Saturday, 6 February 2016

The PINK SOFA meets Jo Carroll


There are some people in this world to whom the word 'special' seems to adhere like sticky bits of sellotape to the edges of kitchen tables. Jo is one of these people. Traveller, raconteur, writer, supporter and friend of others, she sets off on her own to see amazing and far-flung bits of the world and then shares her experiences with the rest of us. Recently, Jo has become a drum-beater for the plight of people in Nepal, and together with one of her good friends out there, has been fund-raising to build houses for those stricken by last year's earthquakes.

''I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t fascinated by the idea of Nepal – I first climbed Snowdon when I was eight, and I’ve been enthralled by mountains ever since. And Nepal has magnificent mountains!

When I was struggling with a PhD, I decided that if I ever finished the wretched thing, I’d go to Nepal. My first visit was in 2002, with a tour group – and that’s when I first met Tika. So when I gave up work to buy a rucksack and go round the world, it made sense to contact him and ask him to travel with me for a few weeks while I got the hang on independent travel in South Asia. We had five weeks together, travelling from the mayhem of Kathmandu to the mayhem of New Delhi, via mountains and temples (and a man with a gun in Lucknow). He began as my guide, but after all that we were close friends.

So back I went, a few years ago, and he arranged for me to visit more remote parts of Nepal, collapsing with laughter at my encounters with cyclones and tigers, and somehow keeping me safe in spite of it all.

I was appalled by the earthquake. I had so many friends in the country by then, and the thought of them surviving the monsoon in tents was almost too difficult to think about. Even so, I was reluctant to visit too soon. They had enough to do without looking after me. But Tika was there, at the end of countless emails, insisting that they wanted to see me.

How right he was. We’ve all seen photographs of the trauma of the earthquake. But few journalists have returned to record the rebuilding. Yet in a country with an economy that is dependent on tourism the lack of visitors has been as devastating as any earthquake damage. The hotels, the restaurants, the mountains, the Nepali welcome – they are all still there. But without tourists those working in the industry are suffering.

As I write this, the situation is made even more difficult by India’s blockade of Nepal’s southern border. It’s a complicated story, but seems to be India having a hissy fit that Nepal has dared to initiate a new constitution without consulting her big sister. It is also contrary to international law as Nepal is a landlocked country and all her imports need to pass through India. It means that there are shortages of fuel, cooking gas, and some foodstuffs.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if, by the time you read this, the blockade is over!!

Jo's book can be bought here
I’ve written a book about this last trip: After the Earthquake. I wrote it partly because I wanted to remind everyone what a wonderful place Nepal is, with its mountains and rivers and crocodiles (oh yes, there was a crocodile …). Partly because I met some extraordinary people: Bishwo and his plans for self-sufficiency in the mountains, Ajay and his wonderful food, the kindness of Tika and Shobha in spite of all their hardships. Partly because the crocodile made such a good story …

And partly to raise money to rebuild just one of the many homes that has fallen down. It’s easy to be overwhelmed in Nepal, and end up doing nothing. But it is possible to rebuild one house – to give one family a secure place to live. Every penny of profit from this book goes to them. Maybe one day it will be in print, but for now it’s an ebook – it’s short and so uneconomic to print.''

Find out all about Jo's travels here: http://www.jocarroll.co.uk/ 

Or there’s always Twitter: @jomcarroll

And if Jo's story has inspired YOU to help rebuild the house in Nepal, here's the link for donations: https://www.gofundme.com/ny6mbny4

Monday, 1 February 2016

Bribery & Corruption (Adventures of L-Plate Gran)


Little G has a new hobby: drawing on walls. She started doing it while visiting New York and personally, I blame MOMA for giving her the idea. Be that as it may, You must be mad is not happy, given that Little G is not Banksy, and she always manages to chose a colour that doesn't go with the rest of the room.

At the moment, she is being actively discouraged, though in the future, should she become a famous artist, we might all look back and wish we'd saved her juvenilia for posterity. Which brings me in a total non sequitur to the tricky subject of bribery, or as my friend Sheila, minder of Slightly Older Grandchild calls it: rewards.

Sheila uses rewards copiously because as she rightly points out, we are not here to waste our time arguing and negotiating and dealing with strops - that's the parental job. We have been down that path and now, in our old age, we are here for fun. Her rewards consist of packets of raisins or small apples - a cunning choice as they take a long time to eat.

I also use these, coupled with small packets of cheese biscuits and the odd chocolate penny to smooth our path through the day. It works well, though Little G is very canny about rewards and reminds me if one has been promised. With each reminder, the reward increases incrementally in size and importance.

