Saturday, 19 August 2017

Just The Facts, Ma’am by Jan Edwards

I am very much aware of the fact that I can be a bit of a cracked record when it comes to research, constantly banging on about how important it is to check even the smallest details before using them in any sort of writing.
It is something that I maintain is hugely important, but when I  came against a phenomenon of commonly held perceptions and whether being correct in the face of general opinion will alienate a reader, I had to wonder if veracity is always seen in that light through a readers’ perception.
A few weeks ago I read a small section from the first draft of Bunch Courtney bk 2. This latest crime novel is firmly anchored in the first weeks of May 1940.  Dunkirk, the Blitz and Battle of Britain are yet to come, yet May remains a pivotal month during the conflict as a whole, not least because it saw a momentous change in our Government.  
As I saw it, in order to place a peg in time, quoting a newspaper headline in which the Prime Minister, Mr Chamberlain faced a vote of no confidence, dated events quite precisely.
‘Oh, but you are wrong,’ several of the group cried. ‘Churchill was Prime Minister throughout the war years.’
‘Not so,’ I replied, lacing up the hood of my imaginary researchers’ anorak firmly beneath my chin. ‘Chamberlain resigned and was replaced by Churchill on 10th May 1940.’
It was argued that stating Chamberlain as PM at that point might raise questions in the minds of some readers for the above mentioned reasons, and that the distraction of Googling the facts could risk my losing their interest.
It made me think. Should I fudge the facts merely to avoid confusion?
One of Churchill’s first moves in his first month as PM was the mandatory internment of “all potential enemy aliens”, a move that Chamberlain had done all he could to delay because he feared a backlash against innocent people fleeing Hitler and the war. These, I felt, where the event-led issues against which my book are set and thus wholly pertinent to my plot.
Others in the group agreed with me and declared that facts were facts, and it was a given that all writers should use them correctly, especially when they fly directly in the face of misconception.
As I had been reading from a first draft I let the matter pass. The text will be rewritten several times, because that is how I work, and as I had clearly failed to get the point across in this early version it obviously requires some stern revision.
The second point of research raised, however, was a correction too far.  My protagonists had decided to go ‘up to London’ to shop for some urgently needed clothes. Once again the banner of verisimilitude was raised. This time over that old wartime chestnut; rationing.
‘Ah, ‘I was told.  ‘This would not happen because these women would need sufficient clothing coupons to spare for somebody who did not live in that household and that would be very unlikely.’
‘Not so,’ say I. ‘Clothing coupons were not issued until June 1941- a whole year later.’  
I do realise how many people fall into the trap of believing that all things were rationed from the outset (including many items that were never rationed at all). And I can quite see how a casual mention on such a point might raise questions.
But... In my humble opinion it behoves all writers of historical fiction to be as accurate as we are able.
The Chamberlain point can be rephrased easily enough, but shopping is never to be taken lightly whatever the era – and facts are facts!
In her Reith Lectures earlier this year the historian Dame Hilary Mantel raise a similar point, saying something along the lines of; “Our image of a squalid, filthy, disease-ridden past isn’t entirely accurate. Life was precarious, childbirth was dangerous and epidemics did kill, but people wore freshly washed linen, observed complex table manners, associated dirt with disease and managed to retain most of their teeth. In the pre-industrial era, the air even smelled sweeter and sounded quieter.” Mantel says, “When we imagine a lost world, we must first rearrange our senses – listen and look, before judging.”
It is comforting to know that I am not alone in wanting to address inaccurate perceptions of our past, and whilst I may not have Dame Hilary's clout, this should not detract from the points we have to make.
Or alternatively, when it comes to research for my crime fiction, what better than to paraphrase one the of the mis-quoted lines attributed to a fictional crime-buster of yesteryear...
‘Just the facts, Ma’am.’

Jan Edwards can be found on:

Twitter: @jancoledwards

Titles in print – all available in print and dig formats:

Friday, 18 August 2017

Nervous as ever, by Tara Lyons

Last month, as everyone packed their bags and headed home after another fantastic Theakston's Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate, I was buzzing. And, as much as I enjoyed the festival, it actually had nothing to do with my feelings of excitement and fear.

Sunday 23 July was a big day for me because the third book in my DI Hamilton series, Deadly Friendship, was published. I thought my emotions would be far more contained than they were - not only was this my third book in the series, but, in total, it's the fifth I've published, so I should be used to publication day, right? Wrong! I've realised my nerves build the more I write ... and I'm sure many authors feel this. We're constantly in competition with the last book we've written - if readers loved it, can we match, and even exceed, their expectations? And if they hated it, can we better ourselves and our stories? We all know that we can't please all the people all the time, but gosh, we can continue to try ... and that in itself is nerve-racking.

