Wednesday, 27 February 2013


Once again I’ve booked my week at the Swanwick Writer’s Summer School. It’s an experience I can recommend to any writer. The courses and seminars are valuable, of course, but the biggest benefit is the opportunity to mix with and talk to other writers. It was through the networking process at Swanwick that I first met my new publisher. I attended her classes, I chatted with her over lunch and dinner (always convivial occasions) and, in the course of time, counted on her as a very good Swanwick friend.

Graham, another good writer friend, who I also met at Swanwick, will be visiting Dorset later this week and we will enjoy a cheery chat (and a glass of wine) over a prolonged lunch at a local hostelry. I recall my first year at the summer school when I was a “white badger”… first year visitors are given white badges so that the more experienced delegates can help them along. I must have been looking lost because Graham came forward to show me the ropes. That was six years ago and we’ve kept in touch ever since.

I’ve heard it said that it’s a lonely life being a writer. It doesn’t have to be that way. I have made valuable friends through the experience of being a writer. I can now put up posts on the Swanwick Facebook site in the knowledge that they will be read by people I look upon as writing friends.


Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Tampering with the Truth

An article in today’s Daily Mail describes how the film Argo alters the known facts of what happened in Iran in 1979. According to the film, British diplomats turned away American embassy staff when they needed help. According to the CIA officer who helped mount the rescue, “The British were kind hosts, offered them a house and fed them.”

The article prompted me to wonder: which is the worse sin? To create a story without carrying out the necessary research? Or to deliberately alter the known facts and thereby create an unnecessary political agenda?

I have read several novels in which it became clear the author had been lax in his or her research. The errors were significant, but they did not add up to any political agenda. Thinking back on the examples I have come across, no political or racist points were scored against anyone. I mentioned some of these errors in a previous post: such as Aldermaston and County Louth being shifted to Northern Ireland. No harm was done except to the credibility of the writer.

Contrast this with certain Hollywood films in which the facts of history are deliberately altered. Braveheart is an obvious example. Incidentally, contrary to what the narrator says at the opening of that film, history is written by the literate, be they winners or losers, whether they have hanged heroes or not. The film is almost entirely fiction but, sadly, many people have taken it to be an accurate depiction of the times. Anglophobic reactions have ensued. Not being a historian, it is not surprising that the average person in the street should believe the film's version of events. How sad that a deliberate fiction should be allowed to affect relations between England and Scotland, two nations each with reason to be proud of their history.

So, the question remains: which is the worst sin? To carry out insufficient research and thereby harm only the author’s reputation? Or to deliberately alter known facts and thereby add to racial disharmony?

Monday, 25 February 2013

Away From Home

A writer needs to keep in practice. I aim to write something every day. Last week my wife and I were on holiday in Luxembourg… a place well removed from my desk-top computer at home in Dorset. But I had my ASUS tablet with me and each day I wrote up a description of what we had seen and done for the benefit of family and friends at home. Sometimes I like to send off the messages (blog or email) daily, especially on longer trips. Sometimes, such as on a short trip like this one, I send just one message at the end of the trip. But the write-up of each experience is completed daily.

It’s not fiction, but it is writing. You can see my recent blog at:

What’s the value in this? Well, firstly it ensures that I write something every day, even when on holiday. That’s important. Secondly, it keeps family and friends in touch. I reckon the daily write-up offers so much more than sending a picture postcard. Instead of receiving a card two weeks after we get home, the readers can be in touch almost instantly. Thirdly, by writing every day I can describe what is still fresh in my mind.


Saturday, 23 February 2013

Three Novels

I am still working on my web site. The latest addition allows readers to see what I am now working on. Some writers like to keep their work-in-progress hidden but I have no fear of being open with my writing. Experience has shown me that I can learn a lot from other people’s comments.

