Monday, 28 April 2014

Give the people real facts, and beer.

When you’re writing an historical novel it’s all too easy to get sidetracked by the many fascinating tidbits of information you unearth during the research stage. Well, I say ‘research stage’, but, in fact, for me that stage runs alongside the writing and editing stages too, as I check and double check on historical details.

I can’t remember when I came across this little trifle about the supposed invention of bottled beer. I suspect it was when I was looking for information about Cheapside, which features at the end of ‘Witness’ and is where I begin my sequel, ‘An Act of Treason’.

I was interested in what a late 16th century St Paul’s would have looked like, and stumbled across the name of Alexander Nowell, who held the deanery of St Paul’s for much of Elizabeth I’s reign.
Alexander Nowell
The bishops of London had a country house in Much Hadham, Hertfordshire, which gave them rights to fishing in the River Ash and Nowell, an ardent angler, indulged regularly in his favourite pastime there.

One very hot day. Nowell is reputed to have taken a bottle filled with beer and stoppered with a cork to the riverbank. To keep it cool he tied a string around it and lowered it into the river and then forgot all about it. No-one knows why. Perhaps he caught an exceptionally large fish which distracted him, but whatever happened the result was that this beer, presumably home brewed, was left on the riverbank. Nowell returned a week later to fish in the same spot, came across the string and remembered his bottle of beer. Pulling it out he took a drink, and was pleasantly surprised to find the beer much changed and even improved, describing the sound of the cork coming out as that of a gun.

The changes he noticed would probably have been it turning fizzy, as Elizabethan ale was generally fairly flat. Secondary fermentation in the bottle probably caused a build-up of carbon dioxide, which would account for the loud pop when Nowell pulled the cork out.

The whole incident is reputed to be the accidental discovery of the benefits of bottled beer, though it is likely that brewers were experimenting with storing beer in glass bottles in the latter half of the 16th century. It’s lucky that Nowell came across his string within such a short time though, as the yeast in the beer would continue to ferment, causing the bottle to eventually explode.
Finding this snippet of information sent me on one of my many distracting research sessions. I liked the idea of the dean of St Paul’s inventing bottled beer and wanted to include it somewhere in the book. I decided to have my actors presented with a crate of bottled beer, but was not sure would have been possible. What would it have been bottled in? Part of the problem was that the hand-blown glass bottles of the time would not have been able take the pressure of all that fizz.

In 1615, the English poet Gervase Markham wrote ‘The English Huswife, Containing the Inward and Outward Virtues Which Ought to Be in a Complete Woman’. In this he advised housewife brewers that when bottling ale they “should put it into round bottles with narrow mouths, and then, stopping them close with corks, set them in a cold cellar up to the waist in sand, and be sure that the corks be fast tied with strong pack thread, for fear of rising out and taking vent, which is the utter spoil of the ale.”

So would my crate of bottled beer need to be a box of sand, and would the bottles be blown glass or stoneware?

You’ll have to read ‘An Act of Treason’ to find out whether I decided to include bottled beer or whether this was one of those details which fell by the wayside!

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

With a Little Help from…

In my last post I mentioned the great support I get from my family. Well, to misquote a Lemony Snicket title, I’ve experienced a series of fortunate events… which has resulted in a fantastic book cover for my sequel to Witness.

My sister was having a conversation with an IT contractor in her office and I guess somehow my writing came up, or maybe it was how I was trying to create my own book covers and asking my family’s opinion on which version was the best. Anyhow, the IT bod commented that his wife was a graphic designer and could design something for me, and she’d do it for free. How fantastically fortuitous is that?

So here is my new book cover and I love it. Thank you, thank you, thank you to Tanya Esterhuysen. Now all I have to do is finish my final proof read and get An Act of Treason out there.

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

'Tis not enough to help the feeble up, but to support them after

- William Shakespeare

Funnily enough, just before notification of Helen MacKinven’s latest blog-post popped up in my in-box, I was browsing through this year’s little brochure for Arvon Foundation Creative Writing Courses. I’m too late to get on anything this year, but there’s one particular course I’d have loved to go on, tutored by Malorie Blackman (‘nuff said), but as I am currently unwaged (by choice) I’d feel guilty spending such a lot of money. The same goes for a creative writing MA, which I’d love to do.

