My Research Trip to Belfast for “And The Buntings Flew”

I’ve just returned from a  three-day break to Northern Ireland; the trip was definitely a mix of pleasure and writing research – the first thing I did after checking in at the wonderful Europa Hotel (the most bombed hotel in Europe) was to head for the Belfast Central Library Newspaper archive.

And The Buntings Flew, the novel I’m half way through writing, is based in 1970s Northern Ireland, specifically, Belfast and those of you who have read my blog posts will know that it’s at least partly autobiographical, with a  generous pinch of artistic licence.

My research at the newspaper archive bore some fruit, but this success was tinged with sadness and uncertainty; the Troubles left very few families untouched, and I now have to contemplate and investigate the new information I uncovered.

Despite any unease I felt while reading through the microfiches from 1975 and 76, they did offer, for a writer, a wonderful window on the past. I was particularly interested in the world news, and closer to home, the adverts; in 1975 the Northern Ireland government had members warning that if the UK voted to join the EEC (Common Market, and we did), that it would grow from a trade agreement to a federation of European states with a  loss of UK sovereignty, which was a very topical read!

Some of the job adverts would be illegal today; some jobs called for “men”, “Christians”, and the jobs that females could apply for often called for “girls!” Such was life in the 1970s.On the plus side, a three-course meal with entertainment could be had from as little as £1.20 per head at a selection of Belfast hotels and restaurants!

I’ll be posting some more about some of the information I found in the archive library, but for now, I just wanted to post some pictures from our trip of the wonderful places to visit in Belfast and the rest of Northern Ireland (we confined ourselves to County Antrim on this trip.)

I’m also pleased to relate that I brought back lots of Thompsons Tea and vegetable roll, both Northern Irish treasures that I wrote about in my article lauding the Foods of Ulster!

My New Flash Fiction site – Strippedlit500.com

My day job has just got a lot busier; I’m involved in business readiness for a large transformation IT project at work for the next few months. So what do I do? I create a new writing website! My timing seems atrocious, but I think under the surface I am becoming more confident in my writing and am enjoying immersing myself in all aspects of improving as a writer.

I noticed a small apparent gap in the market for sites that accept and publish short/flash fiction between 300 and 500 words. I’ve written a few stories of this length (you can read one at the new site), but some of the websites I found were sadly defunct, or not accepting new submissions.

So, I’m proud to present my new short fiction site: strippedlit500.com.

I chose the name for two reasons; it seems interesting and catchy (to me anyway!), and the name embodies what the site is about: short stories, up to 500 words in length, so stripped down, but literature all the same. Most genres are welcome (see the submission guidelines for more info); I hope in this small way to provide another outlet for writers of short fiction.

I’ve been busy setting up the site and Twitter, and am proud to present the fruits of my labour.; now all we need are some short story submissions!

So go ahead; put on your writing caps and write a story, ideally between 300-500 words; the theme for the first edition of the site (which will be published as a PDF file and hopefully as an ebook anthology eventually) is…New Beginnings!

I’d love your feedback about the idea and the site, or any suggestions to make it better?

Margaret

Banshees, Birds and Synchronicity in the Creative Process

"Banshee" by W.H. Brooke - http://www.archive.org/details/fairylegendstrad00crokrich. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Banshee.jpg#/media/File:Banshee.jpg

I try to ensure I always have the means of making a note close to hand; Evernote on my phone and tablet, a notebook and pen in my bag, a voice record option on my phone. Post-it note pads everywhere. You never know when a great idea will spring to mind! But sometimes circumstances prevent me noting a potentially blockbusting idea or plot twist, such as driving to and from work along the M25. Luckily I have had a passenger sharing many of my commutes recently; my beloved son. We were talking the other day about my novel’s progress and some of my ideas to address a plot gap I have arrived at (picture my brain sat in a ten junction M25 traffic jam!)

A Plot Breakthrough

I’m nearly half way through writing And The Buntings Flew. I know how the story will end, and the main characters are all either in the draft or captured on my timeline and characters spreadsheet. But I had a thorny issue; I need to join two major strands of my story, and this will need to involve some fairly young characters. I am also keen to include some Irish folklore in my story but in a natural, realistic manner, as befits the tone of the story and what happens to some of the main characters.

