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?

***

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

http://mybook.to/HF

Advertisements

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.

Seven Deadly Sins of Newbie Writers

When I first blogged about the eight mistakes of newbie writers, I knew I couldn’t cover the whole subject in a few hundred words. Since then, fellow author Keith Dixon and other colleagues have pointed out several more pitfalls that would-be novelists really should avoid. That made it high time for this follow-up.

1 Beginning before the beginning

Many novice writers launch their story with a wordy description of the main character, or a biography beginning with that person’s existence long before the action in the book – sometimes even back to their birth.  The danger is that, unless you’re Dostoevsky, readers will ditch your prose in favour of a novel where something is actually happening.

bookshop

2 Using complicated variations of ‘he said’/’she said’

You might think ‘he said’ and ‘she said’ are too dull to bear repetition, but the truth is that these basic dialogue tags tend to melt into the background, and readers barely notice them. On the other hand, they’ll certainly notice (and not in a good way) a regurgitated thesaurus such as this.

OK,” he agreed.

“That’s settled then,” she responded. “We’ll hit the road first thing.”

“Not first thing,” he protested.

“And what’s wrong with an early start?” she remonstrated.

“I wanted a lie-in,” he whined.

“Lazy sod!” she admonished.

“Not as lazy as you,” he muttered.

“I bloody heard that!” she expostulated.

3 Using too many adverbs

How many is too many? It’s a matter of opinion, but I’d say most adverbs are unnecessary, as here.

Shan’t!” the toddler said petulantly.

If you find you use a lot of adverbs, work on livelier and more concise ways to convey what you mean.

4 Letting characters prattle on

Once you’ve got an ear for dialogue, it’s tempting to fill acres of space with it, to the detriment of action, pace, conflict, and plot. Remember that every scene has to move the story on, so don’t get side-tracked.

notebooks and pen

5 Giving overly precise accounts of what characters are doing

Moving people in and out of rooms is a real problem for some would-be authors, as one of my fictional characters, a journalist called Harriet, discovers when she sets out to write a novel.

Suzi pulled the dress down over her distended belly and they all went into the living room.

Whether they walked or sashayed, they surely couldn’t all go through the door at the same time. The setting was only a 1930s semi, not a stately home.  And what were they going to do once they got to the living room?

Suzi sat herself by the window where she could enjoy the last rays of the sun and spy on her mysterious neighbour at the same time.

That was all very well, but if Harriet didn’t mention Theo, Martha, and Greg, wouldn’t the reader wonder whether they were all still standing around like lemons, while Suzi was the only one sitting down?

Theo and Martha shared the sofa, while Greg leant against the wall and puffed on his cigarette as if there was no such thing as a smoking ban.

The guy was a dick to smoke when there was a pregnant woman in the room. Harriet scratched her head. Fiction was ridiculously involved.

6 Using the passive voice

When the children had been tucked up in bed, the laundry done, and the dustbins put out, Trevor stretched out on the sofa and allowed himself to be lulled to sleep.

Yep, the reader might doze off too. Active verbs are far more compelling, and often shorter and more precise to boot. The passive voice has its uses, as in scientific papers (This formula is considered an acceptable way of estimating a child’s weight). It’s a turnoff in fiction, though, as with everything, there are exceptions.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.

7 Overusing semicolons

By this I mean using lots of them; you know, just because you can.

I believe there is a special place in hell for this sin. Semicolons are for connecting two independent clauses, each of which could stand grammatically on its own. It follows that you could, of course, use a full stop instead. Like this one.

Do let me know if you have any other Don’ts for new writers. Meanwhile, happy writing.

pencils in sixties mug

***

You may also like:

How to Write a Book Review

What You Can Learn on a Creative Writing Course

 

Remember the Days of the Old School Yard….

If you too love reminiscences about school, this post will fit the bill perfectly. Author Jo Lambert wrote it a year or two ago, but since when does nostalgia go out of style? I give it 10/10.

JO LAMBERT - A WRITER'S JOURNEY

My Book Covers1

Our school days are supposed to be the best days of our lives – right?  Well I guess that very much depends on who you are.  Certainly I enjoyed college a whole lot more – freedom to dress how I wanted, lecturers who treated you like an adult and a far more relaxed teaching regime.  Having said that, there were many memorable moments during those school uniform years – and after.

Woodborough SchoolI grew up in a tiny Wiltshire village on the edge of Salisbury Plain which had no shop or post office, no pub and no school.  So from five to eleven years of age I attended school in the next village three miles away.  There was nothing remarkable about those first six years of schooling – fifty pupils, three class rooms and three teachers.  That same school today has a teaching staff of over 25, the building has been…

View original post 1,289 more words

What Happens When Writers Meet?

