Ursula Le Guin and the Fantasy/Science Fiction Genre

Ursula le GuinLast month, one of the greats of literature, Ursula Le Guin, died at her home in Oregon at the age of 88. I pointedly describe her as ‘one of the greats of literature’, because too often – as she herself would argue – we equate great literature with realism and relegate fantasy and science fiction to a lower form of fiction. Yet, the fantasy and science fiction genres have produced some of the greatest novels of our time. Where would we be without Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Ray Bradbury, H. G. Wells, Bram Stoker, and many, many others, including, of course, Ursula Le Guin?

In 2016, Le Guin said in an interview with the Guardian: ‘Realism is a genre – a very rich one, that gave us and continues to give us lots of great fiction, but by making that one genre the standard of quality, by limiting literature to it, we were leaving too much serious writing out of serious consideration. Too many imaginative babies were going out with the bathwater. Too many critics and teachers ignored – were ignorant of – any kind of fiction but realism.’

I agree. Why is it that fantasy and science fiction are so denigrated – and for those who enjoy them, a ‘guilty pleasure’? When J. R. R. Tolkien was writing The Lord of the Rings, most of his friends laughed at him writing adult fiction about hobbits, elves, wizards and dwarves, believing this kind of fiction should be limited to children’s fiction – and as such, of little importance (wrong on both counts, I think!). Only his best friend, C. S. Lewis, encouraged him and believed in what he was doing. Thank goodness. In fact, if it wasn’t for Lewis, we may never have had Lord of the Rings.

Read this quote from The Return of the King, and I defy you not to be moved by its imagery and simplistic beauty:

And all the host laughed and wept, and in the midst of their merriment and tears the clear voice of the minstrel rose like silver and gold, and all men were hushed. And he sang to them, now in the Elven-tongue, now in the speech of the West, until their hearts, wounded with sweet words, overflowed, and their joy was like swords, and they passed in thought out to regions where pain and delight flow together and tears are the very wine of blessedness.

In this epic trilogy, Tolkien explores some of the most profound human emotions and conditions: friendship and companionship, courage, despair and hope, the achievement of goals against all odds, and by exploring them outside of the usual realistic setting, we get to experience them on a deeper and more meaningful level.

A novel about these things set in a realistic world may be a great novel, but it will feel more mundane, and not quite as inspiring. We may not have to fight orcs or travel through dangerous terrain in our every-day lives, but symbolically we often do have to find the courage to face dark times and find friends and companions to see us through those dark times. Applying Tolkienesque symbolism to those feelings can help us feel more inspired.

Fantasy allows the writer to express ideas or explore situations that may not exist in our world but are nevertheless important in stretching our imaginations and challenging rigid outlooks. By taking us into a different set of social norms and behaviours, we can view our own social restrictions in an objective way, which inspires us to step outside of those norms to visualise a possible future.
For example, in Ursula Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness she explores a world in which all the people in it are androgynous. By using this setting, she is able to comment on how sex and gender impact on society, the nature of equality and relationships. Written in the 1960s, it was an important work that was part of the process in changing perceptions about men and women.

It is also beautifully written. There are many passages that explore beliefs, gender, relationships, philosophy, and so on, but this is one of my favourites:

To be an atheist is to maintain God. His existence or his non existence, it amounts to much the same, on the plane of proof. Thus proof is a word not often used among the Handdarata, who have chosen not to treat God as a fact, subject either to proof or to belief: and they have broken the circle, and go free.

To learn which questions are unanswerable, and not to answer them: this skill is most needful in times of stress and darkness.
There are also some beautiful passages that describe the relationship between the central character and the exile he journeys with in the last chapters of the book.

But it was from the difference between us, not from the affinities and likenesses, but from the difference, that that love came: and it was itself the bridge, the only bridge, across what divided us. For us to meet sexually would be for us to meet once more as aliens. We had touched, in the only way we could touch. We left it at that. I do not know if we were right.

It is a profound novel. When I finished it, I was left almost breathless with the sense that I had read something incredibly important and life changing. As all good novels should, it raised questions, challenged perceptions and enriched my view of my own world via this fantasy world.

I first read Le Guin when I was a teenager and my brother bought me a copy of The Wizard of Earthsea, which I absolutely loved. I read The Left Hand of Darkness about two years ago. I now intend to read more.

