I’m not Tolstoy

Here’s an extract from something I wrote when I was struggling to cut down the waffle in something I was writing:

So… the long books that I’m grappling with. The writers are renowned and fêted novelists; they are professionals, they are the top of the class in fiction writing, queens of their genre… and they have written really, really long books. Do I read every word… well, actually no… actually…  (and I am criticising me here, not the writers) actually I got bored with knowing every last detail of what someone wore/looked at/said/thought/was reminded of. After a while I found the mountain of words muddling… and this is me being a feeble reader; I became confused with the histories of each character, muddled as to who had been married to whom, which problem parent belonged to which troubled man/woman, I just really didn’t care about what happened to them as young people and their relationships with friends – even though within all this were nuggets of information which helped resolve the main dilemma of the novels. I really am not criticising the writers – but for me as a reader, in the end, I felt like giving up.

I read Dickens, I read Wilkie Collins,  I read Game of Thrones, I read The English Passengers by Matthew Kneale and Heartstone by C.J.Sansom… so I can read long books… War and Peace? I’ve read it. Anna Karenina? I’ve read it twice… Lord of the Rings, read it at least four times… So why am I struggling with the long books I’m reading now? It must be me!

Ten long books I’ve read:

183,858 words – Jane Eyre – Charlotte Brontë
198,901 words – A House for Mr. Biswas – V.S. Naipaul
208,773 words – Midnight’s Children – Salman Rushdie
211,591 words – Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky
316,059 words – Middlemarch – George Eliot
349,736 words – Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy
364,153 words – The Brothers Karamazov – Fyodor Dostoyevsky
418,053 words – Gone with the Wind – Margaret Mitchell
455,125 words – The Lord of the Rings – J. R. R. Tolkien
587,287 words – War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy

Book day!

Yesterday, the tenth of October was  Literature Day in Finland – how brilliant! This is something I wrote last year:

Finns  don’t have to fly the national flag on Literature Day, but they are encouraged to do so, and it struck me that it would be a great idea to have something similar over here. I don’t mean anything like national Book Day where children dress up as  characters from books – although I guess that could be an aspect of it, but I mean a day to celebrate the wonderful achievement of writers from Britain.

In Finland, the date was chosen because it was the birthday of Alexis Kivi, who is recognised as one of the greatest Finnish writers of all times. His real name was Alexis Stenvell and he was born in 1834; he wrote plays, but is perhaps best remembered for a novel called ‘Seven Brothers’ which was published in 1870, two years before his death at the early age of thirty-eight.

Kivi was born in 1834 and while at university became involved with the theatre; his first play was  Kullervo and was inspired by the national epic, Kalevala. He went on to write twelve plays altogether, and he was a poet, but he is most remembered for his one novel, ‘Seitsemän Veljestä’, ‘Seven Brothers’ which took him nearly ten years to write. One of the significant things about the novel is that it was written in Finnish; up until then most writers used Swedish.

If we had a National Literature day, when would it be held? There are so many dates in contention:

  • January 25th is already celebrated in Scotland and by Scots people everywhere as the birth date of Robbie Burns in 1759, he died July 21st 1796
  • February 7th when Dickens was born in 1812 or when he died in 1870, June 9th
  • April 17th, Henry Vaughan was born in 1621 in Wales
  • April 23rd to commemorate Shakespeare, 1564-1616 – but he is already commemorated on this day – and it’s St George’s Day, and it’s the anniversary of the death of Henry Vaughan in 1695
  • May 22nd 1859, Arthur Conan Doyle was born in Edinburgh – he died in England in 1930 on July 7th
  • August 15th – Sir Walter Scott was born in Edinburgh in 1771; he died in Melrose on September 21st 1832
  • October 25 – the great 14th century English poet Geoffrey Chaucer died 1400 in London, (no-one knows exactly when he was born)
  • October 27, 1914 Dylan Thomas was born; he died  November 9, 1953
  • November 9th when John Milton was born in 1608 – or December 8th when he dies, in 1674
  • November 13th one of my favourite story-tellers, Robert Louis Stephenson was born, also in Edinburgh, and died in Samoa December 3rd 1894

So quite a selection of dates – and I’m sure other people would think of more! So here is the section, bear in mind time of year, other festivities about the same time and clashes with other special days:

  • January 25th birth of Robbie Burns
  • February 7th birth of Dickens
  • April 17th birth Henry Vaughan
  • April 23rd Shakespeare’s birth and death, death of Henry Vaughan
  • May 22nd birth of Arthur Conan Doyle
  •  June 9th death of Dickens
  • July 7th death of Arthur Conan Doyle
  • July 21st  death of Robbie Burns
  • August 15th birth of Sir Walter Scott
  •  September 21st death of Arthur Conan Doyle
  • October 25 death of Geoffrey Chaucer
  • October 27 birth of Dylan Thomas
  • November 9th birth of John Milton, death of Dylan Thomas
  • November 13th birth of Robert Louis Stephenson
  • December 3rd death of Robert Louis Stephenson
  • December 8th death of John Milton