Minor spoilers ahead; my main character is a young girl living in Northern Ireland in the 1970s during “The Troubles” who (maybe!) identifies a terrorist who attacked a member of her family; she subsequently struggles to share her secret with the adults in her life. She is sent away for a short while to stay with friends, and this is the point at which events accelerate to a thrilling climax! I planned for this character (Purdey) to witness the aftermath of another violent event, and I wanted a suitable foreshadowing.

Playing with friends in a reputedly haunted house was one idea I had, based on a “real” house near my own childhood home (elements of the novel are based on my own childhood). In discussing this with my son, we veered off on a tangent to discuss Irish myths and folklore; phone in hand he was able to Google as we spoke and I told him of the Irish spirit, the Banshee. The idea of the children believing the house was haunted appealed to me, and had been mentally penciled in previously, but I only had a vague idea of the Banshee’s characteristics; we discovered that not only is she meant to be the spirit of a murdered woman who cries and wails to warn of an imminent, nearby death, the Banshee was also believed to be particularly attached to people with (Irish) surnames that have an “O” or “Mc” prefix.

This is where the synchronicity/coincidence occurred, as it has often done before when writing; the characters I have planned to be the victims of a shooting are two young brothers, whose surname begins with “Mc”. Another fact I wasn’t consciously aware of was that a possible explanation for the origin of the Banshee is the eerie, pronounced screech of the Barn Owl, common in Ireland as it hunts by night. Birds feature very prominently in And The Buntings Flew, both in terms of the plot and thematically; here was an Irish supernatural Folklore figure that might also have a prosaic, real life explanation; the screech of a bird! It fitted beautifully into the story and is an elegant segue to the next sequence of events in the story.

"Banshee" by W.H. Brooke - http://www.archive.org/details/fairylegendstrad00crokrich. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Banshee.jpg#/media/File:Banshee.jpg
Banshee” by W.H. Brooke – http://www.archive.org/details/fairylegendstrad00crokrich. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

 

Feeding the Unconscious, Creative Mind

More synchronicity was in the air when I read The Creative Penn’s Joanna Penn discussing her creative writing process, in which she describes coincidence and synchronicity as almost magic or supernatural elements that commonly occur in the creative process of writing.

I think there are many reasons for this phenomenon, many of which centre around our individual and collective unconscious;  Joanna Penn discusses the idea of the Jungian Archetypes (which I will visit in a future post!) but equally important I believe are the elements at work on the run up to these coincidences making their way to your conscious attention. By this I mean the process of planning and immersing oneself in a creative work; for me that consists of capturing the initial idea, making copious notes, as and when ideas spring to mind, researching just as hard as I did for my MBA dissertation, and devoting to the idea of my story a single-minded vision and attention, even when not actively writing. Travelling and visiting locations where I can carry out primary or secondary research (the location itself or resources such as museums, churches, news archives etc) are all elements in priming the unconscious to offer up these scraps of information that then seem to “magically” work for your creative endeavour.

Creative Feedback Loops

I originally had an equation as the title of this post:

Planning+Notes+Research+Synchronicity=Creativity!

This was an attempt to summarise my creative process for writing fiction; but there are other ways of stimulating the collective unconscious to offer up synchronicities, even if you aren’t able to do much external research or travel. Blogging helps me practice the art of writing, and posts such as these are a feedback loop; thinking and writing about elements of the story prompts me to  read and research more, leading to more ideas and prompts, in a “virtuous circle” or creativity!

I am also enjoying my recent initiation to Twitter; I enjoy finding relevant quotes or information about my story or the writing process, and reading the thoughts and views of others; used judiciously (and not allowing it to devour all my time!), Twitter is proving another useful creative tool, as is the Pinterest board I created for And The Buntings Flew (thanks for another great idea Joanna Penn! 🙂 )

Have you had similar coincidental/synchronicitous breakthroughs with your story? I’d love to hear from you with your experience!

Margaret

What I Read in 2015 and My 2016 Reading Challenge

Detail from the author's bookcase

Firstly, I’d like to belatedly wish my readers and fellow bloggers a very happy, healthy, successful and productive New Year!

