Write What You Know? Or What You Imagine?

Authors are often told to ‘write about what you know’. Despite that sounding easy, it isn’t. Writing about your own life can seem dull, prosaic and boring. And if it’s not like that, if your life is either really exciting, fulfilling and wonderful, or actually quite awful, you probably don’t have time or a wish to write about it. (Or are waiting to do your autobiography in later life?)

Some writers have definitely used parts of their life experience to create fiction, and it is particularly interesting when those writers are writing crime fiction. The majority of crime writers are, of course, not criminals writing about crimes they have committed. There are some exceptions, and they are interesting to read about, but it’s not definitely to the norm.

Crime writers may use real crime stories for inspiration, which is a good way to see how the perpetrator got caught, or if they ever got caught. Aside from that, other famous crime writers used their experience in a particular field. Here’s a couple of examples.

Black and white photograph of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle with a large moustache

As a qualified physician, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle used his extensive medical knowledge in his Sherlock Holmes stories. Some of the forensic methods, like fingerprints, solved the crimes in his writing. Such methods was later taken up by police forces around the world.

Conan Doyle ensured that his crime stories had forensic truth, even if it seemed unlikely. As Holmes himself says, “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” This seems a good rule for any crime novel. Coming from Conan Doyle’s scientific world of medicine and science, it isn’t surprising that the paranormal was never allowed as the answer to a crime in the Sherlock Holmes novels.

But what is surprising is that Conan Doyle himself was very interested in spiritualism (partly because of the deaths of loved ones both in and outside of the first world war) and wrote extensively about it as a believer. Despite this, he must have realised that having ghosts or similar things in the Holmes stories would break everything that the reader would have expected from the coldly analytical Sherlock. It would have broken the trust that a writer makes with their readers.

Black and white photograph of an older Agatha Chistie with her hands near her chin
Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie’s work as a volunteer nurse and chemist in the first world war was used extensively her crime novels. In a similar fashion to Conan Doyle, she preferred there to be a proven reason for a crime, especially if it was murder.

Despite the excellent ‘little grey cells’ in Poirot’s brain, he still might send crime scene articles to a laboratory in London or ask for confirmation about legal elements rather than just go on a hunch, or local gossip and bias.

She often used poison in her stories and the book ‘A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie’ by Kathrine Harkup (Bloomsbury Sigma) is a very interesting title going though fourteen Christie novels with the fourteen poisons used.

The different ways poison can be acquired and used is another joy when reading Christie’s work. It’s really interesting! But also be aware, Christie doesn’t laud her criminals and there is a very moral side to her writing, criminals are always punished. As someone who lived through two world wars this isn’t so surprising.

Book cover of A is for Arsenic showing a large golden A and a bottle within that.

Being able to draw on personal knowledge within a story is always useful as it gives a clear edge of believability to the writing. Personal experience is good to use in any creative writing, not just crime fiction, but only if it doesn’t overshadow other elements in the work. There is a real danger of being a consumate bore about what you know; whether it’s about skateboarding, hairdressing, stocks and shares, making cakes or gathering mushrooms.

Remember, wear you specialist knowledge lightly and don’t let it suffocate the rest of your story.


Leave it to Wodehouse!

P.G.Wodehouse in Paris, 1945

Like so many things you learn as a child, the writers you read as you grow up will affect you for life. I admit that’s just my opinion, I don’t have absolute scientific proof, but it’s definitely been true for me.

Despite Wodehouse being born in 1881, and me in 1972, I still found his work spoke to me, a little girl on an English council estate. It was the humour, the brilliant characters and the pricking of pompous old British traditions within the class structure and the concept of the inherited privilege of Lords and Ladies in their country mansions. From that perspective it was actually quite political.

But beyond any socio-political elements, his books were also very funny and satisfying to read. I firmly believe that reading P.G.Wodehouse (Pelham Grenville Wodehouse) from a young age changed the way I thought, the way I wrote, the things I found funny, how I believed a good story should be written, what made a good character and how an enjoyable story should end. A writing masterclass in fact.

The title of this post is based on one of my favourite Wodehouse books, ‘Leave it to Psmith’ published in Britain in 1923. I still find it funny, romantic and exciting, despite it all being based in very different times and with old fashioned social mores. Perhaps because of this (and difficult modern life?) it’s definitely my comfort read. And if you want to know how to pronounce Psmith you should read it and find out…

Jeeves and Wooster image: BBC

When Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry (pictured above) brilliantly depicted Jeeves and Wooster on BBC television in the 1990’s even more people discovered the humour and charm of Wodehouse. The show was great, but the books are still worth reading!

Wodehouse’s birthday is 15 October, so I’m a bit late in celebrating him here. but hope you’ll join me in raising a glass of your favourite tipple (or cup of tea) to Plum, as he was affectionately known to friends and family, this month at your own version of the Drones Club, an exclusive gentlemen’s club and favourite hang out of Bertie Wooster.

The picture below is of Buck’s clubhouse at number 18 Clifford Street, London which was one of the clubs the Drones was based on.

Until next time, toodle-pip old bean!


