That face, her face…

 

Kitty, the artist's sister, David Bomberg 1929, Towner Art Gallery, Eastbourne.

I picked up this wonderful portrait as an art postcard at the Towner Gallery in Eastbourne. It is a portrait of his sister Kitty by the amazing artist David Bomberg (1890-1957).

To me, this woman looks handsome, beguiling, complicated, the type who’s charming when she wants to be…which is exactly as I thought of the character of Mrs Bryce, Nancy’s employer in her very first job upon leaving school. I cannot now remember if this picture perfectly resembled Connie Bryce right away, or if Connie came to resemble her.

I don’t look for pictures to inspire or capture every one of the main character in my books, but sometimes the perfect image just presents itself. Nancy Parker’s Diary of Detection is set in 1920. The portrait is dated 1929, but it suits Nancy’s first encounter with this exotic creature:

At first I thought her dress very plain, but soon I realized that it was very MODERN.

Here’s another picture of Kitty, from the Tate collection.

How I overcame my aversion to keeping a diary

 

18th January. Got up. Had breakfast. Went to school. Maths test. Raining.

It’s easy to see why the diaries I began each new year in my schooldays never lasted more than a few weeks. I didn’t need a diary that reinforced how boring my life was.

It wasn’t just the lack of momentous events to record, it was the false voice that popped up when I tried to put in anything more personal or thoughtful. I sounded so lame, even to myself. Writers are always advised: ‘find your voice’. Mine was never to be discovered lurking in my diaries.

So if I’ve always struggled with diaries, how come I’ve just written a book based on one?*

Because. Oh, because!

Because it’s really good fun writing a diary from the point of view of a fictional character. This is quite, quite different from writing as dull old me.Because Nancy Parker, my heroine, has been freed of diary tyranny. Because she’s keeping a Journal, not a daily and dated diary. As she says, “You don’t have to write in it every day, only when you have something you want to say – something important.”

Because Nancy has lots of MOMENTOUS EVENTS to put in her journal. When they’re really momentous, she puts them in capital letters with lots of exclamation marks. And adds comments in brackets. So I can indulge my love of !!! And of ( ).

Miss Lamb said few people lead such exciting lives that they have Something Worthwhile to write down every day. But I plan to have a great many exciting days now that I have thrown off the SHACKLES of SCHOOL!

And because I could really explore the way Nancy expresses herself. She’s had quite a poor education and leaves school on her 14th birthday (it’s 1920). Despite these limitations she is irrepressible, with big dreams and expectations. It’s great to step inside someone at the start of an adventure, and take them through all the ups and downs.

I might have broken away from my aversion to writing diaries with this book, but I still won’t be keeping my own from now on…

Got up. Raining. Had breakfast. Wrote a bit. Had a coffee. Wrote a bit more. Stared out of window. Still raining.

But I do recommend writing someone else’s diary. If you want some creative inspiration, give it a try.

*Um – three books. The second in the series is currently being edited, and the third is at the detailed planning stage. You can find the first, Nancy Parker’s Diary of Detectionin good bookshops now.

 

A version of this post originally appeared on GirlsHeartBooks

Fantasy writing rooms

Wherever writers write – in a dedicated office, at the kitchen table, on a laptop in various cafes and libraries – we all dream of that perfect writing room. Here’s my latest.

 

The folly at Herstmonceux Castle Gardens

 

It looks like a mini-mansion or a life-size doll’s house. In fact it’s a folly in the gardens of of Herstmonceux Castle in Sussex.

Why it’s perfect (for me, please!):

 

Hertsmonceux Castle Gardens, East SussexIt has just two rooms, one on top of the other. They might be bare and a bit dilapidated but who cares?

The upper room is only accessed by two outdoor staircases which lead to rather nice balconies on either side (for outdoor writing/contemplating.)

Lovely views.

 

 

 

A secret cottage garden at the back accessed through the folly itself (more outdoor contemplating and wandering. Plus a little light dead-heading.)Herstmonceux Castle Gardens, East Sussex

Someone can easily nip across the garden to bring me lunch.

 

 

 

 

 

 

And when I need to stretch my legs to avoid Writer’s Bottom, I can walk around the lake or through the woods to the mysterious Wood Henge and gain further inspiration.