 I presently have three novels under construction. Why three? Well, all writers come up against those moments when a story is at risk of turning stale. When I meet that moment – when I detect that my writing is not as crisp as it ought to be – I put that manuscript aside and work on another. By the time I turn back to the first story, I will have found a way to freshen up the text. Sometimes I will put a story away for weeks, even a few months, before I come back to it anew. By then I will need to re-read the preceding chapters and that gives me a chance to reassess the story so far.

The three stories presently in progress are radically different from each other. That is important to my way of writing. If I put one story aside I don’t want to pick up another with a similar style, maybe similar reasons for running out of steam. I want something that will send my mind off in a new and fresh direction.

Sooner or later one of these three novels will be completed and then I will dream up a new story in that same style. I will always have three radically different novels to work on.

Friday, 15 February 2013

Building a Web Site

It had to be done. I was determined I would put everything into publicising the re-issue of a set of my novels by Cloudberry Books, and that meant having an up-to-date web site as well as this blog. I confess - with absolutely no hesitation - that I am not a computer wizard. I use my computer to write books, not to do all those clever things that younger people are able to do. I am a writer, not a modern technocrat.

I put off the task for a few days and then, finally, I plunged in with a great deal of trepidation. First I needed a basic proforma, I discovered. I couldn’t find a suitable banner headline that illustrated books, so I made do with a cup of tea. Well, it was only a starter. It was also appropriate because I went through several cups that morning! Later, when I’d got the hang of it, I photographed a couple of books on the dining table and uploaded them onto the web site. By then things seemed to be moving forward.

What was I going to put into the web? Well, a bit about me seemed obvious. It’s what other writers seem to do. It wasn’t easy because I’m not an extrovert used to talking about myself or advertising myself. But, hey-ho, it has to be done. If I’ve left anything out… it was deliberate.

Next I had to include something about my books: specifically the ones due to be re-issued. In fact, I decided, that should be the main point of the web site. I have other books on the market, but some of them are written for an American publisher under a pseudonym. I left them out of the equation. Let’s start with the five re-issues and let’s give the web reader a free look at the opening chapters.

Next, I included a bit about my early writing because I thought it might encourage new writers to see the process I went through. We all have to start somewhere and I wish I’d had access to web sites many years ago: ones telling me how other writers began. You’ll have guessed that there were no web sites in those days. Even computers were steam-driven! I started with the most modern technology available… an electric typewriter.

Finally, I put up a photo gallery, something to let the readers discover a bit more about me. And that’s about as far as I’ve progressed. You can see the effect of it at:




Wednesday, 13 February 2013

A Kindle is Great, But…

I was amongst the first to buy a Kindle. The advantages of having so many books on one device can never be played down. It’s a great piece of kit, no question about that, but… to an old fellow like me, it’s not the same as reading a physical book. I fully understand why young people of today take to it so easily, and I fully endorse its effect of promoting the enjoyment of reading, but I spent most of my life reading the hardback / paperback variety and change doesn’t come easy when you have dedicated so many years to enjoyment of the old technology.

I grew up in a house with no television, but I don’t ascribe my life-long love of books to any lack of visual entertainment. The house did have a couple of radios, one of which was in my bedroom. Where my own children revelled in the adventures of Captain Kirk in Star Trek, I revelled in the exploits of Jet Morgan in Journey Into Space. Where my kids enjoyed the range of nineteen seventies and eighties television programmes, I enjoyed the golden years of nineteen fifties radio. No, my love-affair with books wasn’t anything to do with the existence or lack of competing entertainments. Books appealed to me because they were immensely personal, far more so than any radio programme.

When I read a story I was there with the key character to a far greater extent that I was with any radio character (or, in later years, with any television character). The authors of the books I read as a child had the ability to penetrate my brain to the point where I was actually with the Walker children on Wildcat Island, I was with Bunter at Greyfriars School, I was with J C T Jennings at Linbury Court, I was with Bunkle on his adventures. I think it was that experience of taking a journey to another place inside my mind that gave me that lifelong love of books. With the benefit of hindsight, I can see that the stories I read actually coloured my way of thinking and behaviour in my early life. Books went a long way towards making me what I am.

Monday, 11 February 2013

What If...?

