On Serendipitous Books…

It’s always interesting when a friend puts a book into your hands and says, “Have you read this?”

It happens to me quite a lot, and I usually make the effort to read the book, even if it’s not the type I normally read – well, especially if it’s not the type I normally read. I regard this sort of happenstance as a message from the gods of helpful things saying, “Try this. It’ll do you good.”

As a writer, of course, words are my stock in trade and reading something outside my usual comfort zone gives me a fresh view on interesting ways to string them together.  It really is good for me, then – but I do need a serendipitous push to get me started. So when my friend Diane turned up at the Off the Cuff writing group waving an unfamiliar book, I made an undignified grab for it.

The book was P D James’ The Children of Men. Now this is a famous book written in the early 1990s, made into an even more famous film later on.  I had managed to miss it in both incarnations. If you haven’t met with it I won’t spoil it for you, but it’s one of those depressing visions of the near future that I generally avoid. I do like a happy ending, after all.

For all that, I thought it a wonderful book; harrowing, for sure, and especially so for showing many of its characters in ordinary, recognisable domestic situations. As you’d expect from P D James, it’s beautifully written: the unhurried prose, perfect pacing and sense of gradual realisation that comes over the reader feels effortless. As a writer, I know it isn’t.  It’s the kind of book you put down in reading to stop and have a think. I did. It’s not an easy read, and I don’t think I shall want to read it again, but I won’t forget it. Some books just stay with you, and this is one of them for me.

So do go and read something from outside your comfort zone now and then. It’s good for you. I certainly shall.

My Larus series are now all available in paperback. For full details of all my books, see my Amazon page: tinyurl.com/mygx77l 

An Organic Way to Write

Here I am, this week, in the strange no-man’s-land between the completion of one book, and giving serious attention to its sequel. The completed book is still being edited, of course, and the story is still very much on my mind.

This particular book has been written in ‘real-time’: the story begins in September, which is when I began writing; it finishes in February, and so did I.

The seasons have changed as I was working, and I let those seasonal changes creep into the story. It’s a very natural and organic way to write. I used the things I saw on my twice-weekly visits to the café on the beach, too. The turnstones picking their way among the shingle named a boat in the story – the Turnstone of Sheppey; the stone fish carved into the wall of the Chesil Beach Centre named an inn – the Fish in the Wall; the very skylarks singing over the Causeway as I walked found their way into the tale. When the real skylarks sang above my head, they sang in the story, too. Natural and organic, as I said.

The real-time writing has been an adventure in itself in many ways, and made me feel a special sympathy for the characters when they suffered in the cold easterly winds. They and I have weathered the winter together, and all lived to tell the tale.

The result is Whales and Strange Stars, a very special book for me, and I’m very proud of it.

 

The Larus series are now all available in paperback. For full details of all my books, see my Amazon page: tinyurl.com/mygx77l 

When the book’s finished…

This week I wrote a significant phrase. Two words, one syllable apiece. ‘The End’. After many months of thinking, trying and testing out, I settled down to write my novel last September. On the last day of February, I finally wrote those two words.

Nobody will be more relieved to hear this than the other members of my writing groups here in Weymouth. ‘Long-suffering’ is an expression created especially for them, I think. For the past six months, instead of presenting them with a series of nicely-crafted short stories, as I’m supposed to, I’ve fobbed them off with what has come to be known as ‘a bit of book’. It’s a bad habit, and I shouldn’t do it. But it’s intensely soothing to share fragments of the story that’s trying to beat its way out of your head. It also helps to establish that I’m not writing complete gibberish – it provides a firm foundation through the common sense of others. So I’m afraid I’m more than likely to re-offend.

Still, I can now give my writing friends a bit of a break while I edit Whales and Strange Stars, and perhaps even a properly-written story or two – at least until the compulsion to write another novel overcomes the resistance to putting myself through any such thing. Before that I have plenty of reading and research to do. So chin up, folks, and relax. You won’t be hearing the dread phrase ‘a bit of book’ again from me any time soon. Er, probably.

 

The Larus series are now all available in paperback. For full details of all my books, see my Amazon page: tinyurl.com/mygx77l 

A Song for Christmas

Regular readers will know that one important facet of my seaside life here in Dorset is the Island Voices Community Choir. Now, I’m the first to admit that I don’t have a particularly strong singing voice, but I do very much enjoy taking part. We rehearse in a wonderful old stone hall – with a fabulous acoustic – on the Isle of Portland, and we have a lot of fun in the process. There can be few more delightful ways to spend your time than to work with a group of friends to produce a beautiful sound. The intense concentration can take you into quite another world.