Thus a casual mention in passing last week that some ice-cream might be forthcoming if all her lunch was eaten, rapidly developed from 'some ice cream' to 'I like ice cream' to 'I have ice cream for pudding' to 'it's ice cream day at Grandma's house tomorrow!'

In the end and as promised, she did indeed have some ice cream. And then complained that it was too cold to eat which sadly is a prime example of the triumph of experience over hope, and something one is never too young, nor too old, to learn.


To be continued ... ....







Saturday, 30 January 2016

9 REALLY Useful Writing Tips


1. If possible, write on something that is NOT connected to the internet. That way you aren't tempted to check Facebook/Twitter every 5 minutes.

2. If you are writing on an internet-free laptop, make sure it isn't in the same room as the internet connected one (see 1).

3. If you can't accomplish 1 and 2 for physical/financial reasons, try to allocate yourself specific times of the day to Tweet/update your Facebook. Do not weaken.

4. Unless specific, dickering about on Google is not research.

5. Checking your Amazon rating and sales figures every two days is liable to lead to suicidal feelings.

6. Reading the 'I wrote a whole novel today - go me!' claims of other writers on Facebook
ditto.

7. There is no such thing as 'Writer's Block', it is just a posh excuse for not writing.

8. The only way to write a book is to write a book.

9. If you are not constantly awash with doubt/fear/insecurity/self-loathing/envy/anxiety/panic, you probably aren't a writer.

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Just Answer the Question! (Adventures of L-Plate Gran)


Little G and You must be mad are just back from New York, where they have been visiting family for a week. I have asked her what she got up to, but all Little G will tell me is 'Dumbo', which was the movie she watched on the return plane journey.

I know she had a good time, because You must be mad told me. Central Park's playgrounds were visited. The petting zoo was an out and out hit. Apparently as they left, Little G said 'Bye-bye new toys' which was very sweet. But can I get anything out of her? Nope.

It's the same with nursery. She spends two days there, but all she will divulge is that she had 'toast.' Nearly one year of eating toast has happened. I still haven't a clue what else she does. I'd worry about her mental processing, except that if asked, she can reel off exactly what she and I did last week: Blue bus > baby rhyme time > grandma's house >kitten > biscuits > pink slide > pets. OK, it is a tad verb deficient but as a basic summary, it's pretty accurate.

Little G would make a very good secret agent. Her feigned selective memory is impressive. She can recall a goldfish we saw at Vets for Pets three weeks ago. Ask her about the location of her gloves though and she morphs into vaguely non-plussed mode. And stays there until you give up and go and find them for her. And if the mark of a good politician is the ability to avoid ever giving a straight answer, then Little G could run the country. Based on her current evasive skill set she probably will be. Possibly a lot sooner than you think.



To be continued ...   ....






Saturday, 23 January 2016

Strong People Weep,But They Don't Go Under


'Stories begin with once upon a time.' 

This is the opening sentence of Jigsaw Pieces my YA ebook. It is written in the voice of 18 year old Annie Skjaerstad. She continues: 'Once upon a time when I was 16 years old, somebody I knew died and changed my life forever'.

Jigsaw Pieces traces two pivotal experiences in Annie's life: the suicide of a classmate and her chance meeting with World War 1 veteran Billy Donne. Annie lives in the UK, but was born in Norway. Her father left when she was very young and she never sees him. She is a loner in a strange land who doesn't fit in, says the wrong thing, and is generally disliked and misunderstood by her fellow students. Yet as the story unfolds the reader begins to understand where Annie is coming from. How she has had to develop a strong carapace to survive, and I hope they also begin to see another, softer, more empathetic side to her prickly character.

Where did Annie spring from? Looking back at my own life, I am struck by how many similarities we share. I too was an outsider, growing up in the 1960's as the only Jewish girl in a school of 600 christian ones. My parents were refugees from Hitler's Germany. Like Annie I tried to fit in, but never really did. And then there was the inevitable racism and bullying. I underwent many bad life-events as I matured into an adult, but I firmly believe these were what eventually turned me into what I am today: a writer.

So out of our negative experiences we emerge, Annie and I, strong women, our characters forged in the fires of what we have endured. As Annie says: 'I like the idea of being strong. I've grown up with the concept. It's in my bones and my blood. Strong people survive. They weep, but they don't go under. That's how I am.'

Blurb:
‘He had been part of my everyday life. I hadn’t liked him much, nobody had liked him much, but he’d been there. Now, I’d never see him again.’

