Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Sense of Place


The second heat of 'The People's Author' was won by a Romany storyteller called Rosemary - her lyrical childhood tale 'A Field of Butterflies' was chosen because she clearly - and warmly - evoked a sense of place. 'You are the people's author' judge Fay Weldon said ... which isn't too intimidating for those of us coming afterwards.

There is a minute and 43 seconds to pitch your book. It focuses your mind to say the least. I've been studying the questions the previous contestants have been asked carefully, and they are in today's prompt. It's a good exercise to answer these questions, whatever kind of book you are writing.

My memoir - I hope - is more than just a coming of age tale. I hadn't realised until I sat down and answered these questions quite how deeply this place - the village, the countryside, the characters I grew up around had affected my work. Stoodleigh Court - today's photo, was both my brother's school and our playground. It was at the bottom of our drive, and holidays were spent playing tennis and swimming there. Dad did a lot of the restoration work. To a child it was part and parcel of 'home' - and it is the real life model for the house 'Combe Grange' in my first novel. Today's clip is from a TV detective show that was filmed in the village during the 70s and it gives you a good feel for the place. Our own house became known less lyrically as the 'Psychiatric Hospital' for a while after it was used in the show as an asylum (not because of who lived there of course ...)

I've been talking to people still in the village to supplement my memories and it's been interesting to hear my own recollections are mirrored in their daily lives still - the three mile winding drive up from the valley with its hair-pin bends and deep wooded gullies still feels 'like going back in time'. I remember the village as one from a fairytale - deep snows, ice storms, arcing cornfields strewn with poppies in summer. There were mysterious tales of wild beasts and hairy hands (Conan Doyle located 'The Hound of the Baskervilles' not far from where I grew up). Which places have affected you? Do you think your work is rooted in your own life and experience, or no?

TODAY'S PROMPT: These are the kind of questions I'm going to be facing on Monday when the show is recorded. Wish me luck ... and why not have a go yourself and think about what makes your work unique:
  • Tell me about the title of your book
  • What makes your story special?
  • Why is it different?
  • How would you describe your style?
  • Why did you want to write this book?
  • What are some of the key events (dramatic, humorous etc)

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Old friends

Devon, 1977

Hello everyone - how's tricks? It's the usual juggling act here - I'm attempting to do a Blue Peter and stick leaves on a shoebox to make the three year old's box of goodies for tomorrow's Harvest Festival, while editing the first 'bare bones' draft of the memoir. For any of you also writing memoirs at the moment, I've just read a great book - Natalie Goldberg's 'Old Friend From Far Away'. Just like 'Writing Down the Bones' Goldberg is very good at making you come at your writing, and memories, sideways. There are some excellent prompts in there and I really recommend the book (it's also a lot more fun than most of the memoir text books).

I'm about 30,000 words in to the new book 'Backalong at Dimpsy'. Recalling the events of over thirty years ago is curious - a bit like dancing with yourself just as in today's clip. It's funny that when the book opens I'm younger than my daughter, and I'm finding it refreshing writing through a child's eyes. Everything is a first - the wild, beautiful place I found myself in felt like a fairytale. I don't think it's being sentimental or nostalgic to say it was a more innocent time. We had a freedom I can't imagine being able to give my children - off freewheeling along the lanes all day, swimming in rivers, riding across the moors on muddy little ponies. What do you think? Have things changed all that much in thirty years?

They had the first heat of the People's Author the other day - here's a link to the story samples. ('Billy Brown I'll tell your Mum' won the first round). The competition is pretty stiff - they all were good writers, and very confident and composed on the show (I keep having nightmares about tripping up and falling at Alan Titchmarsh's feet:) The next show is on ITV Monday at 3pm.

Meanwhile, Evie - the character from the new novel, won't be quiet. Maybe you find when you finish a book that your characters go quiet (no more of the chattering/snatches of scenes coming to you)? Not this one. I've just outlined the next novel ... but she's going to have to wait a month or two.

TODAY'S PROMPT: Goldberg's book has some terrific ideas - she writes about how memoir is really a desire to understand living. It's making sense of love, pain, who you were and who you are. Some of the simple but effective prompts you could try today are ten minute sprints. Why not try writing about:

  • 'I remember ...'
  • 'I am thinking of ...'
  • 'I am looking at ...'

I also loved her idea about recalling ten smells from your childhood. Me: wood shavings, Mum's 'Paris' perfume, roast dinner, geraniums, tomatoes on the vine in the greenhouse, wood smoke, wet earth on the forest floor, saddle soap and leather, rosewater, rice pudding and cinnamon. How about you?

Sunday, 4 October 2009

Me myself and 'i'

I'd been wondering why, in spite of blogging less frequently, there has been such a huge spike in visitors to WKDN. Flicking through the TV guide last night I realised why. To those folks who were hoping to see this Katie (left):



apologies. This is What Kate Did Next, not What Katie Did Next - the latest installment in the saga of Jordan's life story on UK TV. Imagine how many frustrated teenagers there are out there. They came here hoping for tits and tiaras and found typewriters and toddler tantrums instead. The only similarity between me and Jordan is our first name. Here's a link to Katie's site for any poor lost souls.


WKDN regulars will be reassured to hear I'm not writing wearing a sequinned catsuit and marabou feathers. Far from it. The wind is whistling through the beams of this C14 cottage and we're back to the winter wardrobe. It's been a busy week - the MA has begun with 'The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie' and I'm working on the memoir for Orion and The People's Author. There's three weeks until filming, and I've had to start from scratch after the hard drive of this computer crashed ... thank heavens each book is written longhand to start with. And all the time my protagonist from the newly completed book won't be still - there's at least another book in her and I keep getting snatches of new material for Evie ... but unless I get a clone she'll have to wait.

I was thinking about the Anais Nin quote: 'We don't see things as they are. We see things as we are.' When you're writing about events that happened thirty years ago perhaps inevitably you end up fictionalising your own life. I've never tried non-fiction before (but looking back at a year and a half of WKDN perhaps it was all leading up to this). The book is going to be about a lot of things that are as relevant today as they were in 1977 - financial crisis, the search for the good life, finding your way through childhood. It brings together all the themes I write about in fiction - family, relationships, home, countryside, love and loss. Maybe for a lot of reasons this is the time to write this book - the downhill run to the big 4-0, seeing Dad battling so bravely against cancer, all the recent challenges in our own small family. I'm hoping the themes I touch on move from the personal to the universal - perhaps working through my own childhood I'll find a few answers for everyone.

TODAY'S PROMPT: This isn't the first time people have mistaken me for someone else. I was writing today about the first time I went to Paris (long story, and no I won't be posting the photos). It wasn't the glorious chic experience I hoped for (unlike the Juliette Binoche film 'Paris' today's music clip is taken from - can recommend that highly). I stayed with a family who served roadkill for dinner, whose collie dog could ride a velomoteur and whose son fed this talented dog with his own fork at the dinner table. Today, why not write about mistaken identity? Has anyone ever thought you were someone else? If you're also writing a memoir at the moment, here are some good prompts I came across this week on Oprah's site:
  • what's something you can't deny?
  • what have you left behind?
  • which physical characteristic are you proud has been passed on in you?
  • when did you feel compassion?
  • what did you have to have?
  • what did you have too much of?
  • when were you in trouble?
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