Saturday, 21 May 2022

RECLAIMING LOST WORDS

A couple of weeks ago I took the ferry to the Scottish Isle of Arran, a pleasant hour’s sail from the mainland, which docked in the pretty village of Brodick. Our first stop was Brodick Castle, an impressive strategic fortress atop a hill, with wide sweeping views of the Firth of Clyde. The ancient seat has a long, bloody history, as a Norse stronghold, as a prize of Robert the Bruce, as the target of eight galleons sent by King Henry VIII who ordered an attack.

I am sailing...!

 
Brodick Castle


Inside, the castle was beautifully furnished, complete with a well-equipped Victorian kitchen that shone with polished brassware – jam pans, pots, fish kettles for steaming. 


Gleaming Victorian kitchen...


But it was the assortment of quirky collectibles in the wine cellar that got my writer’s brain whirring — a set of drinking horns disguised as a family of owls, an elaborate wine jug fashioned as walrus, a glass decanter shaped like a dodo!

The owl family...



The last Dodo!

 

As much as I enjoyed discovering the gems the castle offered, it was a walk in the gardens that I loved. Rhododendrons are my favourite flower and I’d timed it just right. Towering glossy bushes sprouted thick along well-kept trails; their pom-pom heads nodded, pearly white, sunshine lemon, party red. They were an absolute joy!




As a symbol of optimism and cheer (and we all need more of that!), the rhododendron is the national flower of Nepal, the state flower of both Washington and West Virginia in the United States, as well as the provincial flower of Jiangxi in China. 




Which got me thinking, that the rhododendron is rarely mentioned in stories or novels. Perhaps it’s just too tricky to spell? (I admit to triple-checking my ‘o’s and ‘d’s were in the right place!) Which then reminded me of The Lost Words, written by Robert Macfarlane and brilliantly illustrated by Jackie Morris, a poetry book written for children, which quickly became a bestseller with adults too.


the lost words... beloved by both children and adults

 

Macfarlane focuses on the natural world and words that are quietly slipping from children’s vocabulary, names like acorn and adder, wren and weasel. His poetry is musical, surprising; 'spells' to be read over and over again.

I was born and brought up by the coast, and enjoyed freedom to roam and play with friends in the woods and fields that surrounded us. Perhaps then it isn’t surprising that I also like to incorporate language inspired by nature in my writing.

More rhododendrons... just because!

 

So, I’ve set myself a mini goal for the coming months, to place a different ‘lost’ word, from Macfarlane’s book of poems, in each of my stories. I’ve already used fern and heron. 

Which words do you miss from childhood? And if you were to write a book of lost words, what would it contain?

Until next time!

Rae x
The Walrus



Saturday, 14 May 2022

Reading Group, Anyone?


Online book clubs have prospered in recent years. Accessibility, enthusiastic celebrity endorsement and, more recently, lockdown have increased reading and the desire to find the next book within a cosy community of like-minded people.


Unfortunately, despite the best efforts or good intentions of celebrities and "influencers" there will always be a healthy dose of scepticism from the public regarding their book recommendations. Being a celebrity/influencer is a business in itself and the world is built on networking, deals, promotion, freebies and brand awareness perhaps more than ever in history. The celebrity/influencer who has a genuine love of books and want to share it with the world is caught between a rock and a hard place by virtue of their career clashing with their passion. Who will truly believe their book recommendation when there is a suspicion that they might have been paid to promote it? However, despite having these nagging doubts we, the public, are still happy to join their online book clubs to find our next read, both parties aware of the issues yet gleefully ignoring the elephant in the room.


Reading Groups, particularly local reading groups which are linked to libraries, takes a virtual flame thrower to many of the concerns above, but I am getting ahead of myself. For those who have little to do with reading groups in the community, a reading group is a group of people who meet regularly to discuss a book they have read.  Of course, a discussion is best if it is the same book, so they are often linked to libraries. The leader of the reading group borrows the books from the library on behalf of the group, distributes them and the group meet up again in a few weeks to discuss the book (hopefully with a glass of wine, nibbles and a bit a of laughter sprinkled in).