While I read a wide range of genres, very few novels have the power to strongly move or inspire me as much as those in the fantasy, supernatural or science fiction genres – from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe to Dracula. If I analyse that, I think it is because we are able to experience the events, characters and themes in a purer way than the realistic novel because we are not bound by the ties of the every-day mundane.

It’s about time that we took the stigma of male geekdom out of the fantasy and science fiction genres. They are for all of us – written and read by men and women who wish to enrich and make a difference in the world of the real.


My New Historical Novel, “Isobel Brite”

Isobel BriteIt’s been a long time in the making.  I first had the idea a very long time ago after finishing my OU degree.  As part of a final dissertation on local entertainment in the Daventry area, I had researched a local travelling theatre company via a bundle of letters held at Northamptonshire Record Office.  The characters in this company intrigued me, and I felt that the characters, and the life of travelling actors, could very well form the basis of a historical novel.

I started writing Isobel Brite, with the eponymous main character being my own creation, a determined, talented and self-centred young woman who matures throughout the book as she struggles to deal with the ups and downs of theatrical life and the choices she makes.

The two men in her life are my fictional creations, but many of the characters in the novel are based in real people, particularly, her good friends Henry and Caroline Hartley, who were members of that travelling theatre company I researched.  Henry was a prolific letter writer, and so I was able to glean much about his character, as well as the life of a travelling actor in the early Victorian period.

I also had fun creating little cameo roles for other theatricals (based on real people) Isobel meets along the way.

The book was put on a back-burner while I got distracted by other projects, and other stuff, like having to earn a living.  But every so often, Isobel would come and tap on my shoulder and demand my attention.  I finally decided I had to commit myself to finishing it a year ago, and was determined it would be out in 2017.  I just about managed it!

But I enjoyed writing it, and Isobel took over and sometimes showed me the way herself.  The themes of the novel developed as I wrote.  It is a novel about growth, friendship and the consequences of the choices we make in life.  Isobel is better at making career choices than she is making romantic choices, and the two will affect each other in very profound ways…

Isobel Brite  can be bought at Amazon HERE


Why Daydreaming is Good for the Creative Mind

daydreamingWhen I was at school you were told off for daydreaming.  To be caught staring out of the window during a lesson may well have resulted in a stern warning about not paying attention, or even laziness.  In fact, the practice of daydreaming has been seriously misunderstood, and perhaps still is to a large extent.

Research suggests that daydreaming can be essential for creative problem-solving.  The seemingly distracted state of mind, which may look (to stern teachers, bosses or parents) as if the person is not applying themselves to the issue at hand, may in fact be an essential part of the ability to work out an issue.  A recent study at Wisconsin University, showed that people whose mind wandered during a task had higher degrees of working memory.

Contrary to how most of us tend to approach problem-solving, we are more likely to come up with an idea or solve an issue when we are not actively thinking about that problem.  Our brains are incredibly complex, and do not stop working even if we do not feel like we are thinking of anything much.  In a similar way to when we are meditating or sleeping, our subconscious mind is still working away, and can be far more effective in bringing us wise insights, solutions to problems or creative ideas, than when we actively try to work on a problem.

This is good news for all creative people!

If you were to look in on me during one of my writing sessions, you might find that, rather than typing away on my keyboard, I am leaning back and staring out of the window.  It may well look as though I am taking a break but, for me, those moments are when I do most of my work.  The typing is just a way of getting the ideas that come onto the page.

But even if I am not working up an idea, or working out where my next scene should take place; even if I am thinking about something completely different, or just watching the dogs racing about on the green opposite my house (a very happy distraction!), or just staring into space thinking of nothing in particular, the act of giving the rational brain a brief holiday is extremely useful.

If we work the analytical, decision-making part of the brain too hard, without breaks, it is more likely to get tired and make mistakes, or leave us bereft of any ideas at all.  If we regularly switch over to the empathetic, visionary part of our brain, it gives the brain a chance to pick up on random bits of information, or memories and dreams, and so feed the other part of the brain.  In this way, the two parts of the brain are allowed to continually feed each other.

So, be a daydream believer!  Don’t drive your analytical brain so hard.  Give it a rest, and allow your creative, intuitive brain take over now and then.