Katherine Mansfield: Brief Life Long Legacy

Katherine Mansfield

For my birthday, a kind friend gave me a voucher for any book from Persephone Books. This is a brilliant book shop/publisher which, and I’m quoting now from their website, “reprints neglected fiction and non-fiction, mostly by women writers and mostly mid-twentieth century. All of our 143 books are intelligent, thought-provoking and beautifully written and are chosen to appeal to busy people wanting titles that are neither too literary nor too commercial.”

I was given a list of books available, but I already knew the one I wanted. I already have a few excellent Persephone Books titles, and was pleased to see a book I’d wanted was available: Journal of Katherine Mansfield. I’ve been a fan of Mansfield’s work for some time and I like to read diaries of writers to see what they were thinking about while writing.

Kathleen Mansfield Beauchamp was born in 1888 into a socially prominent Wellington family in Thorndon, New Zealand. She disliked some elements of New Zealand life in those times. Especially the conservatism and the repressive attitudes towards the Maori population. She changed her name to Katherine Mansfield for her writing work and moved to England, first for her education and later to be part of the more progressive European culture in literature and the arts. 

Her journal covers 1910-1922 and was put together by her late husband John Middleton Murry after her young death at 34 in 1923 from tuberculosis. He gathered all her journal entries, scraps of writing, letters and notes together to give an idea of what his wife was thinking and saying in the last ten years of her life. 

Overall it is a wonderful, bittersweet book. Reading it you see how Katherine loved, suffered and tried to be best writer possible despite her the physical problems she was having. 

Katherine shows herself to be as a courageous writer as she was in other parts of her life. Her relationships with men and the baby she miscarried is known about, but it is her relationships with women that are more interesting. Especially the one with Maata Mahupuku picture below (other names Martha Grace and Martha Asher).

She was two years older and they met at school in Wellington. Maata was the granddaughter of a Maori chief and they stayed close in London and then kept in touch by letter. 

In June 1907 she wrote: “I want Maata—I want her as I have had her—terribly. This is unclean I know but true.” She often referred to Maata as Carlotta. She wrote about Maata in several short stories. Maata married in 1907 but it is claimed that she sent money to Katherine in London

The fact that Katherine was part of the London Literary scene at such a pivotal moment in writing and art when modernism was ripping up the rules of Victorian Britain and reacting to both the horrors of the First World War and the ongoing thrust of science and innovation and demands for equality is exciting! I’m sure she felt it herself and her writing was part of that new world.

Because of this her writing shows both clarity and depth and doesn’t feel like it’s over a hundred years old. It can also often be terribly sad as she doesn’t write happy go lucky stories. Instead her stories peel away the superficial layers that human beings cover themselves with and reveal the hidden truths about individual lives. The hopes, the joys, the worries, the fears and the mistakes they have made and will probably make again. 

Katherine met many of the literary greats of the times in London, mainly through her husband John who was not only a writer and critic like her, but also a publisher aswell. They had met in 1911 and got married in 1918 after living together and getting her work published in various literary magazines.

John Middleton Murry and Katherine Mansfield in France 1921

He introduced Katherine to the Leonard and Virginia Woolf who had begun the Hogarth Press from their Richmond London home with a view to publishing modernist writing of Virginia and the poems for T.S. Eliot.

Virginia and Leonard Woolf at the Hogarth Press 1914 (Alamo Stock Photo)

She became a good friend of Virginia despite the clear sense of writerly competition between them. It is clear Virginia got inspiration from Katherine. As Virginia said of Katherine,

“I was jealous of her writing. The only writing I have ever been jealous of.

And Virginia was very upset when Katherine gave her novel Night and Day a less than positive review.

“We had thought that this world had vanished forever, that it was impossible to find on the great ocean of literature a ship that was unaware of what had been happening. Yet here is Night and Day, fresh, new and exquisite, a novel in the tradition of the English novel. In the midst of our admiration it makes us feel old and chill. We had never thought to look upon its like again!” (Katherine Mansfield, Athenaeum, 1919)

Later Kathrine would get very ill from the tuberculosis she’d been diagnosed with in 1917 and her need to keep recuperating abroad from bouts of the illness meant hers and Virginia’s friendship was often tested. Bearing in mind Virginia was also often ill with her own mental problems it is surprising, but also important to remember how close they briefly were.

Virginia enjoyed the “oddly complete understanding” they both had asked on Katherine’s own love of writing. For Katherine, Virginia inspired her, “She was very nice … She does take the writing business seriously and she is honest about it & thrilled by it. One can’t ask more.”

Although, Katherine’s life was cut cruelly short, her legacy for me is in the modernist stories and incisive reviews and deeply personal diaries she left behind. Also, I believe her influence was at work in Virginia’s later work. Mrs Dalloway is based on ‘stream of consciousness’ writing over one day, but Katherine had already done something very similar to this in her own work, ‘Bliss’ and ‘The Garden Party’ for example, which you can read here: The Garden Party


Yorkshire Tales

Two weeks ago I was very fortunate to visit Yorkshire with my printer partner and go to a Wayzgoose. For a long definition of that word click here: Wayzgoose but a short answer is that a wayzgoose is a meeting/fair of printers showing, selling and discussing/demonstrating printing methods. It’s very popular in the US and there are Wayzgooses held in the UK as well, often at established printing places like the amazing St Bride’s in London. The one we attended was held in Shipley.