I read a great post today by Donna at a little bird tweets about reading lists for this year and last; I decided that I need a similar challenge for 2016, so here’s my list of what I did and didn’t read in 2015, and what I want to read in 2016. For me it seems very much to be filling in the gaps in books I know I should read; my list lacks newer works, so please feel free to suggest any you think I might enjoy!

As my last post details, 2015 was the year I started to write-up the draft for my first novel, and was also the year I set up this blog; perhaps for these reasons I didn’t read as much as I would have liked. Tellingly, I also had a series of events occur in 2015 that robbed me of all but one week’s holiday, and holiday binge reading is a big catch up time for my reading, so all in all, not a vintage reading year.
What I read in 2015 (that I hadn’t already read; a lot of my reading is re-reads; is this a good thing?) can be broken down into two sub categories:

  • Books I read (semi) annually
  • First time reads

Books I Read Annually

As I noted above, 2015 hasn’t been a stellar reading year for me so I have skipped one or two; on the whole however this is my go-to list for books I have to rediscover and consume on an annual-ish basis:

  • Lord of The Rings/The Hobbit: J.R.R. Tolkien
  • A selection of historical “whodunnits” from Agatha Christie/Ellis Peters the Cadfael series)
  • One or two Dickens novels from the following list:
    Great Expectations/Little Dorrit/The Old Curiosity Shop/Bleak House/Barnaby Rudge/The Pickwick Papers
  • One of the Brontë sisters’ novels; I usually alternate between Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre
  • The Gormenghast Trilogy by Mervyn Peake; I tend to miss the last book of the trilogy, but unusually this year I just read Titus Alone and enjoyed rediscovering the story after a hiatus of several years
  • The “Emperor” series of novels by Allan Massie: Caligula, Tiberius, Augustus and Caesar
  • The collected works of H.P. Lovecraft – all of it!
  • Something by Stephen King, usually while I’m on holiday – this year I’ve been preoccupied by ideas for a novel set in prison, so it was The Green Mile and Different Seasons (four novellas, one of which is Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption).

These are all fantastic reads, and I have tried to wean myself off them, but they are a habit now! But I’m resolved to read a lot more books that are new to me in 2016 so I’ll have to temper my craving for repeats. Is this something fellow readers can identify with or am I unusual in having so many books on repeat-read?

Books I First Read in 2015

  • Dictator, the third book in the Cicero trilogy of novels by Robert Harris – I was eagerly awaiting this book for nearly five years, after reading Lustrum and Imperium in 2010. I love historical novels, I have a lifelong fascination with the Roman empire at the time of the Caesars (I read I, Claudius as a teenager and was enraptured), so I’m possibly biased, but this trilogy is a fantastic read;not only does it wonderfully evoke the sights, sounds and smells (especially smells!) of 1st century BC Rome, the real life character of Cicero is drawn with a touchingly believable, all-too-human vividness.If you haven’t read any books by Robert Harris yet, I urge you to try him; his 20th century dystopian offerings Fatherland and Archangel are both bleakly compelling.
  • The Trial by Franz Kafka –  I love the original German title  – Der Process – it seems to sum up the subtle horror of the long-winded, nightmarish bureaucratic trap awaiting the protagonist, Josef K. I found reading this book almost ridiculous at points, dreamlike and horrifying at others; unsurprising as The Trial is a Dystopian/Absurdist classic. Kafka offers several books in these genres to unsettle you; if you haven’t read them already, you’re in for an unsettling treat.
  • I picked up a leaflet at London Bridge underground station last summer; as part of the celebrations for the 150th anniversary of the birth of W.B. Yeats, Transport for London featured poems by Irish artists; I discovered a translation of Antoine Ó Raifteirí’s I Am Raferty the Poet,  by one of Yeats’s closest friends and allies, Lady Augusta Gregory, along with some Louis MacNeice poems I hadn’t come across. This inspired me to buy and read Poems on the Underground; for years the poems on the underground have given me pleasure, and something beautiful to look at while assiduously avoiding my fellow commuter’s gazes; I had often tried to memorise a particular poem, and usually failed. This is a beautiful collection to dip into, and has led me to many new favourite poets.
  • The Elements of Style by Strunk & White is a book I’d meant to read for years, which I finally got round to buying last year.I felt that reading this book was a necessary prerequisite to starting my first draft. It’s a short book, just over 100 pages, but it manges to cram in a wealth of writing rules and guidelines that crisply and lucidly insist upon themselves. I now use the guidance from this book in all my writing and it’s corrected me on some errors of style I was persistently, if unknowingly guilty of! I will never again sign off an email with “Thank you in advance” -I was suitably chided! It’s a little bit stuffy, prissy almost, but it very clearly lays out some golden rules that every writer needs to be aware of, even if they break them.
  • The Great God Pan & The Three Imposters – These two novellas have long been on my “to read” list, as their author, Arthur Machen, comes recommended not only by Stephen King but also by the “dark baroque prince of 20th century horror” himself, H.P. Lovecraft. So I bought a couple of Machen’s books on Kindle for a week’s holiday reading in August: although some of the prose is a little dated, there is something truly uncanny about Machen’s tales, that left me with a creeping feeling of mounting weirdness and horror. And this is praise! I will definitely be reading more of Machen’s works this year.

