June Roundup: flash fiction published and revisiting the draft of my first novel: it does get better!

Felixstowe beach
Felixstowe Beach

May and June have been busy, momentous even, and I’ve struggled to find time to write and update the blog. I did, however, snatch the time for a quick trip to the seaside; we are pretty much in the centre of the landmass of England, and the coast is a long drive in every direction, but we managed to get over to Felixstowe on the East coast during that blink-and-you-missed-it heat wave we had a few weekends ago.

I’ve also had a couple of pieces of flash fiction published recently; Uncle Clifford at Fifty Word Stories and Conditional at 101 Fiction. As usual, both are inspired by real life events, although “Conditional” has a nasty whiff of wish-fulfilment!  If you have the time, please grab a moment to visit these great flash fiction sites; I’m often inspired by the quality of the stories they feature.

I’ve also taken time, now a couple of months have gone by since its publication, to revisit The Battle of Watling Street, specifically to review how it reads to me, four or five months after I completed the last edits. I’m pleased with the result; the text is nice and tight, and I haven’t found any glaring historical anachronisms! I enjoy the characters and their voices, and I might be tempted to catch up with Dedo and Cata and follow their adventures after their escape from the destruction of Boudicca’s forces.

I’m currently working on the modern-day sequel to  Street, but emboldened, I revisited my first novel-in-progress, And The Buntings Flew which is around 50% through; I’ve parked it for now so I can finish my Sci-Fi novella, but it means the most to me, and I wanted to have a read through to refresh my memory ready for me picking it up again towards the autumn.

It was a revelation – the story is still great, the characters and descriptions still grip, but I was so long-winded in writing the action and “doing” scenes; just moving characters around in their world would take pages, and it made a really tense story with high stakes drag at times.

Anecdote time; when I was first asked to take minutes in a meeting, many years ago, I captured pretty much every word uttered, and turned in a whopping ten-pager instead of the usual one or two sides of notes and actions – the writing in my draft for Buntings, particularly where characters are acting, going about their business and driving the plot, has similar style faults. My writing inexperience shines through.

I shouldn’t have been surprised – the experience of completing my first novella really helped in tightening up dialogue, action scenes and just getting characters from A to B, and the whole process has come under some scrutiny from beta readers for Watling Street, and the results are there to be read. I’m writing more tightly, and coming to the point – my words have lost their flab and have muscle, exactly the result you expect from training and lots of practice. The good news is that I can sweep through the slow sections in “Buntings” and trim them considerably with relatively little pain; the total word count will take a hit though!

Have you had a similar experience when revisiting your earlier writing, maybe an unfinished draft you’ve picked up again recently?

Photo Inspiration for “The Bondage of The Soil”

“Progress is not an illusion; it happens, but it is slow and invariably disappointing.” – George Orwell

(All photos © Margaret McGoverne 2017)

So, dear reader, I’ve published my very first work of fiction  and the truth of the Orwell quote above has hit me hard. Writing the story is only the first step; I’m busy with guest posts, building up reviews, and wooing local newspapers to bestow a couple of columns on my book.

thincovertbows5It’s a bit like having children; having brought my first book baby into the world, I now have to contend with gestating and giving birth to another one while the firstborn is still a very demanding toddler!

On the plus side, I have renewed vigour for my current work in progress; I suspect this is because, after endless rereads and edits and Kindle uploads and proofing, I’m thoroughly sick of The Battle of Watling Street!

The Bondage of The Soil is the modern-day Sci-Fi sequel to The Battle of Watling Street (which was set in 1st century AD Roman Britain) , although it was the first in terms of the idea coming to me. The inspiration was a lonely detour on my way home from  work, excavations for a new motorway junction, a steep hill, lots of local Roman and Celtic history and a very old, lonely church. So as a taster, here’s some pictures and the Google street view from the road (I couldn’t get a shot of the creepy pollarded trees that edge the church as there’s nowhere to park on the country lane.)

I hope to finish the first draft by the autumn; I’m excited by this one, it’s my first full length novel, and I feel I learned lots from The Battle of Watling Street, even though it’s a less than 20K words novella.

(If you’d like to read the first two chapters of The Battle of Watling Street for free, you can subscribe to email updates, or I’d be happy to arrange a free PDF copy for a review on Amazon and/or Goodreads)

Happy New Year, And May Your Creative Endeavours Ever Increase!

