Sunday, 24 August 2014


When I began writing novels I expected, as all novelists do, that when my work was published it would be read - that readers would, silently, read my words and 'hear' the voices of the speakers as they interpreted them for themselves. It never entered my head that my books would be heard too - that an acclaimed actress would read my books, unabridged, cover to cover, and read them in her voice, not necessarily how I heard them in my own head when I was writing them. The first - TO TURN FULL CIRCLE - in my trilogy was read by Juanita McMahon, who has significant experience in theatre, television, and film.
Juanita was also asked to read EMMA: There's No Turning Back, because she is also an accomplished audiobook narrator who gives powerful and moving performances.
The third in my trilogy, EMMA AND HER DAUGHTER, is to be published in January 2015 and I hope that Juanita will go for the hat-trick and read this one, too. When Choc Lit sold the audio rights for my novella, HOPE FOR HANNAH, which is set on Dartmoor, a different actress was asked to read my words. This time Penelope Rawlins did the honours. Penelope has worked in the theatre and in radio. Her theatre performances include The Lady Vanishes, Brief Encounter, and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? I find this a huge honour for a work that only goes to 33,000 words or so, and it was something I never expected to happen - an audio of a novel, yes, but not a novella - so this has come as a huge surprise and a delight.
Now here comes the irony - as many readers of this blog will know, I am profoundly deaf. While I have a cochlear implant which is fantastic for one-to-one conversations it isn't, alas, up to interpreting broadcasted voice. So I have never heard how Juanita and Penelope have brought my story to life, as it were. My daughter and my daughter-in-law have listened to them all and both tell me that they 'hear' like a totally new book to them. And this has got me thinking - I imagine that today one can buy audio versions of most of the classics, but while Jane Austen, George Eliot, the Bronte sisters, and so many, many more will have seen the printed versions of their novels, none of them will have 'heard' recordings of their works. I wonder what they would have made of that, had they been able to 'hear' their words broadcast?

Sunday, 17 August 2014

Samuel Johnson, an early champion of 'good' grammar 

I’m a stickler for good grammar. Yes, really. A whole sentence can be ruined by a misplaced comma; a text by the absence of an apostrophe.

And this had got me to wondering WHY I am so annoyed by these things. Because they don’t actually stop me understanding the sentence or text. And language is about expressing meaning. So if the grammatical ‘error’ doesn’t affect the meaning then does it matter?

Any linguist will tell you that language is evolving all the time, and what is considering completely wrong now (either in vocabulary or grammar) may be commonplace at some time in the future. So should we worry?
You have to admit some of our grammar ‘rules’ are ridiculous. We’re told: never split an infinitive. Why not? Because the Romans didn’t. Ah, but that’s because the Romans couldn’t. It’s physically impossible to split a Latin infinitive (e.g. ire), but perfectly easy to split an English one (to go).  Try it. You can be proud to boldy go where no self-respecting writer has gone before.

There are,of course, occasions where grammar and spelling are useful for transmitting meaning. For example:  I like eating cake Jane and Sally arrived too late for high tea is somewhat confusing on first reading. I like eating cake, Jane and Sally? No, of course not. There’s a missing full stop after cake. This would be indicated in speech by a pause, so the full stop has a definite function in writing.

Which brings me on to another difference between the spoken and written word (and let's ignore the fact that you should never start a sentence with a preposition). I went there yesterday with Richard. There house was lovely. Spot the error (my computer already has!). But if you speak these sentences aloud you pronounce there (or their) exactly the same, and your listener would have no problem understanding the meaning from the context. This is a case were the difference in spelling appears to add nothing. It is inaudible in speech and we don’t miss it, yet we still insist on it in writing. Why?

I’m not saying grammar and spelling aren’t useful, but I’m beginning to wonder if they’re as important as the Grammar Police make them out to be. Is it time to start accepting that not all the rules are necessary, and that we should be making writing a little easier? Might these rules serve no purpose other than allowing well-educated, middle-class people (like me) to differentiate themselves from the hoi polio? Because, after all, we no so much more than them dont we?

Sunday, 10 August 2014

And they lived happily ever after...

It has occurred to me, rather belatedly, that it’s my turn to blog. And although that window between the boat trip on the lake and pre-dinner drinks on the terrace is just a little too swimming-pool-shaped the decision to be an easy one, I’ve taken a break from the hard task of holidaying (or as we writers like to call it, research) and jotted down my thoughts.

