You Said it, Diane Keaton!

I must admit Diane Keaton made me livid at first. It’s what she said about the part of London in which the film Hampstead is set.

According to The Times, the American star who plays the main character found Hampstead a bit of a disappointment. “I thought it was charming,” Keaton is quoted as saying, “but I thought it was going to be slightly more unusual.”

For my money (there’s less of it since I moved to Hampstead, mind), this neighbourhood has the lot. Yes, it’s congested as well as expensive, and you can forget about parking.

But I’m sticking up for Hampstead. For one thing it’s cosmopolitan. Ambling down the High Street last week, I heard no fewer than eight languages spoken. NW3 is liberal, inclusive, and intellectual, with a rich literary heritage that takes in writers as varied as Keats and Ian Fleming.

There is, in Keaton’s words, “nice architecture”. The streets are also awash with blue plaques, as anyone can see on a short stroll – details here.

One house, two blue plaques: both Sigmund Freud and his daughter Anna Freud lived here

Hampstead’s renown goes back a long way. John Constable moved his family here in 1827 as the area was said to have cleaner air than Suffolk. He lived in Well Walk, where he found he could unite a town and country life. His bones now rest in the graveyard of St John’s parish church, a cemetery crammed with notables.

The Constable family tomb

Hampstead Heath, where the squatter of the film lives, is an ancient parkland of 320 hectares. It’s an oasis of biodiversity and an area for sports. From here there’s an impressive view of London. The Whitestone Pond at the top of Hampstead Village is technically the highest point of the capital.

One of the ponds on Hampstead Heath

Hampstead Heath Pond Number One

Even if you don’t set foot on the heath, Hampstead is a delight. There are great pubs and it’s a foodie’s paradise. I don’t know where the scriptwriter shops, but I’ve yet to spot a shrivelled apricot in Waitrose.

Hampstead Butcher & Providore, Rosslyn Hill

You want unusual? This is Britain, yet open-air swimming on Hampstead Heath is legendary, with its ladies’ and men’s ponds being the only life-guarded open water swimming places available to the public every day of the year.

And how’s this for offbeat advertising in the heart of the village?

Just take a card from the little box near the top.

On reflection, however, Diane Keaton was right when she said Hampstead was nothing special. But I reckon she meant the film, not the area.

The movie’s basic premise – a well-turned out widow falling for a man who literally pops out from behind a hedge – is flawed, the hermitic heath-dweller is improbably hygienic, and, if you’re generous, you might call the acting uneven.

Worse, I found the character of Emily Walters irritating. She looks terrific (this is after all Diane Keaton), but she’s vacant and ditzy. Emily admits to being bad with money, so no wonder she can’t make ends meet. She seems to have no education, occupation, or aspiration, and her “personality” can be summed up in two words: goofy grin. She does however deserve a Brownie point for working in the Oxfam shop, and perhaps some credit for raising such a presentable son (James Norton is always easy on the eye).

Hampstead the area deserves better than Hollywood pap.

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You may also like:

Talking Location with Author Carol Cooper

Why Hampstead is Literally an Inspiration

… and next week: Progress on the Secret Project

Six Things my Camera Taught me about Hampstead

Hampstead is part of London that inspires much of my writing. So I set off to take a few photos of this beautiful area, armed only with an iPhone and the belief that I’d discover more through a plastic lens than I usually see just with my own eyes.

One of the ponds on Hampstead Heath

Oh, and a pair of comfortable shoes. Parking is scarce. Besides, there are some places only legs can reach.

The Mount

1 The street signs are rather special.

Like this one, many road signs in NW3 are made of individual ceramic tiles in shiny white on black, often chased into the wall. They’ve been there since Victorian times, and owe a lot to the Arts and Crafts movement. The tiles aren’t just letters and numbers. Some are nifty symbols like a pointing finger leading to places of interest.