Above: The fantastic authors, readers and bloggers who
shared a glass a fizz with me at midnight and
right: author Lee Child 
even stopped to pose for a good
luck photo with me on publication day

I'm sometimes asked by bloggers and readers if I have any special traditions for publication day, and the answer is always no. They've all been on a weekday, so I'm usually at home with my son, doing the nursery run, washing and cooking, and of course interacting with people on social media. So, maybe Harrogate did have something to do with the butterflies in my stomach, because as midnight hit, I was surrounded by amazingly supportive readers, bloggers and fellow authors who shared a drink with me and wished me luck. It certainly made for a memorable publication day.

To the other Authors Electric writers, do you have any fun traditions for publication day?

Thursday, 17 August 2017

Editing, by Elizabeth Kay

The days of reliable editors in publishing houses and magazines are long gone. Although many of them are still excellent, the changes in English teaching here in Great Britain over the decades have taken their toll. I notice far more mistakes in professionally-published books than I ever did forty years ago. And if you’re considering the self-publishing route, you need to be your own editor which is very hard work. Always remember that writing is about communicating; if you cannot express yourself adequately, without waffling, you won’t achieve the impact you want.
In the commercial world, word-count is very important. Magazines have specific slots to fill, and children’s books may be part of a series with a house style that doesn’t vary. Competitions will have a maximum word-lengths for short stories, and if you run over you’ll be disqualified.
It is always possible to cut, even if it doesn’t feel like it. Honestly.
For the first pass, look at ways of eliminating repetitions, condensing what you say, and cutting out unnecessary adjectives and adverbs. It’s surprising how much you can get rid of this way.
For the second pass, look at the order in which you present information. Would it be more economical to do it another way? Do you have any superfluous characters? If they’re necessary for furthering the plot, can you combine two of them? Do you really need that scene – what does it achieve? Try justifying each sentence to yourself out loud, and asking yourself whether it furthers the plot, develops the characters, and illustrates the theme. Not every scene can do all these things, but it’s something to aim for.
The third pass is the most difficult, and really applies to longer pieces such as books or plays. This is when you still need to get rid of a lot of words, and you have to decide to get rid of a plot thread. It’s a bit like unravelling knitting – when you knit it back together, you must remember to pick up all the stitches. I know I’ve read plenty of books when I suddenly think – whatever happened to X? It’s almost certainly because the book has been edited, and a plot thread hadn’t been extracted all the way back. Now that we have word processors, and search facilities that can hunt out such things it’s much easier to do than previously.
Sometimes it seems as though you’ve edited out important moments to ensure the piece doesn’t over-run. This kind of thing is an integral part of being a professional writer. I have often been required to drastically cut a manuscript – usually because I’ve decided to aim it at a different target. My book for reluctant readers, Fury,
was originally a full-length book for adults and started life at 75,000 words. My agent suggested that, as the main protagonist was a teenage girl, I should cut it to 40,000 and aim it at a different market. When this didn’t sell we re-thought it once more, aimed it at reluctant readers and cut it to 9,000, whereupon it was published by Barrington Stoke. I realized that as the main protagonist was a teenager, it might work better for a younger age-group, so it went from 70,000 words to 40,000. This didn’t work as well as I’d hoped, and my agent suggested I cut it still further for a different readership. So it went down to 9,000 words, and was published by Barrington Stoke. Now that it’s out of print I’ve re-done it for the Kindle, and this time I can illustrate it myself. It also means re-doing the cover, of course, so that I don’t infringe the copyright of the original cover designer.  So now there's the UK cover, the American one, and my Kindle version.
The whole process of doing such a drastic edit was really interesting. You start by getting rid of everything that isn’t vital, and you condense wherever you can. But that’s not enough for a cut this drastic, so plotlines have to go as well. It’s rather like trying to unpick a piece of knitting or embroidery. If you don’t follow the thread all the way back to the beginning you’re left with a question – what happened to the man in the top hat? Where did the horse go? What was the result of the drought? I think we’ve all read books where something has gone unanswered, and neither the writer nor the editor has spotted the problem. It’s an easy error to commit, but it may stop the suspension of disbelief because it’s reminding the reader that this story is a fabrication – it only ever happened in the mind of the writer, not real life.
Don’t be afraid of cutting. All things are possible!

