Friday, 2 February 2018

When is being faithful being faithless? Anna Belfrage guest posts about a wife's terrible dilemma

With Alison Morton on the left and Anna Belfrage on the right
 at the HNS conference in London 2014
Yikes, where did January go? It may have been a long, dark month, but it went in the blink of an eye - probably because I've been working full-tilt on a project. All will be revealed soon and if you want to be the first to know, then join my newsletter list at

After this post-Christmas break, I'm delighted to welcome Anna Belfrage to Literascribe, to talk about the inspiration for her story, 'The Sharing of a Husband', which appears in Distant Echoes. Her story shows us a husband and wife who love one another but are in an absolutely impossible situation - I'll let Anna explain why:

In 1984, the Swedish Herrey brothers won the Eurovision Song Contest with a song named ‘Diggiloo, Diggiley’. The Herrey brothers were somewhat exotic in Sweden: they were practising Mormons. At the time, most Swedes would equate Mormons with young men in dark suits who would knock on your door and politely ask for some moments of your time so that they could introduce you to their faith. Those of us who’d watched How the West was Won (a TV series featuring the Macahan family who set out due west in the aftermath of the US Civil War that was a HUGE hit in Sweden) had been presented with a somewhat more sinister version of Mormons: dark clad men who practised polygamy and enticed young gullible girls into plural marriages.

Obviously, this was a gross simplification. There was much more to the Mormons than their take on polygamy.

The Mormon religion saw the light of the day in the early 19th century. The first prophet, Joseph Smith, purportedly had a vision where an angel guided him to discover a number of tables in gold, upon which was inscribed the story of a lost people, the Nephites. This people were the descendants of one Lehi who, inspired by God, had his extended tribe build boats and sailed west, away from the land of Israel and to Central America. Joseph Smith translated the golden plates into what became the Book of Mormon, so named after the angel that pointed Joseph in the direction of the golden tables.
At the time, the world was a restless place: in the wake of the Napoleonic wars, the economy was generally unstable. The future looked anything but pink and rosy, and more and more people turned to religion to find some sort of hope. The Awakening was upon us, a period when preachers of all denominations tried to grow their flocks by promising salvation. The young Joseph Smith was so confused by all these preachers, all of them insisting their interpretation of the Christian faith was the right one, that he went into the forest and prayed, hoping for divine guidance. God delivered, telling Joseph to seek guidance only in Scripture, not in charlatans.

Simultaneously with all this religious fervour, the world, and in particular America, saw a number of Utopian movements. These were movements aimed at building a better, fairer world. People traipsed off into the wilds to build a brave new world, aspiring to societies built on equality and freedom.
The religion Joseph Smith presented to the world in the 1830s was to a large extent influenced by Utopian thought. He wanted to build a brand new way of life in which no one went hungry or homeless. Obviously, this appealed. And as Joseph Smith was a charismatic and very handsome man, he was especially appealing to women. 

So far, so good, one could have said. Not so. The Mormons were viewed with scepticism by the established churches, and when Joseph Smith had the vision that had him urging his Mormon brethren to embrace polygamy, he indirectly handed his enemies a loaded gun with which to shoot him. At the time, polygamy was not expressly forbidden by American law, but it was definitely frowned upon. Persecution of Mormons increased, Joseph Smith was arrested and murdered in his prison cell, and the new leader of the Mormons, Brigham Young, saw no choice but to lead his people even further west, all the way to present day Utah where the tenacious Mormons would carve out a garden in the desert and establish a new city, Salt Lake City.
Brigham Young was a firm believer in polygamy and considered it to be the duty of every Mormon man to take multiple wives and of every Mormon woman to accept having sister wives. But surely it can’t have been that easy, can it? Jealousy between wives must have caused strife and disharmony, and many men would probably have preferred having only one wife—because they loved the one they had.