“How do you dream up your plot lines?”

I’ve been asked that question many times. And I wish I had a clever answer that would show me in a good light. I don’t. The basic ideas for my plots are relatively easily constructed. I take a real event and simply ask the question, “What if…?” It’s in the writing process that I start the really hard work.

When I started writing Prestwick I had in mind a real aviation incident in which no one got hurt. Then I asked myself the question, “What if the two aircraft had collided?” That was my starting point, but I knew it wasn’t enough to sustain a complete novel. So I then asked the question, “What if they were both badly damaged, but still flying?” And I followed up that idea with, “What if they were both denied permission to land?” Now I had the makings of a novel. It was then a matter of sitting at my computer and writing it... the hard work.

When I started writing The Gallows on Warlock Hill, I had in mind a newspaper report of two sisters who met for the first time as adults. I then asked the question, “What if two such sisters found they had nothing in common?” I envisaged them at opposite ends of the social scale and then asked the next question, “What if they were so far apart socially that one of them actually hated the other?” Sparks would fly in such a situation, but I could see that I still didn’t have enough to fill out a novel. So I asked myself, “What if their process of reconciliation mirrored something that had happened way back in their family history?” Now I was on a roll. I had a plot that would run. I finished off with the aim of making one of those sisters start off as a thoroughly nasty person and end up as the heroine who deserves everyone's respect.

When I started writing King’s Priory I had been reading about airmen from WW2 who died in battle but their bodies were never found. I asked the question, “What if an RAF pilot’s loss made a major impact on a partner left behind?” Okay, it was an idea but not nearly enough at this stage. So, I asked myself the next questions, “What if it had a major impact on a descendant two generations later?” There was a thought. “What if someone in the present-day generation was affected by the loss of that missing pilot?” I kept asking the questions. “What if the present day descendant had to find out the truth about his ancestor in order to save someone’s life?” And, “What if he discovered someone he loved was going to die because of what happened fifty years before?” Now I had the makings of a plot.

I started writing The Long Road to Sunrise after reading about South American Indian tribes only belatedly coming into contact with the civilised world. One account told of an explorer and his wife who took their young daughter with them into the jungle. So I asked myself the questions:
“What if a couple of film-makers took their daughter into the rain forest and the parents were killed?”
“What if the child was brought up by an Indian tribe?”
“What if, as an adult, that child tried to find her way back to her roots in the civilised world?”
Now I had the makings a plot.

And that’s my way of doing it. Nothing very clever. Just a matter of asking, “What if…?”

Sunday, 10 February 2013

Get It Right

The Legless fighter pilot, Douglas Bader, is credited with coining the phrase, “Get it right, old boy, otherwise don’t bother.” He was talking about flying, of course, but I figure the same maxim applies to writing. That’s one of the reasons I welcome as much editing and critical scrutiny of my manuscripts as possible. I don’t claim to get it right on a first or even a second draft, that would be arrogant, but I do claim to spend a lot of time trying to “get it right.” 

I have read the advice of writers who caution against too much editing, and I fully understand where they come from. There is a real risk of losing the crisp spontaneity that is usually inherent in a first draft. But I tend to weight up that risk against the other risk: that of getting something painfully wrong. It happens, even to the most successful of writers. I recently re-read a top-selling novel I thoroughly enjoyed thirty years ago. This time I found myself muttering, “He’s got that hopelessly wrong,” and it spoiled my enjoyment of the book this time around. In a more recent novel by a well-regarded writer with a major publishing house I was surprised to read that Aldermaston and County Louth are both in Northern Ireland. They are not. A year or so ago I threw away a Dan Brown novel because I figure a millionaire writer can afford to hire proof-readers able to spot glaring errors. It’s not only errors of fact that tend to stand out. More and more these days I find that errors of grammar and poor sentence construction can creep in and spoil the enjoyment of a book.