What Makes a Page-Turner a Page-Turner?

page-turnerThe page-turner is a subject on my mind recently because I have just finished reading Douglas Kennedy’s Temptation, and, as usual whenever I read a Douglas Kennedy book, I just kept wanting to carry on reading – just another page… just another page…

Kennedy does not write in a very specific genre, although you might call them psychological thrillers, and each story is very different.  However, they all deal with the trials and tribulations of being human, and in most of the novels I have read, he takes his main character to the depths of hell, and back again.  When you pick up a Douglas Kennedy novel you know you are in for a real roller coaster ride.

Interested in exactly what it is that makes the reader keep wanting to turn every page, even though they probably have other things to do, I have put down my thoughts on the subject, and identified eight important elements for the page-turner.

  1. Engagement with Character. Unless we are talking about the kind of thriller that is completely plot-led – and for my liking, does not ultimately satisfy, the most important element is how the reader relates to the main character.  Even if you don’t particularly like the main character (e.g. Never Saw it Coming by Linwood Barclay), you must have interest in them.  They must be real in that they are neither completely perfect, or so awful that the reader doesn’t give a damn what happens to them.  They are flawed, but interesting.  How do you make a character interesting?  Give them a back story, make your reader understand how they came to be who they are, and give them needs and desires they aspire to and have not managed to acquire yet.  If the reader can relate to the main character, then the reader will want what they want, and ready to ride that emotional roller-coaster with them.  Perhaps one of the best examples is Scarlett O’Hara.  She may be a spoiled, self-centred and selfish little madam, but she fascinates us, and we love reading about her.
  2. Laying Breadcrumbs. A page-turner does not need to leap into dramatic action straight away.  In fact, in Kennedy’s Temptation, the real drama, where the proverbial manure really does hit the fan, doesn’t happen until more than half way through the book.  How on earth does he keep you avidly turning the pages until then?  Well, it is in the laying of what I call breadcrumbs.  Little clues sprinkled about in the early parts of the story that all is not well.  The main character may well be unaware of these little clues – in fact, it’s more satisfying when they are not!  You, as the reader, know something is not quite right: a shady character here, a dubious decision taken there, a strange episode that is seemingly random, but you know will come back and hit you later on.  It can be subtle; perhaps a gentle hint that a character holds some secret, or is not all that he seems.  All these little hints and clues – not always obvious – will, if the writer has done it well, give the reader a sense of unease, a feeling that something is going to happen any minute now…. so that, when the drama really starts, they will say, ‘Ah, yes – of course!  That makes complete sense now!  So how is he going to get out of this one….?’
  3. Secrets and Conflicts. This is really part of the laying of breadcrumbs I have discussed above.  Conflict is one of the most important elements of any story.  Without it, you do not, in fact have a story.  In a page-turner, conflicts are the bedrock of setting up a need in your reader to want to read on, to see whether and/or how they get resolved.  Secrets are extremely effective in keeping you turning the pages.  For example, other characters in the story have a secret that your protagonist doesn’t know about, but needs to know about.  Or, the main character has a secret which would be explosive if known.  Of course, it’s going to come out at some point, and don’t we all want to know what happens when it does?  The book I am currently reading (Ace, King, Knave by Maria McCann), set in the 18th century, has just this element.  One of the main characters, a gentile, naïve young lady, is now married to someone who, unknown to her, is a cardsharp, the son of a whorehouse owner and known amongst some very shady circles in London.  Oh boy, I can’t wait for the young lady to find out just who she has married….
  4. Cliff Hangers. More obvious, this one.  We all know about the cliff hanger, also known as ‘the hook’, whether it’s the end of a chapter in a book, a scene in a film, or the end of an episode of Eastenders, that dramatic scene, or even just a last, dramatic sentence, where the characters have arrived in a tricky or even life-threatening situation, and all you want to do is read the next chapter or watch the next instalment to see how they get out of it, or how they react.  As long as the readers are engaged in the characters, this is what will make them read on.
  5. Development of Main Character. This is not just limited to page-turners; it is, I think, essential to any good story, but particularly so in a page-turner.  Why?  Because if the hero of our story is human and therefore flawed, as they should be, then we want to see them learn from their mistakes and grow and develop.  This is one of the great satisfactions of the good story.  And often it is what the character has learned that saves them in the end.  Alas though, Scarlett O’Hara learns all too late that Rhett Butler was the man for her (I read it at a tender age and was inconsolable for a week), but in the book with a happier ending, it is extremely satisfying when the protagonist has perhaps learned that all his/her problems are his own doing, or is able to put the past behind them and move forward – or whatever message it is that the writer is trying to give.  One of the reasons that we keep turning the pages is that we want to see that development, and how it happens.
  6. Keep the reader waiting. It is no good setting up a hook, or a hanging thread early in the story, only to satisfy it too soon.  That is how Kennedy manages to keep you reading all through the first half of Temptation, while he builds up the story, laying down little episodes and questions that need answering, but not answering them.  You know they will make sense, or be answered at some point, and if you just keep reading you will find out the answer. Those trails of breadcrumbs I mentioned above should be long ones.   Or, while your main character is hanging by his fingernails from the cliff (metaphorically speaking, mostly), you might move over to another set of characters and see what they’re doing.  It is such fun, as a writer, to drive your readers mad with impatience!
  7. Pace. A page-turner should not all be in the fast-lane.  Some plot-led thrillers may be, if you like that kind of thing, but an in-depth, character-led novel which is too fast, can be an exhausting and ultimately shallow experience which leaves you dissatisfied.  A fast, high action, thrilling chapter, which perhaps ends on a cliff-hanger, is often best followed by a slower-paced chapter, giving exposition or back story.  This also builds up our knowledge of the characters in the book, and makes us understand them, and makes us care whether they get out of their predicament or not.
  8. 8. High stakes.  The obvious, most extreme kind of high stakes is the life or death situation.  Either your main character’s life is in danger, or someone they love is in danger.  But, as long as the main character has been well written enough for the reader to care very much about them, the stakes don’t have to be quite as high as that.  It could be their career that is at stake (as in Temptation), or whether or not they lose/get the girl/guy, or anything else that is highly important to the main character.  The higher the stake, the closer to the end of the novel should the resolution come.

