A Twist of Gold

Historical Novel? Biography? When is your life writing actually historical fiction?

I'm delighted to have been commissioned by Hodder to write Getting Started in Historical Fiction, for John Murray Learning's classic Teach Yourself list. It will be published towards the end of 2015, and starting it prompted my post So What Counts as Historical Fiction?. But there's another question I'll need to explore. Fiction is often a way of exploring real worlds and lives, but what makes a narrative about a real historical character a novel, and not a biography? A biography or autobiography is a whole life narrated with the techniques and boundaries of the historian: provable facts assembled; the... Read more →


Tomorrow to fresh finds and problems new

The other day, something I was reading tossed a tasty short-story idea into my lap: two people in a particular situation with dramatic possibilities. If you think of craft as a process of problem-finding, as Richard Sennet puts it, then the problem I had found was how those possibilities might be realised. And I worked out how quite quickly - how the problem could be solved - how it could be written. I knew what the voice would be, how the structure would work, and that it would end up as a decent short story that quite a few readers... Read more →


A word in your ear

I don't know about you, but I can't imagine writing a novel which was trying to set forward a thesis, or prove a point. Indeed, when I told a literary journalist that one of the themes of The Mathematics of Love turned out to be lost children and she asked me what it says about lost children, I floundered: I hadn't had an argument or a thesis, just an emotional centre for the novel. But the novel I've just finished is the first which has come from an idea. I knew from the first moment that it was going to... Read more →


If a thing's worth writing...

As night follows day, a new novel has entered the works, just as the final draft of the novel I think of as my Betrayal novel, has left them, going from my desk to my agent's and onwards. Not that it's new in the obvious sense; it first appeared, untimely, almost exactly two years ago. Since then I've been... not exactly ignoring it, but making no effort to do more with it than I couldn't avoid. I've bought the occasional book that caught my eye, clipped articles out of the TLS, gone to exhibitions that were relevant, collected postcards and... Read more →


Waste not, write not

In Jerusha Cowless's most recent missive from the South Seas, she came close to telling a writer what to do. (Clearly Jerusha is not me: I try never to tell anyone what to do, only to unpick the possiblities as clearly as I can. Honest.) Jerusha hinted that a poetry course might be the best way to go beyond the edges of that writer's own commercial-mum-lit-writing nature. And, having read Jerusha's answer, I'm working on a theory that the thing to do when you need/want a break or have got stuck with your writing, is the absolute opposite of what... Read more →


How even punctuation can be about music

Okay, so in a loose, anecdotal, bloggy sort of way we've tackled how unpicking what you're doing in terms of grammar and syntax might help you to say what you're trying to say better, and also the different effects of past and present tense, and the value of learning to handle long sentences. Today's thinking aloud is about how a minute query about punctuation opens up an exploration of what you're trying to say. Here's a sentence from my work in progress: And yet even the most self-hating Papist wife or joylessly Puritan husband knows that it is not so:... Read more →


Is it the same hammer?

Over on this thread on WriteWords, children's author Leila Rasheed asked us all do people go back to their draft and change the plot of specific scenes while keeping the function of the scene. I think the difference between the function and the plot of a scene is an important one.... it reminds me of the story about the hammer: a man has a hammer; it's the same hammer that belonged to his great-great-great grandfather. In those years, the head of the hammer has been changed many times, and so has the handle, as they wear out. Is it still... Read more →


Ghirlandaio's maidservants

Thursday is TLS day, and I'm always pleased to see it coming through the door. Not for the fiction reviews - I don't read fiction reviews, for reasons I explored in Making the Skeleton Dance - but for everything else. It is, if you like, my liberal education in all the areas of all the subjects which my actual education didn't have space to expand into. In a review of the British Museum's exhibition of Rennaissance Drawings, which I must see, James Hall quotes a famous essay, which I must read, Wimsatt and Beardsley's The Intentional Fallacy. The Renaissance was... Read more →


Wake up and re-write

Whenever an editor or agent is lured into listing the things which put them off a manuscript, it seems that well up the list is a novel which starts with someone waking up. And top of the list is the subset of these which start with the protagonist waking up with a hangover or a head wound. "But - but - but -" thousands of aspiring writers cry, and they have a point. What about Kafka's The Metamorphosis, just for a start, when Gregor Samsa wakes up and discovers he's become a beetle? Indeed, the unrevised version of my new... Read more →


Writing for radio part 4: writing

It sounds a bit obvious, but I realised that knowing my radio story would be spoken aloud and heard, not written and read, did change things. I write in first person most of the time, because it's so much easier to find the right, particular, different voice and the plotting problems it leads to are usually surmountable. If I want more than one viewpoint I'll have more than one first-person narrator. But I'd been flirting with the idea of writing this story in third person with a shifting or even omniscient point of view, since it's a while since I... Read more →


Not just better but also richer

In among radio stories and marking OU assessments, a wodge of editorial reports, and assorted domestic stuff, I still have to find time to revise the current novel. This is not a mere editorial hop-and-a-skip through, sorting out typos, but heavy engineering. The novel's a single story, quite heavily plotted and almost thriller-ish, told by alternating first-person narrators, and I've decided to change the narrator for one of them. So I don't want to change the plot if I can possibly help it, and this is where my novel-planning grid comes into its own: I filled one column for the... Read more →


Ducks, dreams and cross-channel ferries: the York Festival of Writing

I'm feeling like Piglet after he escaped from Kanga's house: not yet my own, nice, comfortable colour again, and not at all sure what's just happened. Since rolling all the way home in the dust wasn't an option on a train from York which was so full that moving my foot to relieve my backache required carefully planning, I'm going to do my thinking aloud here. What was last weekend's Festival of Writing all about? At the obvious level, in my case it was about giving eight hours of workshops, solo and with others, and eighteen one-to-one meetings with writers... Read more →


A few strings

I've just agreed to write a story for an anthology which is being published by Glasshouse Books in July. It's called 33 because that's how many London boroughs there are, and it's one story for each borough. I'm doing Bexley, and since Londoners are no less parochial (arguably more parochial) than anyone else, even my London-based friends might need explaining that Bexley is fairly south and very east London: specifically, it's lined up along both sides of the bit of the A2 which you hope to whizz through on the way to Rochester and ultimately Dover and then France, and... Read more →