I’ve been fortunate enough to visit Salt Lake City on several occasions. I count many LDS-members (Church of Latter Day Saints is the official name for the religion founded by Joseph Smith) among my friends. And when I ask them what they think of polygamy (which, BTW, is no longer permitted by the Church of Latter Day Saints, hasn’t been since the late 19th century) and what might have driven Joseph Smith to promote it, I get varied answers. No one questions the validity of Joseph’s vision – as the First Prophet, he may not be flawless in the eyes of present-day Mormons, but criticising him is not really on. However, both men and women talk about the sacrifice a plural marriage required: from the man, who had to distribute his time fairly among his wives, from the women, obliged to share their husband.

One of my Salt Lake City friends lent me a biography of one of his ancestors, one of the founding members of the LDS church. This man would end up with three wives, but it was his first wife whom he truly loved, thereby afflicted by guilt because he couldn’t quite summon the same feelings for his other two wives. In his case, he set up separate homes for his wives and spent his life ambulating from one home to the other, fathering close to twenty-four children. He was extremely proud of all his children, and he did his best to be a devoted husband to all his wives – but he only called one of them “my love”.

All of this inspired my short story, The Sharing of a Husband, the story of a young couple in Deseret. The husband is under severe pressure by the elders of the church to take more wives, but his present wife won’t hear of it. But poor Ellie is one lonely voice and Joshua ultimately caves, betraying Ellie to comply with the requirements of his church. Not, I imagine, an easy situation to resolve.

Thank you, Anna!

About Anna Belfrage: Anna is a financial professional with two absorbing interests - history and writing. She has authored the acclaimed time-slip series The Graham Saga, winner of multiple awards including the HNS Indie Award 2015. Her ongoing series is set in the 1320s and features Adam de Guirande, his wife Kit, and their adventures during Roger Mortimer's rise to power. The latest Graham saga novel is There is Always a Tomorrow - her loyal fans are, no doubt, already looking forward to the next! Anyone who knows Anna finds it impossible to understand just how she manages to be so incredibly productive - but then, she has an ultra-dynamic imagination that never seems to switch off! Anna frequently guests on history blogs and her website is at, her blog is at and you can find her on Facebook at 

Distant Echoes is published by Corazon Books in ebook and paperback and is available here . This anthology contains winners and runners-up of the past two Historical Novel Society’s short story competitions. 

I have also written about Distant Echoes and the small lives on the fringes of great events of history on the Historical Novel Society’s website here.

Previous guest-posts from contributors are herehere and here.

Are you a writer - or do you want to be? Visit my website to download your free guide to living a productive writing life and be the first to hear about my new online courses launching in February!

Sunday, 31 December 2017

Happy New Year - lessons and beginnings

Well, 2017 was a crazy ride wasn’t it? As we stand on the threshold of 2018 I’m hearing my friends
At the Society of Authors/Writers in Oxford
party at Balliol College
on Facebook wishing one another better times in 2018, not just on a personal level but a global one. We seem to have spent the past twelve months reeling from one shock to another or feeling threatened by dark possibilities to come.

But the solstice has passed. Days are still dark but we are turning towards the sun. Now is the time of beginnings, of new edifices built on old foundations.

When I look back on my 2017 it is full of dark and light. The first quarter was one of physical disability and a sense that my horizons were closing in because I simply could not walk without serious pain. The knee injury of the autumn allied itself with the weakness in my hip. I couldn’t get up and down the stairs without a stick. I couldn’t get out of chairs without the stick. I felt about 105 years old – and I believed this was going to be my future. You can imagine how depressing that was.

Now, at the end of the year, things are very different. To my undying surprise, I find myself an active gym member. I do resistance training. My muscles are more toned and I’ve lost over half a stone. I have more energy. I go up and down the stairs and up from chairs without a stick. Yay! There is a lot more progress to make but I feel Olympian compared to how I was a few months back.

What is the lesson from this? That your body matters – it’s the vehicle of all your creativity and when it is unwell it is hard to be positive or make progress in any other sphere of life.

