Wednesday, December 14, 2016

I'm taking a Blog Break...

I'm stepping away from my Blog for a while. I'm not abandoning it; only wrapping it carefully in acid-free tissue paper for a while. I may start another or I may not. I'm not going anywhere. I am still around. You can catch me every so often on Facebook and Twitter (@sallyzigmond)

Friday, December 9, 2016

Pamela Frankau

I've been tidying up and rationalizing my bookshelves and cupboards (1970s-published Anglo Saxon text books , anyone?) plus all the books that are beginning to take over my breathing space. In the process I made some lovely re-discoveries.
PAMELA FRANKAU: 1908 - 1969

 I couldn't possibly get rid of my collection of books written by Pamela Frankau (click on the name to read her Wikipedia entry and fascinating reading it is too,) even though I haven't opened them for ten years or so. I put them back on a low easily-reachable shelf. You see, there are too many memories there.

All through the 1950s, my parents and I would make regularly visits to Lincoln Library and would each bring back a pile of books. I rarely looked at my Dad's weekly collection unless they had pictures of steam-trains (a love of which I inherited from him.) But my mum's pile was different. I used to see many authors that are rarely seen today even in second-hand book-shops. Jean Plaidy gave me a basic grounding in English history - far more compelling that Miss Fauld's tedious lessons. It was her books (the eye-opening revelation that history is more about people than facts) that slowly made me turn to writing historical fiction.

When it came to women's fiction - excellent and not trashy women's fiction, I might add - I discovered Pamela Frankau. I read as many as my mother and I could lay our hands on until there were no more. I later collected quite a few second-hand copies in the days before on-line book-selling  became commonplace. I am surprised to see that she is not even popular enough nowadays for someone to reproduce them in digital downloadable form.

 But I still have my collection of old books (including one or two from my beloved collection of those wonderful dark green Virago Classics.

I now plan to re-read my Pamela Frankau collection of books. Among the novels there's this volume - Pen to Paper (A Novelist's Notebook) published in 1961 when I was only ten years old. Of course, I was too young at the time to read it. Now I write, I am glad I rediscovered it. (Don't you find that forgotten books reappear in your life just when you are ready to read them - or is it only me?) When I turned to the first page the other day, I knew I was about to meet a 'kindred spirit' as Anne Shirley would say.

Here's the first line of the first chapter -

"It comes without warning. I have been watching for it, searching back among old files in my memory: the only files I keep. Here are to be found I have wanted to write and have not yet written. I say "to be found". Not always; not all them them. The files are haphazardly maintained. It is only when the rhythmic creative restlessness comes back that I turn them over to see what I've got there. My thriller with the pretty title. The novel that runs through one day only...The light comedy about The Wonderful Old Lady who was really a stinker...? "

I love this. Her style is so simple; not tricksy or clever-clever but it speaks true to my way of thinking. I particularly like the fact that she keeps everything in her head (like me) and doesn't keep banging on about keeping a notebook handy. (The only one I kept before it disappeared and then reappeared five years later when I flicked through it and found it stuffed full of unreadable, incoherent unusable rubbish and I couldn't see why I'd wasted my time. Yet this is so often mentioned in writing-guides.

Pamela Frankau may well appear on this blog again in the future as I reread her books. So does anyone else remember her novels that were so popular in the fifties and sixties?

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Wordsworth by Jane Riddell

I only very rarely review books on my blog just because a publisher or an author has asked me to do so, even if I am sent a free copy. So I was a little dubious when I received an email out of the blue from Jane Riddell asking me whether I would be interested in her e-book on editing for fiction writers: Wordsworth

Now, as some of you may know, I'm making a slow job at the moment of editing my novel in progress in my quest for an agent and eventual publisher. Basically, I am procrastinating because I'm scared of total failure. You probably think I will never progress further than my frequent promises here which are mainly gee-ups to myself.

As I was intrigued, I agreed and Jane emailed me a a copy. I first gave Wordsworth a quick read and then immediately went back to the beginning and read it carefully, nodding as I went because it was exactly the guide I needed. I do try to be an organised writer - in fact, those who know me tell me I am. (I wish!) It's true I can't work at anything in a mess. I like a tidy desk when I'm writing, a tidy work surface if I am cooking and so on. Yet, however much I try to be organised when editing my fiction on screen I still end up with scraps of paper with my own incomprehensible  hieroglyphics scribbled all over them spread across my desk and over the floor with all the dust and fluff. And can I find a pen when I want one?