Annie Skjaerstad had been searching for her identity since being uprooted from her native country of Norway. With a spiky personality winning her no friends, and family members suddenly torn out of her life, she is left seeking comfort from a growing intrigue into the stories of fallen war heroes.

But one day, a boy from her school unexpectedly commits suicide, changing things forever. Confused by the tragic tale of someone she knew, Annie soon finds herself conducting her own investigation into his death.

What she uncovers will bring her to a dark and dangerous place, as suddenly – her own life is put at risk.



Serial Killer


As you probably all know, Diamonds & Dust, which was rejected out of hand by my former agent as ''not remotely publishable'' and subsequently went on not only to be published, but to be up for the CWA Historical Dagger, the Walter Scott Prize, the Folio Society Prize, and score 73+ reviews on Amazon, is now developing offspring.

It wasn't meant to. Seriously. I didn't envisage trotting out the two Victorian detectives Stride and Cully again. But like lily pond paintings by Monet and Haydn String Quartets, once started, it seemed logical to keep going.

Thus the sequel, Honour & Obey, which was published November 2014, and Death & Dominion which came out last October. Murder & Mayhem will be the fourth outing for Stride & Cully and should appear this Autumn. I am currently putting a cautious toe in the waters of a fifth book.

There are those writers who regard a series as a bit of a ''cop-out''; after all, you've got your characters already written for you. To them I would say: writing a series is MUCH harder than producing a one-off text. And I know what I'm talking about: this is my second series of books. (The Spy Girl series for Usborne was the first)

The main problem is that unless you started with the idea of writing a series, and few authors do, they just tend to evolve, you are stuck with whatever you wrote in the first one. You cannot radically alter the appearance nor personality of the main character/s without readers going ''What the ...?'' After all, it was how they were in book one that will keep them reading books 2, 3, 4, 5 etc. You can and must develop the main characters, but in essence, they have to bear some resemblance to how they were in the beginning.

Then there is the problem of keeping the plot momentum going. I find book 2 is usually the easiest, as it seems to evolve naturally out of the first one. Book 3, however, is far more problematic. New areas have to be introduced to keep the reader interested. Some fundamental shifting of perspective must take place, or else book 3 becomes merely a watered down version of the previous two. Actually, book 3 is usually the pivotal one upon which the rest of the series rests. If you cannot pull it off successfully, it is best to admit defeat and pretend you only meant to write two in the first place.

By book 4, the pitfall is over-confidence. You have run the gauntlet of three books. You feel the surge of expertise as fingers hit keyboard. This, after the previous three, will be a doddle to write. You have your characters, you know how the story arc works. Sometimes this attitude pays off: I still think Dead Man Talking, the fourth Spy Girl book, is the best plotted. However, beware: book 4 can so easily wander off into alien territory, or become a repetition of book 3 with added lacklustre.

I have never got further than book 5 (and Usborne turned it down) so I cannot speak from experience, but I can say from avidly reading crime series, that some writers manage to sustain plot, characters and reader interest beyond book 5, but many more don't and the result is a series of  flat readalike stories with little variety at best, or downright daftness at worst (Bounty hunter Stephanie Plum's hamster has survived longer than any hamster should or ought)

The trouble with series is that publishers LOVE them. They are easy to market, and each book sells on the back of the previous ones. Thus the temptation to go on churning them out year after year, when by rights the whole thing should have been allowed to quietly slink off and hide in a dark corner after the fifth one.

I have been told though, that the ''real money'' comes from a 5 book series, which means most other writers will have been told this too. I can't see myself getting as far as finishing a fifth book right now. Mind, I never thought I'd get as far as a third or fourth. My former agent didn't see any mileage in the first ...

So what's your experience:
Do you prefer a series? Or a one off novel. If you are a writer, have you ever tackled a series, or does the prospect fill you with horror? Do share your thoughts....

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Library Louts!


I first posted this blog a couple of years ago because I was so angry at the closures of public libraries, in particular several branch libraries in the London Borough of Brent, where I started my career. Now that this vile government has cut local government grant cuts to the bone and beyond, leading to more closures, I am still angry.

My first encounter with books was via the local library in Welwyn Garden City, my home town. Dumped in the children's library, age 4, I selected a book from the box (in those days all picture books had the same plain library covers). I opened it up and there was Orlando, the Marmalade Cat, his Dear Wife Grace and their three kittens, Pansy, Blanche and mischievous Tinkle.

Apart from starting my well known love of cats, it also started me on the path to reading, which led me, in time, to become a writer. My parents did not consider buying books for young children as a necessity, as many parents for a variety of reasons, still don't. Without the books I borrowed each week, my life would have been impoverished.

