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Tuesday, 26 April 2011

The Tuesday Tip - The Absence of Things

At Art College I remember we did the lovely standard exercise where we drew the spaces around an object. This then revealed the object more clearly than drawing the outline of the thing itself, precisely because it by-passed the preconceptions we might already have about the object's shape. The Chinese philosophers and Zen calligraphers urge us to pay attention to what is missing,

Thirty spokes on a cartwheel
Go towards the hub that is the centre
- but look, there is nothing at the centre
and that is precisely why it works!

If you mould a cup you have to make a hollow:
It is the emptiness within it that makes it useful.

In a house or room it is the empty spaces
-the doors, the windows that make it useable.

They all use what they are made of
to do what they do,

but without their nothingness they would be nothing.

Tao Te Ching - Man-Ho Kwok, Jay Ramsay, Martin Palmer Translation.

Sometimes it is more effective to describe something in terms of what is not there than in terms of what is. A setting could be described in terms of what is not there instead of what is. This is particularly effective with describing characters too; what is missing from their personalities can be what makes them what they are. Describing what is absent taps into the lack that lies at the heart of us, and so draws the reader in.

Sunday, 24 April 2011

A greener clean

When I was researching The Lady's Slipper I came across a reference to people cleaning pewter in the 17th century with Goosegrass. The plant was apparently very common in this area, and used in vast quantities. Try as I might I could not see much of it in the hedgerows and concluded it must sadly be rarer now in these parts than it was back then - until just this week.

I have inherited a beautiful garden from the previous owners of my house, full of beautiful tulips and apple blossom. We have had sunny weather the last few weeks so I have taken to weeding. And which is the most common weed in my garden? Yes, Goosegrass. It's everywhere, and as fast as I pull it up, the more of it sprouts.

We recently found an old pewter tankard in the loft which I wanted to keep out on display as it lists all the Kings and Queens of England from Alfred the Great (871 - 904) right up to Elizabeth II (1952 -) -nearly 60 of them! It was looking a bit old and tarnished so I thought I'd better try out the pewter polishing the old way. So here is a picture of the tankard before.......and after! The 17th century folk must have been at it for hours, because I polished quite vigorously and I have to say the Goosegrass didn't do much except disintegrate and make my fingers green. I can imagine Ella the maid's frustration at the amount of effort this might take!

It did give me an interesting sense of how much longer people must have taken over their daily chores though in those days, and led me to take a little more time in peeling the potatoes today by taking the whole bowl into the garden so I could take my time and enjoy the view - rampant Goosegrass and all.

You might know goosegrass by another name  - Cleavers, Clithers, Robin run-in-the-grass, Burweed, Loveman, Mutton chops, Clite, Clide, Clitheren, and Goosebill, from the sharp, serrated leaves, like the rough-edged mandibles of a goose. In the 19th century Goosegrass used to be known by the nickname of Beggar's lice, from clinging closely to the garments of passers by and because the small burs resemble these creatures. It is also known to some as Harriff, or, Erriff, from the Anglo-Saxon "hedge rife," a taxgather, or robber, because it plucks the wool from the sheep as they pass too. 

Below - cleaning pots and pans in 17th century Holland - can't spot any Goosegrass here, and they both look quite cheerful, in fact the woman on the right looks like she might be singing as she works. Notice the fine ladies in the backgound, gossiping away whilst the work goes on.

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

The bookshop from heaven

Welcome SheWriters from the blog hop.

I have recently moved house to a lovely historic village, and our nearest small town is only five minutes drive away. Having spent a few weeks heaving boxes of books and then trying to find shelf-space for them all, I vowed to buy less books.

No sooner had I said this than I went to the supermarket in our local town and almost next door was this  - Aargh! the lovely Carnforth bookshop with its 14 higgledy-piggledy rooms of 100,000 second hand books! As you can see, the door is wide open, and who could resist? When I got inside I found there is coffee on the boil and a downstairs section with new books. You can even buy the gift-wrap and cards if you want to buy a book as a present, or for the musical - indulge in reams of sheet music.

Needless to say, I was in there more than an hour (the appropriate for Lent idea of "shall I try giving up buying books" forgotten) and I came out with three books. As an antidote to internet buying, it is a true bookaholic's browsing experience. Particularly delightful is a room of hardback fiction all at £1.

Though I have to say the writer in me is reluctant to buy second hand as I know how much work goes into a book and how the royalties from it stack up, but I forgive the Carnforth bookshop as it has a very good section of new fiction that you come to first before going upstairs to the used books.

As a reader of course I can't resist cheap second hand books, and the smell of leather and old paper. And the charm of exploring narrow stairways and inter-connecting rooms all stacked floor-to-ceiling with mostly one-offs.