Damien Hirst – Yorkshire Sculpture Park – Image: Y. Keyani

This was my second trip to Yorkshire, the first being a work trip to York in the early 2,000s, and I was so happy to see another part of this wonderful county. We visited a couple of nice pubs, had some lovely food and went to the Hepworth Wakefield and the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, which were both very interesting.

The other place we wanted to visit was Shibden Hall in Halifax. This was the home of Anne Lister in the late 1700s-mid-1800s. Lister was famous locally as a landowner and resident of a fine house. But she is now better known for her ‘secret’ life as a lesbian. I use the word ‘secret’ because living with another woman as your wife was not seen as acceptable in her lifetime. Instead, her partner, Ann Walker, was viewed as her live-in ‘companion’

Shibden Hall – Image: Calderdal Council

Their relationship has been dramatised on the BBC as ‘Gentleman Jack’ (worth reading more about this from the excellent BBC link here: Gentleman Jack) with Suranne Jone as Anne Lister and Sophie Rundle as Ann Walker. The drama is wonderfully made with great work done on representing the lives of these women from nearly 200 years ago. The filming of the Yorkshire landscape is a beautiful backdrop to the drama and the detail of the costumes is brilliant.

Lister was a devoted diarist and wrote about every aspect of her life in rather obsessive detail. From her business dealings in her coal mine, the old hall she had inherited and lived in (Shibden) and the alterations and improvements she made to it. She also chronicled her travels in this country and abroad, her dealings with her family (her father, sister and aunt) and the servants she employed.

As such, Lister gives the reader a rich, primary source of information about the 1700s and the state of women in Britain. Although Lister was rich, she was not allowed to stand as a member of parliament and if she had married, all her wealth would have been under her husband’s control. Lister never married a man.

Despite her wanting to document her life, for her own enjoyment and later reading (and possibly for prosperity and others to read?) some parts of her diaries were impossible for other people to read as she used her own code. These hidden writings were about her interest in and romantic dealings with what she called ‘the fairer sex’. She had no interest in men beyond friendship or business and certainly not for sex or marriage and is now known as the first modern lesbian because she lived with her female lover as a wife, Ann Walker, and left her an inheritance in her will.

Lister’s diary was partially decoded in the past and later work found out more about her hidden life. Though Lister was undoubtedly a very interesting woman, I did find the lack of hearing her wife’s story a bit sad. There isn’t even a portrait of Ann Walker! But then I found this website: In Search of Ann Walker and thoroughly recommend people check it out. As a very religious woman, Ann Walker suffered greatly from living a hidden life as a lesbian when the church told her she should marry a man and have children. This was despite her loving Lister and enjoying the freedom Lister encouraged in her with the foreign travel for example.

As a writer, I always like looking into untold stories, like Ann Walker’s. The Gentleman Jack drama did try to give Ann Walker a voice, but it was often submerged under the more dominant Anne Lister story. Despite this, I really did enjoy the Gentleman Jack series and appreciated how an outsider’s, hidden story had finally been brought back to life in the 21st century. I also like to think that Anne Lister would have approved of this.

Painted portrait of a lady with a high collar and a ruff underneath and an old fashioned hairstyle
Portrait of Anne Lister (1791-1840), by Joshua Horner, ca. 1830

Rare Books, Hidden Gems and The Elephant Man

After two years of literary events and book shopping being relegated to the internet, now we are slowly coming back to having events and fairs in IRL (in real life)!

The Norwich Book Fair at the Millennium Library in Norwich in April this year was held as part of the Provincial Book Fairs Association (PBFA) calendar of book fairs around the United Kingdom. The free event was well attended and the bright atrium of the Forum was a perfect way to show the books to potential customers.

Local second-hand booksellers had set up stalls for the public to peruse old, rar or limited edition secondhand titles. The stalls were close together and each had marked out the types of books for ease of viewing, such as murder, mystery, and art. All sellers had a broad range of subjects and titles. This meant you had Agatha Christie rubbing shoulders with Beatrix Potter and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Cassell Book Club first edition 1967

In this mix I had the good fortune to discover an original edition (Cassell, 1923) of ‘The Elephant Man and other reminiscences’ by Sir Frederick Treves.

Treves was a prominent British surgeon in the 1800s, who after meeting Joseph Carey Merrick (often misnamed as John) and giving him his card, was called on to help him when the police rescued a cowering Merrick from a over-excited crowd at Liverpool street.

At Liverpool Street he was rescued from the crowd by the police and taken to the third-class waiting-room. Here he sank on the floor in the darkest corner. The police were at a loss what to do with him. They had dealt with strange and mouldy tramps, but never with such an object as this. He could not explain himself. His speech was so maimed that he might as well have spoken in Arabic. He had, however, something with him which he produced with a ray of hope. It was my card.’


Those words ’It was my card’ are so wonderful! This was Merrick’s ‘get out of jail’ card. Fortunately Treves was at the London Hospital when a messenger came for him. Treves then went straight to the station and Merrick was taken to the Hospital, where he received kindness, food and a safe place to sleep.

