

bookshop

PS You may also enjoy

Mistakes to Avoid at the London Book Fair

The Worst Books of All Time

 

Why Heatwaves and Novels Go Together

You don’t need to read the Lancet to know that heatwaves aren’t great for health. Even without the terror of fires, excess heat is linked with deaths, especially in the elderly.

On the bright side, however, when the thermometer soars and it’s too hot to move, few things are more delicious than settling in a shady spot to get lost in a book. Yes, I have heard of ice cream, but a novel occupies the mind for longer than a raspberry ripple, and that’s got to be a bonus in the current mess the world is in.

Writers are doubly blessed in a heatwave. For a start, they may be able to work at home with next to nothing on, which is so far removed from struggling on the Tube wearing office attire that it’s almost like not working.

As a plus, there are often cool places to sit with pencil or laptop.

I’m assuming that the nice cool place isn’t in full view of the neighbours. Then again, think of all the publicity, as a fellow writer reminds me.

Best of all, though, scorching weather presents excellent material for fiction.  Author Helena Halme mentions just this in her recent blog post Five Books for a Heatwave.

I’d like to unpick this a little more.

Summertime is in itself magical, with ice lollies, flip-flops, sandcastles, and grandparents moaning about the lack of rain. In school holidays gone by, every summer was long and hot, at least in the memory. With normal life suspended, there’s an illusion of freedom, Swallows and Amazons style.

The heat does things to people’s pheromones. Well, I’m assuming it does, though the only paper I’ve seen is based on research on insects. At any rate, the brain seems to fry at high temperatures.  Even the most impassive person can become, well, hot-headed and behave erratically, which is all good news for novelists.

The human mind isn’t the only thing to abandon normal function in a heatwave. By now, most people in the UK are familiar with buckled rails and cancelled trains. In the northeast last month, a man became trapped when tarmac melted and his leg literally sank into the road surface. This happened in Heaton (no, I’m not kidding) and firefighters were called to free him. 

But these phenomena are as nothing compared to the image of Jesus appearing on a ceramic drainpipe in Joanna Cannon’s debut novel The Trouble with Goats and Sheep. This unusual manifestation of Christ brings out the neighbours and their deck chairs, and becomes a turning point in the story.

Every heatwave seems to leave its own particular memories. The legendary summer of 1976 featured beaches covered in ladybirds, exhortations to share a bath with a friend, and other references that can date-stamp a novel, as both Joanna Cannon and Maggie O’Farrell demonstrate.

While there’s no exact definition of a heatwave, meteorologists often consider it to be an increase of 5⁰C above the average maximum temperature for five days or more – with the average maximum temperature being between 1961 and 1990.

The great heatwave years of the UK include 1911, 1955, 1976, and 1983. Speaking for myself, I have a soft spot for 2013 which broke few records but did produce the hottest July for many years. This is the year in which I set my novel Hampstead Fever, and it also happens to be when I got married.

wedding

Whether you’re reading or writing, I hope you enjoy the rest of this scorching season. How will you most remember the heatwave of 2018 when it gives way to wind and rain?

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PS You can find Hampstead Fever in all the usual places.

http://mybook.to/HF

Last Minute Reminders for the Romantic Novelists’ Conference #RNA18

Some of us authors have already packed our bags for the Romantic Novelists’ Association conference, and booked train tickets weeks in advance too. With any luck, we even chose the right rail station in Leeds (it’s Horsforth).

It’s so hot that you’ll be in shorts?  Well, I’ve studied the photos of the venue and can tell you the chairs look scratchy. A summer dress might be comfier.

And take one of these.

Remember to pack your phone charger (and bring it home again afterwards).

This year, you need to provide your own clothes-hangers.

The most up-to-date info from the conference venue is that there’s an excellent range of gins on site. This is welcome news, as drinks with the most colour, like brandy and dark rum, are more often linked with hangovers. It’s the congeners they contain – the chemical impurities that are a by-product of the fermentation process.

You might still want to take these, just in case.

Here’s to a great conference. Now, have I forgotten anything vital? Do let me know. Otherwise I will just find out when I get there, as usual.

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You might also enjoy: What Do You Need for a Writers’ Conference? 

 

How to Win the World Cup? Bingo!

