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I’ve played the ‘Novel Openings’ game three times, and each time I’ve learned more than I could have done reading three books about writing. Let me explain. You get a bunch of authors (at a lunch, at a conference, down the pub) and they each read the first 250 words from one of their works (finished or yet to be) then discuss them, either the specific extracts or story openings in general.

What always amazes me is how different they all turned out to be. Three times, maybe three dozen authors in total and never a duff beginning. All good, but as varied as chalk, cheese and chewed pen lids. Within that small amount of words (a double drabble and a half) the tone of the story was set, the writer’s “voice” was instantly recognisable, you could get a pretty clear idea in at least half the cases about where the story was going to go and you knew the era/setting even where there hadn’t been a Cambridge 1907 type heading at the start.

And – maybe most important of all – I think you had a ninety percent chance of knowing whether you wanted to read more. While all the intros were good, not all of them piqued my interest enough to think, “Read on, read on!” It’s a matter of your individual reader taste – is it your style, your genre, your era, your pace.

The first time I encountered the Novel Opening format (at the Festival of Romance) led me to think about submitting stories and the importance of them making an instant impact. I’ve been on the submissions team for four different anthologies, and I know we could pretty well tell by the end of the first page whether a submitted story was a ‘goer’. The same applies where submission calls ask for a chapter or three. It’s not helping your cause to say, “The first few chapters are a bit slow, so I sent five, six and seven,” or “they don’t represent the story as a whole”. They’re the first bit the editor will see and if he/she isn’t sold, what chance have you got of nabbing a reader? Do we have the patience to plough through three chapters of intro to get to “the good stuff”?

I’ll be facilitating Novel Openings again as one of the panels at UK Meet 2014. Why not come along and play?

Lessons for Suspicious Minds, Charlie‘s latest adventure for Jonty and Orlando, (her Edwardian sleuths) is now available from Amazon, http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B00FBQZLYS, ARE and all the usual places.

The house is oddly quiet this week and next, since my husband Dave is off doing the famous (or should that be infamous?) Coast to Coast walk.

One coast... (St Bees Head)

One coast… (St Bees Head)

This is a marathon trek of around 190 miles from St Bees in Cumbria to Robin Hood’s Bay in North Yorkshire.  On route it takes in some spectacular scenery in not one but three separate national parks – the Lake District, Yorkshire Dales and North York Moors.  It also passes through some areas of surprising wilderness – surprising not least because they survive in this hectic twenty-first century.  Most people do the walk from west to east, not least because the most challenging terrain is in the Lake District and it’s better to tackle it while you’re fresh, rather than at the end of a fortnight’s plodding when your legs are reduced to stumps and your feet are on fire!

The other coast... (Robin Hood's Bay)

The other coast… (Robin Hood’s Bay)

The walk was the brainchild of Alfred Wainwright (more on him later) who devised it for one of his series of well-known guide books in 1973.  At that time, the idea of walking between two such little-known places was unheard-of, but in the intervening forty years a thriving business has sprung up catering for the thousands of walkers who tackle the route every year.  Busiest time, not surprisingly, is in late summer/early autumn, when the summer heat has died down a little but the nights are still long enough to make getting lost less of a problem.  Believe me, stumbling around in the pitch-dark on Nine Standards Moor is enough to reduce strong men to tears.

The late, great Alfred Wainwright

The late, great Alfred Wainwright

So, who was this Alfred Wainwright?  Well, originally just an ordinary bloke from an ordinary town in Lancashire, who took a day trip to Windermere in the Lake District and promptly fell in love.  Not with a person, but with some of the most stunning scenery – mountains, lakes, rivers, glaciated valleys – in the country.  Not long after, he sold up, took a poorly paid job in Kendal and moved to the area, and spent the next thirteen years climbing every hill and mountain by every available route (and a few that weren’t) and writing a series of guide books about the process.  The books are special, because not only did he write them in his own unique, drily humorous style, but he also illustrated them with beautiful blackand white sketches and annotated maps.  You can spend hours at a time flicking through the pages, poring over the routes up Helvellyn or Blencathra, and laughing at his occasional talking sheep.

Where it all started...

Where it all started…

We’re lucky enough to live within spitting distance of the railway station where Wainwright fist arrived in the Lake District, and within a 2-hour car journey of the start of the Coast to Coast walk.  It’s been Dave’s ambition to tackle the walk ever since we moved to the area.  He’s currently about a third of the way through, running out of useable feet, but enjoying every minute and every spectacular mile.  And very grateful to Alfred Wainwright for coming up with the idea in the first place.

I love living in a temperate country. Yes, the English weather is a constant source of amusement (all four seasons in one day at times) but variety’s the spice of life, so we never get bored. Some of our recent winters have been hard, unusually so; bitterly cold with deep snow abnormally early, and now we’re having a sub-tropical summer, high temperatures for days on end. Yet these extremes come as a constant surprise to us and we do get a fantastic range of conditions.

Winter brings misty, frosty, magical mornings where puffed up robins sit out on the hoary grass. In the summer we get warm, hazy days and mild evenings when the bats swoop and soar over the garden in search of insects. Then there’s autumn, with the countryside a quilt of colours and the sun dappling the trees with gold and amber. Then there’s my favourite. Spring. There’s a quality, a clarity, to the light in spring you simply don’t get at any other time of the year and the colour of the sky is a piercing blue.

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One of my characters has blue eyes and his lover likes to compare them to the sky on a fine spring day, although my meteorological inspiration was something even odder. It was November and we were standing on the old fortifications at Portsmouth; the morning was misty and the mist over the sea was cornflower blue. That was always going to be the colour of Jonty’s eyes.