My 2016 Reading List

Again I have two categories of books I want to read this year:

  • The following are some of the books I own that have sat, unread, on my shelves (or Kindle) for years that I am determined to read this year:
  • The Once and Future King by T.H. White; someone bought this for me as a Christmas present about five years ago, and I’m ashamed to say it’s still unread. The synopsis sounds great; a magical literary retelling of the Arthurian legends by an author with a genius for recreating the details of the past in his work.
  • Moby Dick by Herman Melville is another book that has languished on my bookshelf for far too long; a classic tale of one man’s obsession, countered by the community spirit of the crew of the Pequod. Sadly this is a tale that is still relevant today.
  • Snow Crash by Neil Stephenson; my son bought me this book last Christmas and I have to read it soon as he keeps asking me what I think of it! Set in a not-too-distant future, this sci-fi cyberpunk novel takes the reader to a post-modern world that isn’t that different from the way our own present is heading.

Other books that I want to read this year (in no particular order) include:

  • Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman has been recommended to me several times; I have yet to read any of Neil Gaiman’s books which is definitely an oversight; this tale of a city under London will make the ideal commuter read for my trips on the Northern Line from Euston. Gaiman’s The Ocean At the End of The Lane also sounds intriguing.
  • Go Set a Watchman  – Harper Lee’s sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird; the mixed reviews leave me unsure whether I want to sully the beautiful memory of TKAM.
  • Our Endless Numbered Days is the début novel by author Claire Fuller, and I’m intrigued by its premise: my love of gardening and interest in self-sufficiency is documented in my blog, but my reading has sometimes strayed into areas that cross over into the “Doomsday Prepping” communities; to me they are fascinating and worrying in equal measure.So the blurb for this book caught my interest; a young girl taken away from home by her father to live in a remote self-sufficient community.
  • I haven’t read any books by Donna Tartt yet, but the one I’m drawn to is her latest, The Goldfinch. This novel was the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2014 so I am expecting good things. Possibly I am interested in the young protagonist, thirteen year old Theo, and how his life is affected by a terrible accident, and how this echoes some aspects of the story I am writing in And The Buntings Flew.
  • Taking of which; one book I definitely want to read from start to finish in 2016 is my own! My target is to complete at least a first draft of And The Buntings Flew, and be on the way to a decent second draft by the end of this year.

This isn’t a comprehensive list, and I hope I read a lot more new books this year; as well as write, write, write, a writer’s mantra should also include read, read, read. I believe that I can learn something from every book I read, even if it’s How Not To… but I also believe that every book will reward me for taking the time to read it, and that a connection WILL be made between me, the reader, and the author. And isn’t that one of the reasons we all write?

What books are on your “To Read” list this year?

Margaret

My 2015 Writing Review (and plans for 2016!)