As I said at the outset, I started off my library career in the 1970's working for Brent Libraries, and knew all the six libraries that have been shut very well. Many served poor, ethnically diverse communities and were used by people who could not afford to buy books for themselves, or for their children. The staff were treated with the utmost respect by locals, who valued what we offered and what we represented. I vividly recall being beckoned to the front of a long queue in the local Caribbean greengrocer - the owner succinctly informing the rest of the line that: 'this is the Liberian lady - she got to get back to work!'

Here in Hertfordshire, our libraries have recently been 're-structured to meet the needs of the modern user'. As far as I can see, this means they shut at odd times, just when you want to borrow a pile of books, and far too much space is now given over to desks of computers, at which people sit and dicker all day. Mainly playing mindless games. Books? Nah, don't need them. Got to move with the times. Books are relegated to fewer and fewer shelves.

I find it hard to put into words how upset I was at the disclosure that Kensal Rise library had all its books carted off in the middle of the night by Brent Council workers. The furtive and underhand way in which this wicked deed - sorry, I find no other words to express it - took place, resonates with all those other occasions in the past when the banning, or burning of books has marked a civilization in crisis, or steep decline.

The playwright and novelist Michael Frayn has commented of the closure of Brent's Kensal Rise library: ''They took the books out and the plaque down? So the library is now an unlibrary, in the way that people became unpersons in the darkest days of the Soviet Union. I hope they took the titles of the books off as well. Removing unbooks from an unlibrary - who could possibly object?''

I do.

Monday, 18 January 2016

Getting to 'NO' you (Adventures of L-Plate Gran)


There is a reason why it is called 'The Terrible Twos' - and it has absolutely nothing to do with clever alliteration. Child specialists and experts may drone on about 'infant separation' or the 'need for establishing the self'. The rest of us put it down to just plain cussedness!

Little G is already a fully paid up member of the club. Take, for example, the small toy dog. Every time we go out, the small toy dog comes with us. It has to walk along walls, and jump on and off steps along the way. It has to do this to the accompaniment of 'woof-woof.......woof-woof'.

Sometimes, the dog has to go back and repeat the process. I don't know why and I can't get a logical explanation out of either of them. There is also the stairgate thing. The stairgate has to be closed behind us when Little G and I go upstairs. If it is left open, we must return to the bottom of the stairs and begin our journey again.

It's like Snakes and Ladders meets Pilgrim's Progress but without any allegory. Or dice. Then there is the dancing. Dancing takes place in the kitchen. Only in the kitchen. And nowhere else. Ever. I'm hoping she'll grow out of this by the time she's sixteen or her social life could be rather limited.

Meanwhile we muddle along together in a baffling world of ever-changing but terribly important rules which one of us, (me) continually fails to get right, and the other one, (her) persistently fails to provide a logical explanation for. Bit like life, really ...


To be continued...    ....

Friday, 15 January 2016

2016: A New Adventure Begins


Last year was a momentous one for this vintage writer. It saw the launch of The Adventures of L-Plate Gran, a blog based on the two days a week that I mind my granddaughter. It also marked the publication of the third Victorian Crime book, Death & Dominion.

However some time towards the end of December, a crossroads was reached. Two paths lay ahead of me and I had to make a choice which one to follow. I made that choice and thus, from 2016, all my adult novels will be published under my own imprint: Little G Books. They will be available in ebook and book format, initially via Amazon. I'll try to master Barnes & Noble & Kobo eventually, give me time.

The covers have been re-done by David Baird, my graphic designer friend. The colours all come from an original Victorian paint company catalogue, giving them an even greater authenticity. This is the cover for Diamonds & Dust:

 Here's the new cover for Honour & Obey:

And here's the slightly different coloured cover for the most recent book: Death & Dominion:

I'd also like to thank my fellow writer and friend Andrew French (@AFrenchAuthor) and his lovely wife Alison (@Crafts_ByDesign), formatter extraordinaire, for helping me with all the complexities of diving back into self-publishing once again. I've still got some bits and pieces to sort behind the scenes, but it's 99.9% there... and I'm really looking forward to sharing the next book, Murder & Mayhem with all of you later this year.

So let the adventure start!

Thursday, 14 January 2016

'Sensationally' Yours ...an Old Genre has a New Outing


As some of you already know, I write Victorian Crime Fiction, featuring two members of the detective division of the London Metropolitan Police, DI Leo Stride and DS Jack Cully. Their latest adventure is being marketed as a Murder Mystery but you, canny person that you are, may notice that it actually says: A Victorian Sensation Novel' on the cover.