The other main aspect of my 2017 was the workload. I am glad to have helped so many students and editorial clients over the past year. It is extremely fulfilling. But when you realise you’ve edited 1.2 million words during the year and none of them were your own, you start to wonder when you will ever match the service you give to others with attention to your own writing ambitions.

The lesson from this is that the balance of elements in one’s life needs to be evaluated, constantly, because it is so easy to let one aspect get out of hand. To that end I will be cutting back on my editing role and launching a whole new Fictionfire activity in January. Wish me luck!

Highlights of my year were the Oxford summer schools, teaching at Winchester, holidays in Cornwall and Provence, the publication of ‘Salt’ in Distant Echoes and my poem ‘Cooling’ in Vine Leaves Literary Journal. I read quite a few books as part of my IGISIRI campaign – but not nearly enough, because of those 1.2 million words of clients’ books. My latest IGISIRI is Geraldine Brooks’ Year of Wonders, which I have meant to read for years. It was stunning. I’m hoping next year to be more consistent in my IGISIRI reading - for previous posts on what IGISIRI means, go here.

I’ll sign off now with my warmest wishes that you all have a creative, fulfilling 2018 year ahead of you. I’ll be back this week with news of my new Fictionfire venture and historical novelist Anna Belfrage will be guest-posting.

Happy New Year!

Lorna x

Are you a writer - or do you want to be? Visit my website to download your free guide to living a productive writing life.

Thursday, 21 December 2017

What's in a name? Author Mari Griffith tells us about a Welshwoman of great spirit.

Mari Griffith
The latest in my series of guest-posts by writer-contributors to Distant Echoes, a wide-ranging anthology of historical short stories, is by Mari Griffith, who sheds light on a little-known episode at the end of the eighteenth century, when England dreaded the invasion of Napoleon's armies ...

Meghan. It’s a name on people’s lips on both sides of the Atlantic: and just wait until the fifth in line to the English throne and his American fiancĂ© are well and truly wed and start producing children! Unimaginative parents everywhere will be naming their babies after the newest, most glamorous member of the royal family. That’s what happens. Just think of all the Victorias, the Alberts and Alices. Now Meghan will be the name of choice and I wonder how many people will realise that it’s a Welsh name – incorrectly spelled in this case but at least it’s correctly pronounced and Ms. Markle won’t end up being known as Princess Mee-gun. That really would make Welsh toenails curl!

I was particularly amused to read that even the royal corgis immediately took to Meghan. I wondered whether anyone told her that she was patting the head of a Welsh dog?  The name derives from the Welsh ‘corach’ meaning ‘dwarf’ and ‘ci’ meaning ‘dog’. And, while we’re on the subject, spare a thought during this festive season for the Christmas song we now know as ‘Deck the Halls’ – yes, that too is Welsh. It was a 16th century carol for New Year’s Eve, or ‘Nos Calan’. Wales is pretty much everywhere, if you care to look for it.

But back to the name. It’s pure coincidence, of course, that I had chosen it for my short story ‘For the Love of Megan’ which is included in the HNS Anthology Distant Echoes. It tells the tale of Jemima Nicholas, a woman of formidable stature who was the town cobbler in Fishguard on the coast of West Wales when, in 1797, England was bracing itself against the threat of a French invasion. Panic-stricken people withdrew their gold from the banks, forcing the issue of promissory notes – what we now call bank notes – for the first time ever. And yes, some 1,400 rag, tag and bobtail members of the Legion Noire did land - not in England but in West Wales. These undisciplined conscripts plundered farmyards and ate undercooked chickens washed down with bootleg brandy from a shipwreck. Suffering from hangovers and food poisoning, they were hardly in any state to defend themselves against Jemima’s pitchfork as she rounded them up before turning them in. She wasn’t going to let any nasty ‘Froggies’ ruin the life of her brand new niece, baby Megan. Jemima then went on to coordinate the women of the town in forming a convincing ‘defence force’ to intimidate the invaders. A memorial stone to record her achievements was erected outside the church of St. Mary’s in Fishguard and still stands to this day.