All of which explains why I get welcome the value of belonging to a weekly class where there is an opportunity to test out salient parts of a novel before they are cast in stone. I make a note of whatever the critics say and go home to mull over every single point. I usually find that eighty per cent of them are valid criticisms or suggestions and I make changes as a result. And it happens before any paying reader gets to see the text and mutters, “He got that wrong.”


 I always have two or three novels on my computer as work-in-progress. At the moment I have three. That’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s a ploy that works for me. When I feel a story is starting to go stale I put it aside and pick up one of the others. When that next one starts to go stale… well, you get the picture. By the time I get back to the first story again I’ve had time to work out what’s needed to make the manuscript fresh.

Going back to an older manuscript also forces me to read it again from the start to ensure I’m up-to-date with the plot. That’s as good as an additional edit and I’ve always believed the more edits the better.

Today I stretched the limits a bit farther. I’ve asked for return of rights on a series off four murder mystery stories originally published by a small press in the USA. I have the idea of rewriting them specifically for the UK market. The original contracts have run to a conclusion and I figure it won’t take too much effort to re-write the novels. As I already have three work-in-progress manuscripts I will be upping the number to seven. I’m giving myself a lot of leeway over which to work on in future!

Saturday, 9 February 2013

New Covers

It’s a wet day, a day to be working at the computer instead of going outdoors. The edits for the Cloudberry re-issues are going well, but we will need some new covers. BeWrite kindly offered us the free use of the old covers, but we think new designs will make the point that these are new edition of these novels. So I took a few minutes to buy some royalty-free images and then played around with the ideas.
 No doubt we will make some changes before we go to press, but I’m reasonably pleased with the morning’s work.

This afternoon I will work on Della’s end-of-term competition. I’m not a short story writer but it is fun to take part.




Thursday, 7 February 2013

How We Hear Stories

Last night we had another interesting evening at Della’s class. She never fails to make us think deeply about the way we write. The reading that caught my imagination more than any other was the first half of a 2000 words short story. I loved it, but it was—as Della rightly pointed out—too wordy for a short story. That was when I realised I had been listening to it as if it were the opening chapter of a novel. In other words, I was listening to it with a misconception in mind.

Later, I got to thinking about it again. Would I have enjoyed that reading as much if it were stripped of some of its brilliant prose? I suspect not. To me, it would have sounded clipped and less polished: which says more about me than it says about the writer.

 I enjoy writing novels. I’ve had twenty published by small presses in the UK, Canada and USA, and I carry on writing novels because that is my forte. But I have never had any success with short stories. I’m simply not a short story writer and I freely admit to it. So, here’s a thought: I suspect—and I’m open to contradiction on this—that my love affair with novels colours the way I listen to stories. I hear a reading through the mind-set of a novelist and I judge it through the mind-set of a novelist. Even when it isn’t a novel!

I must bear that in mind in future when I offer comments about short stories.






I am now about one third of the way through the draft of my latest opus. I am using the working title “Redemption” because that's the theme of the story.  But it's not a title that inspires me.
“The Kite Runner” and “Atonement” were alike in their main plot-line: an adult atoning for what he/she did in childhood. In my novel the key character is a psychic who feels the need to atone for what she did in a previous life. Her soul seeks eternal redemption. That makes it different from other novels.

I tried writing this story about three years ago and actually finished it, but I never sent it out because it didn’t work. The structure was too confusing and the narrative sagged in places. Parts of it were simply not convincing enough. It was clear to me that an edit was not going to cure the problem areas, so I put the manuscript aside until I was ready to completely rewrite the whole story from scratch. A harsh decision, but sometimes that’s the only way to get a novel that works. I learned a long time ago that it's a waste of time and money to send out manuscripts you know to be flawed. A rewrite is the only answer.

In this new version, I have kept the main theme, the characters and their motivations. Everything else has had to change. In the original draft I had a modern-day character delving back into the past. That led to confusion in the timeline which jumped around far too much. There is no present-day character in this new version. It 's a linear story that never strays from the historical plot. The psychic seeking remeption remains a historical character.