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Island Voices singing at a Carol Service on Portland

One of the side-benefits of this sort of choir-life is that you get to meet all sorts of other music-making folk along the way. One of these groups is the Weymouth-based Dorset Wrecks – great name, since this coast is littered with the remains of sunken ships, and they are shanty-men. We invited them to our Christmas party – a top-notch musical evening where everyone gets to stand up and sing. And so we all did. There were group and solo performances, and Island Voices themselves had a whale of a time belting out a selection of seasonal pieces, from a medieval French carol to a reindeer-calling song from Lapland.

Towards the end of the evening it was the Dorset Wrecks’ turn to sing us a couple of songs – but first they apologised: “You have such angelic voices,” they said, indicating the choir, “but we just have big gobs!” Well, that’s not exactly what they said, but this is a family-friendly blog.

Anyway, there was nothing to apologise for – sea shanties are work songs, and they’re supposed to be loud. Even so, I reckon the roof of the Peter Trim hall lifted off the walls once or twice. We all sang along at top volume.

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‘Heave away, haul away’. The tall ship Marite leaving Weymouth

“Heave away, haul away,” they bellowed, and we bellowed too. “…we’re bound for South Australia!” We were with them all the way, believe me. It was huge fun. I’m still hoarse.

I can’t think of many better ways to celebrate Christmas than to spend time singing with friends old and new, can you?

 

 

 

 

 

 

If you’d like to know more about the Dorset Wrecks, and hear them sing: http://www.dorsetwrecks.co.uk

For full details of all my books, see my Amazon page: tinyurl.com/mygx77l 

Green Grows the (Sea) Holly

Green Grows the Holly – it’s an old Christmas carol I’ve been singing with the Island Voices Choir on Portland this year, and it’s the first thing that came to mind when I needed a seasonal subject. I love plants and holly would do very nicely – but since I’m also your Writer on the Beach, let’s stick to the seaside theme and make it Sea Holly.

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I love sea hollies – the native British one grows down here near the Chesil Beach and I see it every year. But there are lots of others from around the world. They are strikingly beautiful both in form and colour – particularly tending to blue. Observe an aqua-blue leaf or an amethystine stem, both suggesting the paint-pot rather than a work of nature.

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Some of them carry a halo of spines the colour of sea-mist. Not at all your typical plant colour – and some have deep blue-green leaves marbled with cream.

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The architectural form is varied, too, some with broad ruffs beneath the flower recalling a triceratops, some narrow and almost fluffy-looking. And some of the taller ones have the elegance of an egret plumed with spines. It’ll be quite an unconventional look if you deck the halls with boughs of this holly!

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Our own sea holly here on the Chesil has very holly-like leaves – but they’re a livid blue-grey. Where they sprawl among the grasses in summer they form a patch looking for all the world like a length of lost fishing net as if they don’t belong at all. But they do. At this time of year they have dried to the colour of sand, beautiful blues all gone, but form retained. They come adrift from their moorings, and blow about the beach in the rough winter winds – they are the Chesil’s very own home-grown Christmas decorations.

 

For full details of all my books, see my Amazon page: tinyurl.com/mygx77l 

The Magic Cabbage

One of the first things to do as a writer, so we’re told, possibly before you write a single word of your book, is to create your Author Brand. I fell at the first hurdle here. Can an unadventurous, ordinary person be believed as an author of exciting, magical tales? Some authors have used their powers of invention to create a far more interesting persona for themselves than their real lives merit. A spy? An intrepid explorer? A round the world yachtsperson? All great stuff. Although, of course, you may be called to account: your first book signing will be a grave disappointment to the buying public if they turn up expecting a cross between Scott of the Antarctic and Captain Bligh, only to find an introverted individual apologetically mumbling that the publisher thought it would be ‘better branding’. Unless you can live up to this kind of fabrication you are certainly wandering into dangerous waters. I shan’t be doing that, then.

So what’s my brand? What’s brand Kathy? I’d love to say I’ve run up the ratlines of a tall ship, or fought off a polar bear on an ice floe. Or been the spy who came in from the cold. But I haven’t. The nearest I’ve come to true adventure was a rather rough voyage in a small boat to the Channel Island of Herm. Oh, and getting stuck in a flood near Dorking. But I wasn’t in any danger, honestly. I need to establish my brand and all I can think of is cabbages.

