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Saturday, 26 September 2015

Take Life Bird by Bird

If life gets tough, take it bird by bird.

This advice comes from a well-thumbed and innocuous looking paperback, first published in 1994, which was brought back from America a few years ago by my daughter.

The book is Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott - author, teacher, public speaker and political activist -whose work sells in millions all over the world. It is not, as the title suggests, a handbook for ornithologists but, in Anne's own words, 'some instructions on writing and life.'

So why Bird by Bird? The title was inspired by Anne's  brother who, at ten years old, was attempting to write a project on birds that he'd had three months to complete.  It was due the next day and the task seemed impossible.

'We were in our family cabin,'  writes the author 'and my brother was at the kitchen table, close to tears, surrounded by paper, pens, pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm round my brother's shoulder and said 'Bird by Bird, son. Just take it bird by bird.'

The moral? If you deal with a major task in bite-sized chunks you are much more likely to succeed. ( I happen to know she's right because I've followed this advice ever since.)

One of Anne's roles is to teach budding authors, some of whom already have experience, some who just want to learn how to write.  'Becoming a writer is about becoming conscious, she says. Write about your childhood, write about the time when you were so intensely interested in the world, when your powers of observation were at their most acute, when you felt things so deeply. Exploring your childhood will give you the ability to empathize and that understanding and empathy will teach you to write with intelligence an insight and compassion.

It seems to me that Anne's advice applies not just to writers but to every one of us. How can we be kind to each other if we have not first learnt to be kind to ourselves? How can we face what seems like an impossible task unless we break it down into small tasks that gradually chip away at the bigger problem?

And so the lesson in life is  simple: frame by frame for photographers, term by term for teachers, pun by pun for politicians, minute by minute for the unmotivated... you get the idea. I could go on but I'm just too busy working on my next project!

Thursday, 10 September 2015

Romance is alive and living in Yorkshire....

From left to right: Sue Barnard, Yours truly, Leah Fleming and Fiona Lindsay
Take a bevy of authors, a sprinkling of comedy and an abundance of home made cakes, add chilled Prosecco, good company and mix well. Leave in majestic surroundings for four hours and watch the contentment spread.

This was the perfect recipe for the Romantic Novelists' Association afternoon tea held in the historic city of York last weekend. It was great to meet up with new friends Sue Barnard and Fiona Lindsay as well as  popular author Leah Fleming whose novels I first discovered more than twenty years ago - and have been a fan of ever ever since.

The highlight of the day was  an hilarious talk on 'Northern Birds' by  best-selling author Milly Johnson. In case you are wondering, Millie is not an ornithologist, but an expert on the workings of the minds of the Northern woman, as well as an accomplished speaker!

This was my first  event as a member of the Romantic Novelists' Association and I'm looking forward to many more.
Just some of the lovely food
Milly Johnson keeps the audience spellbound

Milly Johnson's new bestseller Afternoon Tea a the Sunflower Cafe

Sunday, 23 August 2015

Fancy a Spell in the Eighth Century?

What does historical fiction mean to you? The Second World War? The Victorians?The Tudors? Today my guest author Sharon Bradshaw takes us right back to the eighth century with her debut novel The Monk Who Cast a Spell.


Sharon, who writes her own  Hope and Dreams blog, has a passion for history.  She also writes poetry which is published in  anthologies and quarterly magazines.

A qualified solicitor, she ran a writing competition in 2011 publishing an Anthology of selected entries to raise funds to buy bread for the children in Tanzania. Sharon lives in the UK near Warwick with her family.

Find The Monk Who Cast a Spell on Amazon

Hello, Sharon.  Welcome to my blog and thanks for agreeing to talk to me today.

How did you become a Writer?
I have loved books since I was a child, and I wanted to write the stories in them. History came later, with an interest in the 8th century. When I left University I qualified as a solicitor, and that became my career for over 30 years. Although I was an avid reader during this time, it was only when I took a career break in 2012 and was helping my son in his business, that I felt able to begin writing historical fiction.

Please tell us about your novel, and any other writing which you are doing.
I imagined a young man one day. He was sitting on a low stone wall gazing out to sea, and the thought stayed with me. Eventually, I asked the usual 5 questions: how; why; what; when; and where. I realised then that he was a Monk watching for the Viking long ships; crossing the sea in 794 AD to Iona. His name was Durstan. He falls in love with Ailan after their sexual awakening at Beltane, is drawn to Beth when he thinks he has lost her, and becomes injured then in a Viking raid.

The story takes place at a time when the early Christian Church is trying to gain a stronger foothold in the British Isles, and people still worship the Gods of their Ancestors. They use charms, amulets and spells for protection. There’s magic too, history, and a forbidden love in the book.

You can find me most days on social media. I was pleased to be asked on Linkedin last year, by Motivational Press in California, to send the first three chapters of the book with a synopsis and marketing plan.  The Monk who Cast a Spell was published on 16th March, 2015. and is the first book in the Iona trilogy. I’ve almost finished the sequel.