I now have a clear structure and a clear plot-line. In short, it’s a “Ken Follett meets Barbara Erskine in medieval Ireland” story. I'm happy to spend a few months working on that, but I am still looking for a better title to reflect the theme of atonement and redemption. Any ideas?

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

World Without End

I’ve finally reached the end of Ken Follett’s book - one thousand two hundred pages of it. It’s about three times the length of anything I’ve written, but the story held my attention until the last page. The television series was abbreviated to the point where it lost many of the twists and nuances in the book. It would have needed a much longer (and costlier) series to the do the book full justice. I preferred the book.

A minor, but interesting, side of the story is the way the character’s names developed from their trades or where they came from. Merthin Bridger built Kingsbridge’s bridge. Harry Ploughman worked in the fields. Dick Brewer sold ale. Carl Shaftsbury probably came from the Saxon town of that name.  I suppose my Hough ancestors of that era would have taken their name from the fact of living on a hough… the crest of a hill. Maybe there’s a hillcrest at Hough in Cheshire. Have you ever thought how your name originated? It could make an interesting story.

The Hampton Warlock Trilogy

The first three of my novels to be re-edited by Cloudberry Books make up a trilogy set against the background of a seemingly tranquil village on the Dorset Coast. I call the village Hampton Warlock… and it harbours unexpected family secrets.

The Portesham family live at King’s Priory Manor. Colin Portesham’s grandfather, a fighter pilot, died in WW2 in mysterious circumstances. What happened to him and to Colin’s Great Aunt Lucy? Unearthing the truth leads to the discovery that the family are not all who they appear to be. And someone is going to die as a result.

Rose Greenwood lives at Priest’s Cottage in the shadow of Warlock Hill. Legend has it that an Irish priest was hanged on that hill back in the seventeenth century. As she discovers the truth hidden within the Greenwood family history, Rose uncovers a link to the man who was executed on The Gallows on Warlock Hill.

Douglas Hadleigh and his family live in a seemingly ordinary Victorian house, but there are secrets here also. A letter from Australia leads Douglas and his wife to the story of a child who was lost in the Amazon rainforest. That child’s escape from the jungle was her Long Road to Sunrise. It was a journey that was destined to throw the Hadleigh family into disarray.

Three families, three different secrets in one small village. And those families will never be the same again.

Now, here’s something to set you thinking: how did I dream up the name Hampton Warlock. Could it be associated with a real place? The first person to come and see me in person at the next Swanwick Summer School (in August) and give me the right answer will get a free copy of one of my books. You have six months to think about it and I won’t accept any answers before Swanwick.

Monday, 4 February 2013

Writing About History

This morning Henry has been telling us all he knows about Star Wars. Isn’t that history now? I seem to recall the films came out in the nineteen seventies. Henry is now two years old, but when he gets to my age the world will have moved on and the events of today will be ancient history.
I’ve mentioned elsewhere that I have an interest in history and I’ve tried my hand at writing stories set in past times. I don’t claim to have got everything historically totally accurate – we’re all prone to oversights - but I do claim to have put in many hours of research before I began those novels. And I do make an attempt to create a believable historical atmosphere.

I quickly lose interest in a novel when I detect that the writer has made little effort to pay respect to recorded historical fact. Why do writers stray away from historical accuracy? Is it because they are so used to Hollywood movies, like the silly Braveheart film, where any pretence to the truth of history was thrown out of the window? Or is it a matter of the writer being too lazy to do the barest amount of research?

A few years ago, a publisher asked me to proof-read a novel set in eleventh century England. It was so wide of the mark that it could have been a comedy script, except that it wasn’t intended to be comedy. The writer really believed that Anglo-Saxon people lived in huge stone-built Norman castle keeps shortly after the Norman invasion (even the Normans took some years to get those castles up and running and lived in wooden structures in the meantime). I think she must have been watching Errol Flynn in that old Robin Hood film. When I pointed out some of the more basic errors (there were many) the author threw her rattle out of the cot and promptly had her contract terminated.