Helen’s blog asked:
    Was your creative writing course worthwhile? Do you feel the need for support from a writing group? How do your family and friends support your writing ambitions?

It made me think. I began to write a comment to add to her blog, but it grew and so ended up on my blog instead!

I’m very lucky with my family support, especially that of my husband, who is tolerating my unwaged state and giving me room to try my hand at this writing game. My wider family also provide support and are proving to be valued readers and marketers of my books. Their clamouring for the sequel to ‘Witness’ has given me confidence that my writing has wide appeal, as I know they wouldn’t bother with it if it were not their sort of thing.
My family support!
As to creative courses, well, I’m a teacher, of course I believe you can be taught something. You can be given the skills, then let loose to see where your creativity and determination can take you.

In July 2009 I went on an Arvon course led by the authors Jill Dawson and Kathryn Heyman. I found this exceptionally stimulating. What gave me the biggest buzz was living and breathing writing with a group of like-minded people. This group proved to be of great support in the ‘you can do’ style of things, and we still meet up a couple of times each year, which has the effect of spurring me on, especially since a couple of folks (Deborah Meyler, Cherise Saywell) have now published great books.

Two life changing decisions came directly from doing that creative writing course. I resigned my job as a deputy head and took off in a small van on a tour of Europe with my husband and dog. At the same time I was mentored by Kathryn Heyman as part of  the Gold Dust mentoring scheme for writers. Jill Dawson likens Gold Dust to a fast track MA in creative writing. I can’t say how true that is, and there’s an interesting blog about it here, but Kathryn certainly taught me much about structuring a novel, tightening up the writing and strengthening the characterisation and dialogue.

I think it’s possible to teach yourself writing, but I am also certain that you can get there by a less tortuous route with a bit of well-placed tuition/direction/mentoring. Someone pointing out the plot holes, the clich├ęs and, in my case, quite how often your characters wink at each other, keeps you on a better writing path.

At the present time, much of my writing support comes from the ‘Writing for Children’ branch of the Cambridge Writers Group. This group is good at critiquing work, and I value their excellent commentary. They also spread the word about writing events in my area and it’s more companionable to attend events with a few familiar faces.

Not all writing groups support in this way, I know. The last group I attended (OK, ran) had less experienced writers as members, and we were rather more the blind leading the blind. Even so, we did writing exercises each week, and that in itself was incredibly stimulating for me and I produced a lot of writing which led to short stories and starts of novels (to be continued at a later date!)
Pieter Bruegel's 1568 oil painting, often called The Parable of the Blind,
Perhaps it depends on your personality. Some people get on better working in their little garrets, agonising over their writing until they produce masterpieces, others find their ideas flow better when they have someone to talk to. I think I am the latter type of writer. As I spend a fair amount of time on my own, sat in my study, I am considering trying to build more online writing support for myself. My writing group meets monthly, and in between sessions I could do with more than my husband to bounce ideas about with and to comment on chapters. He’s a fantastic proof-reader, but he concentrates on the linguistic side and I need people to get into the story. I’ve not found quite what I’m looking for as yet, but hopefully I’ll know it when I see it. Any suggestions would be most welcome.

Monday, 20 January 2014

Where do you get your ideas?

Where do you get your ideas? It’s a stock question when interviewing an author, not that anyone’s asked me yet! However, it’s best to be prepared, so to celebrate the launch of my first novel, Witness, I’ve had a little think about where the ideas for the book came from.

Neil Gaiman says his answer to this question is, ‘I make them up. Out of my head.’ – but admits that it tends to make interviewers unhappy. He goes on to explain that he gets his ideas from daydreaming and asking himself ‘what if…’ questions, which pleased me no end, as that’s what I do.
St Swithin's pre-1880

I can trace my ideas for my first novel, Witness, back 30 years to a post-university stint on a history research project at the University of East Anglia when I was asked to produce a pamphlet about St.Swithin’s Church, also known as the Norwich Arts Centre. St. Swithin’s had an association with the medieval tanner’s guild and this sparked off an interest in cloth preparation, so when I joined a creative writing class in 

St Swithin's today
Leicestershire and was set homework to write the first chapter of an historical novel, I started off with Matthew Reed’s stomach lurching at the smell of urine as he entered a fulling mill on the banks of the River Ver in St. Albans. Editing moved this scene to chapter four, but this was where idea for the whole book started.