The benefits of a reading group are:-

1) The books are varied and pushes the boundaries of your usual reading preferences (I am currently reading The Road to Wigan Pier by George Orwell, something I would never have chosen myself but it has opened my eyes to the harsh living and working conditions experienced by the mining community in the 1930s).
2) They are library books so are not being promoted or endorsed for monitory gains.
3) It provides books free of charge.
4) It's a way of making new like-minded friends.
5) It provides a conduit for all those thoughts and feelings you had about the book, yet also opens your eyes, heart and mind to all the things you had previously missed as a healthy discussion always provides another perspective - in this case as seen through another reader's eyes.
6) The meet-ups/social gathering gets you out of the house. Some may see that as a disadvantage as it is quite an enjoyable experience to surf the net looking for your next read with a mug of coffee in your hand. However, neither is exclusive to the other and is only limited by the time you have to read.

The disadvantages of a reading group:-

1) Feeling pressured to read a book by a certain date. However, most members feel this and understand. It is not uncommon for someone to give up on a book due to time constraints or lack of enjoyment. At least the reader does not feel they have wasted their money.
2) Most reading group do not focus on one genre (i.e. romance). You have to be prepared to read outside your preferred genre for most of the time. If this is not for you, then reading groups may not be either unless it is genre specific.



So do you like the idea of a reading group? Are you interested in setting one up in your local area? Why not go along to your local library and find out what is in your area? Reading does not have to be a solitary hobby. Discussing the book afterwards with a varied group of people can confirm your opinions or open your mind to a different perspective.... it can also make you think more deeply about your own beliefs, character traits and morals too!

Happy reading everyone!









Saturday, 7 May 2022

A Writing No Man's Land

 This is my first Novel Points of View blog post, so hello! And it comes at the perfect time, because at the moment I am in my favourite place in my writing cycle. One that I eloquently call my 'in-betweeny' time. A no man's land in my writing process, those few weeks/months when I have no deadlines and the sun lounger and my to-be-read pile beckons. If only I could indulge, but there is still work to be done!

My latest book is now away having those final tweaks and edits done and so it's time to be thinking about what I'm going to write next, and this is without doubt my favourite part of the process. It feels as though there are a million possibilities. I know which era I'm going to write in (I think!) but everything else is undecided.

At this point, I may not have any firm ideas, but I do have my 'little black book'. Which is in actual fact a little yellow book, and it contains a physical list of potential book ideas - I don't quite trust technology enough so although I have a list on my computer I like to copy them so I also have a hard version. These ideas usually come as lightbulb moments that strike me when I am driving with no chance of writing them down (when I have to find a parking spot before they drift out of my head, lost forever) or in the middle of the night when I scribble on a piece of paper and subsequently cannot decipher it the following morning!

Sometimes when I go through the list I realise that what I had once considered to be genius inspiration isn't robust enough or there is some other reason why it won't work and those ideas are jettisoned from the yellow book, but with the ones that may have potential I start the most exciting part of my writing life. Because while I'm quietly plotting and planning I'm also, by necessity, having to do a lot of research and that is without doubt my favourite way to spend my time. Every true event I uncover, every historical character or wonderful old house or ruins I visit leads me further down a rabbit hole of investigation and although often what I discover doesn't get used, everything is so fascinating I can lose whole days - sometimes more! - learning about people who lived more than five hundred years ago. The lives they lived, the people they loved and the dangers they faced.

Because of my love of history, I've always enjoyed reading historical fiction that includes real events and individuals so quite naturally these are the books I want to write. And that's why I like to consider myself a detective (I quite fancy being Sherlock Holmes, the cool Benedict Cumberbatch version!) searching out that story hiding in the background, looking for those real people who were living their lives which were just as interesting, fascinating and as full of love, violence and intrigue as ours are today.