Well, those are my ideas.  If you have any other ideas, please let me know.  Also, do let me know of any really good page-turners you have read in the comment box.


The Importance of Storytelling

As usual, I have been distracted and transfixed by the Wimbledon fortnight over the last few days, and there is something I hear said repeatedly, when some drama is happening, or an underdog is winning, there’s Sue Barker saying, ‘There is a story unfolding on Court No.1….’

importance of storytelling
ancient campfire storytelling(Wikipedia image, author: Margaret A. Mcintyre)

Story.  Drama.  Whether it is fact, or fiction, we love it.  All of us love to hear about something happening, or something that has happened, or something that hasn’t happened, but might happen, or something that has no possibility of happening, but is a good story anyway.  This is because we are human, and we are naturally curious, particularly about other human beings – and how else do we hear about other human beings if not through storytelling?

So, if we have factual stories, why do we need fiction?  I once heard someone say that they never read fiction, they didn’t see the point of reading something that wasn’t real.  I am convinced that person went home that night and watched Eastenders, and probably never made the ironic connection.  Whatever.  The point is that that person, and probably many others who say the same, have not understood what fiction is actually about.  It is, as any good writer will tell you, ultimately about truth.

You might argue that, if you want truth, you can read a newspaper, or a text book.  Well, that’s more to do with fact, rather than truth, and in these days of fake news, we cannot even say that it’s about fact.

However, good fiction, even if the basic plot is completely made up, has the truth of the human condition at its heart.  Whether the main characters are humans, hobbits, wizards, talking animals or aliens, they all have themes we will recognise, and that will speak to our inner being.  We can escape through fiction, whilst learning about ourselves without the pain of the actual experience.  It’s a bit like the way children learn important life skills through play.  In my experience, people who read fiction tend to be more open-minded, more informed, and generally more understanding about the human condition.

Take The Lord of the Rings, for example.  One of the reasons why this is an epic, important novel is not just because it is a great story with great characters.  It is also a story about friendship, comradeship, compassion and courage, all human themes.   When we set out with Frodo and Sam on their journey, we know in our hearts that they will return.  The reason we read is not to find out if they survive, it is to know how they survive, and what they have to learn and discover about themselves in order to survive.  This goes deep into our very subconsciousness.  We, also, are trying to survive in a difficult world.  We may not have to fight orcs, or destroy a magic ring in order to save the world, but we all of us at some point will have to find the courage to keep going when the odds are against us, discover the importance of true friendship and support, and look for the light when all is dark.