My family story in ten objects… number 7

I am looking at how the story of a family could be told through a certain number of objects – I suppose like an actual museum, but this is a virtual museum. Some of the objects I might wish to share are long gone – not necessarily valuable or significant items, but little domestic objects, such as the red handled serrated tomato knife, or the glass chess set, or the child’s globe…

My object number seven is a book; it is ‘on display’ for several reasons. Books have been an intrinsic part of my family’s life, and reading has been an intrinsic part of my ancestors’ lives. This particular book, which I still have, was probably published in 1960 and it is a collection of stories, articles, quizzes, and miscellanea. Its purpose, now I look at it, was to interest and educate as much as to entertain; many of the stories were based on true events though some were written to be more exciting and accessible to young readers. There were practical articles too, of the ‘how to’ sort, and biographies of famous people.  The book covered stories from across the world, and I can’t imagine how many times I read and reread them.

So why is this book on the museum shelf? Books and reading have been an embedded part of my life, my parents and relations, my sister and I, and now my children.  My daughter is a very practical reader, she reads for a purpose not just for entertainment, my son is more varied and reads books of all descriptions. My husband is, like me an addicted reader, and my parents were readers too, both of them, fiction and factual, books, newspapers, magazines.

Thinking back to my grandparents who I didn’t know well as they died when I was very young (one grandfather the month before I was born) I have no idea whether they read or not, but I can guess they did as we inherited books from them (long since disappeared) and my parents must have inherited the reading habit from somewhere. Certainly my grandmother who left school when she was thirteen, and worked in very lowly positions was not only literate, but as an old lady, after a hard day’s work, would sit by the fire reading the Daily Telegraph from cover to cover – I’m not drawing any conclusion about her political persuasions, but in those days a broadsheet was a large newspaper with tiny print and certainly the Telegraph covered every aspect of life from world politics to seasonal recipes.

A different grandfather who I did know as an old man, lived alone and read and re-read Westerns and adventure stories. He’d had a very adventurous life and travelled to distant places – were his travels inspired by the books he read when he was young, were the books he read as an old man a way of recapturing the excitement of his travelling life? His wife, my grandmother was very well-educated; she certainly would have been a reader. I remember visiting their house when I was tiny and there were children’s books, very strange children’s books, which I realise now must have been from her childhood.

As for my more distant ancestors, who knows? Certainly my Jewish family would have been very well-educated, probably with tutors at home.  Another family who worked on the land as agricultural labourers probably had a more rudimentary education, but their children had aspirations to come off the land and ‘better themselves”. The family of what you might call ‘artisans’, shoe-makers, butchers, ship-builders, and small businessmen – publicans and shop owners, would have had their children educated – maybe their reading  material was the latest exciting instalment of a Dickens’ story!!

So, this nearly sixty year-old book sits on my actual bookshelf, as well as my imaginary one, as an example of an important aspect of my family story – reading.

As a footnote… my love of reading has brought me here…  It has been overtaken by my love of writing!

How did Tolstoy do it?

I’m working hard on editing my next novel Earthquake – and I think I’m in the last throes. I am on about the fourth complete read-through, plus various other ‘reads’ I did while I was still in the midst of it. Even with the extra help writers get these days from things like spell checkers, I have still found quite a few little errors, typos, not counting the other tweaks I’m doing as I go along.

My book is relatively short, less than 120,000 words… but think of Tolstoy with his monster books, think of Dostoyevsky or Dickens! Even if they had secretaries to write down their immortal prose, and really literate type-setters for printing the books, they must have had to read their works, they must have had to go back and forth to change little inconsistencies, let alone if they suddenly decided to change a character’s name from Igor to Ivan or Bessie to Betsey. I really do wonder how they did it in the past. They must have whole teams of editors and editing staff to check it all – no scrolling through pages on a screen, but rustling through real actual paper pages!

When I looked up long books it seems that some long books are actually several volumes of one narrative – I’m not sure I think that actually counts; something with twenty-seven volumes can’t really be counted as a single novel – in my opinion. The twenty-seven volumes I’m referring to is Men of Goodwill by Jules Roman, written in French and with over a million words.

Here is a really interesting blog about word-counts in books:


According to this, Tolstoy’s war and peace is over half a million words long and Crime and Punishment a mere couple of hundred thousand words… when you think of all the other published writing both these authors achieve d in their lives, it really is truly remarkable…

Here’s a link to all the books I have managed to edit and publish! Earthquake is the fifth in the Radwinter series, so if you haven’t read any of the others yet, you can catch up now!


The mystery of Great-Aunt Caroline

My husband had always been told by his father, the story that his great-great-aunt had run a pub in Gosport in Hampshire. His father, he doesn’t think had ever been to the pub, but he knew the name of it and the fact that Caroline had been the landlady.