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Getting Covered by Jane Thornley

These days, I consider selecting a cover for my books to be as fraught with trauma as writing a blurb, or penning a synopsis, all of which are akin to tooth extractions.

Giving birth to the covers for my four-book series was comparatively easy. Half way through the respective manuscripts, ideas for the cover began percolating, sometimes only in snatches and occasionally arriving fully-formed. Because the series has an art and design thread, I conjured my ideas from a variety of historical and archaeological references, and ran a city skyscrape of Istanbul, London & Rome in the background of all four to denote the international thriller vibe. My graphic designer grasped the concept and used the photos I sent to create four luscious covers that definitely helped sell my books.

Then I decided to switch genres from a fun adventure thriller to psychological suspense--much more serious, much more penetrating, and definitely in need of a different approach. For the first time in my cover history, I hit a wall. It took me ages to come up with anything. Then, because there's a creepy dreamy quality to some sections of the book where my character is climbing the London rooftops, I imagined a cover capturing that one aspect. I sent my notions off to my graphic designer who, unfortunately, did exactly as I asked. I loved the result, by the way--the profile of a woman gazing down over the Victoria rooftops with St. Paul's cathedral in the background, all luminous blues and moonlight like an Arthur Rackham illustration.

However, I soon found out that such a cover said the opposite of psychological suspense. One of my Facebook writing colleagues suggested Peter Pan getting high, as usual, which would be perfect if Peter Pan was a serial killer.

Back to the proverbial drawing board went I. A cover designer reached out to be and floated another concept entirely: a woman crouching on a roof, obviously up to something nefarious in her black leather and spandex, with rain pummelling St.Paul's in the background. Now the mood said edgy, dangerous, utterly suspenseful ... and, as one author suggested, also communicated a vampire US political thriller. Regardless of what my opinions are regarding blood-suckering US politicians, that was not my book.

By now I was beginning to despair. I had alienated my graphic designer who didn't much like another designer's work encroaching on his territory, understandably. On the other hand, he wasn't a cover designer who understood the intricacies of targeting today's book market, and only took my directions, which I apparently wasn't qualified to give.

That's when I stepped back, way back. I turned the task over to the new cover designer along with my blurb and ended up with a striking cover I can live with. She switched Big Ben with St. Paul's to eliminate any US-centric notions that only one dome exists on the planet, and hardened up the scenery to denote the suspense aspect. All potential vampires and resemblences to comic book heros were quickly banished. Job done.

And the whole experience has left me sobered. I have learned that choosing the right cover requires more than a professional artist, it requires a knowledgable cover artist. I realize that I don't want a cover to echo the book's plot so much as to entice and intrigue within the reader's expectations of that genre. I also learned that group-think over covers can be a feeding frenzy. Among the helpful and supportive comments there will always be both haters and lovers, but that the most brutal opinions are often the most beneficial. The best advice I got was to just step away, Jane, step away ...

The general response among my individual writing friends is that they love the new cover. Those who are friends but not writers love it, too, but say it's "not me". Obviously designing one's own cover, even conceptually, puts so much of one one's own creative DNA into the mix that the story may be eclipsed. All my existing series covers definitely bear my brand and reflect the plots, but now I'm changing directions. Actually, I'm a cross-genre buffet writer, anyway, so switching gears suits me just fine.

Now let's see if the cover helps sell the book. That story's yet to come.

Monday, 14 August 2017

Write to Live or… Live to Write? by Louise Boland

Late one evening, some time ago, after the millennials of our group had taken themselves off to bed, an old friend and I decided upon one for the road. The only option left at that hour was an underground nightclub.  

A bouncer stood before the doorway, his bulky frame breaking the sound of the drum and bass pounding up from below; a queue of young kids snaked around the building. I looked down at my beige cardigan and at my friend’s summer wedges, and suggested we might not fit in.  
She looked at me aghast.

‘Nonsense,’ she snapped. ‘We’re writers!’ and taking me by the elbow, she whisked me under the arm of the bemused bouncer and away, down into the throbbing darkness.
What a great philosophy it is, that being a writer is an excuse (no, an actual reason!) for living – for doing things and being in the world and meeting people. As we all know, without it writing can too easily become a regurgitation of other people’s written visions or worst yet, a vessel for Hollywood to pour onto the page.