When you are writing do you listen to music, or prefer silence; and do you have any rituals which you follow, to help the words flow?
I like to walk in the morning, and prefer to write in a quiet place when I’m working on a novel, or engrossed in the plot for a short story. But I also love to people watch in noisy cafes, and jot down notes of my thoughts. Chocolate cake is helpful too, when I’m doing this!

 What is your first memory?

One of my earliest memories is of the family pet, a West Highland white terrier, who didn’t leave my side

What is your favourite genre to read?
It has to be history, although I try to read about different eras and in other genres, to stretch my imagination as a writer. The past has made us who we are today, and I love to read other writers’ interpretations of their chosen time.

What inspires you to write?
Writing has become a compulsion and something which I do every day. I find inspiration everywhere from researching the 8th and surrounding centuries, to places; people, and even the weather. There’s bits and pieces of everything in my work.

What are you working on at the moment?
I have recently finished compiling my first poetry Anthology, and am editing the sequel to The Monk who Cast a Spell. I’ve also started to do some freelance work, and am becoming established as a Motivational Speaker.

Thanks, Sharon. Good luck with the new book.

Find Sharon on Facebook here

And on twitter here

Sharon's blog

Monday, 17 August 2015

Oh, what a lovely war weekend....

I spent the last two days on sunny Lytham Green in Lancashire at the annual 1940s War Weekend - a wonderful excuse for wine-sipping  and soaking up the sunshine under the  guise of serious research for my next War World Two novel. What struck me most was how easy it seemed to talk to strangers - all of them with a common interest. German soldiers mixed with their British, American and Russian counterparts in an atmosphere of extreme bonhomie. Thankfully the war was just a memory.

This little girl was so well behaved!
Anyone for a dance?


We're in the mood for working....

Forties glamour on Lytham Green

And the dogs came too..

Lift, anyone?

Say hi to the Allies...

Monday, 10 August 2015


Is this my prize?

How many of you can remember the day you won a prize? Any prize? Did it make you feel good? If so, that's great. But what if you've never received any prize or award, ever, as far back as you can remember? How does that make you feel?

When my daughter first went into teaching she spent six months at a school where, on sports day, everyone was a winner.  The idea was to make all the children feel equal rather than some of them feel inadequate.

'But they're not all equal and never will be,' she complained to me later. So they need to understand that now.'  I agree. But I  also believe that children need encouragement.

Writers, actors, artists and those who choose to put themselves to the test through their work  or sporting activities, are used to disappointment and rejection.  It is part of  every day life. With the popularity of TV talent contents you could be forgiven for thinking that  some people actually enjoy being humiliated.

But they are in the minority. Take the late, great Cilla Black. Whatever you might think of her talent as a singer or television presenter, she tried all her life to make people feel good about themselves. That's quite a gift.

 I read recently about a school back in the 1950s which had a more  positive attitude to prize winners. They gave a prize for Optimism, prize for Peseverance, prize for Imagination and prize for Cheerfulness.

But best of all  was the Prize for the Person Who deserved a Prize but didn't get One. 
This  I really like the sound of. I think Cilla would have approved too.


Wednesday, 29 July 2015

SENSE AND INSENSITIVITY - A novel cover for cybercriminals?

Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice

Jane Austen fans will be horrified to hear that her novels are currently being used by cybercriminals to conceal online hacking.

Passages from Sense and Sensibility, written in 1811 and still one of the author's most enduring works, have been discovered 'wrapped around' malicious software, according to The Times newspaper this week. The aim is to to dupe virus scanners into believing that they are in the presence of a respectable web page. The hidden virus is then free to attack the victim's computer.

And, according to a report by technology company Cisco  UK, what they call 'Austen-based attacks' are on the rise. For users encountering unexpected references to their favourite Jane Austen characters - such as Elinor Dashwood and Mrs Jennings - on a web page may be perplexing but not a cause for alarm, says the report, 'but their lack of unease gives adversaries more opportunity...'

Hackers, it seems, also use text from magazines and blogs which prove a better strategy than using random strings of text.  Even more worrying is the suggestion that cybercriminals are increasingly mirroring the practice of legitimate businesses by setting up customer support lines and offering warranties to hackers who buy their software.

Meanwhile, mature 'newbie' authors like me who try to have a good online presence might be forgiven for disappearing into the attic to find ancient leather-bound copies of their favourite works. After all, if you can't join them you might as well beat them. What do you think?

Monday, 13 July 2015

Don't Mock Harper's PR - this is a genuine publicity stunt.

There's been nothing quite like it since Lady Chatterley's Lover was banned in 1960 or children's author JK Rowling finally  emerged as a crime writer...  readers just  love a controversy.

So it's  no surprise that  Harper Lee's sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird has hit the headlines on the day before it's due to hit the shops. After all, Go Set a Watchman has been eagerly anticipated for the last 50  years.

