A Nation of Shopkeepers


If the City of Bath is synonymous with Jane Austen, the Somerset town of Frome is synonymous with the wool trade, which began in the 14th century, the last representative of the trade finally closings its doors in 1995. Dating back even further is a tradition for fairs which began in 1270 with a licence for a single fair, graduating in 1492 to hosting three annual events. What a record over 700 hundred years! Now held monthly, the popularity of the market attracts sellers from France, and closes the main car park and main street from 8 am, an army of officials co-opted to cope with the influx of tens of thousands of visitors. They even run a Park & Ride Service.
     Except, today I’m not researching the fairs or even the history of Frome but directing my footsteps to a bookshop, one of a brave but dwindling band that pepper the small towns and villages of our countryside. This particular bookshop is Hunting Raven, and it just happens to be situated in the most perfect example of a medieval street, Cheap Street, once known as the Ceap, where archery was practised. Hunting Raven is now part of a chain of three shops, Winstones, the other two in Sherborne and Sidmouth.
    Do you ever think about Amazon or like me, do you simply, and almost daily, dial them up, clicking on the item you want to purchase? So stop and think now. To me they are the Goliath of the book world and the tiny independents, David with his slingshot. Amazon published over one million titles last year and it is because of them, that our bookshops are struggling to survive. How can anyone, let alone an independent bookseller survive against that power? Look at what online shopping has done to our city high streets?
     I for one believe the majority of Independent booksellers will survive because they offer something Amazon cannot. Push open the door of your local bookshop into a world of imagination, where you can browse at your leisure through a cornucopia of gloriously coloured book-covers that evoke the smells and excitement of childhood. How can the Internet with its fake news and aggressive marketing compete with that?
     By all means use Amazon for E-books and audios, but not paperbacks! If, like me, you buy one at a time, search out your nearest independent bookshop and wander in. If you've never pushed open the door of one of these magical enterprises, prepare to be amazed by their range and selection. (It’s rather like The Toy Makers by Robert Dinsdale, where the inside of an object can be larger than the outside.) And if it’s a particular title you are looking for and they haven’t got it, they will have it in stock in 24 hrs because wholesalers deliver daily. Which means you can repeat this wonderfully satisfying experience the following day.
     And feel good about it. Like the dollar you give to charity, you are helping an ancient craft, which began with Caxton around 1472, to continue its existence.  
     Yes, I know Waterstones are bigger and may have the book you are looking for without waiting 24 hours, but they will survive simply because they can negotiate huge discounts with publishers. Haven’t you noticed that every Waterstones shows the same titles in its windows? Besides, these medieval towns like Frome and Sherborne are far more exciting than our city streets that are swamped traffic.

     If you like markets and have already decided to go to Frome for the next one on December 2nd, pop into Hunting Raven and browse their books. When you emerge, you have a choice; head back into the market or into the café opposite and open the pages of yur new book with their promise of adventure, magic and escapism that will last for days. 

     I don’t live in Frome. My quickest route is over the Mendips weather permitting. These picturesque hills create quite a formidable barrier in winter when they are dogged by mist and ice. But come Saturday, 24th November, whatever the weather is doing, I shall be in Frome at Hunting Raven with my latest novel: The Year the Swans Came. Written for adults/top teens and published in time for Christmas, it is a magical fairy tale. Please push open the door and say hi!


A Journey back in time


We are conditioned to look forwards – our bodies growing upwards in balance with our vision and understanding, and so often childhood is looked back upon through rose-tinted glasses.
My own childhood, the youngest of three girls with a younger adopted brother was … uneventful. By that I mean there was no violence or extremes of poverty, beyond the privations of the post-war years.
My father an engineer and obviously earning good money because he complained about paying supertax, which was 19 shillings and 6 pence in the pound on anything over £2,000 per annum. Mother received £11 a week to clothe and feed a family of six and had to beg for money to pay Miss Hirons, our piano teacher. Father paid for a beach holiday each year and expensive dinners which he alone enjoyed with his golfing cronies.
We didn’t mind. Except at Christmas when I had to write a list with prices before he gave me some money to buy them, detailing precisely every penny … even the penny for the public convenience.
As I said, we didn’t much care about that because we hated his being in the house and equally he hated being there. Thank heavens for his job which meant he departed early every Monday morning for work in Darlington, Scunthorpe, Sheffield or London, and as the house relaxed, we ate our breakfast and headed off to school.

Why did we hate his being in the house?
Looking back, I cannot remember a single kind word, his entire attitude being one of criticism. If I got 90% in an exam, why hadn’t I got 100%? If I was third in a piano competition, why wasn’t I first? Never a well done … and I was his favourite. He loathed my brother because he was adopted, spent all his time picking at him and we spent all our time protecting him.
But no violence – he never once smacked us. I learned many years later that Mother, when we were bombed out of our homes in Croydon and living with relatives near Birmingham, had taken him into the garden and told him, if he ever laid a hand on any of us, she would kill him. And he never did.