When Tolkien was writing this great epic, some of his friends thought he was mad, writing a fantasy story aimed at adults.  At the time he was writing, fantasy was looked down on as a triviality, or something only for children.  Tolkien knew better.  As an expert in ancient mythology and linguistics, he knew that he was reaching back into an older tradition of storytelling, that used legend, myth, magic and imagination to tell us the truth about ourselves.

For storytelling is also one of the most ancient of arts.  The storytellers of the ancient world were revered as people of wisdom and knowledge.  Before men learned to write, they were the first teachers, telling tales of heroism and legend.  They travelled, taking their stories throughout the world, and bringing back with them new tales from exotic places.

Stories reflect our own true selves.  This is why storytelling is so important, and no more so than in times when all about us is bad news and we struggle to come to terms with how to live in a world that seems at odds with itself.  Storytelling defines us as humans, and binds us together.  We see ourselves reflected back in the story, and we know we are not alone.

Everyone is involved in story somewhere.  If you don’t read, you probably watch films.  If you don’t watch films you probably watch TV dramas.  And even if you don’t do that, you will have heard a story in a song, seen it in a piece of art, or read a biography, or gone to the theatre or the opera.  There is no escaping it.  Story is everywhere.

So, if you are a storyteller, then remind yourself that you are carrying on a tradition that is as old as time, and that you are an important component of today’s world.  Never let anyone trivialise what you do. In my book, it’s just as important, if not more, than any of the highest paid jobs on the planet.  And it’s about time that we storytellers (whether it’s through art, music, writing or otherwise) were once again given our due respect.


The Life of a Victorian Actress

The novel I am currently working on, and which should be out in autumn, is set in the theatre world of the 1830s to 1850s, and tells the story of my fictional character, Isobel Brite, a shoemaker’s daughter who leaves the restrictions of her ordinary life to join the theatre, where she finds a freedom as an actress that the vast majority of women of the time would never experience.  There will, of course, be many challenges for my heroine to face, and I’m not going to give away any spoilers here!  However, as a little taster of the kinds of themes I explore in my novel, I thought I’d write a bit about what it was like to be a Victorian actress.

Victorian actress
Scene from “The Princess”, The Olympic Theatre 1870

In a time when women were more or less the property of men, actresses, and other female entertainers, had a rather unique place in society.  Following a ‘profession’, the kind of career choice that was barred to most women, gave the actress an autonomy that has more similarities to a woman of the late 20th century than those of her own age.

While this sounds like rather a pleasant position to be in, it was, of course, a bit of a double-edged sword.  To many people who lived within the social mores of the period, the actress was a monstrosity.  They threatened the general beliefs about female capabilities, which were that women were unable to work in any job that required physical, intelligent or creative activity, which were seen as the masculine domain.  Acting demanded all three of these, and in the twisted logic of Victorian values, therefore, these women were not truly women, but a kind of curious inhuman being whose morals were not to be trusted.

It is not surprising, therefore, that the word ‘actress’ was often synonymous with the word ‘prostitute’.   Some of those men who went to see their favourite actress on the stage either viewed her as some kind of mystical goddess, or as a person of easy virtue who they might fraternise with in a slightly more dignified way than a visit to the local whorehouse.

Because of her lifestyle, an actress was not seen, by the outside world at least, as a fit person to be a wife and mother, and so if an actress married, she was often expected to leave the stage behind her completely in order to lead a respectable life.  Astonishingly, this was not always limited to marriages outside of the business.  During my research I have read accounts of actors who expected their actress wife to give up the theatre.  The American actor, George Parks, threw himself into the river and drowned himself when his actress wife refused to give up her career.  This was probably an exceptional case, however.  In one travelling theatre company in the Midlands (where I have my heroine learn her trade), most of the acting company were children of the management, married to other actors in the company.