20161222_163547
Christmas 2016, New Year 2017

I’ve been working on a Christmas post for the last few weeks – I didn’t finish it off in time (waste not, want not, it’s saved in my drafts and may be recycled for Christmas 2017), but I’ve been thinking about the essence of what I was trying to say in that post.

2016 was a challenging year, it felt, for nearly everyone, and although that feeling was exacerbated by the plethora of too-soon celebrity deaths (David Bowie, Prince, George Michael, Leonard Cohen, Lemmy and Rick Parfitt, thank you for the music), I do think it was a year of abnormal troubles for many. I wasn’t immune, and I struggled with some fairly momentous family issues; they haven’t gone away completely, but in 2017 I look forward to a new year with hope; I also struggle with extending that hope to the wider world, but it’s vital not to give up hoping for a better world, even in the face of the awful, latest atrocity in Istanbul on that dawning day of the New Year; that’s about the only thing I concurred with the priests and the nuns at my Catholic secondary school – the loss of hope, despair, is the only sin.

Getting back to my doomed Christmas post, I can distill what I wanted to say just as well here, in a New Year post; what I miss about Christmases past, and what gives me hope for Christmases and New Year’s in the future is people, good memories, kindness and the hope that I can and will make a difference for the better in this world, through my actions and hopefully through my writing, even if only in my own local sphere.

I may miss my parents and family and friends no longer with me, or estranged for whatever reason, but I am fortunate to have many more good people around me and to be in a position to follow (if only in my own time) my passion, which is to write; I have hope, and an ambition that I will work hard to finish at least one manuscript this year, and press on to publication, and I have the ability to change the world for the better, or at least to not make it worse. For years I’ve worked hard to be green and environmentally friendly in as many ways as possible, and to spread this message, long before it had the (rightful) exposure it now does; now more than ever we need to start with ourselves, our family, our house, our neighborhood and ask, what can I do, me, myself and I, to make a positive difference?

So, dear constant reader, to wrap up this brief, slightly preachy, but well-intentioned post, I’d like to wish you all a very happy, successful and creative New Year; take care, of yourselves and each other, and lastly I look forward to enjoying more of your creative labours, some of which have brought me such joy as has lightened my darkest days of 2016.

Margaret x

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!

8 Foods of Ulster featured in “And The Buntings Flew”

Vegetable Roll, courtesy of McCartneys of Moira

I recently read a great article in the Guardian Food in Books series by blogger Kate at The Little Library Cafe; – you can read the latest article here.

Kate writes about the food that features in some of her favourite books, and she often recreates recipes for foods as described in such classics as To Kill A Mockingbird, The Fellowship of The Ring, and Vanity Fair.

I love this idea, and it got me thinking about the food that’s featured in the novel I am  writing, And The Buntings Flew, which is set in 1970s Belfast.The food of Northern Ireland was and still is very traditional, and may seem limited (not much pasta or rice was in evidence, and salads were sorry affairs), but Irish meat, dairy produce and vegetables are of world class quality, and food was often bought fresh from the butchers and grocers, when shopping was a little-and-often affair before the widescale introduction of supermarkets.

Below I’ve listed eight of the Northern Irish food and drinks you can read about in And The Buntings Flew, and if you find yourself in Ulster, please do try as many as you can!

Tea (Lots Of It!)

I may have mentioned this before on here: the Irish are some of the most prolific tea drinkers in the world! Wikipedia lists the Republic of Ireland at number 3, and the UK at number 5 of the highest consumers of tea per capita

Both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland have their own popular tea brands, one of which is Thompson’s “Punjana”. In the 1970s, the period in Which And The Buntings Flew is set, loose leaf tea was the norm; I still think it’s more flavourful, although spitting out errant tea leaves is one of its drawbacks. One of my memories of my late father is of his never being more than a few feet from either a mug, cup, teapot, flask or bottle of strong white tea.

Punjana teapot, courtesy of punjana.com
Punjana loose leaf teapot, courtesy of Punjana.com

Ulster Fry

The BBC asked if the Ulster Fry was the best-cooked breakfast in the UK, and the answer to that is surely a resounding yes! What’s so special about a wee fry you ask? For me it’s the addition of the Potato and Soda breads, adding a range of glorious flavours and textures that toast simply can’t match. Vegetable roll is also a winning addition to the cooked breakfast, as are the wonderful Irish sausages, which usually have a higher meat content than their mainland counterparts; put them all together and you have a taste extravaganza and a meal that sets you up for the rest of the day!

