Having a rethink

Since publishing my last e-book, Earthquake, I have been back to work – back to writing I mean because fortunately I no longer have a day job and can spend my time writing! While I was at work, I still wrote, but it had to be squeezed in among everything else, job, family, housework, stuff, but I completed several novels, and since I have been writing full-time, over the last five years, I have been editing and publishing them.

While I was editing, I found that the fact I was writing in odd bits of time really showed, and I had to really work hard at polishing them up, pruning them severely and knocking them into shape, before launching them on KDP, Kindle Direct Publishing. As well as six or so complete novels, there were a couple of unfinished stories; so, since Earthquake, I have gone back to one of these and have set to knocking what there is of it (about 70,000 words) into shape and getting to grips with completing it.

This novel, ‘The Story of Frederico Milan’ is as you might imagine about a man with that name; three years before the beginning of the novel, his wife left him and has not been seen since. Frederico assumed she had gone off with another man, her parents think Frederico has done something to her… The police have investigated and found nothing suspicious. As you might imagine from this starting point, Frederico is manipulated/blackmailed/forced by his parents-in-law into trying to find the truth about his missing wife.

I pulled the virtual manuscript off my virtual shelf and I have begun to edit it before writing the final part. I thought this would be a good way of keeping writing without all it takes to start a completely new novel (which I actually already have in my mind) However… in the eight or so years since I wrote the first part of Frederico, my writing has changed enormously; although the backbone of my style is the same, I guess (difficult to judge objectively) much else has changed – my voice, I guess you might call it.

The editing is really hard with this story, so much has to be changed, so much rewritten, so much excised… There are parts I really like, but a key factor of the plot is not just weak but unbelievable! The characters who start off being quite engaging seem to have become mere cardboard cutouts, with ludicrous too long conversations, and immature behaviour – doing things which might be believable in teenagers but don’t ring true with adults! … and yet, and yet the core is a good novel waiting to develop and emerge!

I had planned to edit the story so far, write the ending, edit it as a complete novel and then see what happens next! I had a bit of a revelation last night and I have come to a new decision:

  • continue editing (very strictly) to the end of the story as it is
  • rewrite the really poor parts (talk severely to the characters and get them to act their age)
  • describe the characters more fully and more objectively
  • excise the unbelievable and inconsistent parts
  • take a mighty scythe of ‘delete’ to much of the conversations
  • have more action and less chat
  • improve the descriptions of the settings – they are so vivid in my mind, but readers can only read words not what’s inside my head
  • put it to one side and write something else

The last point – putting it to one side, will offer the story one last chance; if when I come back to it I still feel despondent about it then maybe it is time to say farewell to Frederico, Erin, the Burnetts, Dr Goodrich and Father Apinski, and maybe leave Frederico’s wife unfound… However, I have a feeling that if I work hard at it now, with this new end in sight, then when I come back to it at the end of the year or next year, maybe I will do so with more enthusiasm!

Watch this space for news on Frederico, and also for news on my actual new novel!


If you’re feeling spring like…

I’m looking through the delightful 1946 knitting book, Knitting For All, and I’ve come across a chapter I’ve looked at before, entitled ‘The Fascinating Fez’. There is a city of Fez in Morocco, which was once the capital city of the country until 1925 and even now is now the capital of the Fès-Meknès  region. It’s listed as a World Heritage Site and its University of Al Quaraouiyine, founded in 859, is the oldest continuously functioning university in the whole world!

However the fez in the knitting book, is the hat which is so named because that is where the style came from – replacing the turbans Moroccans originally wore. Fezes are traditionally made of felt and are mainly known as being red with a black tassel.

Here is the fez. Just the plain fez, worn as a fez. But that’s just the beginning of the story. With your plain fez, wear a tassel, or if you’re feeling spring like, a bunch of flowers as the girl in the picture above has.