Victorian actress
Fanny Kemble

While I am sure that there were many actresses who did deserve the reputation they had, I think that, on the whole, the belief that actresses had extremely low morals was an erroneous one.   Many may have had affairs (e.g. Ellen Ternan who had a long-standing affair with Charles Dickens), or co-habited without marriage, but these situations are far (in our 21st century eyes at least) from prostitution.  But I think many did lead quite virtuous lives.  One of the books I have been reading as part of my research is the diaries of Fanny Kemble, a member of one of the best known acting families of the early 19th century.  She is an example of a truly intelligent, sensible and thoughtful woman who also wrote plays (another activity usually confined to men), and there is no hint of any scandalous behaviour!  She did give up the stage when she married, and later campaigned against slavery America where her husband owned plantations.  After her marriage ended (rather inevitably) she returned to the stage.

If you were happy to be single, or marry within the business, and were tough enough to ignore the views of those who might consider you no more than a prostitute, then there was the challenge of earning enough money to be comfortable.  For the provincial actress, touring in a traveling theatre company in the early days of the 19th century, this could be tough, but you had the companionship of your fellow actors as you travelled by foot from theatre to theatre, and the occasional benefit night, where the profits were given to the actor or actress whose benefit night it was, would often help see you through difficult times.  In these companies you would also be expected to muck in with setting up the scenery, making your own costumes and other practical matters, as well as being an all-rounder: singing and dancing would be part of your repertoire.

If you were lucky enough to find work in one of the big London theatres, then your salary could be extremely good for the times, especially if you were the leading actress.  An actress at the Haymarket Theatre, one of the major London theatres in the 1850s, could bring in £20-25 a week.   But for most jobbing actors and actresses the wages were much less than that, and could be as low as £2 – still well above the national average.   For all actors, whether male or female, the career was a precarious one – as it always has been – and once you fell out of favour, it could be a slippery slope to poverty and obscurity.  While there were some theatrical charities that could offer some help, there was no welfare state or national insurance, and no doubt many ended up in the workhouse.

Still, despite all of the above, I think the life of a Victorian actress was often an enjoyable and interesting one, as long as you were not too keen on being a wife and/or mother, and as long as you could shrug off the way the world saw you, and as long as you could stay in work and earn enough money to keep you comfortable in your old age.

Life on the stage for a woman was certainly not for the faint-hearted.  But for many it provided an alternative to the restrictions of ‘normal’ Victorian life, and it provided a vehicle for self-expression that most women were not allowed.




My Review of Philippa Gregory’s ‘The Taming of the Queen’

Philippa Gregory

I first came across Philippa Gregory when I was given a copy of Wideacre years ago in the 80s when I was doing some temping work at Penguin Books.  I started reading it, and was completely hooked.  Couldn’t put it down.  The sequels never quite had the same thrill and page-turning effect of that first book, but later on I started reading her books about the queens of the Medieval and Tudor periods, and while some are better than others, I think she has a real talent for conjuring up the feel of the royal courts of the times.  I have recently just finished reading The Taming of the Queen, the story told in first person about Katherine Parr, Henry VIII’s last wife.

The Taming of the Queen

I already knew most of historical facts about Katherine, as I have always been fascinated by the Tudors, and have read Antonia Fraser’s excellent work, The Six Wives of Henry VIII, so I knew that Katherine had already been in a relationship with Thomas Seymour before she married Henry, and that she married Thomas after Henry’s death.  I also knew that she was something of a scholar, and was very much for religious reform.

What any good writer of historical fiction does is to take the facts, and then fill in the human side; the part that historical documents cannot tell us: the relationships, the hopes and fears, the thoughts and feelings, the misery or joy, the intimacies and secrets.  Of course, it is fiction, but if the writer has done her research well, then the fictional parts of the story will come across with a feeling of truth; a sense that this is quite probably how it felt to be that person within this historical period.

And Gregory really does do her research very well.  You have only to read the long list of publications at the end of her book to know that her research is painstakingly detailed.  This is why, in The Taming of the Queen, she is able to create a very real feeling that we are walking through Henry VIII’s palaces at the side of Katherine Parr, getting that sense of unease that must have been rife towards the end of his reign, with no-one knowing which way he might turn next, and whether you would one moment be in his favour, or next moment be on trial for heresy and fighting for your life.

Henry VIII

Her Henry is that fascinating tyrant that history has always had a love/hate relationship with: a bloated narcissist who was unable to see himself as ever in the wrong, a great child of a man, whose country went back and forth between reformation and the old church upon his every whim, and who sent wives, family, friends and churchmen to the pyre or the block when they displeased him.