Although I love to just dive in and start reading and investigating, I do however at least try and have some sort of proper process. Otherwise I use the time as a long enjoyable reading holiday and when it comes to the day when I have to produce a book pitch or synopsis I have nothing to show for my research. Often the initial idea blossoms into something else, but I still plot everything out on good old-fashioned paper (actually I have a tablet on which I can write and then convert it to text, but that may need to be the subject of another blog), but that's further down the line from my in-betweeny time.

Because I write dual timeline I'm not only thinking about my historical story, I also need to be thinking about a present day one to weave through, and although that's still lurking at the back of my mind (hooray for lightbulb moments!) it's definitely the historical research that I love - so many stories to uncover.

So that is how I spend this very special in-betweeny time; no deadlines on the horizon, a whole world of story possibilities spinning around in my head and a pile of research books waiting. Perfect! Now, where's my sun lounger...



Saturday, 30 April 2022

Increasing My Productivity - The Timer Method


I would like to talk about productivity today. Or rather – my lack of it recently. I’m not sure if it’s because I’m approaching a certain age, the pandemic has screwed with my mind and motivation, or I’m at that stage of writing a book where everything is hard work. Who knows? But I am finding it much more difficult of late to focus on my writing and editing. I’m easily distracted, I lose the thread of what I’m doing and my output has declined. But with deadlines looming, something had to change...



So last week, I trialled something that I had actually investigated a long time ago but forgotten about – timed bursts. I set the timer on my phone for 25 minutes (although I have read the maximum concentration span for most adults is 20 minutes but this gives me fiddling time). When the alarm goes off – I STOP. I get up from my desk and do something else. Doesn’t matter what; make a coffee, hang out washing, eat cake, whatever. The break can be five minutes or fifty and the unexpected upside is that, because I have to find something to do in that break time, I’m seeking out smaller jobs that I’ve been letting pile up; pairing socks, weeding a border, tidying out a cupboard… Then I return to my desk, set the timer, and I’m off again.


The dreaded ODD SOCK BASKET...

I know that it’s important to take breaks from being in front of the laptop for various reasons. Firstly, sitting in a chair for a long period of time is not good for you physically. An ergonomic set-up is essential for your back, neck, wrists, etc. I know my eyeline should be level with the top of the screen, my forearms should be horizontal, and I have an ergonomic mouse that means my wrist is resting in a natural position. This is something I addressed when I got published and noticed early sign of of RSI and back issues. (Although, I do still grab the laptop and write slumped on the sofa from time to time, and even occasionally propped up in bed…)


Eye strain is another issue, and it’s important to focus on long-distance objects every 20-25 minutes, to give your eyes a rest from close work. So the timer method means I move away from the screen and do exactly this. Plus, it’s good for the soul to stare across the open fields from time to time. Working in bursts also battles the social media time suck, because I resit the temptation to look at my phone during my timed session, knowing I can so when the alarm goes off.


I even put the timer on when I'm working outside

There is a brain strain side to sitting at a computer for too long and this is where my lack of concentration comes in. I need to give my brain more rests. The problem is, I find it hard to step away from a scene or a chapter, and persuade myself to keep going, and then produce 50 words in the following hour. Yet I would have been more productive walking away, refreshing, and returning replenished. I may only do another 25 minutes of work, but if I write 300 words in that time, it’s time well spent.


There is also a work/life balance which is hard to achieve when you are largely self employed in any capacity. I do have part time jobs that take me from the house (thank goodness) but much of my time is spent writing. This means I continually feel guilty when I’m not at my desk, so piles of washing get stepped over, cups stack up next to the sink, and you could write a whole novel in the dust – never mind your name.



But guess what, folks? My timer method is working. (And so am I!) Not only has it solved the issue of too much time at the screen, but it has also made me leave the desk and move my butt. I have even worked a smidge of exercise into these breaks, with a 7 minute workout app that I try to do once a day. (We can all spare 7 minutes – right?) And last week, with a copy edit deadline, I found I was getting through more pages and focusing much better when I gave myself frequent breaks.