Writing is a solitary life. It’s just you and the page, though, all being well, some words eventually show up. If you write novels, you may fashion some wonderful characters, but you still don’t see other people.

Going out in public once in a while is a good idea but it takes an effort. It might even mean getting dressed and putting a set of teeth in.

It’s totally worth it because, as you know, everyone’s fascinated.  Mention you’re a writer and people invariably say “How interesting.”

Royal typewriter

Sadly, the interest rarely lasts. Those same people want to tell you all about the novel they have inside them (it’s often the one that shouldn’t get out). But all a writer really wants to do is talk about their own work. After a while, few can put up with us because we either bore them to death about our books flying off the shelves at the speed of light, or bore them to death because our masterpieces are Superglued to the bottom of the Amazon rankings.

It’s sometimes the same with significant others, so the writer skulks off to the shed or spare room to keep out of the way. At this point SO usually gives a look that suggests you’re engaging in solo activities of an adolescent nature.

But it’s good to get out. A sedentary lifestyle is linked with back pain, constipation, low mood and worse: obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, osteoporosis, and even breast and bowel cancer. It’s estimated that globally lack of exercise causes 5.3m deaths a year, which is roughly the same as smoking. 

There’s a lot to be gained by meeting other authors. It’s really not the same as communicating online, as fellow indie author Kevin Booth points out in a recent blog post.  When we meet, we can learn a lot from each other, in a casual, friendly and effective way.  

We’re not all introverts. Writers are often outgoing. As Kevin says

There’s a particular chemistry that seems to engage when a group of writers get together over a glass of something. If people find it difficult to stay on-topic, it’s because they are sparking creatively off each other and raising new questions that they hadn’t previously considered. I don’t think the online experience has yet been able to replicate this.

Some like meeting to critique, but other authors hate talking about their work in progress. I sometimes worry about Schrödinger’s novel. Let even a chink of light in, and the book dies. While it’s still safely in the dark box of the mind, it could be either alive or dead.

Schrödinger’s cat, you’ll recall, is based on quantum physics. Until the box is opened, the cat could be either alive or dead, or indeed, a touch of both. 

Personally, I don’t have many doubts about the cat. If you can’t hear it inside the box, scrabbling to get out, then it’s probably dead. Cats may like boxes, but they want to choose their own. Nobody should ever put a cat into a container without food, water, ventilation, and a clean kitty litter tray.

cat in box

But back to meeting other authors. Do writers bitch and argue when they meet? Hardly ever. Apart from the fact that we’re a nice bunch of people, or so I like to think, we’re also mighty relieved to find like-minded company. We enjoy each other’s books and don’t mind saying so. And, when someone is super-successful, it’s inspiring to remember that it can happen to people not so very different from ourselves. We can celebrate other writers’ triumphs, just as we commiserate over setbacks like paltry advances or poor sales.

There’s no place for petty jealousy. Out there are many millions of readers. No one author, not even one several times as prolific as Barbara Cartland, could produce enough books to keep the whole world happy.

If you write but don’t have a writing group nearby, why not start one? Self-published authors might like to join the Alliance of Independent Authors.author-member ALLi

ALLi (pronounced ‘ally’, appropriately) is a global non-profit association of author-publishers. They offer connection and collaboration, advice and education, and, importantly, also campaign to further the interests of self-publishing writers everywhere.

I come back from local ALLi meetings with a spring in my step. Here’s more of what Kevin Booth has to say on the ALLi blog about face-to-face meetings.

Every reason for getting up from your desk, then.

An Unchoreographed Life

Today there’s a treat for you: one great author (Dan Holloway) interviewing another (Jane Davis) on his blog. After the morning I’ve had (don’t ask), I’d make a hash of trying to explain any more. You may not have heard of novelist Jane Davis before, but that could be the world’s fault for not being ready for her. So I’m off to get myself a coffee and some ibuprofen while the interview speaks for itself.

dan holloway

jane pic

Jane Davis is one of my newfound heroes. A prizewinning literary author who tackles the trickiest of subjects and has turned to producing the very finest self-published literary works. She’s a wonderful writer I’m cheering on full voice. She also, as you will see as she discusses her wonderful book An Unchoreographed Life, gives the most wonderful interviews!

1. Let me start with your covers – how important is it for you to maintain such a recognisable feel to your books? If you could summarise that feel, what would you say?

jane half

Branding has become hugely important to me – although I’d be lying if I said that I was fully aware of its importance when I first self-published.

Transworld had the right of first refusal of my second novel, and they exercised it. Half-truths and White Lies was published under their women’s fiction imprint, and the manuscript I presented them…

View original post 3,439 more words