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.

What do crime writers read?

On the very last day of this year’s Oxford Lit Fest I was lucky enough to join Robin Stevens and Katherine Woodfine at The Story Museum to talk to our hearts’ content about detective fiction – writing it, and reading it.

We all write historical crime mysteries for children – and for anyone else who likes to read them! Nancy Parker's Diary of Detection by Julia LeeKatherine’s books are set in the rags and riches world of the grandest Victorian department store, Robin’s boarding school murder mysteries are set in the 1930s, and my new series is set in 1920, featuring Nancy Parker, a housemaid-turned-amateur detective.

The classic reads and characters which enthused and inspired us all were remarkably similar…

Our top hero Wilkie Collins is credited with inventing the genre of detective fiction with Sergeant Cuff in The Moonstone (1868). His books have nail-biting mysteries and brilliant characterisation. In The Woman In White, the wonderful Marian Halcombe has the terrier-like qualities, essential for the amateur investigator, of loyally searching and refusing to let go. Marian is also a great antidote to the ‘ideal’ heroine of Victorian fiction who was as passive and dependent as she was pretty and blonde.

I have to confess that Clemency’s ghastly great-uncle in my first book, The Mysterious Misadventures of Clemency Wrigglesworth, owes  more than a little to Marian’s half-sister’s uncle, Frederick Fairlie. (Yes, complicated – they always are!) Also to the wonderful Ian Richardson who played him in the 1980s TV adaptation.

Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, the prototype of the investigator with almost super-human deductive skills. ‘We’re looking for a man with hare lip whose housekeeper always uses Shiny-Bee Floor wax.’ Ok, I made that up, but it’s just the kind of thing we expect Sherlock to say, and the way he’s morphed into a 21st century detective shows what a hold he has on our imaginations.

Then there’s Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot.

I read all the Miss Marple short stories, especially the early ones for 1920s atmosphere, when I was writing Nancy Parker. But my favourite book of Christie’s, Death Comes As The End, is one which many people haven’t heard of. It may be the first example of a historical crime novel. It’s set in the court of the Pharaohs in 2000 BC and has as high a body count as her famous And Then There Were None. Christie’s husband was an archaeologist and her interest in the subject inspired this fascinating whodunnit.

Harriet Vane from Dorothy L Sayers’s Lord Peter Wimsey books is another great female detective – and a novelist to boot.

As for children’s books which inspired us, Nancy Drew, E. Nesbit’s Bastable children for their problem-solving (in The Treasure Seekers), and even Just William (identified as a loose cannon), never forgetting Enid Blyton’s The Secret Seven, and The Famous Five (though really it was tomboy George and Timmy the dog who worked it all out).

Finally a massive vote from me for Golden Age writer of mystery fiction, Josephine Tey, whose books are still eminently readable today.

The Daughter of Time (1951) is an odd hybrid of contemporary and historical investigation: a police inspector, who prides himself on reading innocence or guilt in a suspect’s face, is laid up with a broken leg and bored. Sparked by a portrait of Richard III, he investigates from his hospital bed the story of the murder of the Princes in the Tower, using written sources. This book was voted number one in The Top 100 Crime Novels of All Time list by the UK Crime Writers’ Association in 1990. I wonder if it’s the predecessor of all those novels where a modern-day hero/ine uncovers a story through a cache of letters and documents from the past?

My own favourite books of Tey’s are Brat Farrar, a beguiling mystery of identity, The Franchise Affair (rather modern in its portrayal of press manipulation, and full of twists and turns) and Miss Pym Disposes, which is set in a girls’ boarding school!

writers Julia Lee, Katherine Woodfine, Robin Stevens, at Oxford Literary Festival 2016,

Katherine Woodfine (left), me and Robin Stevens at The Story Museum, Oxford.

So if you want a classic detective fiction reading list, this is not a bad place to start.

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.

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.

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.

Totally invented or – um – slightly real?

I posted this on Girls Heart Books last month, so as keen recycler, here it is for a slightly different audience…

GirlsHeartBooks

Whenever I’m asked if I base my characters on real people I always reply firmly ‘Nooo!’ But when I was creating a key character in my next book, I found my knowledge of a real person creeping in. Not someone I actually know, but a girl who lived in Victorian times, when the book is set.

Agnes Glass is one of the leads in The Dangerous Discoveries of Gully Potchard. To start with all I knew was that she was lonely and isolated, over-protected and ‘in delicate health’, as they used to say. I tend not to work out everything in advance. Once I begin writing I find that the characters muscle in of their own accord, giving me information about themselves that I’m not necessarily expecting. (I love this aspect of writing!)

When I wrote Agnes’s first scene, it suddenly became clear that her favourite time of day is when…

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The Stockport Children’s Book Award 2014

The Mysterious Misadventures of Clemency Wrigglesworth has been shortlisted for another children’s book award, in Stockport this time. The lovely people who organise the awards sent out questions to all the authors on the list so that they could post the answers on their website.

I don’t know about other authors, but I always enjoy being interviewed about books and writing (especially if I’ve got time to work on the answers!) and the questions asked of children’s writers are generally much more fun than those asked about writing for grown-ups.

Here is what they asked, and what I replied:

What was your inspiration for this book?

The names Gully Potchard and Clemency Wrigglesworth popped into my head from nowhere and I had to explore who they were. They sounded like characters from a children’s book (I was writing for adults at the time) and old fashioned and slightly comical, so that gave me the tone and setting. After that it was fun all the way!

What was your favourite book as a child?

So many but I will opt for the Just William books by Richmal Crompton, because they still make me laugh, and Anna Sewell’s classic Black Beauty, which I read over and over, although it still makes me cry!

What were you like at school?

Very well-behaved and responsible at junior school (a prefect, always in choir and orchestra, dance clubs etc) but this tailed off soon after I went up to ‘big’ school and I was more of a rebel and class comedian.

What advice would you offer to budding writers?

You’re only a writer if you write – having great ideas is the easy bit! Getting them down, shaping them, and finishing is much harder. Daydreaming is good, and so is being bored – believe it or not – it makes you use your imagination. Look at the world around you like an anthropologist, or an alien, and see what you see. Read lots, including books outside your usual comfort zone. I would say that, wouldn’t I?

Can you tell us about any new projects you are working on?

My next book, The Dangerous Discoveries of Gully Potchard, is complete and will be out this August. Now I’m writing a detective story with an unlikely comic heroine, set in the 1920’s, and a historical novel that isn’t funny at all.

What has been your favourite children’s book this year?

Again, so hard to choose. Um…Frost Hollow Hall by Emma Carroll, and Small Change for Stuart by Lissa Evans, although the last one is not brand-new.

 

The Stockport Children’s Book Award was launched in 1995. The aims of the project are:

  • to raise the profile of reading for pleasure
  • to offer children access to some of the best new fiction
  • to increase parents’, teachers’ and school librarians’ awareness of new fiction
  • to create a community of readers in Stockport by:
  • providing opportunities for children to meet authors
  • providing a forum for reading and an opportunity to share books