So if you are struggling with concentration and output, give it a try. Don’t just tell yourself you’ll stop frequently, because you won’t. SET A TIMER and stick to it. It’s a really simple change to my writing routine, and I’m determined to continue with it – because the biggest bonus of all is my tidier house and nicely paired socks!


Jenni x


The Secrets of Hawthorn Place is available in paperback, eBook and audiobook:

smarturl.it/SHPJK

The Legacy of Halesham Hall is out 15th September. Cover reveal coming soon!


Find me on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Tiktok under JenniKeer

Sunday, 24 April 2022

How to Herd Cats (Or Attempts to Organise My Life)


Five kittens looking like they are all about to run away in five different directions

I often feel that my life is a chaotic mess. I rarely get one activity finished, before another one pulls my attention away from it and I end up with a very long to-do list that I can’t actually tick any items off because, although I have accomplished many tasks, I haven’t actually completed any of them in full. After messaging Rae the other day and finding she was having similar issues, and, working on the principle that sometimes we understand a process better when we try to teach it to others, I decided to share my current attempts at organising my writing life with you.

A messy bundle of colourful electrical wires
Getting organised feels to me like I’m trying to herd cats — there are lots of things independently wandering about and none of them ever stays where they are put. Most of my ‘cats’ are justifiable activities: I have a novel to finish editing, another one to write, regular short stories with deadlines to submit, a teaching job, housework, an elderly father in a care home, two children at home, a third child living ‘independently,’ and a husband who spends much of the year at sea — where he gets to focus on his job with no other distractions… Hmm.


The list goes on, as I’m sure it does for all of us. And while I am the sort of person who can easily leave the housework undone with few regrets, I also see other people managing to accomplish more than I do despite having just as many cats (if not more) in need of herding.

Cover of the book The Organised Writer by Anthony Johnston
Earlier this year, I bought a book called The Organised Writer by Anthony Johnston and read it cover to cover. Anyone familiar with my reading habits (apologies to Carol MacLean for reading Jeannie’s War entirely out of order) knows that this is, in itself, a rarity. While it contained many helpful suggestions, and I would recommend it, I’m well aware that my brain simply doesn’t function the way Johnston’s brain does and while I’m currently working on untangling the mess that constitutes my thought patterns until I do, I will have to compromise with some of his guidance. 

So, what I am doing? Well, I have developed a four-pronged approach. I thought of a rather sweary title for it but then decided to call it the Fork Handles Approach. This will hopefully light my way to a more organised writing life. (Note: this joke doesn’t work as well in written form.)

Four lit candles in diagonal line
Cover of To Do list. Gold on pink background saying I am very busy.

The Fork Handles Approach

The To Do List: Write every task that needs done on this. Every task. (And yes, I have been known to write a task I’ve already completed down just so that I can tick something off — but I think this is okay — the more ticks I see, the more likely I am to believe finishing things is possible.)

Front cover of academic year diary in pink/purple swirl pattern saying Monday Mojo
The Week to View Diary: Every item on the To Do list then needs to find a place in the Diary. This sits beside me at all times so that I can regularly check what I’m supposed to be doing. I then force myself to do that thing first. Before I do any thing else. (This may sound obvious but believe me, it is the most difficult stage in the process for me!) I then get the satisfaction of ticking it off, both on my To Do list and in my Diary, thereby making me feel twice as productive! 