2015 Writing Review: margaretmcgoverne.com

When I was younger, I heartily disliked New Year’s Eve; for my mother, it was a time of looking back and rehashing old tragedies, old regrets. She cried without fail, and to younger me this was painful and put a real pall over the end of the year. But I’ve learned that like Janus, the Roman god of beginnings and transitions, the end of a year is a time to both reflect back on what’s gone and also to look forward! Further, in reflecting on what we haven’t managed to do, we can take stock of the positives, and use our achievements to spur us to greater things in the New Year.

2015 was the year I launched this blog, and started to write up my first novel, And The Buntings Flew. I also published my very first piece of fiction this year! I’ve learned so much about writing, blogging and publishing and although it sounds corny, about what I can strive for, and achieve.

So in the spirit of reviewing, learning and setting what we call at work “stretch” targets for 2016, here’s my review of the year; hopefully it resonates with some of my readers? I’d also love to hear your thoughts on what worked, what emerged and what gave up the ghost in 2015.

And The Buntings Flew – my debut novel

My target was to complete a first draft of And The Buntings Flew, which I envisage will be around 85,000 words long. 2015 was when I actually started the draft; up to that point I was merely flitting between a couple of MS Word documents with a very rough plot, some research on the period and some ideas for characters. Although I haven’t met my target to have a complete first draft, I am now more than 40,000 words in, that’s half way, and have just finished chapter 8. The plot has shaped up and my characters are, I modestly feel, well-developed and rounded in my head, if not yet in the draft! I have a chapter by chapter plan, a couple of spreadsheets with timelines, main events etc. and each main character has a fully drawn word sketch. More; I feel like the ideas have evolved into a creative work, which I will soon finish, edit and one day say; “this is my first book.” I passed my driving test on my second attempt; as we rounded the final corner and set of lights back to the test centre I knew it was in the bag; the feeling is the same for the book, as a creative venture. The next step is to nurture it into a successful one!

To have a read of-the synopsis and some excerpts from chapter one of And the Buntings Flew, please click the links below

My Writing Blog

If you’re reading this, you’ve found my  blog! And I’m very glad you have. This time last year I was pestering friends and relatives to like and subscribe to a landing page and some “About me” info; I’m now proud to have more than 100 followers of the blog, and in turn I’ve discovered some great blogs that inspire, entertain and inform me.

I’ve added some pages, and picked up some great blogging know-how and widgets along the way; my plan for 2016 is to transfer the blog from the free WordPress.com platform to a paid, WordPress.org site. A move to the hosted platform will allow me to customize my theme, remove ads from the blog, add a raft of useful widgets and plugins not currently available to me, and generally remove any restrictions from my blog.

If you’re interested in a comparison between WordPress.com and WordPress.org, this article helpfully broke it down for me:

WordPress.org vs WordPress.com: a definitive guide for 2015

My Other Writings

Writing earlier in the year about short fiction, I became intrigued by the popularity of micro fiction, as well as the resurgence of the novella; (you can read my blog post on short fiction here) I’ve had plenty of ideas for short stories over the years, and did complete one or two supernatural tales in the late 1990s; interestingly, I’ve outlined a short story over the Christmas break that has a distinctly Lovecraftian/M.R. James feel, blended with a couple of very modern horrors; rampant development, especially on greenbelt land, and the daily commute.Watch this space in 2016 for the finished tale!

My first foray into micro fiction went really well, with my short short “New Beginnings” being published by Tim Sevenhuysen at fiftywordstories.com ; it blends my love of gardening and all things weird; please have a read, it won’t take long!

New Beginnings, by Margaret McGoverne


Writing Habits

Writing is easy. All you have to do is cross out the wrong words.” (Mark Twain)

Mark Twain had his tongue very firmly in his cheek with the above quote; writing is a craft like any other. In Danse Macabre, Stephen King talks about the knife we are all born with; the knife is called talent. Some people are born with huge knives, and these people are called geniuses, but even the largest of knives have to be honed if they are to work, and to be “wielded with great force.”

I have tried to hone my knife this year in as many ways as possible, home life and a  full-time job permitting. A couple of things have worked really well for me, requiring as they do varying levels of commitment; if you are interested in ways to improve and share your work, some of these methods may help.