Allow me to explain. Brand Kathy is a little lacking, I reckon: I live by the sea, I like plants, I enjoy singing, I dabble in photography and I read a lot.  Not good enough, I suspect. What can I add to beef it up a bit? I know: I once owned a small toucan, how about that? Is it getting exciting yet? No? I won a ladies’ rowing race as a teenager – but the other participants didn’t actually know how to row. Hardly a sporting exploit, then. But – wait for it – I have been to Lundy Island and seen the famous endemic Lundy Cabbage – and

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The Lundy Cabbage in flower

that was a pretty magical moment, at least to me. Rhynchosinapis wrightii. A rare plant – nothing much to look at – but I loved making its acquaintance. Surely that counts for something? No? Are you serious? Oh, dear.

The truth is I’ve had a pretty quiet life. I haven’t travelled extensively. I haven’t had any exciting jobs. I’ve never met anyone famous. I just love to tell adventurous, magical stories, that’s all. They don’t reflect my life, not really. I make it all up.

So in the end, perhaps it’s about magic, not about me. It’s not about exciting travel, or famous friends, or glamorous jobs. It’s not even about cabbages. Brand Kathy, such as it is, is about the magic I see in nature, in the seaside life, in making music with my choir friends, and in the creation of stories – and all those things find their way into my writing, seasoned with a big dash of imaginary adventure. I guess that will just have to do.

 

For full details of all my (magical) books, see my Amazon page: tinyurl.com/mygx77l 

Character Building

I thought it might be interesting, this week, to explain a little more about the method of creating characters by giving ‘voices’ to inanimate objects, particularly buildings. I first learned to do this in an exercise at my local writers’ group, Weymouth Writing Matters. You simply choose your object, and imagine what type of character it might have. I say ‘simply’ – but it does take a bit of effort.

Bear in mind that any object, just like a person, has both an appearance and a history, both in its current form and in terms of the materials it’s made from. This is particularly true of buildings, which also have a shared history with human beings – they are made by them and for them, so it’s no great surprise that they resemble them in some ways.

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An imposing building, or one that has had a long life works best, of course. For instance, I developed my character Rissa the Ship Warden from the lighthouse at Portland Bill. Now this is nothing if not imposing – tall, flamboyantly dressed in red and white, and with a voice like a foghorn. Well, it is a foghorn. But the lighthouse also has a job to do in warning ships off a dangerous rocky coast and a tide-race. It is a competent and reliable worker with the good of the community at heart. You can see where I’m going with this, I hope. I assigned these qualities to Rissa (named after the kittiwakes that nest nearby, Rissa tridactyla). She is tall, striking, dressed in red, and loud. She is also a competent and reliable worker with the good of the community at heart… You get the picture. From this starting point it was easy to add more: people who give themselves wholeheartedly to their work are often temperamental when they’re off duty, so I gave Rissa a fearsome temper. She also becomes a mother and finds it difficult to give enough of herself to both work and family. Soon I had a full-blown person dealing with the ups and downs and trials of life. She was immensely enjoyable to write about.

I revisit this exercise regularly when I’m creating new characters. It’s a great way to concentrate the mind in collecting together the features of an invented person without being too random. The characteristics of a building have to hold together, or the building wouldn’t. The same goes for people, I’d say!

 

For full details of all my books, see my Amazon page: tinyurl.com/mygx77l 

Finding a Voice

Portland and its harbour have been an important landing place and harbour for centuries. That’s probably why we have so many castles round here.

The most charismatic, I think is Rufus Castle, with parts of its foundations dating back as far as Norman times, I believe. It’s a dour sort of place, parked on a rock overlooking the lovely Church Ope Cove with its many-coloured beach huts, and still standing guard in the teeth of the eastern gales after all this time.

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Some years ago, when I was still seeking my ‘writing voice’, I wrote a series of short pieces in which I gave a voice to inanimate objects, particularly buildings. There are many interesting buildings on Portland, and I gave ‘voices’ to quite a few of them during this little project, but Rufus Castle caught my special attention. Here the castle itself is speaking to a visitor:

“I was built on this rock. And made of it, too, your honour. Oh, these great many years past. My purpose? Why, to guard that little, small cove, the one they call the Church Ope in the new-fangled speaking. Guard it against the Northmen when they come i-viking. They don’t come these days. Not often. But see, your honour, they have left behind siege-engines, all colours, dotted round the beach. The people of this isle come and sit in them, and make a holiday. ’Tis a great wonder.

