Image conscious

Study of A Portrait.

If you are planning on self-publishing, you have probably been told a zillion times to ensure your cover is fabulous! And if you want to stand out from the crowd, you’d better do your homework. So here are a few tips to help you out:

Check out the opposition. Take a look at what is selling well in your particular genre or subject – what do the covers look like? Are there ‘unwritten’ rules for the covers of your type of book? For example, cozy mysteries and romance tend towards pastel shades and bright covers, often with cartoon-style illustrations, whereas thrillers and crime tend to have dark images, often quite abstract – a view of a street, or a blurry person. Trees and snow are more favourites. Real life drama and experiences will likely have realistic-looking photographic cover images; classical fiction might go for something arty or a pattern. But if your book is about car engines, then you want something that says, ‘this is where to go for a good engine strip-down, this gal knows her stuff’, so you would probably go for a close-up of an engine, or a particular part. Non-fiction is usually a lot more geared towards the specifics. Fiction is often more about an idea than a ‘thing’. Either way, try to choose an image that will blend in and yet stand out.

How many times have people said ‘great book, but in the story Jeff had blond hair but the cover shows a dark-haired male.’ Sometimes these things are out of our control, but if you have the last say, make sure your cover is relevant and accurate to your story or text. If the action takes place in a block of flats, don’t show a cosy country cottage on the front. Your cover can often explain or hint at the story, so be careful not to include visual spoilers!

Clarity is everything. It’s no good having a fabulous image that doesn’t translate into black and white (for less sophisticated devices), or is indecipherable as a thumbnail. If people have to screw up their faces or borrow Great Aunt Aggie’s lorgnette to figure out what they’re looking at, they probably won’t bother to inquire any further with your book. It’s got to look good in the tiny! Likewise, if creating your own image, make sure it is of sufficient size and quality for the platform you have chosen to publish on – it’s no good having a pic that is an adorable thumbnail but goes wishy-washy and out of shape when ‘stretched’ to full book-size. This can be an issue especially for print-on-demand paperbacks. Also check that the file size is compatible too. You don’t want a cover with too much empty space around the outside, where the image is too small.

Lastly, I know it seems obvious, but I have actually seen published books out there in the world and available to the public, with a typo right there on the cover! So please do check, and if your spelling is terrible, maybe get someone else to check too, especially if you have a tagline or byline in addition to your title and author name. Ditto book blurb and ‘about the author’ sections on the back cover if publishing an actual book. It’s no good trying to establish yourself as the world’s leading authority on anything if you can’t ensure at least your cover is perfect. I once applied for a job saying I had great skills and attention to detial. Don’t do that!

It goes without saying you should never snatch an image and use it if it’s copyrighted unless you have permission. There are plenty of great sites where you can download royalty-free images, often free-to-use, so make sure you only use those kinds of images. Some images are only for single or private use and do not cover large-scale usage.

Now I need to work on some book covers, it’s no easy task to choose the right image, and so easy to get carried away looking at beautiful pictures. Thank you, photographers of the world for your amazing images!

Slang and Colloquial Speech

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So – slang. What is it? According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary it is “informal nonstandard vocabulary”. In this post I take it to mean text that is riddled with idiomatic, nonstandard language signifying a specific regional or economic background.

Whilst it can add colour to your writing, it’s all too easy to overuse slang, and my advice is to use it sparingly. Rabbie Burns got away with it (or did he?) in his works, as did D H Lawrence and a host of others known for using nonstandard speech patterns to lend ‘flavour’ to their writing. You can quickly create a sense of an individual’s character by slipping in some slang or ‘specialised’ language.

But for the reader nothing is more exhausting than having to go back and reread a passage over and over again to try to find the sense of nonstandard text. Vernacular can make your writing dense and unclear as the reader struggles through a succession of unfamiliar words and phrases that disrupt the flow of your epic work. Also consider whether you are actually demeaning or weakening a character by introducing slang or colloquial speech into their dialogue. Do you want them to be seen as Cockney Number Two, a stock character, or as a realistic individual?

I fell foul of this myself when creating a character in my book Criss Cross, Mrs Hopkins aka Mrs H, a housekeeper/cook  is a Londoner of working class background. I piled lots of slang and colloquialisms into her speeches which not only was akin to throwing obstacles in the path of my readers, but also made my character appear foolish and a mere caricature, which was not appropriate as she was to become an important member of the ‘cast’ of my trilogy.

I queried it with Mrs H as soon as she presented me with the bill.

‘He found nothing?’