And Mother? Don’t get me wrong. She cared for us – we had good food and clean clothes. That was her way of showing love. Looking back, I guess all the gaiety and affection she had possessed as a young woman was driven out of her by father’s constant criticism and bad temper, and the bits  left she hid deep inside herself. A hug and a kiss didn't exist or if it did, I don't remember them ... we made do with a distant smile of approval. Although she nursed us all religiously day and night when we were ill.

Christmas was the best for us and the worst for Mother. At Christmas, she cleaned brass and washed curtains, expected of any housewife in the times through which we were living … cleanliness is next to godliness … and so hard did she work, by Christmas Day she was too tired to eat her dinner.

My aunt visited every Christmas. I was probably thirty because Mother admitted that she was my brother’s real mother. Born out of wedlock, a slur on any self-respecting family, she was lovely and helped defuse the two days my father was at home … Christmas Day and Boxing Day. We didn’t care, for us it was Christmas and exciting; for Mother two days of torture, although even the walls gave a sigh of relief when he departed for golf the following day.

I remember his being sent luxury gifts from grateful clients at Christmas Time, although Mother had to beg for the money to tip the postman and the dustman and milkman. One year it was a turkey. Sent by train from the north, we drove to New Street station to collect it. Delayed – it had gone off – its feathers ruffled and disintegrating.  One year it was a car – an A30. He had been responsible for the heating system in Austin and Morris.
So every year, his contribution to Christmas was an unctuous smile after a glass of whisky and a walk to see his relatives, particularly his mother. Clad in black, it was easy to see where he learned his critical ways. I was sitting with her the day she died. It was a Sunday and she told me off for knitting. We hated going to visit. It was our penance for all the wicked things we had done throughout the year.

So why go back?
Because it wasn’t all bad. There was laughter and fun; me, arguing ferociously with my best friend next door, all of us loving to read. And to get him out of the house, I took Father to the cinema on a Saturday night.

There was even laughter at the way we scuttled about whenever we heard his key in the lock; and the sitting room where we had all been relaxing emptied. Later as we entered our teens, the laughter turned to mockery at his behaviour together, coupled with a determination to leave as soon as we could do. (That didn’t stop him shouting at me in public – the year I was 21. I was working weekends in a highly respectable cocktail bar in a highly respectable hotel. He wandered in with golfers and saw me. On that occasion a gang of rugby players provided a barrier against the abuse, while another smuggled me out.

One famous occasion, Mother hadn’t been well and had drunk some of his whisky. When he came home that Saturday night with his golfing buddies and demanded whisky, we huddled in the scullery wondering what to do – he would definitely notice and demand an explanation.
In the end, I rushed into the sitting room where he was sitting with his pals. ‘Father, I’m ever so sorry but we spilt the whisky.’
Leaping to his feet, he chased into the scullery, where Mother had decanted a teaspoon of the amber liquid into the sink.
But we got away with it.
And laughed afterwards.

I was glad to leave at 18. But the house wasn’t to blame for our childhood. That held many wonderful memories – many of them funny and so for the past few years I have been promising my brother (who is disabled) to visit. Three times we have cancelled our train tickets because of his health. This time we made it.

It was tough, up and down steps, and discovering the new Birmingham to be overwhelmingly different from the old. New Stree that was has, over the course of half-a dozen years, been moved along to make way for longer platforms and a concourse full of shops.

However, if there is a word stronger than nightmare, it should be applied to the traffic in the roads around the city centre. Eventually finding the correct bustop, we stop-started our way along the Coventry Road, exclaiming at intervals and eagerly looking for buildings that we knew. One was the cinema in Small Heath – boarded up but still there.
I went to Church Road Primary and my Auntie Kate had a sweet shop further up the street. I vividly remember walking past and seeing the window draped with purple and a picture of King George VI. The house and shops are long gone replaced by tall buildings, broad roads and a Tesco petrol station.

But there exactly as we had left it was our house.

The road was shorter than my memory of it, the house and garden smaller. Knocking on the front door, the owner was thrilled … wondering if TV cameras might jump out of the bushes. The rooms had also shrunk, the dining room where we were allowed to rent a TV for one week at Christmas time. The sitting room with its door opening into the garden through which my sister made her escape (see: Age and the Antique Sideboard)

The current owner has been there thirty years and she remembered our neighbours, the Stanleys. Mr Stanley had died about ten years before. That’s where I first saw television. June 1953, all the neighbours were invited to watch the coronation of Queen Elizabeth the Second. We sat in rows, plied with sandwiches, for that’s what you did on special occasions, never moving throughout the long ceremony, ending with a magical coach ride in a golden coach and a royal wave from a balcony.
Good memories.