Wordsworth's introduction explains it all really.  "This slim volume has everything a fiction writer needs to edit their work in progress. As the introduction sets its aims clearly: "This guide is not a substitute for the myriad books about how to write. It therefore doesn't give detailed explanations about how each of the aspects it covers. Rather, it provides a brief explanation of each one, a rationale for why it is important and where appropriate, gives examples."

Incidentally, in the helpful bibliography. I was pleased to read Jane includes my all-time favourite guide to self-editing. I refer to it constantly (and smile) as I recommend to other writers: Self Editing for Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King. 

Wordsworth is the perfect guide for me. I have reduced all my books about writing to about six of those I refer to again and again. I know the theory of editing but really need to apply it systemically without getting in a muddle; which is why I welcome it. Jane Riddell is not didactic. This clear and concise guise shows you how to organise your own editing process into a manageable proportions. She is a fiction writer and knows what she's talking about.  My only quibble is that the one I have is an e-book and am unable to find it in paperback. I am rather old-fashioned when it comes to digital technology and cope better with paper and ink. I would love to use Wordsworth as a workbook and scribble in the margin and add my own blank pages for the tick-lists specifically geared to my novel in progress, like Jane suggests.

I have waffled on enough and am in danger of padding my post with much more of the dreaded superfluous verbiage. Edit. Edit, Edit.

So thank you, Jane and now, without further ado, I'm off to practice what I preach.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Sunny November Morning


Coming down the hill at the end of my autumn’s walk
I see a distant field grey with frosted stubble, wreathed in mist
Or is it smoke from the fading heather fires?
Leaning on the gate, I disturb a family of pheasants, hiding in the fallen leaves
Bang, bang, their beating wings are shots across the battle field,
Then, silence as the village church clock strikes eleven
On the eleventh day of the eleventh month.
Across a pall of orange, gold and fading green, more leaves flurry and
Fall across the gravestones.

Rest in peace.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Remember, Remember...

Having just 'endured' the Americanised, commercial hype that is 21st century is Halloween, I am now taking you back down memory lane to when I was a child. Back in the 1950s, we, of course knew all about All Hallow's Eve. Woe betide us if we ever chose to spend the night in a church graveyard where, at the stroke of midnight, the ghosts of those interred would rise up, wailing and screaming and torment us. Only, I and my friends were good little children and, after having our bedtime warm milk and malted milk biscuits, brushed our teeth and were tucked up in bed. 

And if we stayed awake in our Winceyette pyjamas, plotting and planning, it would be about collecting firewood for the bonfire now being built or finding old socks to stuff sacks for our guys and purloining our dads' gardening clothes - if they'd let us! 

I have nothing against the jolly events that turn fear into fun but, as a historical novelist, I do hope we should never forget our past. However, I do also believe we should never retain old hatreds but look forward to a more tolerant future. You see, I am worried that The Gunpowder Plot of 1605 must still be taught in schools. 

Turning now to my own history, here's what Guy Fawke's Night meant to me as a child in the 1950s. This photo does not depict me or my friends at all  but it might as well be because of the happy memories it evokes.

Note the two guys in front of the massive bonfire of which the children were justifiably proud. Looking back to my Bonfire Night, I suspect the local dads did most of the bonfire-building on the nearby waste ground, over which a block of flats was later built. Before then, the community dads would buy most of the fireworks between them to which our pennies contributed a little; they took it in turns to light them safely using the firework code which was drilled into all of us by the policemen who visited the schools. The fathers would also hand out lit sparklers to us children, making sure we were all wearing thick gloves. Meanwhile, the mums would spend the previous week baking traditional Yorkshire Parkin, gingerbread and toffee. On the day burnt sausages were handed out and foil-wrapped potatoes were pushed into the bottom of the bonfire  They would also regularly dish out crisps and glasses of Tizer. (No doubt, they filled their own glasses with sweet sherry and whisky for their husbands. More likely  it was Thermos flasks of tea.) Yes, life were very much gender-divided in those days. 

When the fireworks had all been ooed and aahed at and we children had been hurried home to bed, the bonfire was always doused with water. I never remember any serious accidents. I don't doubt there were a few superficial burns and grazed knees and elbows, but the mums were always on hand with a first aid box.

Why has November The Fifth been overtaken so much by Halloween.? I have a few theories. Firstly, it is a very British event and nothing to do with America which because of its size and influence has taken over our culture. In addition, children pestering adults to give them money is basically begging, whereas handing out sweets voluntarily is far more acceptable - even if somehow it smacks of bribery. 