I cannot imagine any ‘girl’ these days decorating a knitted fez with a bunch of flowers, and I struggle to imagine any woman in the 1940’s would! I guess sewing on some knitted flowers might work… maybe…

 The great thing about this fez  is that it’s adaptable; coax it a bit and you can do anything with it. here, for instance, (left) the top is squashed down and rolled – and the scarf has been swathed round like a turban and tied in a cunning knot.
One last disguise for the fez (right). Swathe it round with the scarf, which should be stitched lightly round the lower edge of the fez, and pass the two ends of the scarf through the loop, letting them hang down. Crown of the fez can be high or low as your fancy dictates.

The cunning knot… it all depends on the cunning knot…

My toilet twin!

I hope you weren’t put off by the title of this post; in fact it is a very serious thing – having safe and secure sanitation. We are so fortunate we are completely able to take for granted that not only in our homes, but pretty much anywhere else we go we can find toilet facilities which are clean, secure, private and safe. In many parts of the world this is not so, and particularly for women it is a daily worry and problem.

I donated to a charity called Toilet Twinning, which is just that – you twin your toilet with a new one somewhere to help people have the dignity of proper sanitation.

Here is what the charity says:

Twin your loo and flush away poverty!

2.4 billion people don’t have somewhere safe, clean and hygienic to go to the loo. That’s more than a third of the people on the planet.
By donating £60 to twin your toilet, you help those in desperate poverty to have access to a proper latrine, clean water and the information they need to be healthy.
Your smallest room becomes the proud owner of a certificate, complete with a colour photo of its twin and GPS coordinates so you can look up your twin on Google Maps.

…and …

Toilet Twinning funds the work of international relief and development agency Tearfund. Your donation will be used to provide clean water, basic sanitation, and hygiene education. This vital combination works together to prevent the spread of disease. Children are healthier, and able to go to school; parents are well enough to work their land and grow enough food to feed their family. With better health, and more ability to earn a living, men and women discover the potential that lies within them to bring transformation.
Family by family, community by community, nation by nation, we are flushing away poverty.

My toilet is twinned with a latrine in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in a place called Rutshuru


Visiting a stately home…

We visited Tyntsfield today, a National Trust property near Bristol. There is a wonderful house to visit, and if the weather had been a little less windy and chilly, we might have wandered round the beautiful gardens too!

This is what the Trust say about it:

Tyntesfield, just a stone’s throw away from Bristol, was not built as a bold and extravagant statement of wealth, power or politics. Its purpose was simple; to serve as a family home. Once hidden and inaccessible, the ordinary and extraordinary lives and possessions of four generations of the Gibbs family are ready for discovery. The garden and estate balance faded beauty and function with an abundance of nature; celebrated in ornate Gothic carvings that decorate the house. Flower filled terraces, an empty lake, woodland, champion trees and productive kitchen garden give further opportunities for exploration.

… and this is what Wikipedia says about William Gibbs who bought it in 1843:

In 1843, the property was bought by businessman William Gibbs, who made his fortune in the family business, Antony Gibbs & Sons. From 1847 the firm had an effective monopoly in the import and marketing to Europe and North America of guano from Peru as a fertiliser…  The firm’s profits from this trade were such that William Gibbs became the richest non-noble man in England.

In my latest e-book, Earthquake, there is an old ruined house – not a bit like Tyntesfield I have to say, except for the fact that my fictional owner of the house had also made his fortune from guano. In my story, the old house became a school, until it closed in 1932 and fell into disrepair:

The actual school building in the grounds of a large estate, had been the home of a branch of the family who’d owned the big mansion in rather lovely parklands – well, they looked lovely from the old photographs I found. The mansion, with two wings and no doubt dozens and dozens of rooms, had been the residence of a man who’d made his money out of bird poo… Yes, it’s true! There were other such entrepreneurs apparently, who made millions shipping bird poo from distant rocky places back to England to be used as fertiliser… I mean honestly, who would have thought it? Whoever first thought oh I know I’ll put all this bird shit on the garden and see what happens… oh my goodness what lovely roses I have and how fine my carrots are
It was in 1841 apparently that the first Peruvian guano, about 2,000 tons of the smelly stuff, left on a ship destined for Liverpool, and it was in the 1860’s just as Samuel Oxfleet was starting his school in Strand, that Mr. Bird-Poo built his mansion.
The smaller house which became the school was built for the second son who was not going to inherit the bird poo empire. As happens with such large places, it fell on hard times as the family did, and for a short while, between the 1890’s and 1900’s the mansion was what was then called a lunatic asylum, before it became used as a convalescent home.
The smaller building became a hospital for wounded soldiers in the First World War, for those with ‘shell shock’ as they called it or ‘battle fatigue’ as it was also known.

If you want to fins out more about the old school, as it became, and more about the earthquake in Earthquake, here is a link:

Tell it like a story

I started my family history writing group yesterday… and handed out a sheet with some ideas to consider; reading it through now I think I may polish this up a bit… but here is what I gave them – first draft!

HOW ARE YOU GOING TO TELL YOUR FAMILY HISTORY– What is the end ‘product’ going to be – a folder of printed pages to show to the family, or maybe an actual printed book which could have a wider audience  – there are plenty of ‘publishing on demand’ options these days (such as Lulu or Amazon)


  • you need to be realistic in what you can actually do and have an end-product!
  • who is going to be sharing your story, and what materials do you have (photos etc)
  • maybe a memoir/story: the combination of story-telling and personal experiences can focus on a particular episode or time in the life of yourself or a particular ancestor
  • a  recipe book – but write about the people who created the recipes, and the occasions when they were shared!
  • a scrapbook or album  with photos in order and stories, descriptions and family trees
  • be creative!

HOW MUCH AND HOW FAR?  Think about who you want to write about, yourself, a particular person  – or as many people as you know! How much will you writer and how far back will you go? Make it manageable, you can always change it or do it differently, later!

  • a single line of descent – from one person
  • all the descendants of one ancestor – I don’t recommend this!
  • start from your known ancestors – known to you, your grandparents for example

TELL IT LIKE A STORY – It makes it more interesting to read if you have a plot, like a fictional story; think of your ancestors as characters in your family story, what problems and obstacles did they have? A plot gives your story interest and focus and might include:

  • moving from one area to another, country to city or vice-versa
  • from agricultural labourer to town folk
  • moving out of poverty – or maybe losing a fortune!
  • the war

USING WHAT YOU KNOW  – You want your family story to be readable, interesting and moving, you have to be creative – you don’t want a dull list of dates of birth. You may not know the type of house your ‘subject’ lived in, or the sort of work they did as an ‘ag lab’ – but these days you can very easily find out! You can add colour with fashions, art, transport and foods of the time… you can find locations on Google earth or at the library

BEGIN AT THE BEGINNING? OR NOT? – Choose something interesting to write about… you can add the details later or separately !

BRING THEM TO LIFE – You may not have actually met the person you are writing about – maybe no-one in your family remembers them, but you can imagine, be creative, guess at aspects of their character from things they did (remarrying after being widowed, adopting another person’s child, moving from place to place in search of work etc)

INDEX  – Useful to your readers – and to you!

Where did he go?

I’ve shared this before, but I used it yesterday with my creative writing family history group… exploring how you can write imaginatively about a small piece of information:

While researching family history in the 1891 census, I came across John William Coker, a discharged soldier looked after by an officer for the insane in Bethnal Green. He was 26 and  on the transcribed document I was looking at he was named, along with John Grimwood, an old man of 73 from Colchester in Essex. There were two nurses to the insane,  23 year old Harriet Jones from Blackdown, Worcestershire, and Susan Butler who was 69 from  Wexham In Buckinghamshire.  In the same household was young Phoebe Franklin, only 20, also from Essex, and she was the domestic housemaid.
My imagination began to create  a dramatic scenario, a very small private institution with only two patients… But I looked at the complete record, John was one of over 300 patients in Bethnal House, a lunatic asylum on Cambridge Road!!!
John was in the famous Bethnal House, under the kindly supervision of Dr John Kennedy Will and his doctors, nurses and attendants.  Bethnal House was extremely old and  had been an asylum for over one hundred and sixty years when John Coker was a resident there. It was originally called Kirby’s Castle and was on the green from which Bethnal Green gets its name.
What had brought John to the lunatic asylum? Was it his service as a soldier? There is no way of telling. In 1881, a young  John Coker aged 18, was working as a dock labourer in London and  living in what must have been some sort of hostel or tenement, Great Eastern Chambers, Cable Street.  Was this the same John Coker who became a soldier, was discharged and ended up in a mad house? There were 111 men living in Great Eastern Chambers on the night of the census, most were Londoners but many came from Ireland, a few from Scotland three or four from America, and one from Mauritius. What on earth were the conditions like?  I dread to think, no doubt the place was vermin infested, literally lousy. Would they have slept in dormitories or would they have been “on the rope?”
“On the rope,” or a tuppenny hang, was accommodation where men would sleep standing  up leaning over a rope strung across a room. You could fit more people in and there was no need for bedding. Poverty indeed.  However, John and the other residents of Great Eastern Chambers were working, so poor they may be, but probably they could afford a bed.
What happened to John after the 1891 census?  There is John Coker who appears on a later census but it may never be known whether he is the same poor young soldier who was detained in bedlam.


Midnight in Peking

I was just thinking about a favourite bookshop, and a book I really want to re-read…

‘Midnight in Peking’ is a book by Paul French, subtitled ‘The Murder That Haunted the Last Days of Old China.’

There is rather a comical story attached to me buying the book in Waterstones Weston-super-Mare, but it’s only really funny if you know me! The bones of my story of buying the book is that I’d heard an excerpt of it read on BBC Radio 4 and decided to get a copy. However by the time I got to the shop I had forgotten not only the name of the author but the name of the book as well.
“Hi, I wonder if you have a copy of a book set in China before the second world war… it’s not fiction, it’s a true story about the murder of a young English girl.”
Helpful assistant: “What is the title?”
Me: “Um.. something like ‘Murder in Old Peking’ … it’s written as a story but it’s true, and it’s really gripping; I heard it being read on the radio.”
Helpful assistant: “Who is it written by?”
Me: “Sorry, no idea, but it was an ordinary name like John or James or Richard somebody.”
Helpful assistant: “On Radio 4? We get a list of their books, I’ll have a look.” She consults the computer.
I mumble more stuff and then she calls over the handsome assistant.
Handsome assistant: “I think I’ve heard of that, just a minute…”
Both are now furiously tapping away at their computers while I witter on irrelevantly.
Handsome assistant: “‘Midnight in Peking?'” he reads a précis. “Who killed Pamela Werner? On a frozen night in January 1937, in the dying days of colonial Peking, a body was found under the haunted watchtower. It was Pamela Werner, the teenage daughter of the city’s former British consul Edward Werner. Her heart had been removed…?”
Me: “Yes! That’s it!”
I follow the handsome assistant through the store and he finds the last remaining copy…

It is a fascinating, and heartbreaking story. As a parent I was riven by what Mr Werner had to go through, appalled by the corruption of the various police investigators, disgusted by the cynical cover up of the British establishment trying to ‘save face’ before the Chinese…  ‘Midnight in Peking’ paints an intriguing and detailed picture of life in China before the war as the Japanese invaders were approaching, the decadence and depravity not only of the low life in the rough area known as the Badlands, but the duplicitous depravity of the ‘respectable’ American and European professionals.

Paul French has done an incredible amount of research which sits lightly on the narrative and yet informs and intrigues… and horrifies!