This last month I haven’t written a jot. My list of excuses to my writing group grows long and ever more extravagant, despite their polite reminders that the point of a writing group is that members should write occasionally. But it has been busy, perhaps a bit too much living and not enough writing.
Fairlight Short
Fairlight Shorts opened in July
The Fairlight Short website ( finally launched two days after my last blog. We now have 14 short stories from 10 authors and more on the way.  And we seem to have gone global (in a locational sense) without necessarily meaning to. Our latest contributor is from Oklahoma but lives in Paris and the website stats show readers are visiting from all over the world. Goodness knows how they have found us (which reminds me I need to have a chat with our Creative Web Design Professional about SEO..) but it’s fantastic to see so many lovers of the short story out there, enjoying this wonderful form of literary art.

Helen Stancey, author of The Madonna of the Pool – Fairlight Books’ first publication of a short stories anthology – certainly seems to have found the knack of living to write. Sarah Morgan of On Magazine, said it better than I can. She said, ‘Stancey writes as if she is one of us – an ordinary person, an observer of life who is well briefed in the populace’s little foibles.’
Shall we Dance?

Each of the stories in The Madonna of the Pool is told from the viewpoint of a different character, and yet each rings true with enormous veracity. One of the stories, Shall We Dance, is available for reading on the Fairlight Short website.

Helen first published a couple of novels in the ‘80s and then took a long gap from writing. When I asked her why, she spoke of marriage, of children, and a career. Finally she stopped talking, and shrugged. ‘I suppose what got in the way..’ she said, ‘Was Life, dear boy. Life!’


All of the short stories featured on Fairlight Shorts can be found at
Helen Stancey's collection of short stories, The Madonna of the Pool was launched on 27th July.
It can be purchased in UK bookstores and online in the usual places, including Blackwell's bookstore online: Blackwell’s

Sunday, 13 August 2017

A Life of Crime by Ann Evans

Theakston Old Peculiar Crime Fest
Over the last few months, there's been something on my mind that's not totally wholesome – crime! No, I'm not about to commit any dastardly deed, I'm talking about crime writing.

I know we're Author's Electric, but I hope you'll forgive me for talking about my latest book, a crime thriller published by Bloodhound Books. 

I wrote Kill or Die (under a different title) some years ago. I sent it off to a couple of publishers, who rejected it for very different reasons. One said it was too graphic and gory, the other said it wasn't graphic enough for a crime novel. So what did I do? Put it away in a drawer and forgot all about it.

A couple of years ago I came across it again, and noticed a handwritten comment on the front page from a reader who had said they liked my style. Encouraged, I read through it again myself, and decided it wasn't too bad. So I re-worked and re-wrote and then eventually sent it out. 

The first publisher I sent it to wanted to publish it, however they turned out to be bogus – and the whole situation was really traumatic. Once I'd extricated myself from their clutches, I tried again. This time I struck gold, with an English publisher called Bloodhound Books, who have been brilliant to work with.

Really getting into the crime scene, I booked to attend the Theakston Old Peculiar Crime Writing Festival at Harrogate in July. It was four days of author talks, author panels, networking and socialising – oh yes, and eating and drinking!

Meeting Lee Child

It was loads of fun, and I came back buzzing with inspiration. Amongst the highlights for me were meeting up with my publisher and some of the other Bloodhound authors, and meeting Lee Child of Jack Reacher fame. 

What a lovely man!! He mingled with the visitors throughout the festival and was happy to chat to one and all.

There was also a really fun evening also when comic Sarah Millican hosted a 'chat show' panel with Lee Child, Val McDermid and Mark Billingham. It was so funny as she asked the sort of personal questions no other mortal would have had the nerve to ask.

Ann and Francis Pryor

Another special event was the Author Dinner where every table had its own well known crime writer, and we had Francis Pryor of Time Team fame. The evening included a Murder Mystery where we had to figure out who the murderer was – and why.

While one of the daytime events was a 'Could you be a Detective' session with 'Think Forensic' who are real forensic detectives, who talked about the things they search for when faced with a crime scene. 

They also run workshops throughout the year, so if you ever need some forensic advice for a book you're working on, they are the people to call. (

Since being with Bloodhound, I've read lots of other author's crime novels, and I'm really getting a taste for psychological thrillers and detective books. So much so that I've joined the Crime Writers' Association, so chances are, I'll be heading off to some other crime writing workshops and festivals before too long.

What's your favourite genre for writing and reading?

Kill or Die (ISBN 978-1912175147)is available from all good book stores in paperback and Kindle.

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Saturday, 12 August 2017

Bite Me, You Egomaninnies--by Reb MacRath

Most of you are too young to remember, but you're about to learn some news--so astonishing and wonderful you can't help but cry

Well, that's enough foreplay. It's time for the news:

Once upon a time writers had actual lives. And their books were all the better for were our poor addled brains. They did not spend all their time on Facebook or Twitter...doing interviews...writing blogs...traveling on extended tours. They had lives. And they had lives not only because they had enough money to have lives. No, the books they burned to write were born of a passion for life...and first-hand experience, not research snatched from Google.