Jemima’s is just one of many, many Welsh stories which are totally unknown outside Wales and this has a great influence on my work as a writer. Belonging, as I do, to a nation with such a rich and diverse history, I really want to share it with my readers and if either Megan or Meghan can help, that’s fine by me.

Thank you, Mari!

About Mari Griffith: Mari turned to writing historical fiction in retirement after a working lifetime of producing, promoting and presenting programmes in Welsh and English on BBC Wales. Her first novel, Root of the Tudor Rose became an Amazon bestseller. She followed that with The Witch of Eye, the story behind the most sensational treason trial of the 15th century. Mari's website is here.

Distant Echoes is published by Corazon Books in ebook and paperback and is available here . This anthology contains winners and runners-up of the past two Historical Novel Society’s short story competitions. 

I have also written about Distant Echoes and the small lives on the fringes of great events of history on the Historical Novel Society’s website here.

Previous guest-posts from contributors are here and here.

Are you a writer - or do you want to be? Visit my website to download your free guide to living a productive writing life.

Wednesday, 13 December 2017

Women and war: on the sidelines of the action but on the frontline of drama - with guests Richard Buxton and Jasmina Svenne

In 1980, I remember my late friend Catherine Reilly having trouble convincing academics that the anthology she was working on, of women’s poetry of the First World War, had significance. That anthology, Scars upon my Heart, went on to great success and was on exam syllabuses for many years. The poems she sourced reminded readers that the First World War wasn’t all about bully beef and muddy trenches – it was about the experience of loved ones: the women who wait, who grieve, whose experience of war is very different from that of their menfolks.

For today’s post I have invited two other contributors to Distant Echoes, a wide-ranging anthology of historical short stories, to share with me in exploring this topic – the heartbreak and helplessness of women at times of war in the past.

We’re starting with Richard Buxton, whose powerful story ‘Disunion’ introduces us to an American Civil War situation far removed from what we’re familiar with when we watch Gone with the Wind. His focus is on the poisonous breakdown of trust in the community when people take sides:

Richard Buxton
Civil Wars differ from those between nations inasmuch as the wives and daughters were not only waving their menfolk goodbye, but trying to survive in the midst of the war themselves. Disunion is set in Eastern Tennessee, as several of my stories are. What made it so much tougher for those left behind was that, collectively, Tennessee voted to leave the Union and side with the Confederacy, but a majority in Eastern Tennessee wanted to remain part of the Union. It made this part of America a grim place to spend the war (1861 – 1865). Scores were still being settled, usually violently, many decades later.

The other characteristic of a Civil War is that it’s impossible to remain neutral, which my female narrator comes to learn in the hardest possible way. Others didn’t need persuading. Ellen Renshaw House was an ardent Confederate supporter living in Knoxville who referred to herself as ‘A Very Violent Rebel’. While I couldn’t agree with her politics, I nevertheless found her voice hugely compelling. While Knoxville was under Union control she split her time between looking after wounded Confederates and criticising the military authorities. Her diary entries leave no doubt as to the extreme bitterness felt on both sides in the city. Executions were common and Ellen bore witness to many. She was eventually expelled to Georgia.

There were more than two years of Confederate control before the Union took over. Conditions were every bit as harsh, possibly even more so away from the cities where there was no garrison to keep order. Coves (valleys) in the Appalachians held small scale communities that were relatively cut-off from the outside world and wanted nothing to do with the war. Life scratching a living on a one-mule farm was hard enough even when there was a husband and a wife. That was the story I wanted to tell in Disunion: a woman trying to endure with her husband gone but with others to care for, while all around her was suspicion and antipathy.

As the war went on the age range for conscription widened, particularly in the South, and women lost sons and fathers to the army as well as their husbands. Irregulars, desperados outside the sway of the Confederate Army and often made up of deserters, took refuge in the hills and preyed on the weak and defenceless. The women of Cades Cove were driven to form themselves into home guards to protect property and livestock, their children acting as pickets and blowing horns when the raiders were spotted. There was no escaping the war.

