A Secret Alchemy

Being Published Part 3: Permissions

This is the third in a series of posts inspired by my new book, This is Not a Book About Charles Darwin, which was published in February. In each post I'll try to shed light not only on the practicalities of what happens when your book is being published, but also the sometimes surprising ways that each stage of the writing life can affect you and your writing. The whole Being Published series is here. I've had to get permissions for all my books, starting with various epigraphs and quotes in my fiction. Get Started in Writing Historical Fiction had... Read more →


How To Tame Your Novel

A writer recently got in touch because he's overwhelmed by the novel he's writing. He has a story, and about two-thirds of a first draft, but it's feeling more and more impossible. There are loose ends, continuity clashes, scenes whose outcome is unconvincing and others which don't go anywhere; when he tries to write a scene it always grows in a direction which the plot won't allow, while if he tries to write the scenes that the plot needs, they're stiff and dead. What's more, each time he solves a problem - changes the time-scheme of a chapter, or a... Read more →


Get Started in Writing Historical Fiction is published on 10th March

I'm ridiculously thrilled to have my author's copies of Get Started in Writing Historical Fiction sitting on my desk. It really does embody all the things I find myself saying when I'm teaching workshops and blogging, not just about historical fiction but writing fiction and creative non-fiction in general. Whether you're new to writing of any kind and have just fallen in love with a person or a period and can't rest till you've had a shot at bringing it to life on paper, or you're an experienced writer who's always loved reading historical fiction but have never dared to... Read more →


Solving mis-takings in your story: if you can't beat 'em, join 'em

What do you do when the right word - phrase - action - scene - is something which the reader might take the wrong way? Anything from tripping up on a word, to hooting with laughter at a moment of high drama? The other day, writer Graeme Talboys posted this on Facebook: OK. I know this is very first-world anorak writery stuff, but in my latest work I have a psychic who is also illiterate. The problem is, I keep using the term 'read' to describe what she is doing and it is beginning to jar in my head. Is... Read more →


The Itch of Writing Bookself 3: H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

The third in a new series of mini-reviews that focus on what a book I've enjoyed has to offer a writer. Click here for the full (or rather, rapidly filling) Itch of Writing Bookshelf, and if you're looking for books to help with your writing directly, then click through to Books for Writers. H IS FOR HAWK by Helen Macdonald Helen Macdonald was a young academic when her photojournalist father suddenly died. She had flown and worked with birds of prey as a hobby, but now she decided to buy and train a young goshawk: the biggest as well as... Read more →


Historical Fiction: History You Can Live Inside

On several mornings recently I've walked from London Bridge Station, past Southwark Cathedral and the Globe, along Bankside and across the river in sparkling sunlight to the very centre of the old City of London: St Paul's Cathedral. The street names, the roast pig in Borough Market, the spiders-web steel and plant-like trunks of the Millenium Bridge, the street names, the stones of St Paul's, all sing with history. So, to celebrate the launch of Historia, the magazine of the Historical Writers Association, and my column in it, Dr Darwin's Writing Tips, I thought I'd post this, a version of... Read more →


All the posts I mentioned at the York Festival of Writing 2014

... and some others which might be useful. As always, Writers' Workshop's Festival of Writing at York was a brilliant, bewildering long weekend, stuffed with workshops, talks, keynote speeches, book signings, and oceans of talking and drinking and eating and writing. As well as the mini-course on Self-Editing Your Novel that Debi Alper and I gave on Friday afternoon, I taught workshops on prose - Plain & Perfect, Rich & Rare - and on The Heart of Storytelling: three- and five-act structure. I sat on an industry panel about Historical Fiction, and I did lots of one-to-one Book Doctor sessions,... Read more →


Ten Top Tips for Writing Sex Scenes

I've pondered the odd business of writing sex before, but a good post by US writer Sebstien de Castell, about writing fight scenes, made me start thinking about it again. Sex and violence are hard (that's only the first double entendre) to write because both kinds of arousal involve an altered mental and emotional state which interacts with relatively complex choreography; what happens isn't built of words even if words are involved. Fiction has the same complexity, because it tells stories through characters-in-action as drama does, but in nothing but words. It evolved so richly because it can evoke and... Read more →


When do you stop world-building?

Have you noticed how often fantasy and science fiction - speculative fiction - comes in fat trilogies? And how historical fiction is a bit that way inclined as well? That's partly because of the need for what spec fickers (rightly) call "world-building" and hist fickers (less wisely) call "the researched stuff". That's not just about the politics or logistics of two kingdoms being at war, or their technology, food or writing systems; it's also about the manners and mores of the inhabitants, the traditions, the religions, what the radicals are trying to make happen, gender relationships, psychotropic substances, and so... Read more →


So what counts as historical fiction?