Some great writers wrote quickly while others did not. Not all achieved fame in their lifetimes. But the books that do live on were grounded in experience. Rowdy and bloody or quietly blue, the one thing they all have in common is this:

They came from the hearts of real men and women who, by God, who had actual lives--and knew whereof they spoke: from the poems of Catullus to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance...from Shakespeare to Flaubert...from Byron to  Twain to Hemingway...

But that was then and this is now. 

More like the worst world, for my dough. And the egomaninnies who thrive there do nothing times nothing but eat, breathe, sleep and shit self-promotion.

My FB Notifications panel explodes with hourly alerts (initials changed to protect the guilty):
--G has written another of his 3000-word FB political rants, recreational breaks from the novels he turns out at Guinness speed
--E touts his wares on Twitter in an endless flood
--S works both FB and Twitter round the clock to hustle his 86 novels
--F posts hourly reviews of his new book on FB for 33 straight days

And on and on and on.

My poor head spins, my stomach heaves. With increasing speed I block FB Notifications for posts written by egomaninnies. And I won't bother with their books. My book shelf, of course, will be smaller than most. But the shelves will hold real books written by real people.


As to Don Juan, confess that it is the sublime of that there sort of writing; it may be bawdy, but is it not good English? It may be profligate, but is it not life, is it not the thing? Could any man have written it who has not lived in the world? and tooled in a post-chaise? in a hackney coach? in a Gondola? against a wall? in a court carriage? in a vis a vis? on a table? and under it?
--Lord Byron


Join me in this poignant cry:

Friday, 11 August 2017

Why you need a writing bestie: Misha Herwin.

Writing is a solitary occupation. Even if you are one of those people who can happily work in a coffee shop, or on the kitchen table with life going on around you, you are still working on your own and in your own world.
When I am in the middle of a novel or short story, I sometimes feel as if I’m moving around in a bubble. There is the world out there that everyone else belongs to and the world I am currently inhabiting with a cast of characters that I know well, or am getting to know and in a place that may or may not exist, but is coming clearer, like an old fashioned negative in developer liquid, minute by minute. Sometimes this means I have to stop mid task, or even mid-sentence to rush back to my computer.
This state of distraction can be annoying to those around me and is also isolating as no one who hasn’t experienced it can truly understand what it’s like. Non writers find it hard to empathise with the ups and downs of a writing life, how some days the story flows and you feel brilliant, while on others it is stuck in some primeval mud and the whole process of getting a paragraph down is like wading through foul smelling ooze.
The highs of acceptance, and the lows of rejection too are treated with a dose of common sense by friends and family. But however encouraging, or sympathetic, your nearest and dearest, the person who is suffering or rejoicing suspects that they can’t really know how it feels. 
This however is not the reason for needing a writing bestie.
My friend and writing bestie, Jan Edwards, tells it how it is. If I give her something to read, she will send it back covered in comments, which I have learned, over the years, are invariably right. She is was, who made me re-structure “House of Shadows” which consequently made it a much stronger book. She also has a brilliant way of finding anomalies in the plot, or pointing out errors of fact. In my current work in progress, one of my characters was listening to “Knights in White Satin”. Jan took one look at the year in which “Shadows on the Grass” is set and told me that the album hadn’t been released yet, so it was back to researching.
She’s good on sentence structure too and has often suggested a way around a clumsy piece of narrative, or has put her finger on exactly that dialogue doesn’t convince.
She is in fact a great editor, but there is more to the relationship than that.  We meet most weeks for coffee and spend a good couple of hours talking about where our writing is going and what we’d like to achieve in the near future; whether we should be concentrating on a particular genre, or submitting more short stories. We also support each other in promoting our books, like dressing up as Bunch and Dodo for Jan’s launch of “Winter Downs.”
We also run 6x6 a reading café where local writers can strut their stuff and appear together on local radio.

We don’t always agree. What we give each other is honest feedback and endless support. We don’t, however, spend time commiserating, or moaning about the current state of publishing, because that ultimately is self-defeating as it mires you in a state of failure. Boosting confidence and finding new outlets for promoting ourselves and our work is much more practical and has really shown results. As has sharing our mistakes.
Over the years we’ve been meeting in Trentham Gardens we have learned a lot. We’ve both changed direction. I’ve moved from writing primarily for children, to focussing on Contemporary Women’s Fiction, while Jan, whose primary interest used to be Fantasy, is concentrating on her series of Crime novels set in the 1940s.