Gregory gets under the skin of how it felt to be the sixth wife of this frightening man, who was sick both in body and mind, prone to bouts of bad temper, had beheaded two of his previous wives, and who knew no boundaries of self-indulgence.

Katherine Parr

Katherine herself is a passionate woman, twice-married previously, but secretly in love with Thomas Seymour.  However, when Henry asks her to be his wife, she knows she has no choice but to give up her true love, and become a queen.  How will she survive being wife to such a man?  Will she be able to hide her true feelings, and support Henry fully as his official helpmeet, supporter, lover and queen?

The Taming of the Queen is cleverly told, so that the early stages of Katherine’s life as queen is pleasant enough.  She is able to study, to listen to the preachers of reform that she is so keen on, and to become regent when the king goes to fight his wars in France.  There is even an initial feeling of tenderness and loving companionship between her and her husband.  But gradually, the tension builds as Henry’s views on reform are shaken, and his closest advisers (the influential Howards, and the notorious Stephen Gardiner) begin to twist things back to their own benefit, and to the old church, and once again, reform becomes a dangerous thing to be seen to be supporting.

Despite the fact that we know how history ends, Gregory still is able to build this story up like a thriller, so that we suspend our disbelief and become fearful for Katherine’s life at the hands of the biggest tyrant in English history.

We also get the real sense of this highly intelligent woman, who was the first female named writer and translator of religious texts at a time when women were mostly thought of as only useful as wives, mothers and bargaining tools.

I always come away from a Philippa Gregory novel, not only having enjoyed a good story, but feeling that I’ve learned something, which is always a bonus!



How Do You Get an Idea for a Novel?

idea for a novelIn my experience, there are two or three distinct ways that you get an idea for a novel.   Firstly, you can sit down to write a novel, and decide what you want to write about until something comes together in your head, which I did with Out of Time.  The possible second way is to dream it. This has happened with a friend of mine who dreamt the idea for her current novel when she was staying at my house ( 🙂 ) I have never dreamt up the entire idea for a novel, but I did dream the setting for a chapter of my children’s novel, The Light of Drombar.

But while both of the above can produce great novels, I think that for most writers, the most exciting way is the one that is sparked off, quite spontaneously and unexpectedly, by an experience, or a discovery, or an overheard conversation, or a news item. It is that little ‘ping’ that goes off in your head, taking what you have heard or seen into a new realm of ideas.   I love that exciting little buzz when in one split second an idea is born. Sometimes, it immediately springs to mind into an idea for a novel, but more often it will sit in your head for months, swirling around, mixing itself up with the thoughts and themes that happen to be in your head at that particular time until characters start to present themselves and start demanding to be given life and a part to play.

With each spark of idea, whether it is through experience, a dream, or a conscious thought process, you have to add the question: ‘What if…?’  It is the ‘what if…?’ that every writer’s brain uses to take a single idea and expand it into an imagined narrative.

I am currently working on a novel based in early Victorian theatre. The idea for this novel came about many years ago when I was carrying out some research for a project in my Open University degree. I was writing a dissertation on local Victorian entertainments, and I came across a bundle of letters, held at the Northamptonshire Record Office, written from members of a traveling theatre company to a local solicitor in the early Victorian period. The letters gave a wonderful insight into the lives of the actors who played the theatre circuits of the 1830s and 40s. One actor in particular, Henry Hartley, wrote long and detailed letters in a friendly and jovial manner, whilst revealing his frustrations at not being able to find a career in the London theatres.

After I finished my degree, those letters continued to fascinate me, and gradually the idea for a novel came out of them. Henry Hartley and the company he played with would be a large part of the novel, but the main character was to be ficticious, a young naive woman, tired of her mundane life as a shoemaker’s daughter, would run away from home to join this theatre company, and have many adventures. Isobel Brite was born, and once she had appeared in my head, she would not let me go. Although the novel has been put on a back burner a couple of times, I am now determined to finish it this year, and I am aiming to have it out by autumn.