The problem is caused by Atticus Finch, the pro-equality lawyer at the centre of the original book who has reappeared as a racist bigot in the follow-up, according to today's Times Newspaper (and quite a few other tomes a well.)  Strange how this 'news' seems so relevant right now.

So what would I prefer to hear about? I really enjoyed the article in last weekend's Guardian about actress Mary Badham, who at just nine years old played  Scout, the lead role in the film of To Kill a Mockingbird. Her leading man was, of course, Gregory Peck, whom she  regarded as a surrogate father for much of her early life. Mary retired from acting when she was just fourteen - now that's some career path!

Interestingly, my favourite Times columnist Melanie Reid has  a few words  to say about both Scout
and  Harper Lee in her Notebook today.  Of the author she writes: 'She never wanted publicity or fame. I struggle to believe she would change her mind in old age. For me, it is faintly sick: the news reporters standing on the pavement outside her care home; directing cameras at the windows, or interviewing townsfolk; while the critics wait with sharpened pens for those once-rejected words.

Admittedly some of  Melanie Reid's thoughts  in this piece are a little tongue-in-cheek. But I prefer to believe that she says it like it is.


Wednesday, 1 July 2015

To tell you the truth...

When was the last time you were truthful with yourself ? In a world of social media where everyone seems keen to impress, I think we may have forgotten how to be really honest about our feelings.

Which is why two articles written by authors for authors  have made a big impact on me this week. The first  was written by the highly successful and enormously likeable novelist Freya North. In this  summer's edition of The Author magazine, the journal of the Society of Authors,  Freya talks candidly about facing her doubts and fears, something we all have in our lives but often prefer to dismiss.

With a dozen best-selling novels over a twenty-year career,  the contemporary fiction writer admits
'until  recently I had never known the feeling of not being able to write and so, when it struck, I was floored.'

  'I had the book whirring around in the ether, close enough that I could sense every scene, yet too far away for me to hear what the characters were saying. They were talking behind my back but every time I turned they were gone.'

Her mind, she admits was bursting, but the screen remained blank. It was months before  her latest novel, aptly named The Turning Point, was finally finished.

Freya's story of how she suffered from, and dealt with, writer's block, will no doubt bring comfort to anyone who believes it is not fashionable to admit to any kind of failing.

Meanwhile, it is six years  since Annie Barrows took on the authorship of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society, when her aunt Mary Ann Schafer became ill. Sadly her aunt  died without witnessing the book's worldwide success (more than six million copies sold in 37 countries) but not without leaving a very important legacy.

Annie who was already well-known  in the States as a prolific writer of children's books, most notably the Ivy and Bean series,  says writing for adult readers was a very big learning curve.

Interviewed in this month's Writing Magazine, she  explains how the change affected her.

'As a children's book writer, you have to write so tight, you have to keep it spare, you have to know everything that's going to happen before you write a word, you have to have everything planned - so I lost my mind when I got to write for grown-ups.'  '

Her new book had so many drafts it resulted in a 57 inch high mountain of paper that took a very long time to edit.  'When I started with  The Truth According to Us....I was enjoying myself, as my editor said, far too much. I was playing with my characters......and I hadn't really got the story.

Set in America in the 1930s the book is described as an engrossing tale of small time secrets and family tragedy.

'This is a novel,' she says, about the stories families tell, not to outsiders but to themselves.' She goes on ' I don't really think there's any such thing as a fact. There's what people believe about themselves and their pasts and the stories they tell themselves and how they create a narrative out of their lives.

Which brings me back to my reason for writing this post.  Authors or not, we all have a story to tell. Without stories life would be very dull.

But instead of trying to impress the world,  should we try now and then to face our failings? It might make a whole lot of people sigh with relief after all.


Monday, 22 June 2015

Mad, Bad and Dangerous to know

I came across a piece on actor Rupert Everett this week in an eighties copy of Cosmopolitan magazine (yes - I'm a hoarder!) The Most Promising Actor of 1982 and star of 'Another Country,' was interviewed by journalist and soon-to-be TV star Paula Yates. He told her;  'I want to be successful not just famous, and not just for lots of money. I want to be in position where I can choose what do, which parts I'll play.'
Interesting then, that Everett was quoted this week as saying people now think they have right to everything they want.

'People have forgotten how to communicate, he says. 'Even sex is conducted online. No one's looking outwards anymore. We've been trained over the last 30 years to be as selfish as possible. 

In the new X Factor world it's enough just to want it. The creative mantra is, 'I want this so much.' They want it so they have a right to have it.' 


I am sure Rupert Everett has worked very hard for his success and  deserves everything he has achieved, but isn't it amazing how the years can change our views?


The actor, who is now 56, is currently in the Italian coastal town of Taormina, which has been hosting the 61st Taormina Film Festival this week.


Read the full article here