Happiness at Hay Festival 2016 – Barbara Erskine talks with Peter Florence

I am a book geek but I can honestly say I was very excited to attend the launch of the new novel by the bestselling author, Barbara Erskine who returned to Hay Festival in the year that marks the 30th anniversary of her sensational debut bestseller, Lady of Hay.Barbara Erskine

Not only did Barbara return but she launched her brand new book, that is also set in Hay, Sleeper’s Castle. The book isn’t scheduled for release until June 30, 2016, but those that attended the festival were lucky enough to buy an early copy and for Barbara to personally sign each copy. Being an addicted fan and also in the throes of writing my own novel I couldn’t help but also ask her to sign a blank page of my own personal writing notebook that I carry everywhere in my handbag. Kindly Barbara happily obliged and I’m hoping that little bit of inspiration will keep me going at times when I need it.

With 30 years novel-writing experience under her belt, Barbara’s talk was actually really inspiring as a novice writer so I thought I’d share a few of her thoughts on here with you (written from my notes):

When writing about historical characters, what do you owe them?

Difficult question. So many historical records contradict themselves on when something happens, how something happened, sometimes even, if something happened. I always try to look for sources written by academics, professors, etc. I also try to remember it’s a story I am writing, it has to be an enjoyable story for the reader, not just filled with historical information.

Do you have an example of Historic Differences?

Speech. I try not to use an historic voice in my writing. At the same time, I try not to put in any modern slang, habits or references. I want the reader to identify with the characters easily, even those in another time period.

Do you start with a character?

With Lady of Hay, it was the character that first caught my attention. I kept seeing Matilda everywhere and knew I had to research her and find out more. This is often the case, sometimes other characters that I have read about and never intended to use worm their way in and tell their own stories. Sometimes a character is just too good to miss.

Where do your ideas from the past come from?

The past is all around us and there are so many places that have these strong links to the past (Hay being one of them). So many little towns have their own castle or fortified houses and their own history. Sometimes the history of these places is unknown even to the local community.Barbara Erskine - Sleepers Castle

One of the golden rules of fiction is “Never Write Dreams”, yet dreams often feature in one form or another in your novels.

Firstly, I had no idea that was a golden rule. I don’t always write dreams there are so many ways a link to the past can happen, dreams, written accounts, re-incarnation, sleep-walking, etc. Mystical places like the borders often feel that the veil to the past is so thin you could almost reach out and touch it. I guess, if it feels right – write it.

What is your ratio of research-to-writing?

Well, it took me 10 years of research and writing for Lady of Hay but that was because it was just a hobby, something I loved doing and found interesting. With time, this habit has changed. I would say now I spend about a third of the time doing research then just start writing. I write my first draft quite quickly and leave little markers saying fill in detail so that I can go back and add the historical details as I need to.

How do you plot your stories?

I start with a mind map, I then do my research and I then create a linear plot to slot everything together. This gives me a good plan and a clear synopsis of my novels.

Does sitting down to write get easier?

No, you just have to do it, you have to sit down to write. The more you do it the more addictive it becomes. Just keep reading and writing, reading and writing. I think of it as a movie where you get to be the script-writer, director, producer, cast manager, costume designer and more. Only writing a novel lets you do all that and gives you that level of control. You’ve just got to write it.

Who do you enjoy reading?

I try not to read historical fiction novels or time-slip novels they are sometimes called now. I have read Daphne Du Maurier’s House By The Strand and enjoyed it immensely but my favourite genre to read is crime

Any inaccuracies above are from my notes (or memory), my admiration of Barbara’s writing talent is indescribable and I wanted to capture a little bit of her talk here, I later realised I captured Barbara’s answers but not always the questions asked, so I have tried to remember what I could.

Barbara doesn’t have a particularly large online presence so learning from her wouldn’t be an easy thing, seeing her speak so passionately about writing, and noting these little hints and tips has increased my appreciation of her work even more. I hope you enjoyed my notes and got a little glimpse into the talk.

Much Love

KL ❤

Know Your History – 18th November – Margaret Atwood born

know your history - writingOn this day… 18th November 1939 – Margaret Atwood born

Margaret Eleanor Atwood, CC OOnt FRSC (born November 18, 1939) is a Canadian poet, novelist, literary critic, essayist, and environmental activist. She is also a founder of the Writers’ Trust of Canada, a non-profit literary organization that seeks to encourage Canada’s writing community.

On Writing

In this interview with Noah Charney, Atwood describes her writing routine;

“I’d be lucky to have a morning routine! But let’s pretend… I’d get up in the morning, have breakfast, have coffee, then go upstairs to the room where I write. I’d sit down and probably start transcribing from what I’d [hand] written the day before. Margaret Atwood

I’m not often in a set writing space. I don’t think there’s anything too unusual about it, except that it’s full of books and has two desks. On one desk there’s a computer that is not connected to the internet. On the other desk is a computer that is connected to the internet. You can see the point of that!”