What?

The Sensation Novel was a particular genre of fiction, dating from 1860 -1880. The Victorian Web defines it thus: The Sensation Novel features a beautiful, clever young woman who, like Magdalen Vanstone in Collins's No Name (1862), is adept at disguise and deception —such women are doubly dangerous and generate social instability because they possess and threaten to use secret knowledge.

Other strategies employed by Sensation authors include the exposure of hypocrisy in polite society, intentional and unintentional bigamy, adultery, hidden illegitimacy, extreme emotionalism, melodramatic dialogue and plotting, and the brilliant but eccentric villain with gentlemanly pretensions. Reginald C. Terry in Victorian Popular Fiction, 1860-80 employs the term "detailism" to describe yet another aspect of the Sensation Novel, its rigorous realism that catered to a contemporary "taste for the factual" in its descriptions and settings, a feature that novelists such as Collins skillfully blended with the exciting "ingredients of suspense, melodrama and extremes of behaviour".

In addition, Terry notes how the plots of such novels often utilized "the apparatus of ruined heiresses, impossible wills, damning letters, skeletons in cupboards, [and] misappropriated legacies". P. D. Edwards adds yet further "ingredients" to the Sensation formula: "arson, blackmail, madness, and persecuted innocence (usually young and female), acted out in the most ordinary and respectable social settings and narrated with ostentatious care for factual accuracy and fulness of circumstantial detail" . To all of these features we should add the realistic and sympathetic investigation of individual psychology and an exploration of the female psyche.''

I loved the idea of trying to write a Sensation Novel, albeit slightly pared down for modern taste, but as the book features Detectives Stride & Cully, who also appear in the first two books, it is easier to shuffle the book into the previous genre (especially as Amazon, Barnes & Noble don't have a category for Sensation Novels)

Anyway now you know what to expect from the book, here is a little taster from the opening:

'' London, 1862. It has been a cold summer – the coldest on record, they say, and the autumn nights have come early and bitten hard. Wind batters the city, rattling the windows and inn-signs, whipping up the Thames into white-capped rage.

Wind whirls rooks into the sky like cinders. Wind prowls across narrow quadrangles and round unsuspecting corners, blowing dead leaves into nooks and stairwells. In weather like this, right-thinking people wrap up warm and stay indoors in front of the fire.

Not all of them though. Look more closely.

A tall man is making his way towards King’s Cross station, his shoulders squared, tilting forward as he walks. He is darkly handsome, the sort of man who causes women’s heads to turn when he enters the room. He knows this. His name is Mark Hawksley (though not all of the time).

As he reaches the entrance, a gust suddenly rocks him on his heels forcing him to make a half-step backwards. He takes a deep breath, the wind pummelling his face, the richness of the oxygen making him feel temporarily light-headed.

Steadying himself, the man enters the shadowy arch of the station and heads for a specific platform where a train is expected to arrive at any minute. In the station air he can hear it coming, the sudden frantic chugging of a locomotive, a series of clanks as it passes over the final set of points, then a long exhalation of steam as it pulls alongside the platform and comes to a halt by the buffers.

Instantly all is bustle and bedlam. Dogs bark, porters shout, and trolleys are hurriedly trundled towards the baggage carriage at the back.

Two respectably-dressed men alight from the front carriage of the train, turning to help down a small female figure, heavily-veiled and clad in deepest black. They escort her along the platform, steering her carefully through the milling throng of passengers, the meeters and greeters, the mounds of luggage, and the cabbies touting for fares.

Reaching the barrier, they hand over three tickets and are allowed through and onto the forecourt. They glance around apprehensively, their faces clearing as Mark Hawksley steps forward into the light, lifting his top hat in a smooth elegant gesture.

“So here you all are at last,” he says.
“Here we all are. Just as we telegraphed you,” one of the men replies.
Hawksley gestures towards the heavily-veiled woman.
“May I?” he asks.
“Be our guest,” the other man nods.

He lifts the thick veil, then steps quickly back, uttering a gasp of surprise.
“Amazing,” he breathes. “She is exactly as you described her in your letter. You might almost believe … But come, we need to get our guest to a place of safety before she is recognised.”

Mark Hawksley steers the little party to where a line of cabs are patiently waiting. He signals to one driver, gives him careful instructions, then bundles the group into the rear of the cab. He closes the door. The driver whips up the horse. As the cab rattles away into the night, Hawksley’s handsome, chiselled features break into a wide smile.

“Oh yes,” he murmurs. “You will do nicely. Very nicely indeed.”