2 If in doubt, zoom in. You may catch detail that’s often missed.

Ornamental gate

3 People tend to get in the way. Hampstead is crowded, especially outside certain shops and eateries.

Hampstead Butcher & Providore, Rosslyn Hill

Queuing at the Creperie

4 You may spot celebs such as Emma Thompson, Imelda Staunton, Tom Conti and Liam Gallagher.

5 Some of the celebrities are canine.

Two local residents

6 Even the prettiest parts of Hampstead can turn ugly with overspilling bins, fly-tipping, and uncollected rubbish. Sadly this is set to get worse with Camden Council’s new bin collection schedules.

#CleanUpCamden

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Other posts you may like:

If you want to know more about Hampstead, see my novel Hampstead Fever.

Visions of Hampstead

I love Hampstead, so it’s no surprise that I decided to set my novel Hampstead Fever there. These are just a few images to give you a taste of Hampstead life if you’re not already familiar with it.

Hampstead tube station

Hampstead Underground Station, first opened in 1907, has the deepest lift shaft of all the London stations.  Here’s the view up Heath Street, towards the, er, heath (photos of Kenwood and Hampstead Heath will have to wait).

Heath Street, NW3

And down Pilgrim’s Lane.

Pilgrim's Lane

These friends are just enjoying breakfast on a Sunday morning.

Perrin's Court

Though some tables outside can be quite exclusive.

Hampstead High Street

Some street furniture (this Victorian postbox is no longer in use).

Victorian postbox

A couple of locals.

Dogs

Constable and his family once lived here too.  He’s buried in St John’s churchyard, NW3.

Tomb of John Constable

It’s not all blue plaques around here. Flower seller Maggie Richardson has this memorial to her name.

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Hampstead is nothing if not trendy. Queues often build up outside the Hampstead Butcher & Providore.

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This is the flower shop in iconic Flask Walk.

Galton Flowers, Flask Walk

And the barber shop.

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There’s a new restaurant in Church Row, where Le Cellier du Midi used to be.

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The Freud Museum – where both Sigmund and his daughter Anna once worked – is down a leafy street.

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Much of this scene will change with the new cycle superhighway. If CS11 is implemented, as looks likely, cars and lorries will be diverted away from the main arterial road and into Hampstead village, choking side-streets and polluting the area. Locals are as concerned about safety for cyclists as anyone else, but believe a better solution could be found.  

Protest against CS11

If you want to know more, click here.

 

How to Launch a Book

Launching a ship requires a goodly crowd and a large bottle of champagne. Exactly the same principles apply to book launches, though without all the sea-water.  

Daunt Books, Hampstead Heath

I’ll skip the question of whether you “need” a physical launch. I didn’t have a launch for any of my non-fiction books, unless you count one publisher’s lavish effort with a bowl of peanuts and about three people.  

Here’s what I learned from the launch of my novel Hampstead Fever earlier this week.

1 My best tip: share the launch with another author. But no sailing under flags of convenience.  You must like the other author and their book.

I shared Wednesday evening at Daunt Books, Hampstead Heath, with my fellow author Christine Webber. It was her second novel and my second novel, and we’d both had around 12 non-fiction books published already. While Who’d Have Thought It? isn’t much like Hampstead Fever, it’s in the same genre and both make good summer reads.  

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2 Invite people because you like them, not just because they’re “useful”. The second type has a disconcerting habit of finding something more interesting to do on the night. Besides, you’re celebrating your achievements, so you should enjoy the proceedings.

3 Don’t be ill.  I got this terribly wrong last week. On the plus side, some people thought it was a clever marketing ploy.  “So,” said one waggish author friend. “I suppose you’ve got Hampstead Fever?”

4 Have plenty of food and drink. Especially drink.  If you can, have someone to serve people wearing white gloves. Class.

Fron L to R: me, Orna Roass, Jane Davis

From left to right: me, Orna Ross and Jane Davis

5 Take a pen. Of course you’ve already practised your authorial signature and worked out what to write by way of dedications, but something to write with does come in useful.

6 Get someone to take photos. Even better, ask several people, just in case. Make sure they capture the really important shots, eg with your family.