Having a writing bestie that you trust is like having an editor and life coach on tap. For me it’s make a huge difference to my writing and to my view of myself as a writer. I can really recommend it, the only thing is Jan is already taken.   

Thursday, 10 August 2017

What's not to love about wolves? - Karen Bush

I was brought up with wolves.

I don’t mean that literally of course – I wasn’t that lucky, and had to make do with the usual dysfunctional family. But I did spend a lot of time escaping into books from everyday life, and wolves seem to have figured quite largely in them, either as the main protagonist or as characters playing important supporting roles.

It started early on with the usual fairy tales: Red Riding Hood of course (I always considered the pro-bloodsports huntsman who hacks off the unfortunate wolf’s head to be the real villain of the story) and The Three Little Pigs. Very early on in my school life we were introduced to tales featuring Uncle Remus’ Brer Wolf, Aesop’s boy who cried wolf and learned about Romulus and Remus. A bit later I read for myself Kipling’s Jungle Book, Joan Aiken’s Wolves of Willoughby Chase, and John Masefield’s Box of Delights – the phrase “The wolves are running” still sends a delicious thrill of excitement down my spine.

Wolves didn’t vanish from my life as I got older: they still kept on popping up everywhere, in Jack London’s Call of the Wild and White Fang, our own Susan Price’s Ghost World sequence (plus others) and for the last twenty odd years in Robin Hobbs’ magnificent Seven Duchies books featuring Fitz, the Fool and Nighteyes. And you must have been taking an extended holiday on a distant planet in a galaxy far, far away if you haven’t heard of the direwolves in GRR Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire (aka Game of Thrones) books …

These are just a few – there are so many more wolves I could mention, such as Maugrim in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, Michelle Paver’s Wolf Brother, Emma Barnes’ Wolfie, Jean George’s Julie of the Wolves, Rosemary Sutcliff’s Warrior Scarlet, Tolkien’s wargs in The Hobbit … well the list goes on and on. I expect you have your own favourites.

So when I started making needlefelt brooches as a sideline to writing and teaching, it was probably inevitable that as well as making hounds and hares I also made wolves. Well, why not? As I said, they’ve been around all my life in my reading matter, so something was eventually bound to rub off …
 Winter is coming – have you got your wolf head brooch yet?

Available in a range of colours with eyes made of semi-precious gemstones including onyx (black), carnelian (red), mossy agate (green) and red/brown or yellow/brown tiger eye.
For more details visit my FB page at:

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Her is me: a tale of two Trac(e)ys by Julia Jones

In June and July this year I met Tracy and then Tracey.  Both of them are former nurses, both are using art to combat serious illness and both of them – even on the briefest acquaintance -- are life enhancers. I feel better for knowing them.

I met Tracy Brown beside Brightlingsea Hard in Essex as we waited in weak sunshine to witness the re-launch of an oyster smack. The Countess of Wessex (patron of the Sail Training Associations) was expected  so we’d all been moved around to accommodate Media and Security, then were moved once again from behind the receiving line of Dignitaries. Very dignified they are too, in Brightlingsea. They haven’t had a royal visitor to the Hard since Queen Mary in 1932 but as Brightlingsea is the only Cinque Port north of the Thames (to be precise it’s a Limb of Sandwich) it appeared to have experienced no difficulty dusting off the cocked hats, swords and black silk stockings.

The Countess is the one
 not in fancy dress 
Tracy and I had become neighbours through these reshuffles. We were both keen to retain a good view of the proceedings: Tracy because she’d recently passed her City and Guilds photography and wanted to carry on building her portfolio, and I because I’d brought my notebook and was hoping Yachting Monthly might like a few words for its news pages. Those were surface reasons: essentially both of us were determined to respond to the event in the ways that made us happy. We were hungry though and the Countess was delayed. Other people were heading for the fish and chip shop but neither of us wanted to lose our good position, perched on the edge of the slipway, directly facing the receiving line.  It’s a measure of the friendliness of the day that Tracy’s other neighbour, Michelle, who had been bolder in her quest for chips, unhesitatingly shared her portion with us. If you ever read this Michelle, thank you. Tracy and I didn’t talk much: she was snapping, I was scribbling but we arranged to keep in touch afterwards via Facebook. 