Etching of ’The Elephant Man’

Merrick was suffering from a rare condition called ’Proteus syndrome’ that had made his life intolerable. The condition leads to an overgrowth of bones, skin and other tissues and finally extreme disfigurement and deformity. He had trouble walking, using his hands, speaking and his skin was rough and his head so heavy that he couldn’t lie down properly as the weight would asphyxiate him.

Treves would write compassionately about Merrick’s life, with all its difficulties and sadness, in his book. Below is the first page.

Page from Sir Frederick Treves book

In 1982 the book was made into a film with John Hurt as Merrick and directed by David Lynch. The story of Joseph Merrick is terribly sad, bit it is also an example of extreme perseverance to survive despite his terrible disability. He was, as Treves tells us, ’remarkably intelligent. He had learnt to read and had become a most voracious reader.’

For more information on Joseph Merrick I would suggest looking at his wikipedia page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_Merrick

This gives a good overview of Merrick’s life and travails and how he was saved by the good fortune of meeting Frederick Treves, and his own sweet nature and love of reading.

One thing I find very interesting is that Merrick’s favourite pursuit was reading love stories. Treves story about Merrick is most definitely not a love story! But by the end you do feel a sense of caring about Joseph that is similar to reading a good romance. Treves shows him to be a nice, intelligent and lovable young man in his twenties and I love that.


Read the book or watch the film?

Photograph of the Nile from 1920s

It is ‘murder’ of a book by watching its film adaptation first?

As an Agatha Christie fan, I’m a sucker for any new adaptations of her books. So when I heard the much delayed (by Covid) film release of ‘Death on the Nile’ was due out I was very excited. But, before heading to the cinema or some streaming device, I first had to read it again.

I say ‘again’ because I presume I have read it sometime in the past. But I didn’t have a copy of it. This could be because in the past, I used to borrow her books from the library so I might never have owned this one. I certainly can’t remember who did the murder, even though I’m sure I’ve probably watched an old version of the film. Awful! But I find good mysteries are like that, especially Christie’s. There will be a lot of potential culprits and often the thing that sticks in your memory is the setting of the crime, ‘The Orient Express is an example of that.

I am also aware that I have lots of books and as such am always nervous about adding to my TBR (To Be Read) pile. However, in this case, I thought it was worth it as I like reading mysteries and these are also the sort of stories I like to write. Therefore, I think of it as my ongoing homework from one of the masters of the genre!

I am aware you could be thinking, “Won’t reading the book ruin the film?’ I don’t think it will in this case because Christie’s work is so wonderful to adapt, with the locations, the vehicles of the time and clothing (in this case they would be from the late 1930s) watching a film of her books don’t ruin it for me. Instead, if it’s done well, it merely adds to what I’d imagined reading it. And knowing the ending in advance is quite useful. I can, again, track how Christie set up ‘pointers’ to who did the crime and why.

Death on the Nile poster for 20 Century Studios film

That final point is very important. Christie never has murders without a clear reason. Although she knew some deaths do occur without real thought, planning or even malice because the perpetrator had a mental illness or made a foolish mistake. She didn’t like those in her mysteries. She wanted the murders in her books to be done with focussed reasoning and ruthlessness.

As the brilliant Sophie Hannah, who has continued writing Poirot mysteries with the Agatha Christie estate’s blessing, says:

“The real mysterious hook in crime fiction is not so much whodunnit, but ‘how on earth can the apparently inexplicable be explained?’”

Sophie Hannah 2015 Irish Times

I believe this is why people still love the work of Agatha Christie. She continues to pull us in because she was the mistress of great plotting and able to create wonderful intriguing, surprising and devious characters to populate her stories!



Photo by Element5 Digital on Pexels.com

Alice Walker wrote a book called ‘Horses make the landscape look more beautiful’ 

Photo by Vedran Miletiu0107 on Pexels.com

And I agree, but would further say that if you don’t have access to a horse, books make a room look more beautiful. Books and everything that they represent: information, entertainment, anger, love and joy, are portable receptacles of our deepest feelings, thoughts, hopes and sometimes horrors. A lot for a small paper package to encompass, don’t you think?

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Of course, we now live in a digital age and all the things I’ve just said are also available on your tablet or smart phone. Which is also portable, but can be linked up with a global library of even more books, more ideas, more knowledge. Which sounds fantastic, but is it? A good book can hold your attention for minutes, sometimes hours and, if it’s a real page turner, most of a whole day! The difficulty with the digital world is it can be one of constant distraction while you’re reading that page turner.

Unlike a digital copy of a book on your smartphone, your new physical paperback from your favourite author won’t call you after two minutes and ask what you want for your birthday. It doesn’t remind you that you haven’t made your doctor’s appointment or told the school your daughter has chicken pox and won’t be in class today. Or notify you that your bank account is now overdrawn and needs attention.

In case I’m sounding very anti-tech, I love computers. I love their potential and that of the internet. I listen to book podcasts, I read and write e-books, I watch adaptations of books on streaming services online and enjoy them. But I also love physical books and don’t see a problem with using both. 

In my twenties I worked for a large publishing house and there were lots of discussions about the the ethics of the working conditions for workers printing the actual books (basically they weren’t paid much) and the environmental problem of paper waste from making so many books. Publishers print lots of books, even now when all the major publishing houses also offer ebooks.