The World Cup is approaching faster than an Arjen Robben sprint. As you stock your fridge with lager and prepare for weeks in front of the TV, spare a thought for reporters and commentators who don’t write about football but must stock up on the jargon nonetheless.

FreeImages.com/Kia Abell

Whatever the outcome of the World Cup, all the usual clichés will appear off the pitch as well as on it. Even if the article is about mortgages or gardening, I predict a journalistic glut of footballing terms.

This little chart is just right if you fancy a round of World Cup 2018 bingo.

 

KICKOFF

 

 

TAKE HOME THE THREE POINTS

 

OFFSIDE

 

MATCH-FIT

 

ADDED TIME

 

GOING ALL THE WAY

 

INJURY TIME

 

FRESH LEGS

 

BOUNCE OFF THE WOODWORK

 

RUSKIES

 

BRING BACK THE TROPHY

 

SIDELINES

 

FREE BONUS

 

EXTRA TIME

 

MASSIVE OWN GOAL

 

HANDBALL

 

GOLDEN BOOT

 

EARLY BATH

 

 

BACK OF THE NET

 

SUB

 

NYET!

 

FOUL

 

YELLOW CARD

 

FREE KICK

 

FASTER THAN YOU CAN SAY GARETH BALE

 

FreeImages.com/Diego Sinning

Are any important phrases and terms missing? Please let me know.

Mistakes to Avoid at the London Book Fair

The London Book Fair is now just days away. This year’s LBF takes place April 10-12. That’s three hectic days at Olympia, Kensington, with over 25,000 people attending.

This time around, the market focus is the Baltic Countries, but it’s an international fair bringing in exhibitors from over fifty countries, and some truisms apply every year. I’ve been going to the London Book Fair for a while now, so I’m confident in saying there are some things not to do (especially as some of them are mistakes I’ve made myself).

1 Thrust your manuscript into the hands of a publisher. Don’t even expect to speak to a publisher. The fair is still very much industry-led, and, if you don’t have an appointment, you won’t be able to see a publisher.

The last seven or eight years have seen the fair become more aware of authors, with the belated recognition of who it is that actually writes books. There’s a small area called Author HQ with a range of events relevant to writers, but LBF is still a trade exhibition, so it you can’t expect it to revolve around authors or would-be authors.

LBF 2016

2 Try to find an agent. I reckon you’re more likely to win the lottery, even if you didn’t buy a ticket. You’ll even be pushed to chat with your own agent, if you’re lucky enough to have one. Literary agents are usually holed up for days at a time in the International Rights Centre, for which an appointment is needed.

3 Try to sell books. It’s a non-starter unless you booked a stand, which, as you might guess, is an expensive option.

4 Expect to buy lots of books. Although it would be mind-blowingly wonderful to visit such a massive bookstore, LBF isn’t one of them.

LBF 2016

However, you may be able to buy one or two newly released paperbacks at one of the book launches at the fair. I’m looking forward to the latest novel from author Jane Davis.

5 Help yourself to books from the stands. There will be freebies like mints, keyrings, bookmarks, carrier bags, and the like, but the books on the various stands are there for show, to give visitors a view of a publisher’s range. So put that glossy tome back!

6 Ask a lot of stupid questions. Nobody expects you to know everything, but naivety has limits, and not every speaker is as patient or as courteous as romantic novelist Katie Fforde who, at one of her talks, was asked “How does one start to write a book?”

7 Wear high heels. Comfy shoes are the order of the week. Vertiginous heels may enable you to see over people’s heads, but they’ll soon become unbearable and LBF doesn’t sell foot plasters (is that a gap in the market?). 

8 Expect to sit down. There is some seating here and there, though not much. 

So why attend the fair at all if you’re an author?

Because of the insights you’ll gain into publishing, the chance to network or make new contacts, attending a few interesting talks, getting new marketing ideas, and the inspiration of hearing celebrated authors speak at Author of the Day events.

Julian Fellowes at LBF

Will I see you there?

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You may also enjoy

My London Book Fair 2017

London Book Fair aka #LBF14

 

#TBT Alexandria, 1956

I’ve blogged before about Suez, because it’s when my mother wrote her first book. This week, Nadia, a character from my next novel, gives her own take on 1956.