Wood Henge, Herstmonceux Castle Gardens, East Sussex

 

I can always dream.

Looking after The Books

If you have ever wondered what goes into looking after a famous writer’s literary estate – apart from nice liquid literary lunches and denying access to anyone you think might write an unflattering biography (or is it just me who got that impression??) – read Lizza Aiken’s account of reading, and wrangling, every single thing her mother ever wrote:

Joan Aiken

The Books

Looking after a Literary Estate sounds like a dream job, especially if you are a reading addict…the danger is that you may never leave your room again, or in my case, the shed…  I had the unbelievable good fortune to be Joan Aiken’s daughter, and was brought up in her world of stories, but did for many years escape to travel the other world, and trained and worked as a mime – probably to avoid endlessly being asked when I was going to write a book myself!  But eventually Joan’s world caught up with me again; as she said when she was getting older, ‘Someone is going to have to look after the books when I go, and it will have to be you!’

I now realise what a tremendous compliment this was, but it has taken me all of ten years and more since her death to understand why. …

View original post 733 more words

From inspiration to publication

An invitation from Lewes Children’s Book Group –

Jlewes childrens book groupoin us at our AGM on 28th January to find out more about writing for children and getting published.

 

 

Author Miriam Moss will be in discussion with a group of children’s writers talking about their journey from Inspiration to Publication. Dawn Casey and Leigh Hodgkinson write picture books and Leigh is also an illustrator. Julia Lee writes adventure stories aimed at 8-12 year olds and Jon Walter had his first teenage novel published last year.

The talk is on Wednesday 28th January, 7.30 for 8 p.m. start in the Lecture Room, upstairs in Lewes Town Hall, Lewes, East Sussex. There will be a chance to ask questions, chat to the authors and buy a book to get signed. Everyone is welcome – entrance is free.

Adventures in Writing

I haven’t posted here recently as I’ve been busy finishing a book and delivering it to my editor. And then recovering from finishing a book. And then doing all those tasks that I’d put off until after I’d finished the book. Including anything to do with Christmas.

But I did manage to fit in a few adventures.

Oldham Central Library Oldham Brilliant Books 2014

A warm welcome at Oldham Central Library

In November I went to Oldham for the Brilliant Books Awards. Thanks to Beverley Martin and her wonderful hard-working team at Oldham Council, we had a great day. The event took place in the spacious and inspiring Central Library, which is a fabulous place for any book-lover. Children and young people, teachers and parents, turned out in force. There were workshops and readings for each different age-group, followed by an award ceremony and book signings. Members of the Oldham Coliseum Theatre Young Rep Company performed mini-plays based on each shortlisted book, and then the awards were presented by keen volunteers from the audience who each got to keep a copy of the winning book.

What was so delightful was that lots of the shortlisted authors attended and I think all almost all the winners were there to accept their prize in person. This makes a lasting impression on the children who voted for their favourite books: they’d already met the author in one of the earlier sessions and could chat to them and get their autograph afterwards.

Book signing at Oldham Brilliant Books 2014

Although, sadly, The Mysterious Misadventures of Clemency Wrigglesworth did not win the 9-11 category, it was exciting to find out that the joint winners were Liz Kessler and Rebecca Lisle, who I’d got to know over dinner the night before and had just shared a workshop with. I met all the other fab authors, too, and renewed acquaintance with Helen Docherty. I first ran into her at the 2014 Booktrust Best Books Awards, and this time her brilliant picture book The Snatchabook was a winner!

 

Rebecca Lisle, Liz Kessler, winners Oldham Brilliant Books 2014

Rebecca and Liz with their prizes & prize-winning books

The coldest day of the year so far found me signing book in a pavilion outside(!) Wigwam, a wonderful independent toyshop in Brighton. I was dressed in so many layers I could hardly move, with red berries and a robin on my hat, and with a giant inflatable reindeer for company. I even had a Christmas tree signing pen with irritating/jolly jingle bells attached. Or should that be jolly irritating…?

Julia Lee signing books at Wigwam Toy Shop, Brighton

Last but not least, just before the Christmas holidays really kicked in I was off to the first day of the exciting 21st Century Author Training run by The National Literacy Trust and Author ProfileI tried not to get too distracted by the panoramic views of central London from the 14th floor of a glitzy office block. About 20 children’s authors from far and wide were prised out of our writing garrets/sheds/corners to brush up on our presentation skills and learn how to really engage with young audiences. It’s always good to meet other writers and share ideas, because we all spend far too long on our own with our keyboards and our imaginary friends.