The creative writing class got me hooked and when it finished I started a writing group with some of my fellow participants and my historical novel developed. In stowing away on his father’s cart, Matthew’s dream had been to get to London. One obvious place for his father to sell his cloth was Cheapside and during my research I stumbled across an article on an American blog which mentioned the ‘Cheapside Horde’. This remarkable collection, now the feature of a major exhibition at the Museum of London, is regarded as the greatest cache of Elizabethan jewellery in the world. In 1912, workmen demolishing a 17th century building discovered a decaying wooden box beneath a brick floor. Stashed there by some long-forgotten goldsmith, the contents of the box included over 500 pieces of 16th and 17th century jewellery of the type which would have been worn by wealthy merchants and their families rather than the aristocracy.

The Cheapside Horde
The idea of this jeweller stashing his wares under his floorboards took hold in my mind. What had happened to him? Why had he never gone back to collect his box? Perhaps he was murdered and he’d never even told his wife where his riches were hidden, and so my goldsmith, Thomas Hyckes, was created as the maker of this jewellery. In early versions of Witness, I had Matthew and his father, John, examining the jewellery and buying it as a gift for Matthew’s mother, but this got lost in the editing process and instead Thomas Hyckes became the friend in London to whom John Reed could turn when Matthew finds himself in danger. The Cheapside Horde is not in itself mentioned in the novel, but we do see, or rather hear, Hyckes carefully putting his stock away somewhere secret in his workshop on the corner of Friday Street and Cheapside.

As the novel progressed I wanted to learn more about the craft of writing and so booked myself on an Arvon course with the authors Jill Dawson and Kathryn Heyman. We covered a huge amount in our week of workshops and writing, and I learnt a great deal about developing characters and about the underlying structure of a novel. I decided that Matthew was on a journey, both in an emotional and physical sense, and created a map of where I wanted him to travel, which ended up stretching from London to Waltham Cross. I’m a very visual person, and so this map, made up of pages printed from Google Maps and glued together, was where I pinned bits of research associated with Tudor England and places along the route of the Old North Road. Much of this went into the second of Matthew Reed’s adventures, some of it never went anywhere other than the map, but one bit of research which made its way into the first novel, Witness, was about the Eleanor Crosses, which ended up featuring at several points during the novel.

Waltham Cross
Charing Cross

The inclusion of the Eleanor Crosses is largely down to family living near Waltham Cross, where a fine restoration exists of one of the twelve memorial crosses Edward I erected along the route of his beloved wife Eleanor’s funeral procession between Lincoln and London in the 1290s. This cross interested me originally because of its similarity with the one standing outside Charing Cross Station in London, which I had passed on many an occasion during my later teenage years - Charing Cross being my entry point to central London nightlife from the suburbs. In Witness, the Eleanor Cross link begins with Matthew and the playwright, Richard Beaumont, in their scene in at the foot of the Eleanor Cross in St. Albans.

The inspiration for writing can come from various places. Thankfully, writing what you know does not mean that you have to stick to things within your life experience. If it did I’d write mostly about school, children and dogs. To me, writing what you know means using your experiences in your writing. A major part of Witness was written while travelling round Europe for a year in a small van with my husband and our dog. Lots of small details from this modern day trip ended up accompanying Matthew in his journey. I studied a man fly fishing on the banks of a river in Luxembourg, and this, filtered through research on the history of fly fishing, found itself a tiny place in Tudor St. Albans. In Poland most places we camped seemed to have stands of silver birch, and we collected fallen branches for our camp fire. I noticed that when the bark was peeled back it left a beautiful pale pink wood shining beneath. It also left brown stains on my hands. Some of these details made their way into parts of the novel.

Often the ideas you start with spiral off into new places. In fact, it can become difficult to keep track of your research as you flit here there and everywhere, chasing your thoughts. It’s a fascinating process, but there’s an inherent danger of it all taking over your writer’s life to such an extent that little writing gets done. Blogging can be a bit like that sometimes, so I’d better stop now and get back to my last bits of editing on the sequel to Witness. I’ve yet to decide on the title, I still have a cover to produce and I need to get back to writing my Iron Age novel.