  • Scribophile

Scribophile is a free to join online writing and critique group; it also has a wealth of learning resources, articles and tips. There are as many communities as sub genres, and I’ve become much more comfortable with sharing my work for critique, as a result of engaging on Scribophile. Basically, you earn “karma” points by critiquing the writings of others, the longer the critique the more points you earn. These points allow you to post your own works. It can be a commitment in your time to critique enough works to post your own, and there is a recommended word limit for each piece of writing to be critiqued (generally 3,000 words) but once you are in the swing of critiquing and have found some like-minded writing/authors it is a very rewarding and useful resource.

  • Open University (OU) and Other Writing Courses

I took a creative writing course online with the OU in 2014 and enjoyed many aspects of the course; it was a very helpful starting point for me. I am actively looking to build on this foundation by taking additional courses in 2016, either with the OU or with a more specific , writer led class with experience in the genre I  wish to work in (contemporary literary/historical fiction) as well as in general writing craft. Suggestions welcome if you have taken a course you can recommend!

Social Media

  • My Facebook page for my writing (Margaret McGoverne, Writer) has attracted some great feedback; via this page I’ve also made contact with people on my personal FB page with some great family and contextual information relating to the background story of And The Buntings Flew. I also love how interconnected the different social media sites are, and how each one leads readers to more information about your work!
  • A great idea I borrowed from Joanna Penn over at The Creative Penn was to set up Pinterest boards with pictures related to works either completed or in progress; I had literally never thought of complementing my writing with visual social media, so this was a wonderful idea to come across. I created a Pinterest account for my writing  and created a Pinterest board with pictures from locations and themes which will feature in And The Buntings Flew. I’ve picked up some Facebook page and blog readers from the Pinterest boards and I have also  found it a very useful exercise to think of images that will feature in or outline the story; in this way I’ve come up with some additional features and angles to the novel which will enrich it , I feel, historically and geographically.
  • Reddit Writing Hub

If you’re not already a Redditor, Reddit is a site where users post content (pictures, links, news items etc) divided by subject matter into “sub-reddits.”

The Reddit writing hub (r/WritingHub) is an index of writing sub-reddits designed to help writers find communities and content relevant to their interests. The largest sub-reddits in the writing hub are r/writing, r/screenwriting, r/writersGroup and r/selfpublish. There are also writing contests and writing prompt sub-reddits, all of which have proved useful to me over the last year.  If you subscribe to the writing hub, your Reddit front page will include updates from the writing sub-reddits, and in this way targeted writing related content is delivered to your effortlessly!  While not a primary resource, I have found the writing hub at times encouraging, informative and a place to discuss issues with like-minded redditors.

A couple of the social media platforms I didn’t get to grips with this year although they were on my list were Periscope and Twitter. The former is a live video streaming app; my idea was to have a regular (OK, semi regular!) live stream broadcast of my novel-writing in progress, complete with feedback from any viewers; the ultimate in hot off the press promoting! I still think this is a great idea but for me right now it’s one I will return to; as I still have a full-time job, finding and keeping a regular time commitment is difficult, I commute to and from London, so getting home is an exercise in variable times. The other thing that made me shelve the idea for now was feedback from my son, an avid gamer and watcher of Twitch, a video streaming app for gamers. My son’s opinion was that the live streaming approach would be more appropriate when I have a completed work that I can promote and direct people to: as an unknown my audience would likely be non-existent, and the time and effort/reward formula just doesn’t seem worth it now. However it’s definitely something I will return to. However I’d love to hear from you if your experience differs!

Twitter is something I don’t use in my personal life; I don’t think I have the commitment to keep readers constantly informed and entertained, and so this is a personal choice, but again I will review and revisit this decision if its seems that the time and effort of updating a Twitter stream would seem to offer rewards.

Lastly I have gained an interest in podcasts during 2015, thanks once more to my son, who avidly consumes them, in a plethora of subject areas. I am definitely interested in recording podcasts that discuss the writing process, and the historical and social background to my novel; I think this would be a great way to get a feel for eventually recording an audiobook version of my novel, either with the help of a professional narrator or narrating my own novel. An interesting question occurs to me as I write this post; for a novel set in Northern Ireland, would the narrator ideally have a “Norn Iron” accent? Something else for me to delve into in 2016!

