30 July, 2012

The Book... by Roanna Price

The fourth in my series of posts about the books that people love. Today, the lovely Roanna Price lets us know which book is...

Image from: fantasticfiction.co.uk
The Book I’ll Pass on to My Children.

Ironically for a journalist and book lover I used to hate reading, writing or anything else they made you do during the dreaded school hours. Therapists would probably blame my reluctance to engage with education on an early upheaval and move between schools, or some other Freudian ramble, but that's not the relevant part to this short tale.

The catalyst for my eventual love of the written word was my mother recommending I read the book Milly Molly Mandy Stories by Joyce Lankester Brisley. My parents bought me this book to entertain me on a car journey or on holiday or something - I can’t remember what it was now, because from the moment I opened it I consumed it and my own childhood reality slipped away. Milly Molly Mandy with her simple pleasing life of village adventures and friendship opened my eyes to the true joy of books and reading and I’ve never looked back.

Reading and writing now define me, as I attempt in return, to define through writing. Whether I am revisiting an old favourite like a Persuasion by Jane Austen or letting J.R.R Tolkein sweep me away once again, I am always reminded, with the first turn of the page, of Milly Molly Mandy and how lucky I am to have discovered the world of stories.

Whether my children already love reading, or get off to a rocky start like me, I plan on passing on my own copy of Milly Molly Mandy Stories, hopefully prompting them along the way to what has to be the best hobby of all.

Thanks, Roanna. I know I read this book too and loved it - though I don't remember details now. Just the name gives me a little buzz of nostalgia. I wonder if they make books like this any more? Books where children have innocent adventures in a real-world setting. I love Just William and Anne of Green Gables. 

Which books make you nostalgic?

Roanna Price is a journalist and bibliophile, brought up in south Wales and Bristol. Now living in Liverpool, she is one quarter of the ethical design collective raje.

25 July, 2012

I've Finished Ulysses!

Photo from Wikipedia
I thought this momentous occasion deserved a post in its own right. And an exclamation mark in the title of the post. Oh yes it did.

What a crazy book. It's taken me months to read as I've needed regular breaks and it's the only book I've ever read where I've needed to use Wikipedia to even understand what's happening (not a lot as it turns out). And yet, I don't hate it.

It was so difficult to read, I understood very little but I can't give it one out of 10. Of the 94 books I've read so far on the BBC Big Read Top 100, it's not my least favourite - least understood, but not my least favourite (that honour goes to On The Road by Jack Kerouac). I can't give it a high score, obviously - I almost couldn't finish. But some of the individual sentences were beautiful and made me want to re-read them over and over in awe.

Ulysses is written in 18 episodes - each in a different style. Some I hated, others I really liked. Episode 17 (Ithaca) was probably my favourite, written in the style of scientific questions and answers, but I also liked 7 (newspaper headlines), 13 (parody of romantic novellas) and 15 (play script with elaborate stage directions). To my complete surprise I also really enjoyed the final episode, Penelope, usually referred to as Molly's Soliloquy. I'd been dreading it - 42 pages with no punctuation at all (not even apostrophes) and only 8 paragraphs - but it was a masterpiece.

I can't say I'd reccommend Ulysses to anyone, but I am surprised now at how little I hate it, considering how I felt after the first three episodes!

23 July, 2012

Jack of All Trades

Does being a Jack of all trades, really mean you can be a Master of none? I ask because I have this silly hang-up about writing. Like most young writers, I am determined to be published one day. But one thing worries me - if I get published in one genre, will I be stuck writing in that genre forever?

Agents don't like to represent one-book wonders. If someone writes a children's book, they want them to produce another, even better, within a year to get some momentum going. But what if you want to write a children's book, an adult novel, a collection of poems and a biography? Can you swap genres, mid (or even early) career?

I asked the author Martyn Beardsley - a Master of several trades already - to tell me a little bit about how he ended up writing for both adults and children, fiction and non-fiction.

Martyn is best known for his children's books about a bumbling knight, Sir Gadabout. The books were illustrated by Tony Ross and made into a popular television series.