As a writer, you have to constantly be open to ideas, to have a kind of constant antennae that will pick up on something that could be the spark of a new story. We have to be constantly asking ‘what if…?’ to extend that idea into something that would be interesting to read, and mix it all up with our own interests, values and beliefs to create something that creates a strong theme or message within the story. In my example above, my first idea was to write something set in early Victorian theatre using the characters from the letters. It was in tune with my interests in theatre and history. My ‘what if…?’ was: ‘What if a young naive girl was thrown into that boisterous setting?’  And mixed with my beliefs around following instinct and doing what you love, no matter what the difficulties, the story gradually built itself to create a character who would grow from a naive girl into a strong woman determined to survive against all the odds.

Whatever your way of getting an idea for a novel, it has to be something that has meaning and interest for you personally, otherwise there is no point. You will not enjoy writing it, and people will probably not enjoy reading it!



Self Publishing for Authors – the Highs and Lows

Self publishing
The Light of Drombar – Children’s Fantasy

I first embarked on the self publishing route a few years ago when I decided to publish my two books, Out of Time and The Light of Drombar using FeedaRead. Then, three months ago, I decided to re-publish on Amazon’s own publishing home, Createspace.  This would make it easier to access both paperback and Kindle editions of my books in the same place.  So, how difficult could it be?  Three months later, three sets of proofs each, and much hair pulled out, I have finally approved the last proofs, and they are now live to buy!

It’s not that Createspace is hard to use.  It’s just that I am an impatient about reading instructions and formatting guides.  I think I’ve got it right…and then when the proof arrives, I find the page numbering has gone weird and the margins are too narrow.  Oh, and don’t ask me about how to start page numbering on a specific page…!

But really – I am very pleased with how the books look with the Createspace programme.  I just find the technical process of getting a book from the computer manuscript to actual printed book to be rather stressful and ‘a bit of a bother’.  It starts out as fun, and ends up with lots of swearing and dark mutterings.

BUT, I am SO grateful that we writers are able to actually do this.  Twenty years ago, the only chance we had of being published would be to get a publisher interested, and before you could do that, get an agent interested.  Given that most of them have about 3,000 manuscripts landing on their desks every month, and take on about five authors per year, the chances were always minimal, no matter how talented you were.

So hurrah for technology, the internet and print-on-demand!  Never again will I have to hear that horrible plop on the doormat as another rejected manuscript comes back home.  Today we writers have the freedom to publish for very tiny costs, set up our own websites and sell our own books in any way we can.  This gives us an autonomy that we have never had before.

Weighing Up the Advantages and Disadvantages

The downside? Yes, you have to do all your own marketing, but then many writers who are published in the mainstream press have to do that anyway. You also have to do your own formatting, art work and proof-reading (or pay someone to do it for you), which is, admittedly, a bore. And of course, because anyone can self publish, it means there are a lot of books out there that are, let’s say, less than deserving of being read – but Amazon reviews, while sometimes being a little harsh, will certainly sort out the wheat from the chaff. Perhaps there is less chance of making lots of money with a book, but then does anyone really ever write a book in order to make lots of money?

But in my view, the advantages of self publishing far outweigh the traditional route. Even if you are lucky enough to get picked up by a publisher, it will be many months before you see your book in print. With self publishing, you can get your book into print and on sale within days of completing your final draft. Not only that, but in traditional publishing, you do not always have a choice over the artwork or title, and many decisions about your book will be made over your head. Furthermore, any royalties are paid twice a year, whereas with self-publishing you will be paid every month.

Autonomy and Freedom

It is the autonomy of self publishing that I love.  I have always been an independent person, and it suits me just fine.  You can build your writing career in any way you want to. If you want to write in a particular genre, re-write and re-publish, publish e-books on Kindle and set yourself up in the way that suits you, then you have the total freedom to do so without someone breathing down your neck saying what you can and can’t do.

You can be the kind of writer you want to be.  I’ll drink to that!



Welcome to my Independent Author Website

Rosamunde BottHi there!  Welcome to my blog!  This is the first of many posts about the ins and outs of being an independent author, my writing world, my books and ebooks and anything else that I can think about concerning the practice of creative writing.

Today, I have just finished my Home page, which is a brief outline of my writing history, some of the things I’ve written about, and the things that have inspired me.

If you are a fellow writer, or if you love reading, I hope that you will enjoy the site, and also see some descriptions about my books where you can also find links to buy them.

Coming soon:  There will also a page here on Genealogy, which is my other job, and on the Genealogy page you will be able to find out more about my business, and buy books and leaflets on this subject.