That said, I always refuse to open the door after dark even to children I do not know or if their parents have not told me in advance. I used to have to explain the "Trick or Treat" phenomenon to my mother and my father when he was still alive because they were frightened and confused whenever the doorbell rang after dark. They were obliging people and so left their warm fireside several times in order to open the door to children they didn't recognise in what they saw as hideous masks. Some were very rude because they too had not grasped the American-style fun and that it is their equivalent of Bonfire Night and for the community.

Secondly, in these days of Health and Safety and a stretched Emergency Services, fireworks are both highly dangerous and can encourage law-breaking. It is also increasingly expensive.  No longer do we tolerate cheap bangers and Catherine Wheels. (And, with reference again to history how many people know what the original Catherine's Wheel was? Here's what trusty Wikipedia says about Saint Catherine of Alexandria.

So, the nostalgic glory days of November the Fifth and Bonfire Night have, in the 21st century, been merged with transatlantic Halloween and has now been enthusiastically embraced by British TV. We are, now a multicultural society. (I have not even mentioned Diwali.) 

You see, we humans have always celebrated light in times of darkness. Perhaps, in the future, that's what the this time of year when the clocks go back, we will still all have fun together, whether we be Christian, Hindu, Muslim or Pagan. We're all human . Let us enjoy light, but NEVER FORGET our histories and cultures.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Every Cloud has a Silver Lining

As some of you may know, my trusty old steam-powered PC had a major problem two weeks ago. Was it only two weeks? It seemed like forever. Anyway, it's fixed now and works faster and much better than ever and I've lost nothing. Don't ask me what was wrong because I didn't understand a word of the explanation from the lovely young lad who sorted it out for me.  All I know is that it's fine but have so much to catch up with. Nevertheless, I hope to update this blog at least once a week.

As a result of this enforced absence from writing my novel (which actually began in September when I was in the Pyrenees)  has given me plenty of thinking time. And my decision is: I am totally rewriting it. When I say 'totally' don't be too alarmed.  I don't mean, it's being deleted. No way. The words and paragraphs, the characters and the main plot will remain. It merely needs restructuring so that it will end up with more sense and more purpose. I had planned to set it in a recognisable area of England but found that completely straight-jacketed it. There was too much real history and not enough fiction. That doesn't mean it will be fantasy at all but it will have more freedom to use history to tell a story. Novelists and short-story writers deal in story-telling.

The moral of this tale is that it's never a mistake to leave a novel in progress without looking at it. Stand away for as long as you can. It'll be all the better for it. I've been told that many times but couldn't actually do it. Necessity is the mother of...and all that jazz.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

What We Did on Our Holiday

Do you remember, in days gone by, when neighbours would invite you round for drinks to admire their tans and before you knew it, the curtains were drawn and a projector, a screen and cartridge after cartridge of transparencies were there in front of you for hours and your eyes would immediately glaze over with no escape in sight?

With that in mind, I will not subject you to more than a glimpse of some of our recent trip to the French Pyrenees in our camper-van. Jon, being a keen cyclist, managed to climb several of the iconic mountain passes of the Tour de France and even this year's Vuelta (including the Col du Tourmalet and the Col D'Aubisque.) He was surprised that he managed them although he lacked the speed and finesse of Messrs Froome and Quintana.

The French do have a sense of humour! (The "hypermarket" at 'La Natura' Lac d'Estaing camp-site)

Pity you can't hear all those tinkling bells.

A baking hot day by the Gave du Saison, Tardets-Sorholos

And that's all you're getting. I could wax lyrical about the heat, the heady scent of pine-woods, the cow bells and herds of wild horses, the sheep's cheese famed in the French Basque region, not to mention the Basques theselves who straddle the border between France and Spain with their unique and distinctive language (all those x's and z's) and all those village Pelota courts.

Now it's head down to concentrate on that messy final draft of my novel in progress - still. I perhaps might finisdh it by the end of the year..

Saturday, August 27, 2016

UPDATE - If you want to see My TV Triathlete Star...

You do  remember my post all about Jon's heroic triathlon exploits. Of course you do. If not, you can remind yourself  HERE.

Only, please ignore the dates I gave for the TV broadcasts. The update is that Sky  seem to have have dropped it completely from their schedules and Channel 4 have changed the broadcast time. The date is the same: Saturday 3rd September but it will now be broadcast  at 6.30am. Please don't get up at that ridiculous hour - we will because it's all about us, well some of it - but you can set or reset your videos if you like.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Off to the French Pyrenees...

All being well; figers crossed and all that, we will be taking our camper-van next month to a place we used to holiday every year when our boys were young. We used to take the ferry from Portsmouth to Normandy and then take a week travlling south and stopping off on the banks of Loire, then catching up with friends who owned a vineyard on the Dordogne and finally end up in our beloved western French Pyrenees, sometimes enjoying the Basque region en fete. (where is a circumflex or acute accents hen you need one?)

