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February 2008
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April 2008

March 2008

The working kitchen and the critic

Do you remember the story about the woman who was stunned to discover that she'd been talking prose all her life? I'm feeling a bit like that. This morning I knuckled down to my PhD, which today meant trying to collect together and make sense of as many taxonomies of historical fiction as I can find. How do you define hist fic, from Scott and the predecessors he denied, to now? What are the different kinds? Is it different if you have real historical characters in it, about whom the reader might have an opinion already? Is it different if... Read more →


Not writing

Like many writers, I spent much of my childhood telling myself - sotto voce if no one was around, or in my head if I might be overheard - the story of what I was doing as I did it. It wasn't a commentary, exactly, at least not in the sense of commenting on my actions as someone else would: it was more that putting my life into words brought my existence into focus as nothing else did. I guess in a family which rated books and words and talking beyond almost anything else that ordinary life contains, it was... Read more →


Cheap profundities and tramp steamers

When I'm commenting on someone's writing, one of the most common things I find myself saying is, 'I think you need either more of this, or less of it.' It might be some character who's characterised in such detail that they seem to be taking up an immoderate amount of space: readers expect the time they spend understanding and living alongside a character to be proportionate to their role in the plot, and can spend the whole book wondering when the person who took up the whole first chapter is actually going to return and blow up the bus. Which... Read more →


Any day now

Life has been full of small, perhaps ordinary things which between them seem to have shifted my horizons slightly. First of all I dropped down to my new gym for the first time, and had a good session. It's really frightening just how unfit you can get when you're a writer. In a life where the most exercise that work gives you is going downstairs to put the kettle on, it can be really hard to persuade yourself that it's more important to go for a walk than it is to get another couple of hundred words down. But the... Read more →


Did anyone say obsessive-compulsive?

A writing friend has just finished the main work on her second novel, in the week that her first has been published. Yes, there'll be more work to do, but it is the beginning of the end. And yet, she says, she doesn't feel elated but very low indeed at the prospect of starting novel number Three. It's obvious that after the long haul of a novel you'll need a break, a rest, some refuelling, and so the obvious answer is, 'Well don't start it yet.' Even if the next book's under contract it's better to have some breathing space.... Read more →


I'll not be back, I think

One of the questions that was asked on Monday, at the Stoke Newington Bookshop, was why I don't stick to writing the same period as so many historical writers do. I've been asked, 'What period do you write?' before, and been surprised at my inquirer's surprise when I say, 'Whatever takes my fancy next.' But this time, maybe because I'd been talking about my work and had some really insightful questions, or maybe because the inquirer was Charles Palliser, the question has made me think. Why don't I write the same period? But why would I write the same period?... Read more →


Once upon a time...

I've been tackling the commentary on A Secret Alchemy, which is thirty percent of the PhD, and it's all gone rather postmodern. It starts routinely enough, if a form - the PhD thesis - which was originally designed for physicists, and only with difficult fitted to the humanities, can be called routine as it deforms itself to fit artists and artistic practice. The interesting thing is, does it in turn deform us? I'm supposed to be writing 30,000 words on the use of narrative technique in A Secret Alchemy, and also 'its relation to other literary works, and an exposition... Read more →


Get over it?

In Sailing ships and heavy gold I was thinking about why we bother to research facts that no one will notice, and in Carracks, kerseymere and other last straws I was thinking about how you deploy and write those facts so that they're at once new and interesting, and not so baffling that the reader trips up or, worse still, gives up. But in many ways the facts of shoes and ships and sealing way - and even cabbages and kings - are the easy bit. What's much harder is pinning down how people think, and how that makes them... Read more →


99% boredom, 1% Barbra Streisand

I got home yesterday evening, after a day spent doing things other than writing, and switched on the computer. When at last it was ready to chunter off and pick up the day's email, one that came in was from my publisher. Now they don't bombard me with stuff, and I'm not expecting anything this week, so was this big news or small, good news or bad? Either way, it and a whole lot of other online stuff would need dealing with, so I had an excuse for not sitting down at the computer straight away. I changed out of... Read more →


Sailing ships and heavy gold

A fellow writer has spent quite a lot of the day trying to find out how long it would take an eighteenth century sailing ship to travel from England to India. Of all the everyday details of life in the past, travel times are one of the most infuriatingly hard to find out about. I chipped in with what I could (having tackled a similar problem for The Mathematics of Love) and others did too, including two who have naval-romance-writing friends who then responded to email pleas for help. And still the phones of the National Maritime Museum's library will... Read more →