Since then, Martyn has written other children's books, biographies and a history of the last fatal duel on English soil - among other things. You can find out more about him on his blog.  (One of his first blog posts I read was about how he'd spent the royalties for his last book on a newspaper and chocolate bar. It was a great introduction into the reality of writing and I knew at once I was going to like him. But don't tell him that or I'll never hear the last of it!)

“Well first of all I'd like to say how flattered I am to be described as a 'master' of several genres. I certainly don't see myself that way – definitely more of a dabbler!

I know children's writing better because that's where I started and have had most books published. My track record for adults is more indifferent. Non-fiction writing tends to take much longer because of the research, but it doesn't pay any better – unless you are one of the lucky ones! But if I were forced to make a choice, history/biography would be very hard to give up.

There will always be stories I want to tell in fiction form - the ideas pop into my head constantly - but I find fiction hard work. Conversely, history is my passion and I find it hard to stop once I get started. I'm the sort of person who loves ferreting out facts, consulting old records, reconstructing the lives of people who lived long ago. I become so immersed in it and get so close to my characters that I look upon people like Sir John Franklin, whose biography I wrote, Eleanor Porden his wife (a poet and a Mary Shelley-type character who fascinated me and who died tragically young), and Henry Hawkey who fought the last duel, almost as relatives from my own family tree.

I also love the way it can take me to places I would never normally go. When I was researching Deadly Winter, the Franklin book, I spent many hours in the Scott Polar Research Institute. For A Matter of Honour, I had a trip to Portsmouth and Gosport, which included locating the shoreline spot where the duel must have taken place. 

So I really enjoy it, but it's expensive and time consuming. A Sir Gadabout children's book of around 8000 words might take me a few weeks to write from scratch, yet I got paid more for each of those than I did for Deadly Winter which was 80,000 words, took me several years to complete and cost me money in travel and accommodation etc.

I didn't set out to jump from one type of writing to another. At first it just sort of happened, and then as I gave up full-time work to rely on the small amount I made from writing, it became important to become an opportunist! I always intended to be a novelist, and Sir Gadabout, my first published book, was a way of relaxing and writing for fun when my early attempts at adult fiction failed. When that series was established I set out to write a children's timeslip story about a ship's boy exhumed from the ice and brought back to life by an unscrupulous scientist. (It was inspired by a documentary I'd seen where bodies from a nineteenth century expedition to find the North West Passage actually were exhumed from the permafrost.)

The timeslip story never got published but when I was doing background research for it I discovered that no one had written about Sir John Franklin, the leader of that expedition, in recent times - so I decided to do it myself! I'm quietly proud of that book for two reasons. One is that I had naively strayed into academic territory (as I realised when I turned up at Scott Polar, part of Cambridge University, with my Sainsbury's bag of full notebooks and pencils), yet still got decent reviews from the academic journals. The other is that Franklin had previously been portrayed as a soft, bumbling idiot. I had no pre-conceived notions, so that was what I expected to find myself. But I didn't. The real Franklin was a tough, highly intelligent Trafalgar veteran and a devout and compassionate Christian, who achieved more than most of us would in several lifetimes. Most of his critics were North Americans bearing a grudge about British imperialism, most of whom had apparently attended the Mel Gibson school of English history. So I'm a little bit proud that I've gone some small way towards redressing the balance.

I've reached the point where don't think I could ever stick to one type of writing. I think like a writer, and if I get a new idea I just want to get it down on paper, whether it's an idea for a picture book text for tiny tots (two published so far), another biography (in the pipeline) or a Victorian detective novel (Murder in Montague Place, out in December!) In fact I'd like to expand even more. I'd love to try my hand a film or TV script, for example. I have this dream (and even a sketchy outline) for a film about the Bronte family – so much human interest and tragedy. Any BBC or Hollywood producers reading this, just drop me a line!”

Thanks, Martyn. I feel inspired! I'm going to write a wishlist of all the types of books I want to write... 

Do you have a particular genre you're desperate to crack? Or would you like to try many different genres? What would be on your "to-write" list?

16 July, 2012

Honestly, Officer, I'm writing a story...

In my short writing life I've heard a lot about "writing what you know". I've also heard a lot of people dismissing that idea. If I was to write exclusively about my own experiences my novel wouldn't be much of a read: A girl grows up in a middle-class, stable family and gets a good education at nice state schools; she spends all her time not at school down at the athletics track or on cross-country courses with her team-mates; while studying hard for her science degree she gets engaged, marries straight after university and settles down in a rural village with her husband where she holds the prestigious position of the treasurer of a small independent church.