We have loads of photos in albums but they all date from before the digital age and so, until we're there next month, I have had to make do for this post with some I've pinched from  public domains to remind myself of why I adore that part of France.

This time, we're doing it the lazy way. We;'re getting a ferry from Portsmouth to Bilbao in Spain then driving north to the Ossau Valley in France.

Oh and this is our favourite mountain. Le Pic du Midi d'Ossau. It's not the highest  but it is iconic. You can read about it here. It is THE Western French Pyrenees to us. Every year our hearts used to soar as soon as we caught sight of its iconic split peak  on the distant horizon.

I can't wait!

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

My favourite novels of 2016. So far...

Although, we all immersed in the lazy, hazy crazy days of summer, I am still writing; well, dotting the i's and crossing the t's of my re-written (and I hope, much improved) 14th century novel. I've made lots of changes along the way. However. the body and soul longs to be outside in the sun. Jon and I have been out and about, here and there but our main holiday is to come next month in the French Pyrénées. A later blog post beckons...

In the breaks from my own writing, I have been reading some fabulous novels this summer and I would like to mention three of them here. I'm too involved in my own manuscript to write the detailed, appreciative and literate reviews they all deserve. I suggest, however, you don't take my word for anything I say, but find out for yourselves. (Don't look at Amazon. I know that most of the reviews there are democratic but, by golly, some people shouldn't write reviews at all without understanding how to do so!)

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton blew me away when it was published in 2014. I know I wasn't the only reader to love it. Her recently-published second novel is equally good but didn't knock me sideways quite as dramatically . That isn't to say it isn't a brilliant read. It is. But, often a second novel hasn't quite the same magic that is there in a fresh new voice. Those who know me will know I am an absolute sucker, not so much for plot, but for original writing and the evocation of landscape in all its moods. The Miniaturist takes us back to 17th century Amsterdam in winter. Jessie Burton's feel for the tense atmosphere of Andalucia during the tense run-up to the Spanish Civil War is wonderful. How a writer can achieve this so brilliantly by a combination of research and travel is amazing.

Talking of second novels that don't quite match the impact of the first, it happens so often, there is a phrase for it: second novel syndrome. I consider this phenomenon, the fault of the publisher or more likely their accountants and marketing departments and not the writer. These people want the second novel to be published within a year of the last as they assume we all have very short memories and butterfly minds. We readers haven't. We relish but we are prepared to wait.

But here is a case where the second novel is even better than the début novel! Claire King's The Night Rainbow was absolutely original and so, so brilliant. But, take it from me, Everything Love Is is even more brilliant. How on earth does she do it? Whereas The Night Rainbow depicts childhood with a deft touch without being mawkish or sentimental, Everything Love Is examines love, family and memory with equal finesse. Claire King deeply understands both the joy and despair of early-onset dementia, both from the minds of the carer, friends, family but the sufferer himself. Having seen my once-sharp and talented father descend into confusion, forgetfulness, anger and nasty jibes and accusations, I do know how distressing it is. And yet Claire also shows us its joys. She knows her France; both The Night Rainbow and Everything Love Is are  masterful evocations of the French countryside in all its moods. If I hadn't wanted to spend time on the Canal du Midi before, I most certainly do now! Claire shows us this amazing piece of engineering, its people, its flora and fauna in all seasons, all moods, its people, its food and the way the light falls on the water. But it is at the end I emotionally 'lost it.' The last pages are devastating. It's rare for me to sob and sob and sob at the end of a novel. Here I did. But again there wasn't a trace of mawkishness or sentimentality. This is dementia. It happens. I doubt that the judges of the major competitions will even get to read this novel. More fool them. Everything Love Is by Claire King. Remember the name.

The novel also took me towards The Camargue, its water, its heat, wild horses and flamingoes. They also appear in Susan Fletcher' latest novel, Let Me Tell You about a Man I Knew.

This stunning novel tells of the tangential relationship between Vincent Van Gogh, when he was a patient of a small asylum near Arles, and Jeanne Trabuc, the wife of the hospital's superintendent. She is warned to stay away because the patient is reputed to be dangerous but she disbobeys everyone. She is fascinated by him; by the way he paints the olive trees, the sunflowers and the stars over and over again. As in Clare King's novel, this novel depicts how long-past events in childhood and early marriage are only fully understood when evoked in later life and how with this maturity comes the true understanding of self.

It is shaping up to be a very good summer. In this post I have named the three novels I rate the best in 2016. And it's only July and half way through. Do you agree? What are your favourite reads this year so far?