So last weekend, we visited Gosport, found the pub, took pictures and went inside and had a pleasant couple of hours chatting with the friendly people there. We weren’t exactly sure when Caroline had been in residence, and whether she was here when the present building was in existence (probably built about a hundred years ago) or whether she had been landlady of the previous pub of the same name which had had a thatched roof and had burned down.

We were very pleased with our adventure but it was only when we were back at our hotel and I tried to pin down Caroline and the pub when I found a difficulty. I could find no trace of her listed as landlady, and what is more I could only find details of her life in Portsmouth where she and her husband had a shop not far from where Charles Dickens was born. Maybe it was her daughter, also Caroline, maybe young Caroline had the pub with her husband George… but no, I couldn’t find any connection between her and the pub.

So what had gone wrong with the story my husband’s father had told him? He was so sure of the name, so sure of the pub’s name and location… where had the error arisen? I ferreted about a bit more in the details I already had, to see if there was another Caroline somewhere in the family tree… and yes… I came across an even more distant woman, a great-great-great-aunt of my husband, a Caroline but not with his surname, his great-great-great paternal grandfather’s sister. Could she be the woman who had the pub? back then it would have been the one with the thatched roof… I must investigate further!

I have not given surnames but I will when the story is complete – even if I don’t find the answer!

I have written several novels, the Radwinter series about a  character who solves fictional genealogical mysteries… If you haven’t read them yet, here is a link to them and my other e-books:


Treat umbrellas kindly…

As a post script to Ruth Drew’s advice on cleaning umbrellas, particularly silk ones (I didn’t know there were silk umbrellas) I share further thoughts from her on looking after your brolly. Just thinking about umbrella reminded me of various stories where they play an important role… with people concealing things in them, using them as weapons, using them as a distraction – and who could forget Sairey Gamp in Martin Chuzzlewit? She even for a while gave her name to umbrellas.

I came across these other novels featuring umbrellas

  • Robinson Crusoe, by Daniel Defoe
  • Howards End, by EM Forster 
  • Father Brown stories, by GK Chesterton 
  • Amerika, by Franz Kafka 
  • Winnie the Pooh, by AA Milne 
  • Mary Poppins, by PL Travers 
  • The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, by CS Lewis 
  • The End of the Affair, by Graham Greene 
  • Umbrella, by Ferdinand Mount 

… and you can find out more here:


However, back to Ruth Drew; this is the time of year when umbrellas come into their own, and when you come home with the poor things sodden and dripping this is what you should do:

Don’t forget to treat umbrellas kindly. It is not a good idea to leave even a damp umbrella rolled up, let alone a sopping wet one. Unless yours is a nylon umbrella, wet will rot the fabric – and seep through and rust the spokes. So a good shake is what’s needed – even for the nylon kind – and then a little time to dry with the spokes open.

One thing which afflicts damp umbrellas left to dry all rolled up is smell – a nasty musty almost foetid smell will develop, and then envelop you next time you’re walking along beneath it in the pouring rain…


A foggy sort of idea

I was having a little on-line conversation about fog and the phrase ‘haven’t the foggiest’ came up and we were sort of wondering about it. Apparently Dickens was the first person to have used fog and foggy in the sense having a confused and foggy mind; it may have been a common spoken phrase of course, because being in a fog, meaning to be in a confused state of mind or being muddled, was first recorded two hundred years before Dickens. So maybe it was just Dickens who happened to use it in his novel, Barnaby Rudge.  I’ve read most of Dickens novels, but Barnaby is one I haven’t… yet… I don’t think… However, when I looked it up and discovered it was about the Gordon Riots of 1780 it did ring a bell. Maybe it’s one of those books I read when I was young and had a voracious reading appetite. I can’t remember it, however, so I will reread it and I will be on the look out for ‘a dull and foggy sort of idea’. However, Dickens might have used the foggy idea idea, but ‘I haven’t the foggiest’ didn’t appear in print until about 1917.

So where does the word ‘fog’ come from? It first seems to have appeared in the 1540’s, and meant what we know it as, a thick concealing mist.  It may have come from ‘foggy’, and was a contraction of an adjective which was common, or maybe it came from Scandinavian roots; ‘fog’ in Danish meant ‘a spray, shower, snowdrift.’ It’s also not dissimilar from Old Norse fjuk which meant a ‘drifting snow storm,’ and also Old English ‘fuht’, the Dutch ‘vocht’, and the German word  ‘Feucht’ which means damp or moist.

So having things obscured by spray or snow, or having such a damp atmosphere the water droplets hang in the air and hide what’s all around is one thought; there is another Scandinavian word  to do with grass, and long grass, a second-growth or that sort of long grass which grows in low-lying very wet land – which in Norwegian  it’s fogg.

It all seems a dull and foggy sort of idea… doesn’t it?!