Guess I'll be needing a few more shelves.
And if you are searching for a rare out of print book, why not try them

Lost Followers

If there is anyone out there who knows how to get the icons of my followers back, please let me know! They just disappeared one day into the ether and now there is a hole in my blog where all the pictures should be. Try as I might I can't find what to click on to get them back. Any clues anyone, or has everyone sunk without trace forever into the Bermuda Triangle of blogging?

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Tuesday Tip - Rejections

Welcome to She-Writers, nice to see you here.

Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach  140 rejections

Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo  397 rejections (and it became a film) - (Wow - she was persistent!)

Watership Down by Richard Adams  26 rejections

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle  97 rejections (and it won the Newbery Medal for best children's book of 1963; it's now in its 69th printing)

Cinder Edna by Ellen Jackson  40 rejections (and it has won multiple awards and sold 150,000 hard copies).

The Princess Diaries by Meg Cabot  17 rejections

Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell  38 rejections

Dune by Frank Herbert  20 rejections

etc etc

Rejections are demoralizing, painful and hard to take. The best advice someone gave me after my book had been rejected by 10 publishers was, "believe in yourself and get on and write the next."

I took the advice, and was able to escape the feeling of failure (even if only temporarily) by immersing myself in a new imaginative world. It didn't make the rejections go away but by the time the next book was half-way done, the first had found its publisher.

Statistics are pinched from the excellent writing website of Mary Carroll Moore:

Thursday, 14 April 2011

Still unpublished? First Chapter competition

Great work still has no home? Dust off those manuscripts and give them a final polish.

Lightship First Chapter competition - Deadline 30th June 2011

Win a year of expert mentoring from an author, literary agent and editor, and have your finished novel published by Alma books.

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Tuesday Tip - book trailers, interview with author Cynthia Neale

Book Trailers are all the rage at the moment. If you are writing a book, then I suppose now is the time to start collecting images or material to make a trailer for your next book. If you want to have a go yourself, there is a link at the end of the interview.

Never seen a book trailer? Here's a very good example. I met Cynthia Neale in the historical fiction group on She Writes. Her debut novel, Norah, about an Irishwoman in 19th century New York is just out.

I asked Cynthia:
What made you decide to have a book trailer?

Cynthia: My publisher, Lucky Press, recommended doing a book trailer. She is very progressive and there are other Lucky Press authors with book trailers that I took a look at. And then I also went on She Writes and looked at book trailers. I felt that if done professionally, a book trailer can be a great marketing tool. I had shivers watching a couple of book trailers and wrote down the titles of the books to buy in the future.

Did you do it yourself, or did someone else do it for you? If the latter, what sort of discussions did you have about its content?

My friend's son, Nathan Sorrentino, is a student at Geneseo College in New York State and he created a video for a course that caught the attention of Google who asked him to do some work for them. They live in Rochester, NY and when I visited there in October, we had dinner and brainstormed what kind of trailer I would like. He would do it for the experience and as a friend and I would give him a "tip." We e-mailed back and forth for a couple of months. I wrote up the text and he gave me links to music downloads with a one-time use fee (minimal). He found some images himself in archival material and I sent him photos of landscapes in Ireland I had taken in 2008. Nathan understood the legal requirements and the technical aspects of making this video, but he also could fathom the heart of what I wanted to relay in the video. He advised doing some tweaks here and there. I edited the text a few times and sent it to my publisher who also did some tweaks on my texts. Nathan is a talented young man and anyone who would like him to do a book trailer, should contact him. His information is on the credits at the end of the trailer.

Where did you source the images for the trailer, and how did you go about finding the music?

The sources are listed in the credits of the trailer. I listened to a lot of the music on various sites. I have a lot of Irish music I listen to and dance to, but I didn't want to go about getting permission, etc. I had even thought of asking some musician friends to play for the video, but time was of the essence. It took quite a few hours for me to pick out just the right music for the video, but I felt quite pleased with deciding on the tunes I found. And the cost was only about $30.00!

What sort of feedback have you had about the trailer and has it raised interest in your book?

Since the trailer went up mid-January, there has been nearly 1500 hits and many positive comments. Comments from some people in other countries, including Ireland. As an American writer, I wanted to be delicate, but strong, about the subject of The Great Hunger. I was not born in Ireland and many of the Irish-born still have a good deal of angst over this event in their history. I found that it was necessary to include the background (my first book material) of An Gorta Mor to make it understood what was at stake for the Irish, and especially Norah McCabe, to have immigrated to a city such as New York. I have had positive feedback from the Irish-born and from everyone who has viewed the trailer. Now...for a screenwriter!

Thank you Cynthia. Very best of luck with "Norah."