Even after the war the suffering went on. It was a time of great displacement. Families sick of the feuding moved away south or west and new people displaced from elsewhere arrived. The women waited for loved ones to return from the war, not knowing if they were alive or dead. Many would never find out.

Thank you, Richard.

My own story, ‘Salt’ tackles the familiar subject of women watching their men go off to war. As Richard has just mentioned, many would never learn what became of their men. That fear hangs over my main character, Ina, and her sister Mary Bella. What’s more, they are in an unfamiliar place themselves. They are Scottish herring girls – their job is to gut, salt and pack the huge quantities of herring caught by fisherman off Great Yarmouth on the eastern coast of England. For many years this was a tradition in Scottish fishing communities – men and women would travel round the coast of Britain, following the shoals of herring. Ina and Mary Bella are dislocated from what is familiar, the hours are punishing, the work extremely hard and their lodgings basic. But what they have is the warmth of sisterhood and friendship – these young women worked in teams with allocated roles and their efficiency was amazing. That female comradeship counterpoints the male camaraderie over in France, in the trenches.

I wanted to write a story that recorded my own heritage (my grandmother was one of those herring ‘quines’) but as it unfolded it became a tale where emotion was heightened not only by that sense of being in a ‘foreign’ place but by the speed of events. Mary Bella meets a man and their shared passion is intensified by its vulnerability. War stories often lead to scenes of parting – no one knows if or when the loved one will come back. The final scene of the story carried me along on a surge of swift writing and the final word fell into place with an almost audible click.

Since then, I’ve wondered what Ina’s life held for her later – maybe I’ll write about that some day!

Finally, Jasmina Svenne’s story ‘Too Late, Beloved’ jumps us to the end of World War I. Her story and my one act as book-ends, showing us the anticipatory dread and the poignant aftermath. Will my man come back, every woman must have asked herself, and if he does, what will he be? What will he find?

Here’s what Jasmina has to say:

Jasmina Svenne
As a writer of short historical fiction, I find that one of the hardest tricks to pull off is to evoke another era in as few words as possible and that the easiest way to do it is to go for a period the average reader knows, or thinks s/he does. So my other passion – the late-C18th – tends to be put on the backburner in favour of WWI.

The First World War, I think, still has resonance because it’s only a few years since the last of the veterans died and because so many ordinary citizens were caught up in it, in one way or another, which probably makes it easier for readers to empathise with characters that could almost be their (great-)grandparents.

For that reason, a lot of WWI stories tend to concentrate on civilian soldiers – the Pals Battalions and the families they left behind them. I chose not to do so, because it strikes me that sometimes professional soldiers like Edgar in my story – one of the Old Contemptibles who was involved in the Retreat from Mons – tend to be overlooked, as if their sacrifices are somehow worth less, simply because they had chosen the army as a career even before war broke out. (Having said that, I have a sneaky suspicion that, before the war, Victor probably worked in an office or a bank.)

The original inspiration for ‘Too Late, Beloved’ was a story told by one of the 100-and-something-year-old veterans interviewed on a BBC documentary called ‘The Last Tommy’. One of his comrades had been taken prisoner during the war, but had somehow been missed off the POW lists, so neither his family nor his sweetheart was informed that he was still alive. On his return, he went to his sweetheart’s home, only to find she wasn’t there. Instead her father told him that, presuming he was dead, she had married someone else. Devastated, the POW emigrated almost immediately and the young woman’s father never told her that her first love was still alive.

That story, combined with the Vivien Leigh film Waterloo Bridge and contemporary news stories about missing people, made me wonder what it would be like to live with that uncertainty – unable to grieve, unable to trust the spark of hope you would inevitably harbour somewhere in the deepest depths of your heart.

How long would it take before you cracked under the pressure from well-meaning friends and relatives, to accept the unacceptable and try to move on with your life? And what if you discovered you had made the wrong choice – maybe? Because I also believe it is possible to love two people just as much, but differently and for different reasons.