If you’re still with me, constant reader, I want to thank you for your time and support in 2015; never before has there been so much to tempt and divert us, and I’m profoundly grateful when anyone takes time to read my words.

My resolution, or rather my strategy for 2016 is to write, write write; to reach and reinforce my daily/weekly word count targets , and to explore new ways to improve my craft as a writer, and to reach out to potential readers and fellow writers.

I wish you all a very happy and prosperous New Year!.

Margaret x

Sowing the Seeds: What Being a Gardener Has Taught Me About Writing

Things growing in my garden

Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap but by the seeds that you plant.
(Robert Louis Stevenson)  

It’s not an original idea,  just a homely little blog post, but I keep thinking about how becoming a gardener who can actually grow things is a useful metaphor for how I’m becoming a writer who actually writes things that might, with care, become a healthy, blooming novel.

I wrote up the draft of this post before Googling for similar posts on this subject; there are some great reads that make better points than me, which concentrate on the importance of preparing and planning, nurturing your story, feeding it, allowing it to grow and turning the “manure” of your first draft into a beautiful garden, fed by the wonderful loamy soil you have created from rubbish, leftovers and poo!

What I want to share in this post is that gardening taught me some of the fundamentals of writing, properly writing, and gave me the mental tools to turn my dream of writing a novel, and being a writer of fiction, into an actual organic work in progress.

Gardens for me growing up were something that I dreamed about; our homes in Belfast had back yards, or no gardens at all, and when we moved to London our first family home was an eleventh floor flat, with a narrow concrete and glass balcony.

When my mother finally moved to a ground floor house, we had a patio, and an area a couple of feet around the patio, to call our very own garden. I was a teenager then, and I bought some low level wire fencing, staked my claim to the grass perimeter and proceeded to plan my ideal garden in my head. If the garden was going to look like the ones in my imagination, it was down to me. My mother had lost the use of her arm and leg after her stroke, so I began with very little knowledge and no experience whatsoever, but a lot of ideas and some big plans!

I was faced with some challenges right away; we had very little money, and practically nothing to spare for luxuries such as garden tools and plants or seeds. My lack of knowledge was another drawback; I borrowed some gardening books from the library, but none of the gardens looked like mine. I knew I would have to compromise, and do what I could. I bought some seeds when they were reduced (at the wrong time of year to plant), but I planted them anyway. I dug a few holes and threw the seeds in, gave them a good watering and then promptly forgot them. Similarly I planted some flowers, but unlike the beautiful multi layered borders I saw in books and magazines, I would buy whatever was reduced at the garden centre, and hope that it would spread, and create a pretty display.

It’s fair to say that this first attempt didn’t yield much – my mum had better luck with her pot grown plants. I did manage to raise some weedy carrots and onions,and that’s when I discovered that I wanted to grow fruit and vegetables; in my mind I wandered through orchards, kitchen gardens and raised beds.

It wasn’t until I had a house of my own that I revisited the idea, but again it seemed like a lot of work, and I would try to cut corners where I could. If I grew a crop and it failed, I wouldn’t bother trying again. Experimenting with another variety seemed like too much work. I was still inconsistent with watering and feeding the plants, and I was very squeamish with the inevitable creepy crawlies that go with gardening; the worms and slugs, the mouse peering up at me when I uncovered my compost heap, the process of decomposition itself, attended by lots of ants, flies and tiny red wriggly things. I wanted a beautiful compost heap, but I was repelled by its mechanics.

If truth be told, I was a lackadaisical gardener, and my dreams always outstripped the reality. I made excuses to myself; I was a busy working mum, I had other things to do, I’d start doing it properly next season. But still, I’d pass other gardens, or walk in a park and see a beautiful plant, flower, tree and want it to grow in my garden, and again the idea of fruit and veg haunted me. Growing fresh food has a very strong attraction to me, and finally, I admitted to myself that cutting out pictures from magazines and buying gardening books wasn’t going to get me the results I craved. I also had to face facts about gardening; it can be messy, it’s an organic process, there’s bugs, and I wouldn’t magically hit on the right plant, or method of growing, every time. I had to experiment, and not give up, but mostly I had to stop thinking and start systematically doing things, in order to grow my garden.