‘Nuffink at all, Mrs Powell, not so much as a sniff of a mouse or rat.  He were ‘ere a good hour hand a ‘arf.  Very furrow, I must say.’

Maybe that wasn’t too bad, a bit tricky though, but later:

‘That’s why I’m always ‘ere.  I don’t know ‘ow I fort we’d get away wiv it, but I just ‘oped …  I mean, you’ve got a lot of room up in the attic, and not much up there.  So when the bank repossessed our ‘ouse a month ago, we jus’ fort, I mean, we know it’s wrong, ‘course we do, but we were desperate.’

But she couldn’t go on talking like this and still be taken seriously as a fairly main character, so I had to ditch a lot of the slang later on. After all we don’t want her to sound like she’s just stepped out of the original film version of Mary Poppins, do we? By the way, no one apart from Dick Van Dyke talks about ‘plates of meat’ or ‘apples and pears’. Please, if you’re not cockney yourself, don’t try to make others that way. Leave it in the hands of the professionals.

In my mind, the slang and colloquial speeches of Mrs H – and later Mr H – reflected the way they themselves were viewed by my main character, and as her respect and affection for them grew, so their speech changed until the nonstandardness of their dialogue disappeared completely. In my mind! Sadly this ‘clever’ idea remained deeply entrenched in my mind. In the minds of my readers, however, it was just pointless, annoying and inconsistent. So I had to revise some of the worst examples whilst leaving a few little snippets in for flavour, without overwhelming the reader or turning every conversation between those characters into a lesson in deciphering some strange code.

And speaking of inconsistencies…next week I’m going to talk a little more about that very thing!

The Year Of Writing Dangerously – or my promise to me

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I think I stole this phrase from someone, it just came to me in a flash the other night as I was drifting off to sleep and I felt it encapsulated everything I’m feeling right now. Usually when that happens it’s my subconscious nabbing something I’ve heard or seen before and bringing it to the fore. (It’s  my character Ben Sherman all over again) So I apologise wholeheartedly if this is your phrase and I’ve nicked it. It just seems the perfect expression of my mood.
2014, as I’ve said a number of times, was a difficult year to love. Yes, there were highs but for me and probably everyone else as well, there were also some lows. As I look ahead to 2015 I feel that sense of excitement at the prospect of a clean, fresh New Year, and so I’ve made a few promises to myself; resolutions, if you will, as most of us do. As usual I’ve promised to lose weight and get fitter. I ended the year lighter/healthier than I began it so I’m starting from a position of strength! There are other things too, important to me but not to others.
Mostly, in the New Year, I plan to write my socks off. I’ve got a nice little collection of memes now. They say encouraging things such as ‘write like no one is watching’ and ‘only you can write your book’. So true.
But this year I want to write something else, I want to write something different. Mainly though, I just want to write. To achieve that, I can’t afford to waste time sitting around waiting for some fickle muse of creativity to smile on me, I’ve got to grab her by her coat front and force that smile from her. This year I’m going to be dangerous. You can too.

Time for a recap – and plan ahead

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It’s that time of year. TV is full of programmes that round up the highlights of their Best Of lists, counting down from 100, or 50 or 30 or 20, to the mythical eminence of the number one spot – ta-da – the winner, the best…

You probably know by now that like a lot of writers, I’m a bit of an introvert, and rather self-absorbed. I constantly reassess myself throughout the year, not just here, at the year’s-end. In fact I’m notorious, at home anyway, for overthinking everything.

This year I’ve benefitted hugely by the amount of information, how-tos and research that is available on the Internet, and it has helped me to do a number of things I couldn’t before, so thank you to everyone who shares and publishes their knowledge ‘out there’ in the ether. I’ve learned how to link social media bits together to avoid having to put the same content out there numerous times, I’ve learned how to develop my contacts and connections and build my platform (ongoing project though!). I’ve learned that when people say ‘Do what ever you want’ they really mean ‘Do whatever I tell you to do’. I’ve improved my cover-designing skills, found new resources, built my freelancing profile, (earned some actual money!) I’ve become more organised. I’ve achieved some goals. I’ve missed some by a mile. And one thing I’ve learned, especially in this last two months is that it’s okay to have fun, to stop striving and enjoy life. I’ve ‘met’ some wonderful people and had some great conversations.