It began on July 26, when I was ten and a half years old, or, as I preferred to say, nearly eleven. The whole affair was about a canal and a dam.

Here’s the crucial thing: President Gamal Abdel Nasser was most interested in canals and dams.

Nasser was a very big man, with a strong jaw and huge teeth that he displayed whenever he smiled. That night in 1956 was the anniversary of the revolution, so the president celebrated by giving a long speech, right here in Alexandria, in Mansheya Square, where there’s a massive statue of Mohammed Ali Pasha, wearing a turban and brandishing his sword, sitting atop his horse.

As usual when anything interesting happened, I had been sent to bed instead of being allowed to stay up. My parents told me about the speech the next day, which is hardly the same thing. I relished the idea of Nasser brandishing his words like a sword, and I was especially sorry to miss the firemen dispersing the crowds. FreeImages.com/AntonioJimenezAlonsoAlthough I had no real opinions on politics, I liked listening to the president on the radio. Unlike a lot of important men who like to make themselves sound clever by speaking in a formal version of Arabic, Nasser spoke a colloquial language that every Egyptian could understand, even a child of nearly eleven. That, I thought, was much cleverer.

The day after that big speech, my sister Simone and I sat in the upstairs living room right by the air conditioning, which was on at full blast as it was sweltering. Father and Mother explained to us that the Suez Canal was now going to belong to Egypt instead of France or Britain. As a result, it would raise lots of money for Egypt, and would pay to build a High Dam at Aswan.

Mother actually put down her embroidery during this conversation, so it must have been significant. Quite how significant, I did not wholly grasp. The main thing was that the Suez Canal had been nationalized. That was a good thing, wasn’t it? Unless you happened to be British or French, like some of my friends from school.

In October, a few countries turned out not to be so happy about Egypt having the Suez Canal. Our parents did not explain that very clearly. Meanwhile, our nanny Rashida lit more candles than ever to the Virgin Mary and to St Anthony.

Even when she wasn’t praying, Rashida went about muttering to herself. I thought I heard her say that things had been much better under King Farouk, but, when I asked her to repeat herself, she flatly refused.

It got a lot clearer when France, Britain, and Israel all ganged together to declare war on Egypt. Every night there were air-raid sirens and anti-aircraft guns. Victor, my pain of a cousin, kept going on about it. With our schools shut, he was unfortunately at our house more often than ever. According to him, the guns were as close as Smouha, barely a few kilometres from us. I pretended to be unconcerned.

Every bedtime, Mother told Simone and me that things would turn out all right. We had blackout paper on all the windows now. It was all going to be fine, Mother said. 

It did however change things for many of my friends, and for my teddy bears, at least one of whom was British.

You may also like How My Mother Wrote Her First Book

RIP, Christina

It’s tough to blog this week without writing about my late colleague Christina Earle. So I won’t even try.

When emotions are less raw, it will be possible to look back through a happier lens. Right now, grief colours everything.  Needless to stress, it is so much worse for her family, including her husband Oli, than it is for colleagues and friends.

Aged 31, Christina died suddenly and unexpectedly last weekend.

There’s no point trying to make sense of that.

She was one of the best journalists I’ve worked with in over 20 years of writing for mainstream media. Don’t take my word for it. Here’s what the Press Gazette has to say

Working for a 7-day newspaper, Christina often needed copy in a hurry. Sometimes this was a challenge to provide, as on the day that, unbeknown to her, I was being wheeled away for surgery myself. But she was always considerate. Thank you, Christina, for persuading me to turn my mobile off on my wedding day.

She made a fine campaigning journalist for The Sun, and she achieved so much. Every problem had a solution. Well, it did when she was on the case. Colleague Lynsey Hope put this tribute together. 

It seems self-indulgent to mope when Christina was such a sunny and capable person with an infectious smile. 

But how is it possible to do anything else? Columnist Virginia Ironside pointed out that you don’t ‘work through’ grief. It works its way through you.

Grief is the occasion for acknowledging the great value of what you’ve experienced. In his book The Middle Passage, psychotherapist James Hollis explains that, because it has been experienced, it cannot be wholly lost. The experience is still there, says Hollis. It is retained in the bones and the memory, to serve and guide the life to come.

I’m hoping so, anyway.