I know - you can't wait for the sequel, right?

Don't get me wrong, I am very grateful for my blessed life. I am not keen for terrible things to happen to me or my loved ones, just to boost my writing material. Besides, what about fantasy? I bet Tolkien didn't have first-hand experience of evading Ringwraiths. The point isn't to write about just what you've experienced, but to make sure whatever you do write about you have researched and/or thought-through in more detail than you could possibly need.

This of course requires a lot of googling (or ninja-like library skills - something my ex-polytechnic education didn't give me). But does anyone else wonder what would happen if their internet search history was examined by an outsider? In Notes From a Small Island, Bill Bryson says that if he ever discovered a body and was being interviewed by the police about where he was at a certain time, he might as well hold his wrists out for the cuffs straight away because there's no way he'd remember. I feel the same about my internet history.

There are plenty of harmless of things I've had to research for my writing - how to bake a Victoria Sponge Cake, for example. There are also obscure little bits of knowledge that I needed to make sure I was getting details right (because someone will spot it if I don't!). I have recently  had cause to look up the geology of the Sussex coast, the number one hits of the 80s and popular cars of 1957.

But the conflict contained within stories means you end up googling things like eating disorders, incest, dementia, World War One field hospitals and the process of kidney donation. (Not all for the same story!) I've recently read an academic paper on the causes of anencephaly in foetuses and why internet hoaxes still fool people. I've watched videos of Hitler's speeches on YouTube and researched the uses of different types of gun.

In my 'ideas' notebook I have plenty of potential storylines waiting to be transformed into a plot. One or two, however, require a working knowledge of explosives and I haven't dared google that yet, for fear of SWAT teams abseiling into my study.

So I was wondering, what are the weirdest things you've had to research for the sake of your writing (or even not for the sake of your writing)?

While you're thinking about that I'm off back to Wikipedia (don't look at me like that, we all use Wikipedia for research) to continue my study into the efficacy and side-effects of various doses of cyanide poisoning...

05 July, 2012

The Book... by Caroline Everall

In the third post of my 'The Book...' series, Caroline Everall tells us which book has never left her.

The Book I Loved.

Image from amazon.co.uk
As a child of book-loving parents in the 1950s/60s, there was never a shortage of choice, but the one that has stayed with me is ‘A Traveller in Time’ by Alison Uttley. Alison Uttley, who gave us the gentle ‘Little Grey Rabbit’ and ‘Sam Pig’ and ‘Little Red Fox’, wrote what must be one of the very earliest time-travel books. I think I must have been about 10 when I curled up with it one February afternoon. 

Loving history as I did, the story of a child who visits her aunt’s farm one winter, and finds that she travels back now and again into the era of the Tudor owners of the house, was just instant joy. In her 16th century life she is accepted as the housekeeper’s visiting niece, and is able to eavesdrop on the life of the noble owners, the Babbingtons.

The writing is wonderfully descriptive with no attempt to be ‘raw’ or sensational. There is ample dialogue (which I like in a book), beautifully drawn characters and lovely woodcut illustrations. The young heroine has learned enough history to know the outcome of the Babbington plot, and the tension between her knowledge and the family’s lack of it becomes compulsive.

Read now, its style seems dated; but accept it as such and it becomes a slice of magic ~ something warm and still in a hurtling world. It took me only two days to read, most of it under the bedclothes with a torch. Lovely book!

Thanks Caroline (OK... OK, I'll admit... thanks Mum!). Do you remember Alison Uttley's books? I am (literally) a generation away from the books mentioned here, but I have vague recollections of 'Little Grey Rabbit' - the name at least! 

Do you think dated language matters, or are good children's books captivating across the generations?

Caroline Everall is a retired teacher from Berkshire, with a degree in English and History. She currently lives in Bridport, Dorset, where she's involved with just about every society going. She has written highly-acclaimed children's nativities, and still provides plays, productions and assemblies for primary school teachers. She's a great proof-reader and, yup, a pretty cool Mum too.