Norah is a story of a young immigrant woman battling hardship, poverty and prejudice in New York in the 1850's. It has obviously been lovingly researched. The portraits of Norah Mc Cabe and her family are beautifully drawn, and we catch most of the character of Norah from the attitudes of her Mam and Da who want the best for her but are unable to understand just how far she wants to climb. Cynthia Neale is particularly good at getting inside the minds of her characters to understand their motivations. This is her first novel for adults, previously she has written books for children.
Make no mistake, although at times the language is breathtakingly lyrical, this tells it like it was, grit and all. All the hard facts of life for an Irish immigrant are between these pages; poor housing, the bordellos, street fights, and the cut and thrust of the gang underworld. At a time when to be black made you a second-class citizen, the book raises the question of what forms a person's identity, particularly for a white minority such as the Irish in New York.

Da discusses black equality with Norah:

"We all feel inferior, Norah."
"We all feel inferior? The Irish? Or all human beings?"

At times this novel is rather documentary in style, and it is certainly not the usual run-of-the-mill historical, but I can highly recommend it as a slice of real life for anyone with an interest in this period of New York history, particularly those with family or connections to Ireland.

Fancy making your own book trailer? Here's how with the excellent article by Brenda Coulter.

Thursday, 7 April 2011

Tiny cathedral windows that sing

Up until the 17th century there were no real guitars - the only instruments similar to a guitar were the lute and, in Spain, where my new work in progress is set, the vilhuela.

In the early 17th century the Guitarra Morrisco became popular in Spain in the Moorish areas where what we know now as flamenco guitar and dance began. This type of guitar spread to other European countries where it became known as the Baroque Guitar or sometimes simply the Spanish Guitar. 
A good example of this sort of Baroque guitar can be seen in Vermeer's painting "The Guitar Player."

Also evident here is the inlaid decorative edge and "rose" or fretwork, which was a feature of this period in many instruments. In the 17th century there were specific craftsmen who made a living carving this sort of decorative panel. They are so beautiful and intricate.

They are crafted from of wood, or for the more detailed ones, parchment, cut in ornamental layers to give a three dimensional effect.

You can click on the picture below to see more examples. I am almost tempted to invent a "rose" carver just so that I can feature a description of someone making one of these, but unfortunately I already have quite a few craftsmen populating my novel already!

The designs are similar to those of "rose" windows such as in the great cathedrals, but in miniature.

As it is, the Spanish guitarist is a "bit-player" in my cast of characters - nevertheless, I think the look and feel of the guitar is important to the book, and I love this sort of research.

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

The Tuesday Tip - en-dashes, em-dashes and hyphens

I asked another writer friend why my computer won't supply me with the right sort of dash when I need it, and seems to make an arbitrary decision about the length of dash. This led to a discussion on which sort of dash should go where. For the benefit of anyone else struggling with this, this is what he sent me. Thank you James! 

The Hyphen

These are shorter than en-dashes and are only used to link two words or parts of a word:

There is a trend towards fewer hyphens.

• Don’t hyphenate compound nouns, like dressing gown, dining room, etc.

• BUT compound adjectives are hyphenated when they qualify a noun:

half-open eyes or the eyes were half open

dressing-gown cord

• Be consistent: use ear ring, earring or ear-ring, but use the same one all the way through a piece.

• Sometimes they are necessary to make things clear

thirty-odd people ≠ thirty odd people

extra-territorial rights ≠ extra territorial rights

re-cover ≠ recover

re-creation ≠ recreation

re-sign ≠ resign

• No hyphens between an adverb of degree and the following adverb or adjective: slightly ill, not slightly-ill.

The En-Dash

This is as wide as the letter n: –

• It indicates a pause: “Paul could hardly stand – his legs were covered in blood.”

• Parenthetical, with space before and after.

(Note on autocorrect: Word converts a hyphen to an en-dash when you follow it with a space, a word and either another space or a piece of punctuation. If you insert a hyphen between two words it’ll just sit there, even if you put spaces around it. Put another space after the next word (then take it out of course) and the hyphen will change to an en-dash.
The Em-Dash

This is twice as wide as an en-dash, a bit wider than a letter m: —

It is only used to show cut-off dialogue if speech is interrupted.

The dashes go inside the quotes if other punctuation is replaced, outside if not.

There’s no keyboard key for this, just as there isn’t for the en-dash. But in this case, there’s no Autocorrect either. Ctrl+Shift+m makes a good shortcut.

How to set up a keyboard shortcut in Word:

Menu  Insert  Symbol. If that gives you a choice of Browser and Advanced, pick Advanced.

Find the em-dash in the list of symbols – on my version it’s about half way down and a little right of centre – it’s distinctly longer than the en-dash on the top line – and select it. (If you don’t want to set up a shortcut, just click Insert to drop the symbol into your document at the current insertion point.)

Click on Keyboard Shortcut.

Press the key combination you want to use, check it’s okay, and press Assign.

Press OK, then Close on the previous window.