It’s an easy post this time round, as it happens, because I’m so seduced by Italy that it’s inevitable that I’m thinking about romance and, since Fate seems to have transformed me into a romantic novelist whether I like it or not, it seems equally inevitable that I would end up thinking about Romeo and Juliet.

It isn’t my favourite Shakespeare play, I confess — too many silly decisions made for the plot to be credible although you can’t help but be in thrall to the language. So I was struck by the response to it on a visit to the Casa Giuletta in  Verona. There’s something incongruous about the way that hordes and hordes of people flock to a manufactured attraction, jamming up the narrow entry to pay homage and make desperate pleas to someone who never existed.

Since my last visit some years ago, much has changed. There are love locks on bars fixed to the wall of the courtyard, an authorised area for scrawling your message of dedication to your loved one, the team of sewing machinists in a nearby shop devoted to stitching messages of love onto tea towels and aprons. How many of those who pay over the odds for these mementos will get their happy ending is, of course, unknown.

As a romance writer, I’m driven by the need for a happy ending. That’s what readers want. Most romance writers (and readers) would agree that Romeo and Juliet, like Wuthering Heights isn’t a romance for all its power and passion. The same can be said for other great classic novels (though Jane Eyre, with it’s lip-quivering ‘Reader, I married him,’ unquestionably fits the mould). You can produce a wonderfully passionate story but if the boy doesn’t get the girl — it ain’t a romantic novel.

Sometimes I find this a little constraining, because I’m also impelled to write about real life. (I’ve moaned about this before and I dare say I’ll do so again.) But the message I’ll be taking home from Verona is scrawled on the walls near to Juliet’s balcony. It’s that people — readers — are definitely looking for that happy ending. And because real life might let you down it’s up up to the romantic novelist to deliver.

Sunday, 3 August 2014

Who has been the biggest influence on your writing? By Mary Smith

This is one of the questions which often crops up on author interviews and it’s the one I most hate trying to answer.

For one thing, I never quite know what it means. Is it encouraging me to name authors I greatly admire? If so, there are many I could name in the field of both fiction and non-fiction, dead and alive. However, I always worry by answering in this way I am somehow suggesting their influence makes me try to emulate them or they have influenced me to write like them. Heaven forfend anyone should think I could be so arrogant.

Or, is the question asking which writers influenced me to want to write in the first place? This is the approach I usually take, citing authors I read as a child, who had the power to take me away from my little world and into a world of adventure. I think I believed I was an invisible member of The Famous Five!

Perhaps, the question is not about which published writers have influenced me but about who had a great influence on me. I have read several interviews in which authors cite a teacher, most often an English teacher, who saw something in them struggling to get out and who encouraged them.

I was thinking about English teachers I had at school – it probably goes without saying English was my favourite subject – when I remembered Jimmy Mac. He was my English teacher in my first year of secondary school. I remember he could be very sarcastic and cutting but as I was good at English this didn’t worry me. I am ashamed to admit it now, but I quite likely took an unpleasant delight in the suffering of less fortunate pupils who felt the brunt of his sarcasm. Until, that is, I received the worst ever mark for what in those days was called a composition.

The subject was ‘My School Holiday’. Yawn, yawn. I decided to write something a bit more exciting than our week in Fleetwood and turned in a short story about finding a stolen bracelet in the catacombs of Rome (a city I had never visited) and catching the criminals. Jimmy Mac marked it 9 out of 30 and I was devastated. “What book did you find this story in?” he demanded. Not only a deplorably low mark but an accusation of plagiarism thrown in – though I don’t think I knew what to plagiarise meant in those days. I told him I’d made up my story; that it came out of my head. I can still visualise the sneer on his face! He pointed out I had not been asked to write a story but a composition and must learn to do as I was told in his class.

This was in the late sixties and I did not write another word of fiction for the next quarter of a century so I guess he really was the biggest influence in my life as a writer. 

He was my teacher again in third year, by which time we had moved from compositions to essays. He was known as a strong Labour party man and I knew I was taking a huge risk when I turned in my last essay. The title was ‘A Cause for Which I Would Die’ and I presented an impassioned argument for Scottish independence. He threw my marked paper on my desk, saying, “I totally disagree with your sentiment but I have to admit you have done your research and marshalled your arguments well.” He had given me 27 out of 30. No wonder I stuck with non-fiction for so long.

Who has been the biggest influence on your writing life?