A nightmare scenario

For writers of historical fiction in particular, years may pass when you are oblivious to weather and seasons, filling your days with toil, sweating and straining in search of the möt juste. First the research, faithfully transcribed onto cards or computer discs, then the tentative putting of pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard).

Gradually but oh so slowly the pace picks up and you ense a revving of your engine, rather like formula one drivers on the starting grid, and having completed the first chapter, you are raring to go (again like formula one drivers on the starting grid) quickly accelerating into a swifter pace. Before you know it, like a fox hunt, the blood is up and you find yourself staying up beyond your bed time, waking in the night and reaching for a notepad, exultant as the chapters fall beneath your pen, each day exceeding the  prescribed number of words. Then a blip occurs! Horror upon horror, words are stalled, stationary, your mind fixated, pleading with words to fall down like autumn leaves. You stare at walls, or seek out consolation in the form of coffee, chocolate, wine or gin … your choice.

A good night’s sleep, a bad night’s sleep, and away you go again. Finally, you reach that metaphorical (or in my case very real) hill from where in the distance the finish line is now visible. Taking a deep breath, with the liberal use of spur and whip you make a dash and reach out for those magical words … the end.

But is it?
No way!
Days, if anything, are even busier, and once again the many tomes you borrowed from the research library are strewn across the room so as to check your facts, conscious that your work will soon become public property, and the target of the eagle-eyed history buffs. Worse than being burned at the stake is the idea that you might have got something wrong, for a slip in your eyes is not seen as such by the ardent reader of historical fiction. For them it is a heinous crime, on a parr with treason, and definitely capable of destroying your credibility as a narrator of facts. Sweat pours from your forehead before the damn spot is found. Hastily corrected, you pass on with a sigh of relief. Only a mirage, nothing to worry about.

Still it is not finished.
Both sense and sensibility must be checked, so must English versus US terminology and spelling. Commas and full stops, paragraphs and punctuation – all must pass muster.

And so the race goes on – never slowing – round and round. ‘What is a Caucus race?’ said Alice.

Finally – the day arrives and you gaze at the list on the computer of jobs to be done and all, every single one, carries a tick.

But can you stop? Can you now let it go and walk outside, breathing deeply.
No, not quite yet, for the chains that bind this novel are strong, and as you try to go cold turkey, the bonds cut deeply.
Take it slow, one day, perhaps more, but the day will come when the links separate and you can say, ‘My job is done. My novel is free to sail where it will.’

And find yourself totally at a loss for something to do.

After all, how can housework or gardening possibly compare with the majesty of creation?

A great wave of inertia sweeps you off your feet, as you realise that you are entering the matrix for writers - the lay-off period between books.This is quickly followed by the doldrums which calm common sense fails to quash.  Even the holiday you have promised yourself as a reward for all those months of hard work is a let-down, at worst an irritation. Because now you are desperate to get back home to mitigate your punishment and read the first reviews.

Fine, all is fine. Maybe this time, I can relax and enjoy life again.
How wonderful to take each day as it comes.
After all, I don't have to write. It's my choice. It's not a jail sentence with hard labour.

No wait.
What is this. Are those doubts I see edging over the horizon? And what are those midde-of-the-night doubts saying? ‘What happens if this is my last book and I can’t find anything new to write about?’  ‘ What if …’ horror upon horror, ‘I find I can no longer write?’ 

Eventually, after counting numerous sheep, and dallying with a cup of milk and a biscuit, you drift off to sleep only to enter into the world of dreams in which you discover you can no longer cut the mustard.

Like a stubbed toe, that thought refuses to abate. It nags and nags. Even when doing housework or taking the dog for a walk, or reading someone else’s best seller, it won’t leave you alone. Escape is impossible. Furtively you pick up a pen trying a sentence for size, and new words for practice.

Then arrives that magical day when you stumble on a name or an event and a frisson of excitement to learn more sweeps over you. Out comes the notepad (tablet or keyboard) and you write a half page. But not any ordinary half-page, a decent half-page, worthy of being in a book.

Conscious that you are once again on the cusp of entering that holy of holies, the writing place that means more to you than anything on earth, you glance guiltily at your husband, partner, dog! aware for however long the book takes to write, they will be playing second fiddle to the magic you hold in your hand.

A Question of Balance

It would seem that more and more writers are self-publishing. For some, it costs almost nothing. Perhaps the purchase of ISBN’s and a professional cover designer. For others, a lot; especially if you are intending to employ a professional copy-editor, proof-reader, and publisher who will print the paperback for you and upload the ebook as well.
Is it worth paying for these services? For many people … yes. Their reasoning: you wouldn't exactly set out to go bungie jumping or enter for the Olympics without a soupçon of training.