I was recently grateful to Kath, another writer of historical fiction, who pointed me towards a very useful book called Medieval Underpants. It says all there is to say on the matter of historical accuracy.

Which brings me back to the future, when Henry will be my age. Life will be very different then and the things we take for granted today will be history. I wonder if the family videos we have stored on our computer will remind him of what today’s way of life is really like. I think about that when he wanders into the study, climbs onto my knee and says, “See Henry.”

Saturday, 2 February 2013

Human Behaviour

A month from now we will be celebrating Henry’s third birthday. He was born shortly after my father died, on my father’s birthday. They couldn’t be more dissimilar. My father was insecure, sometimes resentful, often angry. Henry is a smiley-faced little boy who brightens our lives with his cheery personality. Those are differences which, I suppose, is symptomatic of the general pattern for human life.

When we create the characters that populate our novels we look for variety. Think of the differences in the Bennet sisters. Had they all been like Lizzie, the story would not have worked. But how do we, as writers, make our characters different? Well, that’s when we get back to the old, old advice of “show, don’t tell”. We show the differences in the way the characters behave.

Take a problem, show it to your characters and look at the way they react. For example: a guy backs his car into another one standing stationary. Now imagine each of your characters inside the victim car. One flies into a raging temper, another tackles the matter patiently, a third bursts into inconsolable tears. Three different characters and three different reactions. I haven’t described them, but you should be able to picture them in your mind simply by the way they behave.
You don’t have to incorporate that particular problem into the story, of course, simply keep it in mind when you write about each of those characters.

Depth of Character

I have a sister-in-law who has told me several times that I think too much.
          “You’d be much happier if you just accept things as they are,” she has told me.
          Maybe she’s right. I do tend to look beneath the surface and seek out deeper meanings behind problems. If I accepted the status quo I might lead a more contented life.
          But I wouldn’t be a writer.
          “Why do you think they they do that?” I ask when we get into discussion about some matter of current affairs.
         “That’s just the way they are,” my sister-in-law would reply.
         “But, why are they like that?”
         “Who knows? They just are.”
When things go wrong and people behave stupidly I want to know why. What motivates them into that behaviour? What psychologically drives them into doing what they did? If I know that, I can create characters in my novels who similarly go astray for reasons that are logical to them. That is what makes the characters come to life and seem real to readers.
          Too many times I have given up on a novel because the characters are cardboard cut-outs who act without any clear motivations. They are like that because they are like that and I can’t see why they are like that. A good novel holds me because I understand why the characters are as they are.
          So I carry on thinking too much.

Friday, 1 February 2013

Creative Wrting

The house seems empty without Henry. No childish laughter, no interruptions while I’m working at the computer. There’s no excuse now! I have to write.

Not that writing is a difficult chore, of course. I’m retired and I don’t have to write. I do it because I enjoy the process of creating. When I was an area controller at the Scottish Air Traffic Control Centre, I took up painting as a way of calming myself down after a busy time on watch. It was a creative activity as well as calming one. I look upon novel writing in the same way. Where I once created scenes in paints, I now do it in words.

The conundrum is not, “Why do I write?” Instead, it is, “Why did I spend my working life in a non-creative job?” The simple answer is that I worked to pay the mortgage and support my family. Interestingly, it also gave me an insight into the mentality of people in non-creative work, and that helped me when creating characters for my stories. It also gave me ideas for plot lines. My readers often tell me the novel they liked most was Prestwick, a tale of two aircraft colliding over the North Atlantic. I could never have written that tale with conviction had I not had an insight into how such a situation might arise. And how the people involved might react.

My own favourite amongst the novels I have had published is King’s Priory. I wrote it at a time when I was still formulating my own ideas on the meaning of life, the universe and everything. My ideas have moved on since then but there is a lot of me in that novel.

So, there is no Henry in the house today and no reason why I should not get more work completed on my latest novel. I read the first chapter of this story to a group of writers at a novellists’ gathering last weekend and they gave me some excellent feedback. And I’m raring to go.