I didn’t finish the first draft of the third book of my Posh Hits trilogy. I’m maybe halfway through – not really, I’m actually only about a third of the way through. It should have been written, revised, revised and revised by now. It should be ready for publication. But no. Am I stressed about it? Not any more. I was, a while back, when the harsh reality of stuffing up my schedule began to dawn on me, then I decided that publication dates are arbitrary and if it’s not ready, it’s just not ready. I never usually miss a deadline, so this one time I have given myself permission to do so, and I think, I fervently hope, it will be worth the wait. So that’s still on my to-do list and will be making an appearance a little later than scheduled, some time next year.

And because of that not being finished, other projects have got pushed back too. But again, I feel it’s all going to be okay. Better to put out a good product late than a shonky product on time, I feel. So Miss Burkett will probably miss her May-promised (but only to myself) deadline. But I know she will arrive at some point.

But I’ve kept my blog going, more or less adding new material at least once a week, which has been a major leap forward for me, and one I hope to continue in the New Year. And on Facebook, my Monday Haiku has been going out weekly pretty well for a couple of months now, again, a new more disciplined approach for me.

Next year, Check Mate will, God willing, finally be out, as will the first of my Miss Burkett cosy mysteries. I also hope to publish a novel, Easy Living, which is something of a paranormal-type-kind-of mystery. There may also be another novel, as yet undecided. 2014 has been a year of drafting and consolidation. I believe 2015 will be a year of fruitfulness and fulfillment. I hope to continue the blog, the Haiku, to go on and on and on about books and cats and chocolate and deadlines.

So as this year closes, I want to remember the good days, and say goodbye to the bad, heaving a sigh of relief at the advent of a New Year, with new hopes, a new plan of action, fresh ideas and projects, and to say a huge Thank You to all those wonderful people who have followed this blog, tolerated my rants and self-absorption, encouraged and fed my desire to write, and shared their wonderful gifts of writing, painting and friendship with me. Thanks, folks. Have a good one. See you on the other side.

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Reflecting, or, The Fog, a 21st century melodrama

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I’m always going on about nature and how it makes me reflect on life in general and my writing in particular. Outside my window is a foggy scene. We’ve had a very mild autumn here in Derby, England, and unusually for us here on our little hill, a lot of rain. Only a few months ago I was exchanging emails with an acquaintance in Jamaica and we were both lamenting the dry weather – cracked ground, plants dying. Of course everything is much more acute there than here, but I was concerned by how little water we had. In fact ever since we came back from Australia I’ve been kind of obsessed with rainfall.

But now we have had so much rain – it has rained almost every day for the last three weeks, or that’s how it seems to me. But the warm earth has been met every night by the cool air, and we have had thick fog from the onset of darkness until dawn, when it magically disperses. But not today. As I write this at midday, it is finally beginning to lift, but still through the houses I can see the silvery pockets that surround bare-limbed trees. The countryside resembles a book cover for a paranormal or horror story!

It’s just like my writing at the moment. I have times when my way is clear and I rush ahead, writing and writing, with a sense of purpose, knowing where I am going, then the mental fog descends and I am lost, baffled and everything seems unfamiliar and cold. I have my sparkly new story board, so I know where the story is supposed to be going, but how do I get there? I used to think writer’s block was when you sit at your desk and weep as the ideas fail to present themselves. But now I know it’s more like sitting at your desk and thinking, this must have been written by someone else, it means nothing to me.

Making a Sandwich – or – In Praise Of The Middle Way

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Does anyone really need that much ham?

 

Some people plan. Some people plan absolutely every single thing they write in meticulous – even tedious – detail. Nothing, not even the smallest scene, is left to chance. This attention to detail means nothing is overlooked, and their story follows a logical pattern and reaches a satisfying conclusion for the reader.

Other people say that they are Pantsers – which means they don’t plan at all, they just show up, start writing, and trust that the story will come together. Writing by the seat of their pants, they say their story is as much of a surprise to them as it is to their readers. They say this method works, and that it makes for an interesting, spontaneous and fluid story.

But you don’t need to pick a side. It is possible to find a middle way, between these two extremes. I use both approaches together, and for me that works. Because I believe the writing process is all about balance and review. I’m always a big fan of the middle way. I steer clear of extremes in all things – don’t know if it’s just my temperament, or because I’m a Libran or what – I just like things balanced and sensible. Maybe it’s a bit like making a sandwich.

So you get out a plate and a knife, maybe a teaspoon, and maybe another, sharper knife for cutting stuff. And you get out your meat, cheese, peanut butter, hummus, your salad leaves, tomatoes, cucumber, pickles. And very importantly you get out your bread of choice. Or your gluten-free oat or rice or corn crackers. And then you decide you might need some mayo, or some salt, mustard, or some chutney…really with sandwiches, as with stories, the possibilities are endless.