The environmental impact of so many books being created is a complicated subject that I don’t pretend to be an expert on, but fortunately writers like Lucy Siegel in the Guardian newspaper did a short report on this in 2013 which I’m attaching here: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2013/jan/06/should-i-buy-an-e-reader

In my own little terraced house, currently shared with my partner and son, we have loads of books and are constantly having to review how to store them (shelves are best) and what to get rid of. We take books we can’t keep to friends (who have their own book storage problems) charity shops or sell on Ebay. Not for any great profit I admit, but it’s nice to know you’ve helped someone to get a book they really wanted. Or via Ziffit.com, also not for a great profit (are you seeing a pattern here?) but it’s part of The World of Books Group and I myself have bought second hand books from them. As such, I was happy to read what The World of Books says:

The World of Books Group purpose: A circular economy, for-profit company that supports charities and protects the planet by enabling more goods to be reused.

It really cheered me up to read this because I have always tried to live by the reuse, recycle and reduce philosophy, and now there seems to be more sustainable channels to do this. Even for books!

Some of the books I’m currently reading (I’m never reading just one book) are:

The Manningtree Witches by A.K.Blackmore 

The Mile End Murder by Sinclair McKay

Girl A by Abigail Dean 

Let me tell you what I mean by Joan Didion 

Please note, I’ve linked to the titles places where you can buy them, but obviously it’s always better to get them from a physical bookshop if you can!

I am also listening to a BBC Sounds podcast ‘Murder Must Advertise’ An adaptation of a Dorothy L. Sayers murder mystery title with her aristocratic amateur sleuth, Lord Peter Wimsey. Think Bertie Wooster, but with brains. If you like Agatha Christie I think you’ll like Dorothy’s work too. This one is set in the 1930’s at an advertising agency and Sayers did herself work in one of those as an advertising copywriter, so she knew her stuff about that work and her writing about that is quite funny! Worth a listen.


Movable Type and Editing

For every writer there is a wonderful moment you look forward to. It is when you finally finish your first novel. The delight of writing ‘The End’ and knowing that it’s done! The joy! The chance now to send it to friends to read and to publishers to publish! All that will immediately happen.

Sadly, that isn’t what happens. The hard truth is that when you ‘finish’ your novel, all you’ve really done is finish your first draft. Which will lead to editing and revisions and possibly major rewrites. And that will give you your second draft. This can go on many times. This is before you try to publish it…

You could, feasibly, blame 15th century Johannesburg Gutenberg (for more about him read this page online https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johannes_Gutenberg) for all this heartache. Why? Because he invented the first movable type press in Europe and that led to mass printing, newspapers, books and so on. In many ways he could be looked upon as a hero, but others might say that printing has its demons and I don’t think I’m alone in feeling that editing is one of those. 

Fortunately, there are lots of ways to improve how you edit your written masterpiece. You can read books about it, of which there are many, but they won’t give you another pair of eyes to weed out mistakes.

Another option is to do a course. I myself attended an online zoom class with Ella Micheler, an editor/translator/publisher via The National Centre of Writing to get some tips. Ella was very friendly and good at explaining the different elements behind getting a manuscript print ready.

After going though the basics of what editing must be done before a manuscript can go to an agent or publisher, we then considered how after the basic proofreading your script will then need more complicated editing. The sort that requires experienced editors to make it work. I’m talking about Conceptual Editing and Developmental Editing and Structural Editing. If you want more information on these take a look at this blog by Reedsy explaining them.

If this sounds complicated, I think it is. Especially if you aren’t trained or have years of experience. Which is why, if you don’t have an agent or publisher already in place, it might be time to pay to get your work professionally edited.

What I’ve learned from doing two degrees and many fiction writing courses of different time durations, is that there’s a whole lot of editing to do before any your written work is finished. And especially if it’s a novel to be printed. Which is absolutely the correct thing to do. Even if your novel isn’t printed onto paper (as many aren’t these days) and exists instead as a Ebook online, no one wants to read a story that is full of mistakes.


NaNoWriMo or not? And was Jack Kerouac doing a similar thing…

Jack Kerouac (Photo: Wiki Commons)

Jack Kerouac became famous for writing his iconic novel, On the Road, while living on Benzedrine, coffee and pea soup (made by his wife Joan) on a road trip over thirty days. He wrote on one long sheet of paper, using tracing paper he’d cut to size for his typewriter and then taped together so he wouldn’t have to slow down for more paper. Although it was ‘“spontaneous writing”, he had planned some of it in advance, something people trying to copy him might not have realised. After editing it, and I can only imagine how difficult that was, it was published in 1957 and became a cult, “Beat Generation” hit.

Being able to write in the same circumstances in such a short space of time as Kerouac did appears exciting, radical and dangerous. However, writing a book in a limited amount of time is not as unusual as you might think. Many successful novelists have systems that help them plan and finish books in a similar amount of time. Authors like Arthur Conan Doyle with A Study in Scarlet, the first Sherlock Holmes mystery, was written in three weeks and weighs in at 43,625 words!