Thank you, Richard and Jasmina!

Distant Echoes is published by Corazon Books, in ebook and paperback and is available here . This anthology contains winners and runners-up of the past two Historical Novel Society’s short story competitions. ‘Salt’ won the HNS Oxford 2014 competition. Jasmina’s The Beggar at the Gate’ won in 2012 and is published in the ebook The Beggar at the Gate, available here – my runner-up story ‘Reputation’ appears there too.

I have also written about Distant Echoes and the small lives on the fringes of great events of history on the Historical Novel Society’s website here.

Further reading: Wake, by Anna Hope, a moving novel about women after the end of the First World War as Britain prepares its ceremonial funeral for the Unknown Soldier; Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain, which follows that familiar arc from the pre-war to the post-war experience and which I defy you to read without weeping; The Last Fighting Tommy by Harry Patch – mentioned by Jasmina. I blogged about Harry Patch some years back and you can read my post here.

About my guests:

Richard Buxton grew up in Wales and lives in Sussex. He is a graduate of the Creative Writing Masters programme at Chichester University. His writing successes include winning the Exeter Story Prize, the Bedford International Writing Competition and the Nivalis Short Story Award. His US Civil War novel, Whirligig, which was longlisted for the 2015 HNS award, was released this spring.

Jasmina Svenne was born in Derby to Latvian parents. Her writing career began with a novel, Behind the Mask, winner of the Katie Fforde Bursary, followed by nine historical novellas. Her stories have also been published in Journeys Beyond (Earlyworks Press), Wooing Mr Wickham (Honno).

Are you a writer - or do you want to be? Visit my website to download your free guide to living a productive writing life.

Friday, 1 December 2017

The losing of Lyonesse - Yvonne Lyon guest-posts about the inspiration for her moving story The Hungry Sails

Yvonne Lyon, author of The Hungry Sails in Distant Echoes
Today I'm featuring the first guest-post from contributors to Distant Echoes, published by Corazon Books. All the contributors have won or been shortlisted for the Historical Novel Society's story awards and the anthology covers a really diverse range of historical periods and topics. Readers are often fascinated by how ideas come to writers, so I thought I would ask Yvonne what triggered her very moving tale, The Hungry Sails, set on the Scilly Isles in the mid-nineteenth century. Welcome, Yvonne!

A big thank you to Lorna for allowing me to tell you about my story, The Hungry Sails, which is set on Samson, now an uninhabited island, one of the Isles of Scilly which lie sixty miles off the coast of Cornwall. 
My interest in Scilly is long-lived. In the 1990s I had several holidays there, camping with a friend and her family on St Agnes. One year I took a boat trip over to Samson and wandered around the small hilly island, coming across fallen stones from ruined houses. It was a haunting experience and I never forgot it. 
Circumstances change, people move on. I didn’t go back to the islands until June 2016 when I decided to holiday on St Mary’s. The memory of the unspoilt beauty of the islands had never left me. I’d promised myself, one day I’ll return.
After a week of boat-trips to the off-islands, sunbathing, walking cliff paths in stunning weather, the day before my departure to the mainland I visited the Islands’ Museum. I stood before a display board about Samson with its photos of now ruined houses and knew I’d found something to write about.
All week I’d been looking for a subject, as a break from novel writing. Perhaps, I thought, other visitors I talked to on boat-trips would spark an idea for me. Briefly, I considered writing a piece about a racist visitor and his conversation with another man about Brexit. (It was early June, just before the EU referendum.) Thankfully the world has been spared that!
In 1822 seven families farmed the land and made a living but by the mid-nineteenth century their descendants were starving. The reports about the last two families from 1855 made a huge impression on me. I learnt that the self-styled Lord Proprietor of the Isles of Scilly, Augustus Smith, wanted them gone so he could graze deer there. The families were to be re-housed on St. Mary’s. They couldn’t stay. They were deprived, living in poverty. But how did they feel about quitting a place where their families had lived for generations? That was the germ of the idea.
Back home I was unsuccessful in finding any library books about Samson but there was enough information on-line for me to use. I’d taken notes at the museum and seen a large stoneware jug there called a Bellermine, a name I’d never come across before. It crept into the story as a way of cheering up a small boy. 
The names of characters are actual Samson names though unfortunately I know nothing about the real people. I think of my story as paying homage to their endurance and love for their home.
On a final note of irony, once the Webbers and Woodcocks had left, Augustus Smith built a deer park on the island but the animals did not like the environment and escaped from their stone-walled enclosure, some attempting to wade across to Tresco at low tide.