But.

You don’t have to use everything.

So I plan. But only a bit. And I do the Into-The-Unknown-Seat-Of-The-Pants thing. But only up to a point.

The middle way is where most of us are, the best of both worlds and slave to none. I start with my starch of choice – usually oat cakes. Then I add a suggestion of butter (sometimes) or I slather on the hummus or the cheese. Then I look at what I have and ask myself how I feel. What is it I want of this? Let’s pretend I’m going crazy and letting my hair down and having a big hunk of wholemeal grainy bread – and I’ve put on lashings of butter – my favourite food group – and now I’m definitely in the mood for cheese, so I whack on a load of chunky cheesy goodness. Now. Hmm. I look at my array of goodies on the worktop. I’m having cheese (or writing romance), so I can immediately rule out mustard and salt (crime/horror/western-specific elements). But here’s where it gets tricky – do I want to fling on a bunch of salad leaves and squeeze a few wedges of cucumber in, because that will mean I need to top the whole thing off with mayo. But…that chutney looks tempting, and I can almost taste it – my memory furnishes not only the appearance of chutney on the cheese, but also the smell and the taste. My mouth is already watering at the memory of it. Problem is, I know those salad leaves and cucumber will be full of vitamins, and I need to think about that. Or, I could bung a bit of salad on the side and still have my chutney…

And this is what we do as we travel the middle way. We look at what we need for our story – all the elements of style and prose, of structure and the specifics of genre. So after a lot of thought we begin to assemble our structure (bread) and we start to add in our characters, our plot, our twists and turns and our dialogue (filling). Too much impromptu seat-of-the-pants and you can end up with an aimless, waffly first draft and a massive rewrite job on your hands (or a sandwich that falls apart under the weight of all it’s disparate elements leaving you with a soggy mess). Too much planning and meticulous detail can give you flat, lifeless and dull writing which fails to grab the reader (a big stodgy sandwich which is all bread and no fun). So a nice balance is recommended to get passion and life into your writing but not stuff the page out with endless descriptions of what the character had for breakfast – and every other breakfast – unless of course you are writing a bestseller entitled ‘Breakfasts I Have Known’. Let me tell you now, if it’s not about bacon, I’m not reading it. Now I do have a tendency to waffle anyway – so imagine how bad I’d be if I didn’t have some idea where I’m headed. This week I read someone (a great writer whose name I’ve already forgotten – soz, whoever you are) quoted as saying ‘you wouldn’t get into your car and drive without having an idea of where you are going’. Hmm. Maybe that’s true, but I don’t drive… Sometimes I go for a walk and it doesn’t much matter where I go, so long as I go!

I make ‘soft’ notes – general hints of the way I want the story to go, and I remind myself about the important character details to make sure I don’t change Joan to Jane on page 17 or give people the wrong hair colour or marry them off to the wrong partner etc. If I have an idea of the final outcome of the story – I don’t write this down – and I don’t tell anyone. It’s my little secret. And with my iffy memory, there may be a point in the future where  I have to write it down, but it’s there in my head when I am writing, as a signpost to aim for.

But the great thing about soft notes is that they are easy to revise. You need to be always ready to re-evaluate your outline or your goals, or even your plot or characters, because the requirements of your story can and probably will change as you write. So try to keep an open mind about your story. If something isn’t working, it’s worth trying a new approach, which can be a bit scary. For myself, I know it is important to give myself the freedom to write within a guiding but flexible framework.

Hmm – I wonder what’s for lunch?

Should stories always have a message?

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Before I really sat down and thought about this question, I would have said, without hesitation, NO! I did not believe stories always had to have a message. In fact, to go a little further, I would have said I detested stories that have a message.

That is a hangover from my childhood, when it wasn’t enough for stories to be fun or interesting, they also had to be ‘improving’ – and how I hated improvement being forced upon me! Even now I shy away from anything that overtly seeks to make me a better person.

But.

Having said all that, I have been thinking about this topic and trying to set aside my own prejudices, and I have come to a startling conclusion. I have decided the answer to this question is actually – YES! A story should always have a message. Wow! I’ve done a complete u-turn on this!

Because you see, I know (I have been told by others and have also read it and believe it to be true) it is easier to write a book based on a premise. It gives you something to aim for, a goal to reach. That also means your plot events, and your characters have to either approve/support/aid your premise, or they have to disapprove/hinder/fight against your premise. So your premise underpins and informs every aspect of the story.