If you're reading this in March 2017, and you're in reach of London on Monday March 27th, do come along to our WordsAway Salon, at the Tea House Theatre Vauxhall, where historical novelist Essie Fox, Kellie Jackson and I will be talking all things Historical Fiction. Starts at 7.45, but the venue's open all day, and there's wine, beer, tea and very splended cake on sale! More details here: http://www.wordsaway.info/salons/2016/11/12/writing-historical-fiction-with-essie-fox ------------------------------------------------------------ It's a hardy perennial: what makes a book-length act of storytelling about the past count as historical fiction? You'd be surprised at how many different answers there are. Whether... Read more →


The Battle of Towton: 29th March 1461

Saturday 29th March was the anniversary of the Battle of Towton: the bloodiest battle ever fought on English soil. As you may know, my novel A Secret Alchemy is woven from three strands, two of the fifteenth century and one of our own time, so here is a scrap of thread from each: Una – Saturday We roll on up the motorway, out of the plump, low Midlands towards a bigger and rougher landscape of hills and moors and deep-carved river valleys. There are signs to the junction at Ferrybridge and I think of young Anthony seeing his beaten fellows... Read more →


Past and Present tense: which, why, when and how

It's a simple, but huge, decision you have to make about your novel or creative non-fiction, right at the beginning: will your main narrative tense be past tense, or present tense? And what, if anything, will you use the other one for? It is always possible to change your mind later, but doing so is somewhere between a flaming nuisance and a nightmare, so it's well worth thinking hard about the pros and cons of both. Ages ago I blogged my first thoughts about past vs. present tense, and I haven't changed very much of my mind, but that was... Read more →


Wives of Tyrants and landing the plane on time: the Harrogate History Festival 2013

As an ex- wannabe-actress, I actively enjoy the performing side of being an author, even if I do need plenty of Piglet-time afterwards before I can get back into writing-mode. So I'm looking forward to providing a Literary Lunchtime at the Ulster Hall in Belfast, on 27th November, and if you can make it, do come and say Hi afterwards. I've never been to Belfast, either, so I also hope I'll get a little time to have a look round. It's always particularly easy and enjoyable when you're slotting into an established structure and venue, as with the Literary Lunchtimes,... Read more →


So...

... you put one thing in an essay - your agent says another thing in passing - you remember one of the lives you nearly chose to follow in one of those yellow-wood moments before you decided for something else; your agent says a second thing because of what you said; you remember one of the things you most loved when you were ten; you realise that another childhood love was a place which has been knocking on the doors of your brain for a couple of years now ... - and you have an idea - the first idea... Read more →


Good versus Garbage: which is your writing today?

A while ago, on a forum, the question came up of the mood-swings that most writers suffer about their writing: sometimes it seems as if the shift is always towards the negative, from the satisfaction of having written something which says what you want to say, means what you want it to mean, towards the realisation that it doesn't, really, do either of those things very well. And what's more it's clichéd, badly punctuated, unsaleably odd and drearily conformist... These days we're less inclined to tear up manuscripts in a rage - tearing up laptops comes expensive - but the... Read more →


Dreaming the first Queen Elizabeth

When I first started dreaming Elizabeth Woodville, fifteen years ago, it seemed to me that the centre of her story was her marriage to Edward IV. But what was that marriage made of? And since writing a novel is "like remembering something that never happened", as the novelist Siri Hustvedt says, how could I write Elysabeth as if I could remember her, so that readers, too, would feel she was someone they knew? If you want to read how I remembered her in full, you can buy or download my novel A Secret Alchemy at the Independent Bookseller's site The... Read more →


Elizabeth Woodville, that indestructible beauty with the silver-gilt hair

I've lived with Elizabeth Woodville - Lady Grey, Queen Elizabeth - on and off for more than fifteen years. In many people's introduction to one of the great mystery stories of English history, The Daughter of Time, Josephine Tey describes her perfectly as "that indestructible beauty with the silver-gilt hair"; she was the mother of the Princes in the Tower, the wife of Edward IV, and she's also one of the narrators of my novel A Secret Alchemy. I always knew that I wasn't the first, any more than Tey was, but I wrote about where my Elysabeth came from... Read more →


"Who is that judge that sits perpetually in your head?"

A writing friend picked up something I posted in a forum years ago, and has it on the wall above her desk. It's from a letter which journalist and scriptwriter Robert Presnell wrote to the great war correspondent Martha Gellhorn. Gellhorn was one of those writers who is driven to write as a way of making sense of the world, but is never satisfied by what she has written for more than a few moments. The result is to make writing excruciatingly difficult and slow. I'm not, of course, saying that tackling a major project, whether it's flash fiction or... Read more →


Plain and perfect, rich and rare: what is "lyrical" writing?

A writer friend says that her MA tutor described her writing as "lyrical", and she asked what he meant. He said "something about lyrical writing remaking the world & making the world appear anew", but what does that mean in practice? At the basic level, "lyrical" means that it shares something with poetry: a certain intensity, perhaps, though it might be interior, emotional intensity, or an outward-looking evocation of time and place. It needn't necessarily be about beautiful things: as Sebastian Salgado's photographs of miners show, it's possible to make beautiful art out of ugly things, or out of frightening... Read more →


What I learnt, as a writer, about writing, from A S Byatt's Possession

A while ago I blogged about what's going on, intuitively, when you're reading a really good book, using Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall as an example. But, of course, many of us do read a really good book for a conscious, specific purpose. And if you have to write at length about it then you have to read even more clear-headedly. The first time I did that was for my MPhil dissertation, and the book was A S Byatt's Possession. I was writing a novel which wasn't, then, called The Mathematics of Love, and there were things I wanted to say... Read more →