About Yvonne:
Yvonne Lyon is from Lancashire and now lives in Oxford where she studied for an MA in Creative Writing at Oxford Brookes University. She dips in and out of periods depending on what catches her eye for a story so The Hungry Sails, set in 1855, feels modern compared to her current book, The Burning Road. The period is the late Iron Age and characters believe in the old gods, Epona and Lugh. Her first novel was Edgeburn, a YA timeslip story set in present-day Lancashire and late Anglo Saxon times.

Learn more about the Scilly Isles here.

Distant Echoes is published as an ebook here and as a paperback here.

Interested in writing? Visit my website to download your free guide to launching a productive writing life.

Tuesday, 21 November 2017

IGISIRI catch-up - my latest reads

A quick post today about my IGISIRI programme – you may have wondered why things have gone a bit silent on that front! If you remember, IGISIRI stands for I’ve Got It So I’ll Read It and it’s all about tackling those books on your TBR pile, at the rate of two a month. You choose them from your shelves quickly, without too much thought – because if you dither for too long you find you want to read everything you own all at once and you make no decision at all!

I was doing well until the summer. Summer, for me, is all about teaching. So my focus is on useful-sources-for-illustrative-passages for my creative writing students rather than damn-fine-reads-I-can-escape-into.

Here, then, is an update of books I’ve read for pleasure since my last IGISIRI post, taking us through the end of summer and the autumn.

On holiday after the teaching gigs ended, I read a couple of thrillers: Karin Slaughter’s Pretty Girls, which was in the holiday rental we were staying in and Peter Swanson’s Her Every Fear, bought at the airport. The former was, I found, well done but far too long and pretty distasteful, even though I have a strong stomach for the gory end of the thriller market. Peter Swanson’s novel was OK but curiously flat and I was irked by the errors of ‘British’ thought and expression when he was narrating from a British character’s point of view. Both books, I felt, could have done with better standards of editing.

Since then I’ve read Liz Jensen’s The Rapture – extremely dark and scary and I hope not too prescient. Then Michelle Paver’s Thin Air – like her previous ghost/horror story Dark Matter, it makes use of a chilly, inhuman location. In Dark Matter (which is one of my favourite ghost stories ever) she set the story in the Arctic – here it’s the Himalayas. It was excellent, though not quite as good as Dark Matter.

This month I’ve finished reading Michael Haag’s The Durrells of Corfu, which I started back in the early summer. I loved it yet almost didn’t want to know the ‘truth’ behind My Family and Other Animals and its sequels. What was lovely was the recognition of the places mentioned such as the White House at Kalami – we had lunch there twice when we holidayed in Corfu some years back (see my post here). It made me want to return to the island with my extra knowledge not just of Gerald Durrell but of Lawrence Durrell. I have to say that this book has emerged as a result of the popularity of the Durrells series on ITV, which I have watched occasionally because of the gorgeous scenery but find irritating in the way it patronises Greeks as ludicrous eccentrics, though I suppose the original books did that too.

Next, Jessica Bell’s memoir Dear Reflection: I Never Meant to be a Rebel. This is a book that shocks you not only with the events it describes but with its degree of honesty. She lays bare what she did and why she did it in such an unsparing, unflinching way you long to dart forward and tell her to be kinder to herself. What is also extraordinary is that her mother, musician Erika Bach, who suffered from psychosis brought on by withdrawal from prescription painkillers and whose relationship with her daughter was intense and love-hate all the way, writes directly to the reader at the end. Jessica ricochets from depression to alcohol abuse to self-destructive melodrama in her quest to reconcile herself to her family, society, the world and her own self. Searing stuff.