And this is what I finally did. I did a lot of reading, research and cross referencing, and came up with a selection of plants, fruit trees and crops I thought I could grow. I made a planting timetable and I bought the right tools, but I didn’t go mad – frugal gardening is possible. The work you put in is more important than the tools you use.

I did the less enjoyable parts of gardening faithfully, and I kept records; if one particular seed or plant didn’t take in my garden, I recorded that and tried another variety.

I also learned to distinguish between good and “bad” bugs and creepy crawlies, and to appreciate the beauty of nature, how everything is used and nothing wasted. Gardening is hard work if done properly but it’s also incredibly rewarding. For a city girl like me, proudly showing my family my crop of courgettes, chillies, tomatoes and beans, and creating home-grown jams, chutneys and wines is the literal fruits of my labour, and every season I do better than the last.

My interest in writing pre-dates my love of gardening, but if I’m honest, I went about it in the same dilettante fashion for far too long.

Beautiful scraps of conversation, riveting character traits and a list of wonderful words were duly collected, saved and neglected. I had the basic idea for my novel And The Buntings Flew for many years before I properly committed it to paper, and gave it a plot and timeline summary.

I had a new raft of excuses that were really the same old ones – I had a busy job, I was doing my MBA, I had a long commute. All true, but all excuses just the same. I even did a creative writing course with the Open University; together with a handful of poems and a dozen or so non-fiction articles, this was all I had completed until the end of 2014.

I knew the idea for my novel was a compelling one, and I had ideas and themes buzzing in my head, but what good was that? Finally, I started, at the end of last year to WRITE THEM DOWN. I created folders for my book in Word and Excel, and I gathered all my ideas and snippets of conversation in there. I created a target word count for each week, and I was honest with myself if I didn’t meet the targets.

It was hard work at first; the writing was lumpy and raw. I was wordy, repetitive, some sentences were as long as paragraphs. I was writing in the first person but filtering all the action. But I had to start writing to become aware of these issues, and to correct them. I found that as I continued to write, a hundred more ideas came to me, and they in turn would need to be researched. Facts and assertions in my writing had to be checked, and the back story had to be historically correct. However, even though I hadn’t envisaged the process being this involved, it got easier. Not everything worked, and some of my crops failed to grow. I joined a critique site, and sought my first feedback. It helped me. I knew when I had written something that, if not perfect, was good enough to be put up for critique. This is a very powerful tool in my repertoire, and one I quickly learned, as much from the writings of others as my own.

Some things are still beyond me, but my writing, like my garden, is now a reality; I have written nearly 30,000 words of my novel. This novel, like my dream orchards and kitchen gardens, if not complete and as beautiful as my mind’s eyes visualises them, is on the way, a real work in progress. The seeds have been and continue to be sowed, and I will enjoy the fruits of my labour. I hope one day that you will too.

Margaret

Further Reading:

Your Novel As A Garden: 14 Ways Writing Fiction Is Like Growing Your Own Veggies

How Does Your Novel Grow?

25,000 words…

When I write a novel I’m writing about my own life; I’m writing a biography almost, always. And to make it look like a novel I either have a murder or a death at the end
(Beryl Bainbridge)

That’s it, I’ve clocked up 25,900 words as at the end of last night, which is just under a third of the way through my projected 80,000 word novel. I hurried over to this site to update my little novel progress widget, proud to tell the world that And The Buntings Flew is inching along, and has reached another milestone.

As I referred to in a previous post, this section has been heavy going, and at times a real mental slog. I have however taken some positives from the experience; the first real plot development is written, and while writing the last chapter some beautiful ideas for plot and themes have come into my head, uncovered no doubt by the heavy plough of my mind as it trudged along the rocky and unforgiving soil of this part of the story.

I found the quote below about writing, and never has it seemed truer to me than at this point in my own novel:

“When I write a novel I’m writing about my own life; I’m writing a biography almost, always. And to make it look like a novel I either have a murder or a death at the end.” (Beryl Bainbridge)

Sadly, not all of the deaths in my story are fictional, but I have taken some poetic license, as Beryl Bainbridge suggests, to tie the story up into a novel.

Margaret