“Have a care, your honour, and do not approach me too close, for my walls do crumble. If a stone should fall and crush you I should be mortified. And so should you. I fear I grow frail, for a stronghold.”

And there we are. As soon as I had finished this, I knew I had found the writing voice and tone I had been looking for.  The castle rapidly transformed into a character – Rufus the Hermit, all alone on his draughty clifftop – and that was where my Isle of Larus stories began.

The Jurassic Coast is a gift to the writer, and this wonderful place just keeps giving and giving. Characters walk out of the sea and fly down from the cliff tops. Ideas for stories float in with the tide. I love it, and I’m exceptionally lucky to have so much inspiration right here on my doorstep.

 

For full details of all my books, see my Amazon page: tinyurl.com/mygx77l 

A Guilty Pleasure

One of the joys of life as a retiree is having the time to watch the tide come in. Pointless? Maybe. Time-wasting? Certainly. Enjoyable? Extremely.

At a different seaside, in another age, I would watch fascinated as the sea crept in. A moment’s distraction, and it has advanced further, while you’re not looking. Beautiful, relentless, magical. I loved it, as a child. There was neither time nor opportunity to do this during my working life, so it’s a particular delight to return to this simple childhood pleasure.

And it is every bit as pleasing now as it was then. That stealthy, inexorable creep of the water, ripple by ripple; parched seaweed clumps revived, and waving with joy at the return of the sea; little crabs and shrimps advancing happily as the sand is reclaimed and turned from land to seabed. Inch by inch, the beach being covered by the ocean all over again, until the time comes at last: high tide! I could watch it for hours, and I do. Wasting time standing and staring is a guilty pleasure, indeed.

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I was going to point out the parallel with working on a book. Growing bit by bit, advancing, creeping forwards – that sort of nonsense. But I won’t. For me, watching the tide come in is purpose enough in itself. I don’t need to justify it, and it’s never time ill-spent. If I happen to be walking along Smallmouth Beach and find the tide coming in, I will find the time to stop and look.

There is much to be learned from watching and waiting, from nature in action, from seeing the passage of time made visible by the water advancing on the beach, and these things are not always measurable. You might say it’s wasteful dawdling, I would disagree. It’s one of the joys of life.

 

For full details of all my books, see my Amazon page: tinyurl.com/mygx77l 

Time and Tide (and NaNoWriMo)

It’s that time of year again. No, I don’t mean Christmas is coming; I mean NaNoWriMo – National Novel Writing Month. Writers everywhere are tying themselves in knots through November in an effort to produce the 50,000 words in the space of thirty days that the competition demands. That’s an average of 1,666 words per day, which is not impossible by any means, but it is a considerable commitment of time and effort. And quantity, of course, is no guarantee of quality. If you are well-organised, it can be a very good way to get the first draft of your novel down on paper.

I’ve never taken part in NaNoWriMo, though it’s been around since 1999. This year I’m in the ideal situation – my book is largely planned and I’m 25,000 words in. Another 50,000 words would complete my first draft. In a month. I thought about it carefully, too – but I shall not be taking part this year.

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When I stand on the top of the Chesil Beach look along its pebbly bulk towards Portland, I can’t help but observe that it’s composed of nothing but masses of little stones, each complete in itself, each taking its own part in creating something much larger and more impressive. The individual words of a book do that too, don’t they? Weather and tide have arranged the pebbles in a precise and particular order, which is what the writer does with the words of her book. My point? Nature arranges the beach in her own good time, and this writer prefers to let her story evolve naturally, too. That’s not to say I never set myself targets or make an effort – but the best ideas come along when they’re ready, and for me, too much forcing rarely produces good results.

Now, I know that NaNoWriMo works very well for lots of people, even if they don’t reach the 50,000 word target. Many a good book has evolved from the discipline of it. But to churn out all those words in thirty days is too relentless a commitment for me, and would be too neglectful of other things (and people!) in my life.

So this year I shall be cheering on my writing friends who have taken up the challenge. I wish them good luck and lots of splendid ideas. And me? I’ll be working at my usual pace, taking my time, letting the story develop and ripen and creep into shape, just like the Chesil Beach. Time and tide will work with me – the best assistants any writer could wish for.

 

For full details of all my books, see my Amazon page: tinyurl.com/mygx77l