But for the less practised or less successful writer, the possibility of managing that can feel impossible. With this in mind, and for reasons still not entirely clear to me, this year, (blame the pandemic) I decided to do NaNoWriMo. If you don’t know what that is, check out the website Nanowrimo.org for a full explanation. Basically, you write every day for the month of November to create a novel of 50,000 words.

Does it have to be 50K words? Well, that’s the idea, though others say it’s as long as you want. Others say it’s an excellent method to ensure you write every day. Getting into the habit of putting words on the page is always good if you profess to be a writer.

Before I started, I followed the ‘preptober’ guidelines (i.e. planning your novel in October)- all available on various websites online. My favourite was an American one on the Heartbreathings.com blog, which had fun downloads and lots of encouragement. I really enjoyed this method as I did the same planning with the novel I wrote, SuperRecogniser (now in the editing phase). I like to know where I’m potentially going with a story and be able to change what I’d thought I’d write and then go off in a different direction. I did a bit of that in Super Recogniser and see that I’ve been doing it in my NaNoWriMo work. Which makes it fun!

The most interesting thing I’ve found about having a deadline every day for your personal writing is that you are more pushy about getting uninterrupted writing time. Which is a good thing. Other people take your writing time more seriously and because of this, so do you.

If you’re interested in doing NaNoWriMo, you still can! Fewer days, fewer words, but still a useful exercise for writers. Or, of course, you can do it on a different month…


c. 1800s By Unknown author, published by the National Printing & Engraving Company, Chicago Modification

In fantastical tales, where normal expectations are upended, writers get a chance to offer strange and unsettling ideas and let the reader make their own interpretations. Sometimes it’s difficult to know who to have empathy for; the main protagonist, the titular character or someone else entirely?

One example of this is in the Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde the 1886 novella by Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson. This is a story about an unpleasant looking, dangerous, and violent man called Mr Hyde, who is, unexpectedly, an associate of the respectable of Dr Jekyll, who in turn is a friend and client of the narrator, Mr Gabriel Utterson.

The story shows Utterson trying find out more about Mr Hyde and bring him to justice for his heinous crimes. But it soon becomes clear that Mr Hyde [spoiler alert if you haven’t read it!] is Dr Jekyll! The reader discovers that Jekyll has drunk a serum that allows him to be a completely different person from the one who has high moral public standards publicly. In this new version of himself as Mr Hyde, Jekyll can indulge in unstated vices (one can only assume violence and sex?) without fear of detection and being publicly shamed and held to account.

It appears that Stevenson’s inspiration may have been from his own friendship with an Edinburgh based French teacher, Eugene Chantrelle, who was convicted and executed for the murder of his wife in May 1878:

 Chantrelle, who had appeared to lead a normal life in the city, poisoned his wife with opium. According to author Jeremy Hodges,[5] Stevenson was present throughout the trial and as “the evidence unfolded he found himself, like Dr. Jekyll, ‘aghast before the acts of Edward Hyde’.” Moreover, it was believed that the teacher had committed other murders both in France and Britain by poisoning his victims at supper parties with a “favourite dish of toasted cheese and opium(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Strange_Case_of_Dr_Jekyll_and_Mr_Hyde)

Clearly this heinous crime should not be celebrated, but Stevenson could see the fictional possibilities when a reputable person could still have such a dangerous, secret, other personality. This strange idea, of one human being two people, obviously intrigued Stevenson.

But why was Stevenson so drawn to the ‘Strange’? Was it partly because he suffered from severe bronchial trouble for much of his life and would have spent many hours sick in bed daydreaming or having night terro rs? Was it also from a childhood of being told stories and then telling his own? His father, a leading lighthouse mechanic, who approved of his story telling and encouraged him. And from his nurse Alison Cunningham, whose stories revolved around her strict Calvinist beliefs and folk tales, which gave young Stevenson nightmares, but also kindled his interest in ‘strange’ stories.  

Robert Louis Stevenson Copyright: © National Portrait Gallery, London

Stevenson would often have to stop going to school entirely because of illness and had private tutors instead. He was a very skinny, odd looking child and had trouble getting on with other students as a result. This may have led to him feeling like an outsider. He kept writing despite this, or perhaps because of it, and his books like Treasure Island and Kidnapped and his poetry are still in print. The sense of being an outsider is important in ‘strange’ or gothic stories. The outsider is often malformed physically, mentally or morally and is shunned or cast out and wreaks their revenge as a result. 

I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend

The lament of Dr Frankenstein’s ‘monster’

Steel engraving (993 × 78 mm), for the frontispiece of the 1831 revised edition of Mary Shelley‘s Frankenstein, published by Colburn and Bentley, London

Which leads us to the other notable teller of classic strange, or gothic fiction, whose most famous novel was written 68 years before Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde strode into the public imagination. This was, of course, Mary Shelley and Frankenstein: or, the Modern Prometheus. 

Published in 1818, but begun when Mary was just eighteen. Her mother, the great writer and women’s rights advocate, Mary Wollstonecraft, had died 10 days after giving birth to her, so she was almost born from death, a terrible legacy for any child. After Mary lost her own her first child, the book was finished by the time she was nursing her second and pregnant with her third. All these pregnancies and the begetting of life and the loss of life meant Mary was well used to how fragile what we create can be. 