Ulster Fry by The Hairy Bikers, courtesy of the BBC: http://www.bbc.co.uk/guides/zgk7mp3
Ulster Fry by The Hairy Bikers, courtesy of the BBC: http://www.bbc.co.uk/guides/zgk7mp3

Champ

A cheap, simple but wonderful dish celebrating the potato and made even better with flavourful Irish butter; potatoes mashed with butter and milk, with the addition of chopped spring onions, or scallions as they’re known in Northern Ireland. The scallions give the mash a real tangy kick.

Scallion and brown onion champ, courtesy of Voodoo and Sauce.com
Scallion & brown onion champ, courtesy of Voodoo and Sauce.com

 

Dulse

Dulse (Palmaria Palmata) is a strongly flavoured, salty seaweed that grows on the northern coasts of the Atlantic, including Northern Ireland. Dulse is harvested at low tide by hand during the summertime and then dried.Dulse can be found for sale in little plastic bags at markets, fairs and bars; we always bought a few bags on day trips to Ballycastle, where it is also sold at the Ould Lammas Fair in August. It is something of an acquired taste!

By Cwmhiraeth - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16824956
Dulse, by Cwmhiraeth Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16824956

Potato Bread/Farl

Another potato dish, this reminds me of Sunday evening teatimes and was often in evidence if there wasn’t much in for dinner. The main ingredient is leftover mashed potatoes mixed with plain flour, a pinch of salt and a knob of butter or a drop of buttermilk if available. Potato bread is dry fried in a pan or griddle, is quick and easy to make and is absolutely delicious. A true Ulster Fry must include both Potato bread and soda bread, at least in my family!

Soda Bread

Soda bread was created in the 19th century when locals used baking soda and buttermilk for raising agents as a substitute for yeast. Soda bread is divinely soft and fluffy, and is served either fried or sliced with butter (my preference) on its own or as part of an Ulster Fry.

Irish Soda bread, courtesy of blissfuldomesticity.com
Irish Soda bread, courtesy of blissfuldomesticity.com

Yellowman

I have happy memories of munching bagfuls of crunchy bright Yellowman on days out to the seaside, but I haven’t seen it outside Northern Ireland; it is similar in texture to the bags of honeycomb you can still buy at fairs and markets, but chewier, with a hard, rock-like “rind”.

By Wild quinine - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Yellowman_honeycomb_comparison.jpg, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36019713
Yellowman, by Wild quininehttps://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Yellowman_honeycomb_comparison.jpg, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36019713

 

Vegetable Roll

The name “vegetable roll” is a total misnomer for this sausage-like roll of fatty meat (often beef brisket and rib trimmings) seasoned with onion, carrot and celery. Vegetable roll can be served in an Ulster Fry or on its own with potatoes or champ, or with mashed carrot and swede. My wonderful late aunt always brought home a batch whenever she returned to East Belfast.

Vegetable Roll, courtesy of McCartneys of Moira
Vegetable Roll, courtesy of McCartneys of Moira

I’d love to hear from you if you’ve tried any or all of the above Northern Irish food favourites, or if you feature any of them in your writing?

Margaret

(With grateful thanks to the following websites and blogs)

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

Robert Harris Goodreads Q&A January ’16

Cesare Maccari [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

One of my favorite authors, Robert Harris is doing a Goodreads “Ask the Author” Q&A mid January and I’ve just posted a question about his latest novel “Dictator”; fingers crossed that he answers!

My question is about the historical character, Roman lawyer, politician, orator and consul Marcus Tullius Cicero, who is the central character in Harris’s latest trilogy, although he is surrounded (and intrigued) by historical heavyweights such as Julius Caesar, Augustus, Mark Antony and Pompey the Great.

Would an enormously clever and talented, but relatively humble orator like Cicero rise to the top echelons of government today?

Cicero was a very talented, largely self-made man in a key period of history  that was dominated for the most part by men with an aristocratic or very wealthy background. My question to Robert Harris was, does he think that there is, or could be a public figure like Cicero today, and if so, is there someone he would identify as being that person?

One of the main themes for me in reading Robert Harris’s historical first century BC novels is that politics is timeless, as are the scheming, betrayals, uneasy alliances and real-politik that dominates it today. Would an enormously clever and talented, but relatively humble orator like Cicero rise to the top echelons of government today, or as in the time of the Roman republic, would that require huge financial backing? Has much changed? The 20th century featured one or two very ambitious orators who had humble beginnings, and that didn’t work out so well for humanity.

If I do receive an answer I’ll post it here, and if this type of historical/political fiction is your thing, please do check out Robert Harris’s novels if you haven’t already.

Margaret