Finally, many readers have waited a long time for this treat – Philip Pullman’s long-delayed new trilogy The Book of Dust. I wasn’t going to wait for La Belle Sauvage, the first in the trilogy, to come out in paperback. I bought the hardback at the Book House in Summertown – see the lovely bag that came with it?! Beneath the dust(!)jacket, the book itself is beautiful with little gold speckles of dust on the binding and a lines from the story inscribed down the spine. La Belle Sauvage is proof yet again that Pullman is a master storyteller. Though it doesn’t pack quite the revelatory punch of Northern Lights, the first of the His Dark Materials trilogy, it is an enthralling read all the same. It is a joy to return to the alternative Oxford he creates and an added joy for me, as an Oxford-dweller, to recognise the landmarks and places he describes, from the Trout and Godstow nunnery all the way down the Thames – a Thames that decides not to flow sweetly in this story, but to inundate the landscape and island the spires of the city. (Not all that unlikely, given that Oxford is very prone to flooding).

Till my next ISIGIRI round-up, keep reading!

Next time, a guest post by Yvonne Lyon, whose story The Hungry Sails appears in Distant Echoes, as does my story ‘Salt’, published by Corazon Books - see the sidebar on the right.

Past IGISIRI posts are here - with links to previous ones at the foot of that post.

Read more about Jessica Bell here: her website is here. Jessica is a musician too. And a publisher and cover designer ...

Are you a writer - or do you want to be? Visit my website to download your free guide to launching a productive writing life. 

Sunday, 12 November 2017

Where have I been?

Getting ready to start teaching
 at Oxford University
Summer School for Adults
It’s a while since I last blogged so this is a round-up of what was going on and advance notification of what is coming up!

Summers equate with creative writing teaching: no sooner had I finished running a part time course for Oxford University during the spring, but I taught at Winchester Writers’ Festival where my subject was the power of point of view, then two summer schools on two different programmes for Oxford University. This was my fifteenth  year at OUSSA and my fourth at the OUDCE Creative Writing summer school at Exeter College.

As ever, I was blown away by the quality of work I was assessing and hearing. I loved meeting my students and hearing their stories. Summer schools bring together the most extraordinary mix of nationalities, backgrounds, life experiences and writing dreams.

With lovely tutor and writer
Judy Waite, at Winchester Writers' Festival
By mid-August I was just desperate for a holiday, though! I hadn’t had a break since our holiday in Cornwall in early spring. But before I could relish any down-time, I had to face tasks I had been putting off for months – nay, years! I moved my website host, I created an opt-in PDF, I learned how to use Convertkit and moved my mailing lists to it, I got all the elements talking to one another!

Before we left for our holiday in France in September, I set up my new website landing page. I felt tired but pretty damned chuffed. What would be a walk in the park to some people was like climbing Everest to me, but I had done it – I had got that far.

Roussillon, Provence
We went back to Provence, which we had visited last year. And oh, it was still gorgeous. For two weeks I genuinely unwound and it did me a power of good. I even wrote something!

Back home, I soon got all wound up again. Life has been full on since then. I have been editing, mainly, for long-term clients. I’ve also been the co-ordinating judge of the short story competition Writers in Oxford has been running for young Oxfordshire writers. Now, our choices have been made and sent to Philip Pullman, our head judge. The prizes will be announced next week at the Writers in Oxford 25th Anniversary party, held in conjunction with the Society of Authors.
Being interviewed at Radio Oxford
to publicise Writers in Oxford's
Young Oxfordshire Writer competition

And what about the website, you may ask?

Ah. Ahem … a work in progress still, but progress is being made!

Well, do go and visit: you can download my free PDF on leading a productive writing life!

In other news, I got published!

More of that in my next post too …

Download your free guide to launching a productive writing life by visiting the website here