Miniature portrait of Mary Shelley by Reginald Easton

When her husband, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley drowned after a sailing trip got into difficulties in a big storm in 1822, Mary was only 25, had lost three babies and was once again on the sharp end of death.Mary already knew about being an outsider. She had run away with Shelley and was perusing a writing career like her late mother, knew women writers were looked down upon and treated badly by publishers and the public.

That is why, ,originally, she didn’t give her name to Frankenstein and later, when she did, she had to suffer accusations that a man, possibly her dead husband had written it. Victor Frankenstein is the creator of the nameless ‘monster’.

But it was Mary who created them both and the reader could sympathise not just with Victor, the brilliant scientist, but also with his monster who is doomed to live without purpose and meaning. He is the ultimate strange outsider, and possibly Mary was musing on the great privilege it is to give life whilst knowing the difficulties of living a healthy, happy life?

Like Stevenson, who died at 42, Mary did not live a long life, dying at 54 from a brain tumour. But both left seismic novels that still intrigue, entertain, and inspire many years after their deaths.

Quite surprising and, yes, very Strange!

Boris Karloff playin Dr Frankenstein’s ‘Monster’— Wikimedia Commons

Catching The Last Train – Vanishing Ladies to the Third Reich

Film still from The Lady Vanishes with actors from left to right, Michael Redgrave, Margaret Lockwood and Paul Lukas

I like trains! There is always something exciting, romantic and mysterious about them (unless you’ve been moved onto a replacement bus service which isn’t usually that romantic). But assuming your trip goes well, there’s so much to see from where you sit. What’s out of the window and, of course, the other people in your carriage. I can’t but help wonder why they’re travelling, where they’re going to, whether they’re happy or sad or holding a terrible secret in that orange, plastic, supermarket bag! Clearly I’ve been strongly affected by all the stories I’ve read with trains in them and, of course, all the films with a similar focus on train travel.

Film poster for Night Train to Munich

From my favourite stories, like E. Nesbit’s The Railway Children original 1906 book and the lovely 1970 film, to Emily Barr’s brilliant book The Sleeper (2013) which I’m hoping might one day be filmed. If you haven’t read it it’s a twisty turny mystery and will keep you guessing!

Aside from train related books, I’ve watched two black and white train thrillers very recently. My favourite, The Lady Vanishes and Night Train to Munich, which I’d never seen before. It has many similarities to The Lady Vanishes in that a good portion of it is on a train and there’s a Nazi problem to be dealt with! Also both films have the wonderful Margaret Lockwood as the female protagonist and a couple of Englishmen (Charters and Caldicott played by Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford) who have no idea what’s going on but still come out as heroes by the end.

Charters and Caldicott played by Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford

One of the things I find interesting about these films is that they remind me of what a film director friend told me – good films come from good stories! In the case of The Lady Vanishes (film release 1938) the original book was The Wheel Turns, written by Ethel Lina White (1876-1944) in 1936.Alfred Hitchcock directed the film in 1938 and took what was a very good mystery story and made it into a classic film thriller; full of typical Hitchcockian shades of suspense, fear and humour. He also does his usual cameo performance as a passenger outside the train,

Hitchcock cameo on The Lady Vanishes

Made a few years later, was Night Train to Munich. Directed by Carol Reed (famous for other films like The Fallen Idol and The Third Man) and based on a short story called Report on a Fugitive (n.b some online references suggest it was a book, but others say a short story. I’m imagining it might have been a long story or a novella. Sadly I can’t find it available anywhere) written by Gordon Wong Wellesley (1894-1980) an Australian screenwriter and novelist of Chinese descent. His writing credit gave him an Oscar nomination in 1942.

It has been noted that these two films are quite similar by having their important pivotal moments on a train, having the same actors in those pivotal roles, being set in or around the second world war and ending in a victory against fascism. As such, they could be viewed as British propaganda, but I think it was acceptable at those incredibly dangerous times. And propaganda with Charters and Caldicott can’t be too bad surely?

The Lady Vanishes film poster

I’m all for victories against fascism! I’m also all for black and white films with surprises, suspense, and humour, all of both these films manage. I like them both, but my heart will still mainly be with The Lady VanishesBecause as it shows a young woman bravely fighting to be heard and constantly being told she’s wrong. All to save her missing older female train companion and that still feels a very contemporary story for women everywhere.

The Queen of Crime’s Notebooks

Agatha Christie’s notebooks. Image from inside front cover of Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks by John Curran 2010

Friends and family know I am addicted to both stationery and Agatha Christie novels. So imagine my excitement at discovering a book about Christie’s notebooks! Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks by John Curran (published by Harper Collins, 2010). This isn’t a recent book, it’s from 2010, but once I discovered it existed, I had to get it!

The title calls the notebooks ‘secret’, but I imagine that’s because they hadn’t previously been known about. It was only after Christie’s daughter, Rosalind, died in 2004 that the notebooks were found amongst items in the estate at Christie’s home, Greenways in Devon. They consisted of 73 handwritten volumes of notes, lists and drafts outlining all her plans for her many books, plays and stories. It showed that Christie was very much a ‘planner’ in her writing! And also she worked hard to keep up with her ideas.

