Peculiar History

The port of Rye, in East Sussex, is an interesting town with a strong medieval ambiance. I spent a few days there last month thinking it might make an interesting background for a future novel. It’s a fascinating place, and I’ll have more to say about it later, but for now here is a decidedly odd story I came across during my researches.

From early medieval times onwards Rye, as part of the Cinque Ports confederation, enjoyed various privileges in return for services to the crown. One of these was the right of the town mayor to preside over his own local courts.

In 1743 a local butcher with a grievance attempted to assassinate the then mayor. Unfortunately he made a mess of it and accidentally killed the mayor’s brother-in-law instead. The lIMG_7493ocal court was able to try the murderer and sentence him to death, too – presided over by his intended victim, the mayor. There doesn’t seem to have been any suggestion of a miscarriage of justice, but I believe it remains the only instance in British legal history where a judge was able to condemn his own would-be murderer.*

Fact, as they say, is sometimes stranger than fiction, and perhaps more so in a place like Rye.

 

*I read about this curious episode in Rye – A Short History by Kenneth Clark, available from Rye Heritage Centre, Strand Quay.

The Quirky Genre

My Aunt Bette was a decidedly eccentric lady. Well, I’ve never seen anyone else wear gold and orange sparkly stockings to a funeral, have you? She had a wicked sense of humour, some of which seems to have been passed on to me via the family genes – it’s got both of us into trouble at times. Auntie Bette would hold court at her local pub, seated beneath a portrait of the queen, gin and tonic to hand (her that is, not the queen) – and out would come the sort of stories you knew you shouldn’t laugh at, not really. But she was so funny you couldn’t help yourself.

I don’t think poor Auntie Bette had a particularly happy life, all things considered, but, like so many of us, she used humour as a prop to get her through the difficult times.

She died in 2005, and I don’t know if she had much idea about the world of computers, much less the internet. But I’ve thought of Auntie Bette often as I’ve been playing about with my tired old blog and turning it into something more resembling a website – I believe blogsite is the favoured term – and I think she would approve. She certainly had an eye for the peculiar, offbeat and quirky.

The queen was sadly not available to cut the ribbon on this re-launching, so I’m picturing Auntie Bette, resplendent in sparkly stockings, gin and tonic at the ready, stepping in on her behalf. So here you are, ladies and gentlemen, I give you The Quirky Genre. Please do wander in and have a look around at this collection of favourite quirky things.

Extreme Reading

I have just finished reading James Treadwell’s Advent. I so much wanted to like this book; it has all the ingredients I usually enjoy and that lovely tagline ‘Magic is Rising’. Perfect, I thought.

I note that other reviewers have not been able to finish it, though, and I quite see why; it has one of the slowest starts I’ve ever encountered. 100 pages in, I was wondering whether to give up on it, too. But I’m made of sterner stuff, and I rarely give up on a book, so I ploughed on to the end.

I finished with mixed feelings. It’s a great story, but somehow it didn’t come to life for me. I found it hard to sympathise with the protagonists – indeed, I felt more sympathy for the ‘bad’ characters. By the end I’d lost patience with all of them.

Overall I found it an unsatisfying book, but it still got three stars from me for some stunningly good writing.

So, I ask myself, what is it that makes a reader give up on a book, especially one they’ve spent money on? I spent £1 on Advent at a book sale, so it wasn’t a great investment in cash – although at well over 400 pages, it was a considerable investment in time.

Is a slow start a crucial factor? Is it a lack of atmosphere? A lack of action? Unsympathetic characters? Sheer inability to believe the story? Or do readers pick ‘difficult’ books as a form of extreme reading and then give up on them?

How much of a book would you read before giving up in defeat, and why? As a writer, I’d just love to know.

The Right Way to Write?

Is there a ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ way to write a novel? Some people say there is. Well, a lot of people say there is. And one of the things we are told is that we should write the whole first draft without stopping to edit. At all. The received wisdom here is that you need to ‘tell yourself the story’ – that pausing to edit as you go along is fruitless, since you may have to change the beginning of the tale anyway. I can perfectly see the logic of this approach. It adds a helpful elasticity to the writing process, which, goodness knows, is difficult enough however you go about it. Write the whole story, then go back and attend to the tidying and titivating of plot and prose. Makes perfect sense. It just doesn’t work for me.

The voice of duty says, “Do as you’re told. Everybody else can’t be wrong. Do it the ‘right’ way.”

The voice of recalcitrance says, “If your way works for you, stick with it. If it ain’t broke don’t fix it.”

“So what is this revolutionary method of yours?” asks the voice of interested enquiry.

Well, my way of writing goes like this: I get the beginning of the novel right, and then move on. The first ten thousand words, the ones that set the pace and feel of the book are the most important, I reckon. If you can get those right the rest of the book falls into place. I don’t expect to have them polished to perfection. But I don’t expect to make radical changes, either. I take my time over it. That firmly founded beginning provides me with a solid platform to explore the possibilities for the rest of the story. So that’s the way I do it.

I don’t expect this method to work for everybody (or anybody) else. It just works for me. I always say, and no doubt my friends are sick of hearing it, that there are as many ways of writing a book as there are writers to write them. So if the voice of duty tells you to do it the ‘right’ way, by all means give it a try. But if it doesn’t work for you, feel free to indulge in a little rebellion. Happy writing!

 

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

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