I’m so glad that we have. Tracy’s photos of that day were outstanding (in my eyes) and, by reading her posts from many other occasions since, I can sense some of the energy and the joie de vivre with which she is battling breast cancer.  And if you consider that the “battling” word has become somewhat overused, I can only insist that’s the right one for Tracy.  She’s a former hospice nurse, determinedly living the message “I am not what happened to me: I am what I choose to become.” She also advises "Live for the moments you can't put into words" -- which her photographs achieve wonderfully.

I haven’t met Tracey Shorthouse in person – only via twitter, email and her volume of poetry I Am Still Me.  Tracey too is a former nurse; her enemy is not cancer but dementia. "Life is being positive. I live with dementia and love my life. I write, walk, take photos, give talks." Two years ago, aged 45, she was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s and a rarer form of dementia called posterior cortical atrophy. This almost came as a relief: it had been so hard knowing there was something wrong in her head but not knowing what it was and sometimes finding it impossible to persuade people, even doctors, to take her seriously. Now Tracey, like Tracy, is determined to make the most of every day. “You have to grab opportunities with both hands as they might not come again.” She wonders whether she feels like this because of her previous experience. “During my nursing career, I used to see patients give up so easily and it really stuck in my mind. When I was diagnosed I didn’t want to be like that.” (The Elder Interview)

Clearly both Trac(e)ys are realists and both are brave and positive women but this blogsite is about words and writing which is why I’m going to commend Tracy Brown’s photos to you, thank her for her companionship on a particularly pleasant day then focus a little longer on Tracey Shorthouse’s poetry. 

In human terms I Am Still Me is an achievement. By the time Tracey was diagnosed she’d forgotten how to use a computer but she’s re-learned that skill and convinced herself that she can re-learn other skills “if I push myself”. Physiologically she may be right: the brain is a marvellous place and even when shrinking under the stifling attack from the tangles of the tau and amyloid (which I imagine as similar to “devil’s snare” from JK Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone) I believe it may have the ability to forge new neural pathways where possible. Dementia activists – people like Tracey who “push” themselves -- are often so articulate that cynics accuse them of not having the illness "really".

Initially Tracey tried to write short stories to keep her brain stimulated but that didn’t work. On my tiny research sample of one (reading to Mum) I can see why – the writer (or listener) of a story almost always needs to retain some factual information, which may be a difficulty. In poetry or song, however, precise recall may be less essential and the patterns of rhyme and rhythm provide a supportive structure. Tracey found that she could express her emotions through poetry. 

Many of Tracey's poems in I Am Still Me address her dementia directly and, for me, these are her best.  You could argue (okay I won’t, but one day there’ll be a psycho-linguist who does) that dementia is an illness that very often attacks sequentially, decimating Proper Nouns, nouns (collective, abstract and concrete nouns) until it reaches the pronouns that seem to be the very heart of our identity.  Tracey’s poem “Prison of Thoughts”  is not always rhythmically secure, its rhyme choices are occasionally odd but it deserves to be remembered for ever for a single, defiant half line “Her is me”. The speaker is betrayed, angry, demanding to be released: 

“You promised and made a vow 
But all you have done is imprison her.

Her is me, don’t you hear?
It’s so unfair, this prison of walls 
When you are there and I am here. 
You say it is to prevent my falls. 

That’s why my mother hates me sometimes when I say goodnight and leave her, though I undertake faithfully to return next day and I promise there will be someone there all night to look after her.  It's not good enough. “Her is ME!” she wants to say. How can you leave ME here? “It’s so unfair.”  It is. As her dementia advances into its later stages that desperate battle for ME may represent the self’s battle for survival. One her bad days Mum often loses "I" (the pronoun that is a subject so may have agency) and only the suffering object "me" remains: "me frikened, me no understand". 

Do you remember  those heart-rending, hate-filled monologues in The Hobbit when Smeagol / Gollum realises that the Thief, Bilbo Baggins has stolen his ring, “my precioussssss”, the single thing he treasures, that makes his life both possible and worthwhile, that constitutes his identity. When my mother is at her worst, full of grief and loss and hatred, she is Smeagol, that almost-lost soul in mental darkness, no longer able to conceive of the autonomy of others, only their unfairness, cruelty and trickery. “Her is ME, don’t you hear?”  I sit out of sight, at this point as she often becomes extraordinarily eloquent – all word-finding, pronoun-difficulties gone – and acts out a completely fluent melodrama – which is a phenomenon I confess I cannot understand at all. Perhaps drama, not poetry or even music is her final frontier? I have no thesis to offer.