I would also add that they might not have been so secret in her lifetime. Family and friends must have seen her often scribbling notes, although some of those notes were shopping lists or plans for the house or garden. However, when she was hatching new story plans, I don’t imagine she wanted someone looking over their shoulder. Vague notes, surprising links, happy accidents are all part of trying to catch hold of an idea before it fizzles out. So I imagine she didn’t show people her notes while she was still working on a story. 

Christie’s remarkably prolific writing life has always intrigued me. Not just where she got her ideas from. I think it’s clear Christie used her own experiences as a nurse in WW1 and saw all manner of horrors in the injured soldiers who arrived. Also with the Belgian refugees (Poirot anyone?). And her in time dispensing pharmaceutical items, which she did exams to qualify as a dispenser, gave her a host of credible poisons to use in her stories.   

OAgatha Christie in her uniform working as a nurse in WW1

I’m sure she used characters based on the people she’d met in her youth, the stories in the news, things she overheard on a bus or café or at a party. She mined her own personal problems (she knew all about cheating husbands!) and her travels (to Europe, Egypt and America). 

But my question was always did she have a fail-safe method for writing? How else did she produce so many successful books? And if she did have a method would that show up in her notebooks? What John Curran’s book has showed me so far (I’m still reading it) is that Christie was a perpetual magpie making a multitude of notes about things she saw, things she imagined, basic plot ideas, possible characters, perfect locations and probable victims and surprising perpetrators of crimes. 

And to make all those notes Christie needed notebooks. LOTS of notebooks! Interestingly, the notebooks aren’t expensive or fancy, they’re common or garden exercise books. A good size for notes, diagrams, small sketches and so forth. It occurs to me that the girl who didn’t go to school (she was taught at home by governesses) always wrote her notes and plans in school books.

Agatha Christie’s notebooks. Image from inside back cover of Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks by John Curran 2010

So my conclusion is this:

  • Christie used lots of notebooks
  • Worked hard all her life to plot good stories
  • maintained her interest in a wide variety of topics and places and people.

That’s a pretty good method’ for any writer!

I note that there is a new(ish) expanded version of Curran’s original book Agatha Christie’s Complete Secret Notebooks: Stories and Secrets of Murder in the Making by John Curran published by HarperCollins in 2020. I’m sure this will be as good as the first book, and another must have for Christie enthusiasts! 

It’s a wonderful Christmas carol life!

Film still from It’s a Wonderful Life, director Frank Capra 1947

As we approach Christmas, I’m thinking about my favourite Christmas stories and films. For me, these are A Christmas Carol and It’s a Wonderful Life.

Scrooge with Marley’s ghost – illustration by John Leech approved by Dickens

A Christmas Carol is a book by Charles Dickens. It was written in six weeks after Dickens had visited the Ragged School, an establishment for street children in London and he published the title on 19 December 1843. Its themes of fairness, kindness and the transformation of Scrooge, a rich, but mean old man, into a generous benefactor to the Cratchit family at a time of great social inequality was well approved of by the public.  The picture below is Alastair Sim in the 1951 film of A Christmas Carol asking a passing boy to buy a big Turkey for the Cratchit’s.

Alistair Sim as Scrooge, 1951

Published on 19 December, the first edition sold out by Christmas Eve and by the end of 1844 thirteen editions had been released. From the 20th century and onwards, there have been many film and television adaptations of the story.

The fact that it still feels relevant in Britain over 170 years later, with food banks being normalised, child hunger, homelessness and bad housing still a problem, is clearly both intolerable and very sad. However, watching it again we can still feel hope that people and situations can change for the better. Like Scrooge helping the sick Tiny Tim survive.

Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim Cratchit as depicted in an illustration by Fred Barnard

It’s a Wonderful Life is loosely based on A Christmas Carol. Originally it was a self-published short story a hundred years after the publication of A Christmas Carol in 1943. It was then reworked into a movie that was released in 1947. Once again, it is a tale of social inequality with Henry Potter (played by the inestimable Lionel Barrymore) , the Bedford Falls bank manager, having control over money, loans and housing, he’s a slum landlord. But it is also how being kind and loving and generous, like the lead character George Bailey (played by the wonderful James Stewart), is the better method for having a ‘wonderful life’. George is loved and cared for, unlike Potter, who is, as George Bailey says, ‘a warped, frustrated old man.’

Lionel Barrymore as Potter

When George’s foolish Uncle Billy mislays a large amount their business’s money, George, the ultimate good guy, considers killing himself to give his wife and family his life insurance money after his. Potter tells George he is worth more dead than alive. As further proof of Potter’s mean character, the audience knows that Potter’s henchman found the money and Potter didn’t return it. 

Clarence Oddbody and George Bailey

Fortunately, Clarence Oddbody, the guardian angel (played by Henry Travers ) is sent to show George how important his life has been for so many other people and he mustn’t throw it away. Unlike Scrooge, Potter is never visited by any spirits, but does contribute some money to help George when the call goes out that George is desperate. We never know if this means Potter is a changed man, but the film encourages us to hope Bedford Falls is now a nicer place.

Merry Christmas All!


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