More of this in the New Year.

And more about that new book, too…

 

Reindeer

‘Happy Christmas!’

A Turning Point

autumn leaves of London Plane tree

The leaves are falling from the London Planes. I always notice them. They are quite unmistakable – pointy-fingered leaves in clearly differentiated shades,

bright green, or the colour of lemon peel, or at most a light golden brown, like roast potatoes. And all the size of plates – tea plates, dessert plates, even dinner plates. His eye, as he walked down Kilmartin Road, scanned to find the biggest – and yet bigger – leaves upon the pavement and in the gutter between the parked cars. He longed to pick up the biggest he could find and take it home. That would be an autumn leaf.

Why am I writing about this, and what am I quoting?

The fall of the plane leaves always reminds me of my first experience of publication, and prize-winning (writing as Julia Widdows). It was a turning point on my path as a writer and such an exciting one.

One of the first short stories I ever submitted anywhere – or even showed to anyone – was chosen as a winner of the first Asham Award, a short story competition for new women writers. The story, Ami de Maison, was published in 1997 by Serpent’s Tail in an anthology called The Catch alongside specially commissioned work by well-known women writers. The Catch, prize-winning stories by women, The Asham Award, published by Serpent's Tail 1997There was a prize-winners’ lunch at Glyndebourne, no less. There was a book launch. (This is so not the case with most short story competitions.) This was all heady stuff!*

In addition my story was one of only five from that award to be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in their afternoon readings slot. It was beautifully edited and read and the first I knew about it was 2 days before the broadcast – the easiest piece of writing-for-radio I have ever experienced!

This story is also one of the few pieces of writing where I was fully aware of the inspiration at the start. I used to walk to work past a row of huge London Plane trees and every year in late October the pavement beneath them was awash with their leaves. They were so tempting – sometimes I’d risk embarrassment and pick up one or two of the best colours or the biggest leaves. I wondered about the sort of person who wanted to do the same but couldn’t quite bring themselves to. And so a character evolved.

It’s also that time of year – clocks have just gone back, evenings are dark but not yet too cold – when house windows are lit up, and curtains open, with little glowing scenes inside, like numerous passing free theatres. My character became a watcher; not a sinister one, just slightly sad and self-deluding. The story itself evolved.

bark of London plane tree

The unmistakable patchy bark of the London plane

Then the title: I came across it in Alan Bennett’s Writing Home – ‘ami de maison’, meaning friend of the household, more or less. It was a new phrase to me and it captured the delusion perfectly. All three elements combined into a story I’m still fond of, even if maybe I wouldn’t write it in exactly the same way now.

So every autumn after the clocks go back I’m reminded of this particular story and this stage in my life. No other piece of writing I’ve done is so tightly linked to time and place.

*Did not lead to instant further publication, success, riches, fame etc! Would-be writers often think that once you’ve got your foot through the door somehow that door is wide open: rapid and predictable next steps in a writing career are inevitable or at least easier. (I did.) No, you’ve just got your foot in the door and your poor toes may well get squashed.

leaves of London Plane Trees, Ami de Maison by Julia Widdows

Travelling without moving: a child’s world-view.

The children of Dynmouth were as children anywhere. They led double lives; more regularly than their elders they travelled without moving from a room. They saw a different world: the sun looked different to them, and so did Dynmouth’s trees and grass and sand. Dogs loomed at a different level, eye to eye. Cats arched their tiger’s backs, and the birds behind bars in Moult’s Hardware and Pet Supplies gazed beadily down, appearing to speak messages.

From The Children of Dynmouth by William Trevor (1976)

The Children of Dynmouth by William Trevor

I can remember when I was too small to see over table-tops (except on tiptoe) and when drawer handles were at face level (I heaved myself up by them to see what was on the mysterious surface above).

I can remember the enormous trees along the road home from the bus stop (and how far that bus stop seemed from home. My legs ached and my feet made little progress.) They towered and flamed like trees from a dream.

I can remember having to stand on a chair to play with washing-up bubbles in the kitchen sink. It was a cut-down version of the wooden high chair that had been passed down through various children.