But Tracey Shorthouse is not like my mum. There’s a saying to cling to in dementia studies “If you’ve met one person with dementia, you’ve met one person with dementia.” It is surely the most various of all illnesses, enmeshed as it is with the intricate patterns of synapses and neural pathways which every individual, even if they are as comparatively youthful as Tracey, have taken a lifetime to develop. Tracey is determined that her poems should not be all about dementia. In the Elder interview she said “The poems aren’t just about dementia though – dementia doesn’t define me, it’s just part of who I am.” Tracey (like Tracy) seems to be constantly reaching out, she gives talks, even when her speech is slurry, she supports the newly diagnosed, she attends meetings, she tweets, she advocates.

Yet there is a sense in which Tracey's dementia (the alien in her brain) may affect the way she writes her poetry, whatever the subject matter. A friend who is a care-worker described people with dementia as "real" and when I asked her what she meant she explained "whether they tell you that you are the best or the worst person they are telling you the truth as they feel it in that moment". Explaining her writing via a tweet Tracey said: “At first my poems were on dementia and then it changed to whatever was in my head. If words were there then I used to write down. No control.” 
I think I can see this sometimes in her rhymes – a word is seized with real zest, rather as if it might otherwise vanish:
“Don’t say sorry or look uncomfortable
I know that I’m full of peace.
There is no way that I am vulnerable
Cause one day I might go to Greece.”

In this poem “Acceptance” the word "Greece" comes with a moment of thrill: the word / the idea is there in Tracey's head, she grabs it and writes it down before can escape. How this would play in the intensely rational, analytical Leavisite lit.crit. sessions of my university past I’d prefer not to think but, once recognised, I found that it gives the poems their true individuality and charm, their reality. 

Nicci Gerrard wrote a lovely article recently about the medicinal effects of art. Both Trac(e)ys are living witnesses to the truth of this -- and that's good for the rest of us as well. 

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

Using ‘Facts’ in My Fiction • Lynne Garner

Last month I wrote about how I like to get the ‘facts’ right in my stories when it comes to animal behaviour. This month I wanted to share how I also like to weave nuggets into my stories that were once considered fact but have now been disproved.

For example, I’m working on another collection of stories featuring the animals of Moon Meadow Farm. One of the stories concerns Hedgehog and a young swallow. Because I’m a bit of a geek when it comes to hedgehogs I’m already aware of the many facts once believed by our ancestors. Perhaps my favourite was written by Albertus Magnus (1200 – 1280):

"The hedgehog, which lives in its lair in the ground, indicates when storms of wind are coming. It makes three or four exits to its lair or dwelling and when it senses that the wind is going to blow from a certain direction, it closes the corresponding hole…………"

This is one of the facts I’ve not included in the new short story collection I’m working on (which will be 10 short stories featuring Fox of Moon Meadow Farm). However, two facts I recently discovered I will be including. The first concerns the swallow and where our ancestors believed they disappeared to during the winter. Prior to the secret of migration being unraveled it was believed swallows spent the winter hibernating, buried in the mud of ponds and lakes. Today we know they fly thousands of miles to spend those months in the sun.

Another fact I came across whilst researching for a story that features Fox was how foxes deal with fleas. Many old texts and stories detail how Foxes and other members of the dog family walk into a river backwards in a bid to dislodge parasites. However, it would appear this fact may not be fiction because I came across this gem:

By an old hunter and naturalist of local repute a story has been told here confirming as absolutely true and trustworthy the published account, which has had few believers until now, of how foxes rid themselves of fleas. The fox, according to the book narrative, backs slowly into a stream of water with a portion of the pelt of a rabbit in his mouth, after the fox has made a meal of the rabbit. The water drives the fleas first up the fox's legs and then towards his head and finally out on the piece of rabbit fur, and then the fox drops the fur, and his pests are done for. The local hunter and naturalist referred to, strange to say, had never heard or read of this story when he told of the actions of the fox which he observed in the waters of the Patapsco river. The little animal, he stated, backed into the river slowly with so much deliberation that he wondered what it meant. It carried something - he did not know what - in its mouth, and dropped the something when out in deep water. Then the fox hurried away. The object left floated near to the observer, and he hauled it ashore with a stick. Fleas literally swarmed through the object, which was found to be a bit of raw rabbit fur. The observer had a puzzling mystery explained to him. He says his admiration for the shrewdness of the fox grows more and more as he grows older and learns his ways.

This I will be including in my story, it's just too good not to.

So, to close this post I wondered if you have any favourite wildlife based facts believed by our ancestors. If you have please feel free to share below. You never know I may just use it in one of my short stories (I will credit you).



Now for a blatant plug: Anansi The Trickster Spider - a collection of 16 short stories featuring this fun but mischievous character.