I digress…

I love the feeling of hopefulness that comes with spring, the lengthening of the days and the emergence of buds and flowers. My family shake their heads indulgently over my enthusiastic response to the appearance of the first daffodils in the garden or to the emergence of the first beech leaves on the hedge down the road. I have to go and touch them – they’re as soft as the finest silk, a quality they only have for a day or so after coming out of the bud. (I wonder if my neighbours think I’m a bit touched in the head?)

When the flowering cherry comes out in our front garden the opulence and profusion of blossoms is almost decadent; when they’re almost done, we still shake the tree and stand in the pink snowstorm it produces, just as we used to when my daughters were small and wanted to play “here comes the bride”.

When I’m stuck for inspiration, when the right words or plot points won’t come, I go for a walk, under the great oak trees on our road or down by the beech hedges. Sometimes I go and knock seven kinds of brickdust out of the ivy that’s trying to take over my hawthorn, or perform some other equally mindless task, out under a blue sky with the colours of nature all around. I don’t stay stuck for words or plot for long.

But change is constant, and even spring’s wonders are transitory. The beech leaves harden, the blossoms turn brown and fall, the daffodils finish and the bluebells come. My garden never looks the same two months running, nor does the field and the woods we overlook. (The woods never look the same two days running, or even over the course of one day, when we can go from ribbons of mist hanging over the valley to blazing colours as the setting sun strikes the treetops.)

It can be depressing, that constant reminder of moving on, of the ravages of time, but change is inevitable; you either embrace it and enjoy it, or you sit and let it defeat you, locked in your own eternal January of the soul. Spring’s not just the time for daffodils – it’s a state of mind.

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Is anywhere safe from a writer’s clutches? Although I spent the first 21 years of my life in the Midlands, I now live in the North of England. I’ve never lived in London or the south but daughter works in the City and lives in the south-east. Everywhere she’s lived, I’ve used as a setting in my books – Greenwich in particular. She married in Chilham – church above – that I used for a funeral in ‘Every Move He Makes’. 
Chilham’s been used as the location for a number of films and TV series.

We looked at Penshurst Place for a reception but it was too small – but I used it in my book ‘Jumping in Puddles’ – the manor hall which held the faerie treasure. Not to say I don’t use places in the north, I do. But if I need my characters to go south, I have to rely on the places that I’ve already seen. Camber Sands – I used in ‘Cowboys Down’.
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I’ve realised I’m much happier with a real location to play with. I’ve only written a few stories where the action is in another world – sci fi or fantasy. I guess there really is no place like home – or someone else’s home!

2012 seems a million years ago, now. All the celebrations for the Queen’s jubilee and then the Olympics/Paralympics. Pomp, pageantry, well organised and inspiring events, all sorts of things which we Brits do extremely well, but refuse to shout about.

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And all of these were a tremendous celebration of what it means to be British. We’re a mixed up, muddled sort of society, obsessed with the weather and totally blase about the history which surrounds us but…we’re fun.

Last summer we “followed” the Olympic torch on its journey around the country, picking up some literary connections on the way, with a slant on LGBTQ fiction and authors. Seventy (count them!) days of posts about our gloriously diverse country and culture, well worth revisiting.

The brand new public library in Birmingham is getting ready to open its doors later this year and staff have already started transferring the contents from old to new building.  It’s a Herculean task – apparently they will be moving over 1,000 crates of books, papers, journals, cds, maps and gawd knows what else across every single day for the next three months.

Satellite

It’s an exciting time all round, and to involve the public a little more, the library ran a poll to choose the first book to be reshelved.  There were some interesting choices on the top ten including, unsurprisingly, The King James Bible, as well as classics like Alice in Wonderland, 1984, and Paradise Lost.

But the book that won, and that was carefully placed on a shelf all by itself by council leader Albert Bore, was Tolkien’s The Hobbit.  It’s particularly fitting – not only is it a great book that appeals to adults and children alike, but the author had strong links with Birmingham for much of his life.

I just wish the new library building was as endearing, or likely to prove as popular for future generations.  I can only think of concertina wire whenever I look at it.

We’re alive!

Okay, I’m as bad as everyone else for letting this blog slide. So many hours in the day, so much to do, but I’ll try a post and see if anyone is listening.

Of course, it involves a touch of promo  but it’s more about how my home country inspires me to write. All but a couple of the twenty odd novels I’ve written are set in the UK. I’ve learned to set them in areas I know or at least can easily research. It makes life so much simpler. So popular settings are – Greenwich, Yorkshire – Leeds, Harrogate etc, Derbyshire, Northumberland, Scotland. I’ve dragged poor husband all over the place to take pictures of locations (though I didn’t notice him grumbling when we went to Miami to scout out details for one the books not set in the UK) We were already in Florida so a five hour drive in tropical heat didn’t seem too unreasonable. Oh and five hours back. oops.SDC10108

My latest book – okay – twist my arm and I’ll tell you – Every Move He Makes – out with Samhain publishing, involves a British spy – so I needed pictures of that building on the Thames that’s hardly secret but holds our secret service. I took so many pictures, I kept expecting to get a tap on the shoulder and to whisked away by 007. Well, a girl can dream. Research on what the building is like inside came up woefully short so I had to make up some bits. I think readers will forgive me.

 

 

 

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Every-Move-He-Makes-ebook/dp/B00B4QJKAK/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1368386781&sr=8-1&keywords=every+move+he+makes

www.barbaraelsborg.com

www.barbaraelsborg.blogspot.com