I can remember being afraid of the noise the bathwater made as the last of it screeched down the plughole.

I can remember the self-imposed superstition of having to get to the bottom of the stairs before the toilet (upstairs) finished flushing.

I think it’s important to be able to remember such things. Especially if you are writing for children.

 

P.S. Those trees on the route to the bus stop are still there. It’s a small suburban road and they are small suburban trees, even after decades of growth. They live side-by-side in my mind with the vast ones.

 

 

Writers’ Biscuits: an ongoing research project *mumbles, mouth full*

 

I have been conducting a long-term, and entirely selfless, piece of research. On Writers’ Biscuits.1

Which of all the small, sweet and carby snacks available are best suited to the writing life? To give that tiny lift and bit of a helping hand when energy and inspiration fail at mid-morning, mid-afternoon, or midnight. (Though probably if it’s failing at midnight writers are turning to other options e.g. alcohol or sleep.)

Writers are fuelled by coffee2 – sometimes tea – and snacks. If your thoughts run like this: ‘I’ll write 100/200/500 more words/I’ll finish writing this chapter/I’ll finish re-reading/editing/staring hopelessly at  this chapter, and then I’ll make a cup of (beverage of choice)…’ then the bit where, while the kettle boils, you forage through the cupboards for something to eat is vitally important. It decides What Happens Next, in every sense.

In this scenario I’m discounting discoveries of nuts, crisps, dried fruits, or a fridge-based forage which might end up with hummus or yoghurt, or, God help us, salad in its many forms. Salad does not get a novel written. I’m British. I’m talking about Biscuits.

Early results pointed to the Hobnob as an ideal biscuit-of-choice for the writing life. Sweet, salt, and two of ‘em’ll keep you going for ages. Dip-able: this is a very important quality. Biscuits that dip and then disintegrate into your tea or coffee as you lift them out are a disaster. Especially if you’re busy looking at your computer screen while doing so. Outcome: bits in the beverage and nothing to nibble on but a soggy edge.

The success of the Hobnob led to experiments with the Chocolate Hobnob. Initially it looked like a winner. But you can have too much of a good thing, leading to crash-and-burn (not saying how many were got through in a sitting). Consistent results show that intake of the Chocolate Hobnob definitely leads to a drop in productivity.

A family member who shall remain nameless, though with the best scientific interests at heart, thought that if Chocky Hobnobs were good then Chocolate Chip Hobnobs must be even better. But there are some things that are not meant to be.3 Choc Chip Hobnobs are an aberration. The packet was not even finished. By me, anyway.

digestive biscuit, writers' biscuits

So now I would like to announce a very strange interim result. The plain Digestive biscuit is making an unexpected bid for supremacy. Bought simply for smashing up and making into a tray of Rocky Road, it was accidentally foraged one morning with interesting results. Who would have thought that such an old-school biscuit would stand a chance? Yet it has the necessary characteristics. Not too many crumbs, capable of being dipped without disaster (though timing is all), and – surprisingly – equally flavoursome with/in both tea and coffee. And being such a no-frills sort of biscuit, it gives the illusion that you’re snacking on nothing more sinister than a ricecake.4  So you can probably get away with another. (Two or three).

This important work continues. Research assistants are required. Unpaid. Any volunteers?

 

1 N.B. There is a parallel but completely unrelated research project into Writers’ Chocolate. *wipes mouth*

2  See my blogpost ‘Coffee – Essential Writing Fuel’ on Girls Heart Books.

3  Other examples of things that should never have been invented: there’s an advertisement around at the moment for something that combines chocolate and Ritz Crackers. No. And another that implies you can put strawberries on Ryvita. That is impossible. Those two substances are like resisting poles in magnets: the strawberries simply veer away.

4  Actually, ricecakes are pretty sinister.

My inspiration: blizzards and baddies, amongst other things…

 

It started with a comic. A whole bag of them, in fact. I was 8 or 9 years old and a friend passed on a heap of back numbers so that, instead reading one issue and having to wait a week for the next, I could feast. It was there I found The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by the incomparable Joan Aiken…

 

I recently wrote about this book for The Guardian, and why it – and its utterly glorious sequels – really inspire my writing. You can read the whole piece here.