I believe the ability to write creative prose to be an inbuilt gift, describing this gift as the ability to set down words and phrases in such a way as to elicit a reaction from the reader: excitement, happiness, sadness, interest, anticipation, even dislike. But not boredom and ennui. Sticking words down on paper in a higgledy-piggledy fashion is not exactly what Shakespeare and Dickens had in mind when they embarked on their careers.

However, the possessors of this amazing gift are not necessarily able to produce a good book.
My granddaughter, for instance. She has fantastic ideas, writes brilliantly in short bursts, fixating on elaborately drawn characters with unpronounceable names who live in an equally unpronounceable world and by the time she has written herself into a series of dead-ends, she gives up. (Having said that, I want to steal one of her ideas!)

Writing a book take additional skills – fortunately all of which can be learned.
I list a few!

Good Grammar.
Unfortunately, having the ability to write well-constructed paragraphs and chapters doesn’t necessarily mean you can punctuate them correctly. My ability to place a comma in the wrong spot is well-known, and so I employ a proof-reader with a degree in placing punctuation judiciously!
Since computers are good enough to correct spelling, the only conundrum there is whether to use English or American.

Text Layout
In today’s computer age filled with self-help books, there’s very little excuse for failing this category. However, I still use a publisher. I want to write, not faff around uploading drafts onto Amazon, and worrying whether text should be justified or flush with the margin.

Structuring Scenes and Chapters
This is a whole different ball game and a skill worth learning if you wish to be plucked from the crowd and published. I know at least fifty percent of those reading my blog will be pantsers – who travel where the mood takes them. But whether you are a plotter or a pantser at the very least you must know the nuts and bolts of chapter construction and where you are heading with a particular chapter.

Most books are an even balance of description, action and speech. Description is needed to set the scene. A skill of paramount importance particularly when writing for children, you learn early on that readers like to feel comfortable in a story. But not too much. Readers can become bored with pages of description so like the story of Goldilocks – it has to be just right. Conversation and action rarely prove a problem and need no advice from me – in awe of writers’ ability to create battle scenes etc.

However, even great writers of prose find their work littered with booby traps

Show not tell
A greatly overused phrase and bandied around all the time, although it fits right in here. In some cases especially when recording past events, telling is the only way to get them down on paper. But future happenings? If they are not worth a scene in their own right, get rid or reduce to a sentence or two that links action. I have seen books given 5* on Amazon with pages and pages of telling.

Over Egging the Pudding
Where less is more
From time to time authors invent extra scenes purely to emphasise a particular aspect of the story. It can be an extra scene of violence and bloodshed to make their book more exciting or it can be an extra scene to emphasise a particular characteristic in their hero or villain. But it is always a brilliantly written paragraph with plenty of action that the author has fallen in love with. For the reader who is not as emotionally involved as the author, such paragraphs stand out like a flashing neon sign. By and large intelligent beings, who don’t need telling more than once, such emphasis is an irritant. ‘Okay I got it first time round. He’s a scum bag. Now get on with the story.’

A Question of Balance
For me, it is in the balancing of events within a story that books so often fail. Not the writing, nor the grammar – all of these are superb. It is the decision on how long a scene should be and whether it should be included in the first place. Just because a scene is well written, it shouldn’t necessarily have a place in your novel. Drummed into me by all my copy-editors, and Cornerstones in particular, are the words: if it adds nothing to the story – get rid.

I suppose this is why I am a plotter rather than a pantser because I plot the relevance of each scene in my story. Most of my children’s books went to Cornerstones for analysis, others to JBWB – who made me laugh because he was so forthright. (If he hated it, he said so. But with humour. Much better than shilly-shallying and tip-toeing around scared to offend – which I do.)

One of my most popular YA novels, ‘Time Breaking’, is the story of a modern but unhappy young girl (Molly) who slips through a time chute and reappears in 1648. (Charles I was executed in 1649.) There, she takes the place of Molly, the eldest  daughter in a Puritan household. Of course, it is a mystery as to why she went and how can she possibly get back. Halfway through, I wrote a scene in which Molly goes with Ann Hampton (Molly’s mother in 1648) to Bryanston the town where John Hampton has his business. Leaving the horse and carriage at an inn, after visiting various places in the town, including the cemetery to visit the grave of Molly’s father, they return to the inn for a meal. Having researched the subject quite extensively, I waxed lyrical about the town and the inn, and indeed their meal, wanting to show details of life in those times.

Cornerstones editor wrote about the scene in the inn; ‘great scene, very atmospheric but it takes up 8 pages and adds nothing whatsoever to the plot except window dressing.’ She was so right. Two chapters later, up comes a really crucial scene which took up only 2 pages of writing.

So plotter or pantser, weigh up the importance of each scene and write accordingly.