Christine with some friends

Christine Webber with some of her friends

7 Say a few words about yourself and your book.  You might mention the drawers full of unpublished masterpieces, or explain why you write instead of doing something easier, like transplant surgery. Thank key people, but remember it’s not an Oscar acceptance speech. Five to seven minutes will do, especially if more than one person speaks. Christine and I didn’t do readings, but many authors do. At a recent multiple launch, authors from the Triskele collective had others read excerpts aloud, to great effect.

7 Consider getting someone to introduce you and/or field questions from the audience. Someone might want to know how you write (“Is it true that you do your best writing in a rainy orchard with nothing on?”) or whether that scene is based on real life. On second thoughts, skip the questions.

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8 Consider merchandise (bookmarks, pencils and other trifles) or a draw for a book-related prize.  You could also have a slide-show or a book trailer running. The sky’s the limit, really, but it can become tacky, look desperate, or interfere with sheer enjoyment of the event.  

Concentrate on essentials like chilled fizz and plenty of copies of your book, and you’ll have a great send-off for your new title.

Pippa and Bethany of Daunt Books

Pippa and Bethany of Daunt Books

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?

How to Conjure up a Title for a Book

Newsflash for TS Eliot: it’s not just the naming of cats that’s a difficult matter. Books are equally tricky.old-books1

If you’re traditionally published, you may not need to give it much thought. One of my books was born with the zingy title of Twins and Multiple Births with barely any input from me.  I can’t really complain. It may be low on pizzazz but it’s a fair description of the contents.

Twins & Multiple Births book

But now that I am nearing the end of my second novel, and the cover design is imminent, I’ve come to the conclusion that Camden Passage isn’t after all right for a racy story about dating in London. Camden Passage is in Islington, not in Camden. It’s a stylish destination for shopping and eating out, but still, could the address confuse non-Londoners?

lighting shop in Camden Passage

For American readers, the potential for confusion is far greater. Camden, New Jersey, is often cited as one of the poorest and most violent cities in the USA. It was no doubt an ideal venue for President Obama to announce his new police initiative last year, but it’s about as far from a classy location as you can get.

Now I’ve abandoned Camden Passage, I’m left with various techniques for finding a new title for my novel.

1 Book title generators like Fantasy Name Generators, Adazing’s book title generator, and a fun blog post by Tara Sparling.

2 Asking friends and family.

3 Talking to other authors.

4 Polling readers of existing books. There’s the title bracket system described by Nathan Roten in his blog post for ALLi.

5 Going to a quiet bar and staying till the barman comes up with a suggestion.

6 Aiming a dart at the dictionary.

7 Subverting well-known titles.

bookshelf crop

I’ve already tried some of these methods. With a dry January, number 5 won’t fly, and I didn’t quite gel with If Clouds Could Steal, suggested by one of the title generators, but polling writer friends and readers remains an idea.

As a journalist, I think bending well-known titles appeals to me more, and that might inject just the right note to hint at the wit within the pages.

The reading world already has Aberystwyth Mon Amour and A Year in Cricklewood.  On that basis, Much Ado about Something Quite Serious makes perfect sense to me.

I can also foresee shelf space for gems like The Ice Triplets, Bonfire of the VAT Receipts, Breakfast at Lidl’s and Great Expectorations (set in a TB hospital in the 1950s).

Hampstead is the scene for much of the action in my novel. Might Hampstead for Dummies work?

FreeImages.com/Grant Kennedy

Hmm. Not convinced. But I rather like Hampstead Handyman which conveys a certain amount of action. Unfortunately it’s unlikely to fulfil its promise unless, as a friend suggested, I actually write a handyman into the story.

Those who can’t decide on a single name for their baby sometimes string all their favourites together as middle names for their little darling. You know the type: the newborn son or daughter saddled with the names of the entire football squad.

That may explain how Tom Wolfe got the Kandy-Kolored Tangerine Flake Streamline Baby. Though strictly speaking this was a car, not a baby.

So here I am at the start of the year and the end of my novel, my head spinning with title possibilities, all of them still wide of the mark. 

FreeImages.com/baronsboy

If you’re an author, how do you choose your book titles? I’d love to hear from you.