"How dare they?" Can you write fiction ethically, without clipping your own creative wings?

As you may know, I also have a column, Doctor Darwin's Writing Tips, over at Historia, the magazine of the Historical Writers Association. A version of this post first appeared there, but in an era when we've all become more sensitive to questions of cultural appropriation in the arts, it's relevant much more widely. Certainly if you want to build your story on people of another ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, (dis)ability, class or perhaps just wildly different life-experience, there's work to be done compared to what you'd need if you stayed inside your own. So the ideas and strategies I've... Read more →

Guest Post by Jenn Ashworth: Making the Rules: Physics and Fell

One of the questions I suggest asking your novel is "Who is telling this story?" And the next is, "Where are they standing, relative to the events they're telling?". So I was excited to discover that Jenn Ashworth was building her new novel, Fell, on one of the most interesting - and fruitful - answers to that question that I've yet come across. I was lucky enough, a while back, to have a tiny role in her working-out of the considerable writerly challenges it posed, and when I read the book a few weeks ago I just loved it (its... 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 →

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 →

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 →

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 →

So what did Richard III seem like to the man he murdered?

In my novel A Secret Alchemy, Antony Wydvil, Earl Rivers, uncle and guardian to the new, young King Edward V, has been arrested by Edward's other uncle, the Regent Richard Duke of Gloucester. In one, long midsummer's day Antony rides, under guard, from the castle of Sheriff Hutton to Pontefract, where he knows he is to be put to death. It is some time after midday. Anderson spies a spinney a couple of furlongs off the road and orders a halt to rest the horses. The corn in the fields is well grown, and we ride along the rising ground... Read more →

Jerusha Cowless, agony aunt: "Am I single-handedly ruining my career by not talking personally?"

Dear Jerusha: I read Emma's blog Too Much Meringue and wondered if you could help me with a different facet of coping with the media? I hate all this stuff anyway, so would much rather refuse to do it all, though I have got used to it. But my new novel is set in the rather unusual milieu in which I grew up, although the story and the characters aren't like anyone real at all. And of course everyone wants me to say that it's all about me really, and write about my own parents and my own children. A... Read more →

Forgiveness, chocolate, and why enough is ... satisfactory

If you're a writer, then you're never really happy just to experience something in its moment: there's always a restlessness, a frustration-in-waiting, until you can get it out of your self and onto paper. And you know the phenomenon I was talking about in Opening the Doors, where you've been reading or listening to something and it seems to skin you - or tenderise you, as Alan Bennet's Queen has it? For a while you're extra-alive to the world round you: all six senses, words, images, things strangers say, ideas for stories, and bits of your own memory, and it's... Read more →

Nothing but the truth

One of the good things about teaching creative writing for the Open University is that I have permanently at my elbow one of the best and most comprehensive writing-courses-in-a-book, Linda Anderson and Derek Neale's Creative Writing, which is the coursebook for A215. But it was a student who mentioned something that the poet W. N. Herbert says, in his chapter on "Theme": There may be a set of subjects we write about which, on examination, share an underlying theme. Like voice, this is better discovered than imposed, but this does not preclude the search. The attempt to address large issues... Read more →

The opposite is also true

A notably relaxed Christmas must be making my mind even flakier and easily knocked off-course than usual: when I turned on the radio and heard about crisis talks in Northern Ireland that awful, sick fear came over me as it does over anyone over a certain age: "Oh God! What now?" So when it turned out that the crisis was an acute water shortage, I started to laugh. Yes, it's clearly no joke at all for those suffering from it, but hey! not so long ago a headline like that would have heralded some new horror in what we once... Read more →

Opening the doors

One of the odder corners of my beloved Radio 3 is the slot for really avant garde contemporary music, Hear and Now. But I love a contrast - I'm a hot chocolate sauce on cold ice cream kind of a gal - so I was lying in the bath last night, reading Georgette Heyer and listening to a programme from Cut and Splice, a festival of electronic music. The piece was as much sound art as music, really, an extraordinary plaiting and weaving of white noise and sound, the fading-in-and-out of the old Medium and Short Wave radio and so... Read more →

Only a proof of the splendour

The signs to have your formal graduation portrait taken were at least as large as those for the graduands' check-in and for collecting robes, and more colourful. I had an hour to go till the ceremony and you don't have to pay unless you order one. The people in front of me were being slotted one after another into six units of the franchised formula, first alone, then with family, then "next please". Standard lighting setup, friendly and efficient ladies, camera with leads to lights and laptop, a slap-it-down rubber circle where you stand, complete with extra white line at... Read more →

As it falls

I'm not sure why the post here, about how to make your Moleskine into a more efficient planner, gave me the giggles, but it's also set me thinking again about notebooks again. My basic notebooks small (bag/pocket) and big (desk/holidays) are not organised in any way, except that I start at the beginning, and fill it from left to right, till it's full. I did once decide to collect my PhD thoughts at the back, but kept forgetting to put them there: now everything gets bunged in together. In life, I like things sorted and organised by function and logic.... Read more →

Feeding the hunger

When someone asks me what I do, and I say I'm a writer, they're usually mildly interested. When we've established that I'm not a journalist but write novels, they're slightly taken aback and slightly impressed, and though of course that's slightly gratifying, I still find it more than slightly odd. The thing is, while I recognise that not everyone wants to or can sit down and write novels for as long as it takes to learn how to do it, telling stories is obviously as fundamental a part of human nature as bringing up children, or hunting and gathering, or... Read more →

Heisenberg's taste in tapestries

Talking to the Richard III Society today, I was reminded of the moment when I got the answer to the problem of how to write A Secret Alchemy. In a TLS review of two books on the Dark Ages, the reviewer R I Moore said this:Historians have to live with Heisenbergian uncertainty: they cannot simultaneously plot position and trajectory, without distortion. The forces that make for change are always more important for the future, and therefore in retrospect, than they seem at the time… At the time, the blinding light that it shone showed me why I didn't want to... Read more →

Come back Mr Casaubon, all is forgiven

In putting together the list of Books for Writers, over there in Resources on the right-hand sidebar (which I keep adding to, and welcome more of your favourites in the comments), I realised that there's one kind of book I really, really wish someone would compile. There's nothing I enjoy more than a happy ten minutes (half hour... hour... Remind me what I was looking up?) pootling about in Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, for example. But if I'm really in full, writerly cry, what I want is reverse dictionaries and encyclopaedias. For example, as a word-nerd I might... Read more →

Snowstorms and straws in the wind

Like the rest of the self-employed, I spent too much of last week doing my tax return for 2008-2009. It's obvious that it's a boring, fiddly job, and almost always in the cause of discovering that you owe them rather more money than you've managed to put by. (Though tax law for writers has some very odd corners, and it's worth poking your nose into them, because it can save you a lot of money, in the future if not now. The Society of Authors has leaflets for all to buy, and a free tax helpline for members). It's very... Read more →

The White Queen by Philippa Gregory

Most writers know the feeling that our fictional characters have lives of their own, but I never thought when I set out to write A Secret Alchemy that one of my characters would turn up on Twitter. The paperback of A Secret Alchemy was published last April, and in the last couple of weeks Elizabeth Woodville has been tweeting. Philippa Gregory has just published a novel based on her, and has been promoting it by this extremely twenty-first century means. Neither of us is the first, of course. As I've described elsewhere, it was seeing Shakespeare's Henry VI plays which... Read more →