Cover of project planner showing multiple post it notes attached to a wall in bright coloursThe Project Planner: While the To Do list/Diary combo works for most things, there were some troublesome items on my to do list, that just never seemed to leave — those bigger items that take more time, or that are actually the result of a series/combination of tasks. In order to deal with those I’ve started to use a Project Planner. I couldn’t find one that did exactly what I wanted it to do, so I used what I’ve learned from Canva and KDP and designed my own. (Some of you may recognise this as a procrastination technique, but it was fun and necessary and that’s the story I am sticking to!) I have actually sold a few copies of this and the new author name I picked for this project makes me smile. (This is also a bit sweary, so don’t click on the link in the comments if you’re easily offended.) Each bigger project gets its own page and can then be further broken down into smaller pieces. What I call Tiny Achievable Targets. I then still feel like I’ve accomplished something when I tick one of those off!

Picture of magnetic wipe clean habit tracker with orange pen. Lines for Words, exercise, tidying and studying filled in with varying degrees of success.
The Habit Tracker: I use this for all the never-ending items on my To Do list. Things like learn ten new vocabulary words every day, or exercise daily, or even — dare I say it — housework. How do you ever manage to tick those items off a To Do list successfully? I now have a wipe clean Habit Tracker right in front of me as I’m working each day. (I’m clearly still a work in progress when it comes to developing habits, but I am definitely improving.) 

Between all of these, I appear to be making some progress (my editor, if she’s reading this, will be rolling her eyes!) On the positive side, however, I have submitted competition entries more regularly this year, my writing is more consistent, and one day… someday… hopefully soon, I will finish The Viking's Princess Bride and publish it! 

Now, to learn how to focus on one writing project at a time. Wish me luck!

The Organised Writer

My Project Planner

Jeannie’s War

Saturday, 16 April 2022

When it's time for Time Out

Writers find it difficult to switch off from their latest novel sometimes. They are either thinking up new stories, thinking about how to write them, thinking about their first/second/ gazillion(th) draft, thinking about edits, thinking about manuscript submissions, thinking about their failings, thinking about their successes, thinking about promotion, thinking about the next story.... well you get the picture. So it is always a good idea to cleanse the brain and do something completely different.

I joined InTune Choir just before lockdown and, despite covid restrictions, I am still a member! Research shows that singing can relieve stress, boost the immune system and may improve snoring and lung function. It is also believed to improve memory, mental health and develop social connection. All these benefits help make it the perfect hobby to not think about writing. The video below is the InTune Choir at the Minack Theatre in 2016. I am delighted to say that we will be appearing at the Minack Theatre again on 7th May, 2022. Money raised will go to the Cornwall Air Ambulance.


So let's see what hobbies or guilty pleasures other writers have to take their minds off story telling. First up is award winning short story and flash fiction writer, Rae Cowie.

"Remember when most folks bought an actual daily newspaper, with pages that rustle? Then 24-hour rolling news stations popped up and articles became available for free online – and newspaper sales slumped. But, for me, nothing beats sitting with a cup of tea, flicking through the daily news.

Here in north-east Scotland, we have the Press and Journal (also known as the P & J), which is full of local and human-interest stories, perfect when I’m stuck for inspiration. I rip out articles and headlines that grab my attention and stick them in a ring binder, waiting for the day when I’ll riffle through them and invariably notice themes – protection of wildcats, plastic in the ocean, foodie stories etc.

But I’m not the only fan of the P & J, it is also enjoyed by royalty, delivered to Balmoral Castle when the Queen arrives for her summer break."

Press and Journal logo

Mairibeth MacMillan, author of the Brothers of Thunder, an historical Viking romance series, prefers her 'time out' to be outdoors.

"During the last few years, I’ve taken up wild-swimming. Now that I have the basic gear, it’s essentially free as I live near a sea-loch and can simply wander down to the beach. The water is baltic (as we say here on the west coast of Scotland), I rarely swim unless covered neck-to-toe in black neoprene and the sun rarely shines, but swimming outdoors with no restrictions is both a physical and spiritual experience. For a while, all my cares and worries wash away and I feel that if I could just swim far enough, I’d reach another world!

Mairibeth at her local sea-loch

Jenni Keer, who has several successful commercial fiction novels under her belt, prefers to burn extra calories with friends to music.