Did You Know?

Atwood’s first novel, The Edible Woman, sat in a drawer on submission for two years.

According to an interview she gave Newsday in the 1970s, it was only when she won a Governor General’s award for her poetry that the publisher pulled it out and published it. “I was so naïve that I thought two years might be how long it normally took a publisher to consider a manuscript,” she told Newsday.

Know Your History – 11th November – Kurt Vonnegut born

know your history - writingOn this day… 11 November 1922, Kurt Vonnegut born.

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. (November 11, 1922 – April 11, 2007) was an American author. In a career spanning over 50 years, Vonnegut published fourteen novels, three short story collections, five plays, and five works of non-fiction. He is most famous for his darkly satirical, best-selling novel Slaughterhouse-Five (1969).

On Writing

Kurt Vonnegut’s tips on writing:

  1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
  2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
  3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
  4. Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.
  5. Start as close to the end as possible.Kurt_Vonnegut_fart
  6. Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them-in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
  7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
  8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

 Did You Know?..

 Vonnegut Waged War Against the Semicolon

 Vonnegut’s vehement ruling on semicolons was “They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.” For more see this nytimes article.

Know Your History – 25th October – Zadie Smith born

know your history - writingOn this day… 25th October 1975 – Zadie Smith born.

Zadie Smith FRSL (born on 25 October 1975) is an English novelist, essayist, and short story writer. Smith was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 2002. As of 2012, she has published four novels, all of which have received substantial critical praise. In 2003, she was included on Granta’s list of 20 best young authors, and was also included in the 2013 list. She joined New York University’s Creative Writing Program as a tenured professor on 1 September 2010. Smith has won the Orange Prize for Fiction and the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in 2006 and her novel White Teeth was included in Time magazine’s TIME 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005 list.

Tips On Writing

 The Guardian reached out to some of today’s most celebrated authors and asked them to each offer his or her rules. This was Zadie Smith’s list:

  1. When still a child, make sure you read a lot of books. Spend more time doing this than anything else.
  2. When an adult, try to read your own work as a stranger would read it, or even better, as an enemy would.
  3. Don’t romanticise your “vocation.” You can either write good sentences or you can’t. There is no ‘writer’s lifestyle.’ All that matters is what you leave on the page.
  4. Avoid your weaknesses. But do this without telling yourself that the things you can’t do aren’t worth doing. Don’t mask self-doubt with contempt.Zadie Smith
  5. Leave a decent space of time between writing something and editing it.
  6. Avoid cliques, gangs, groups. The presence of a crowd won’t make your writing any better than it is.
  7. Work on a computer that is disconnected from the ­internet.
  8. Protect the time and space in which you write. Keep everybody away from it, even the people who are most important to you.
  9. Don’t confuse honours with achievement.
  10. Tell the truth through whichever veil comes to hand — but tell it. Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never ­being satisfied.

Did You Know?..

When she gets stuck with writing she doodles a cartoon duck holding a notepad.

Zadie Says “Writing on a computer can be terribly distracting, so sometimes I like to use a pencil and paper to jot down ideas. I always end up drawing a cartoon duck. Inevitably, the duck is holding a notepad, and I can read the ideas that he wrote down.” 

Know Your History – 16th October – The Haunting of Hill House published

know your history - writingOn this day… 16th October 1959 – The Haunting of Hill House published.

The Haunting of Hill House is a 1959 novel by author Shirley Jackson. Finalist for the National Book Award and considered one of the best literary ghost stories published during the 20th century, it has been made into two feature films and a play. Jackson’s novel relies on terror rather than horror to elicit emotion by the reader, utilizing complex relationships between the mysterious events in the house and the characters’ psyches.

Tips On Writing

If you’re writing your own haunted house stories and murder mysteries, and are in need of a little inspiration, here are a few of my favourite of Jackson’s thoughts about the process of putting words down on paper:

“All you have to do … is keep writing. As long as you write it away regularly, nothing can really hurt you.”Haunting Hill House - Shirley Jackson

“I tell myself stories all day long, and I have managed to weave a fairy tale of infinite complexity around the inanimate objects in my house…”

“A writer who is serious and economical can store away small fragments of ideas and events and conversations, and even facial expressions and mannerisms, and use them all someday.”

 Did You Know?..

Talking about the opening paragraph of The Haunting of Hill House, Stephen King once wrote that:

“there are few if any descriptive passages in the English language that are any finer than this; it is the sort of quiet epiphany every writer hopes for: words that somehow transcend the sum of the parts.”

Know Your History – 15th October – P.G. Wodehouse born

know your history - writingOn this day… 15th October 1881 – P.G. Wodehouse born.

Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse, (15 October 1881 – 14 February 1975) was an English author and one of the most widely read humorists of the 20th century. Born in Guildford, the son of a British magistrate based in Hong Kong, Wodehouse spent happy teenage years at Dulwich College, to which he remained devoted all his life. After leaving school he was employed by a bank but disliked the work and turned to writing in his spare time. His early novels were mostly school stories, but he later switched to comic fiction, creating several regular characters who became familiar to the public over the years. They include the feather-brained Bertie Wooster and his sagacious valet, Jeeves; the immaculate and loquacious Psmith; Lord Emsworth and the Blandings Castle set; the Oldest Member, with stories about golf; and Mr Mulliner, with tall tales on subjects ranging from bibulous bishops to megalomaniac movie moguls.

Tips On Writing

Keep professional notebooks. The entries in Wodehouse’s notebooks and commonplace books are numbered for future reference. It’s obvious reading them that he is always on the lookout for material, always combing his environment for ideas. If he makes some small observation that might not be useful for two weeks, ten months or five years, he doesn’t rely on memory to preserve it for him. The notebooks are full of instructions to himself. They were going to be re-read. “Try this…” P.G.Wodehouse_friendship_literaturecrops up time and time again.

Wodehouses stories and novels were always ruthlessly plotted before a word of text was typed. It’s this intense respect for the conventions of storyline that make his many novels each similar enough to attract repeat readership, but each unique enough to reward it. That requires hard background work and deep knowledge of writing as craft.

Wodehouse did between three and ten drafts of everything, and where necessary would start all over again on a piece.

For more great tips on Wodehouse visit:- mtmg.wordpress.com/writing-tips-from-pg-wodehouse-and-a-contrast/

Did You Know?..

Wodehouse played cricket amongst some of the finest celebrities of the day.

Allahakbarries was an amateur cricket team founded by author J. M. Barrie, and was active from 1890 to 1913. The team was named in the mistaken belief that Allah akbar meant Heaven help us in Arabic (rather than God is great). Notable figures to have featured for the side included Rudyard Kipling, H. G. Wells, Arthur Conan Doyle, P. G. Wodehouse, G. K. Chesterton, Jerome K. Jerome, A. A. Milne, E. W. Hornung, Henry Justice Ford, A. E. W. Mason, Walter Raleigh, E. V. Lucas, Maurice Hewlett, Owen Seaman, Bernard Partridge, Augustine Birrell, Paul Du Chaillu, Henry Herbert La Thangue, George Cecil Ives, and George Llewelyn Davies, as well as the son of Alfred Tennyson.

Know Your History – 13th September – Roald Dahl born

know your history - writingOn this day… 13th September, 1916 – Roald Dahl born.

Roald Dahl (13 September 1916 – 23 November 1990) was a British novelist, short story writer, poet, screenwriter, and fighter pilot. Dahl’s short stories are known for their unexpected endings and his children’s books for their unsentimental, often very dark humour. His works for children include James and the Giant Peach, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda, The Witches, Fantastic Mr Fox, The BFG, George’s Marvellous Medicine, and The Twits. Adult works include Tales of the Unexpected and My Uncle Oswald.

About Writing

Roald Dahl wrote all of his stories in a shed at the end of his garden. roald dahl quote - secrets & magicEvery day from 10.00-12.00 and 16.00-18.00, Roald Dahl would write stories whilst sitting in a shed at the end of his garden. All of his stories were written using an HB pencil on yellow legal notepads.

Seven tips from Roald Dahl

The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Six More features a short extract called Lucky Break, in which Roald Dahl explains how he came to be a writer. It also includes seven tips from Roald on the qualities he thought necessary to anyone wanting to make a living out of writing fiction. They were:

  1. “You should have a lively imagination.”
  2. “You should be able to write well. By that I mean you should be able to make a scene come alive in the reader’s mind. Not everybody has this ability. It is a gift and you either have it or you don’t.”
  3. “You must have stamina. In other words, you must be able to stick to what you are doing and never give up, for hour after hour, day after day, week after week and month after month.”
  4. “You must be a perfectionist. That means you must never be satisfied with what you have written until you have rewritten it again and again, making it as good as you possibly can.”
  5. “You must have strong self-discipline. You are working alone. No one is employing you. No one is around to give you the sack if you don’t turn up for work, or to tick you off if you start slacking.”
  6. “It helps a lot if you have a keen sense of humour. This is not essential when writing for grown-ups, but for children, it’s vital.”
  7. “You must have a degree of humility. The writer who thinks that his work is marvellous is heading for trouble.”

 Did You Know?..

“Roald Dahl created more than 250 words”

Chiddler, frobscottle, swishwiffingly scrumdiddlyumptious — okay so they’re not exactly in the OED, nor are they commonly used, but to create a register of 283 words is still quite impressive. The collection of words is called Gobblefunk and it’s mainly used in The BFG, although it does also make an appearance in Dahl’s other works, such as ‘Oompa Loompa’ in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.