"I’ve been attending a dance class for the last twelve years, which not only combats the writer’s bottom but is also is an invaluable headspace for me. (Sometimes it’s hard to switch off from your WIP when you’re an author.) We have a gold level formation disco team and I’ve achieved bronze in my freestyle solo. The ladies I dance with are some of my closest friends and biggest supporters."

Our dance class was  a guest Morris dancer!
Our dance class was 
recently visited by a Morris dancer!

John Jackson
, author of historical romances based on his ancestors, prefers indulging in something that embraces all the senses.

"For me, its food! That includes, of course, the activities that go WITH food; i.e. cooking, eating and drinking!

I do almost all the cooking at home now, and I cook a lot of food from all over Asia. Friday night is Thali night in our house. The objects on the thali could be anywhere from the Pacific through South East Asia to the Indian subcontinent and beyond. So many recipes, so little time!

Or, as Lionel Bart put it in Oliver! “Food, Glorious Food! There’s nothing quite like it!”"


It's been great fun learning about how my writing friends take their minds off writing. I hope it inspires you to take some time out to recharge your batteries and 'cleanse the mind'!  If you already have a method, do let us know in the comments, we would love to hear about it!






Sunday, 10 April 2022

Murder Your Darlings Dreckly!

As writers, we all know the agony of editing and erasing some of your favourite prose.



The phrase "Murder your darlings!" was coined by Sir Arthur Quiller Couch (“Q”), compiler of the Oxford Book of English Verse and a host of novels about his native Cornwall.




  A quick check on Wikipedia gives a list of 45 books associated with Cornwall. Lots of familiar names, too.



The list is dominated by Winston Graham, and the Poldark series, (the man solely responsible for the recent surge of interest in scything!) and by Daphne du Maurier, surely the doyen of Cornish authors. There are many others though. Enid Blyton set her “Mallory Towers” series of school novels in Cornwall.

Back in Victorian times, RM Ballantyne gave us “Deep Down! A tale of the Cornish mines.” A very readable story and the result of three months he spent at the Botallack in St Just. Coincidently, and a nice example of "what goes around, comes around," Deep Down is the title of a recent Jack Reacher story.




Rosamunde Pilcher hit a literary gold mine with The Shell Seekers; Victoria Holt, Mary Wesley and Susan Howatch too have fallen under the “Kernow Spell”

So why? What is it that brings these amazing authors to write of Cornwall?

For me, it’s the atmosphere. I find that the land and sea, the mines and manor houses, cast a spell. Its as if a parallel world exists when you cross the Tamar.


Many modern authors have set their stories there and use the land or its history as a foundation for their stories, including Victoria Cornwall, one of the Novel Point of View bloggers. I read her first novel – The Thief’s Daughter and loved it. An excellent historical romance adventure, and packed with bona fide detail! .





This is a county where history and legend can be found around every corner, and in every glade in the woods and every cove and bay along the coast. It’s a coast that has seen every phase of history from Phoenician traders coming for tin to make bronze, through raids by African pirates seeking slaves, the mining of tin, copper, arsenic and china clay, the rise and fall of a massive coastal fishing industry based on pilchards, flowers, farms and American soldiers and sailors for the invasion of France in WWII, and now a massive and growing tourist industry.


Some authors make the county their own. Liz Fenwick, American by birth, is now, according to the Guardian, “An award-winning author of eight novels, dubbed 'the queen of the contemporary Cornish novel' “ Her latest novel, The River Between Us, has just been awarded the Popular Romantic Fiction Award by the Romantic Novelists Association..

And so to come right up to date with the myriad of modern authors, across all genres and tropes who succumb to the mystic charms of this multifaceted corner of the country. Check out Melanie Hudson, Jane Johnson, Phillipa Ashley, Mandy James, Kate Ryder, Kitty Wilson! They and others ALL weave their tales using Cornwall’s magic to set their scenes, and very well done, too.

“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley Cornwall again,” and we are off there on holiday in a couple of weeks!