And if that happens – well, it seems to me you’ve got a message.

But for me it will still be a question of subtlety. I don’t want to read – or write – a book that lectures me upon morality – I have my moral standards, thank you very much. So I think a message doesn’t have to be large in scale and scope, it can be simple, humble or small. It doesn’t have to be intellectual or highbrow or literary. It can be as straightforward as ‘the harder we try the worse we make things’. (Maybe suited to a comedy?)

If by ‘having a message’ we can also mean making someone think, or poking a little fun at the basically ludicrous reality of everyday life on this strange planet we call home, then yes, I’m all for a message. In fact I’d go a step further and say I’ve done it myself. When I set out to write my Posh Hits Trilogy, I wanted to create a character who thinks she’s a good person, who everyone else thinks is a good person – but deep down inside she is, of course, a monster.

So I guess what I’m saying is, yes by all means have a message, but the success in getting it across depends on how you do it.

10 ways to get on with your writing

 

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I think most of us have days when we stare into space and can’t think of a single thing to write. Here are my top tips for getting on with it. There’s not anything really earth-shatteringly new here, just practical ideas to keep you – and me – writing. Some are obvious, some are simple, some are just coping mechanisms that have worked for me.

1. Keep social media out of your work area! It’s so easy to ‘lose’ an hour or two just checking your emails – and this is a really good one for disguising as work! But if you are a media junkie and know you spend too much time oohing and ahhing over other people’s cat pictures, do everything you can to keep internet availability to areas away from where you work. Keep your breaks short – just enough time to eat, drink, pee and then get back to work. (btw Eat, Drink, Pee is the little-known follow-up to Eat, Pray, Love! Less successful because it lacks the strong spiritual appeal of the original.)

2. Plan. Yes, even if like me, you are more of a pantser , if you are struggling to move forward with your work, then leave yourself a couple of lines of notes that will give you a kick-start the next day. You could even (but this is a gamble) break off in the middle of a crucial scene to give yourself something to come back to the following day. I often have an idea in my head of where the story is going to go, but can forget some of this by the next day, so while it’s fresh, I scratch down a few lines in pencil, just to give myself a little push in the morning. (Not a morning person!)

3. Take a notebook everywhere! Yes, I know this is an obvious one for writers, but trust me, I have had to either abandon a brilliant idea or buy a notebook so many times when out and about! And trust me, notes written on a napkin in ketchup aren’t so easy to read when you get home. It doesn’t have to be a huge, heavy one, just a teeny one that fits into a pocket will be fine – so long as you always have something. Any time when you’re just left alone to stare into space can be a good time to write – on the bus, train, waiting for the bus, train, waiting for loved ones to finish work or try on a dress… or you could get a note-making app on your tablet, phone or Kindle Fire. I do a lot of my best writing in a caff with a cappu! So before you leave the house, make sure you have a notebook and about six pens. Wallet? Check. Keys? Check. Notebook…

4. Count Up. This is really a coping mechanism. if you are going through a sticky patch, write longhand rather than on your device of choice. Then each morning, before you start work staring at the crack on the ceiling, count the previous day’s word total manually. Doing this will mean a) you get a quick overview of what you wrote yesterday and you will get into writing mode, and b) you will feel encouraged to build on what you already have. This works for me when nothing else does, even if I end up discarding half or more of the previous day’s work.

5. Break up the blank. This continues from the one above. If you sit and stare at the white page or screen in dismay and your brain refuses to create, try this:

a) do 4. above

b) start each new page with the date and running word total in the top left corner

c) number the pages bottom right

d) if you are using chapter headings or titles, write that too, or simple write chapter and the number

You could also do 2. for this point, again to give yourself a little push.

6. Change your routine. This is another one that works well for me. Try sitting somewhere different to your usual spot, get a new viewpoint. Listen to different music – even music you hate will help! I used to sometimes sit in one of my children’s bedrooms when they were at school, and listen to some of their music. Just changing your daily rhythm can trick your brain into creating fresh words or a new viewpoint. Try getting up in the middle of the night, if you’re a morning person, or go out and write in the pub or the library or the park. Anything different is good.

7. Revise. If you’re really stick, go back and look at your original premise for your WIP and see if there’s any aspect of your story you’ve missed, ignored or just plain not considered. Did you go down a blind alley? If you don’t have old notes to go back to, write down a couple of paragraphs of what you remember about when the idea for the story first came to you. How did it work out in your mind? How does that compare to what you have actually written so far? Try to see your story as a whole, like a ladder with rungs moving the story forward. What needs to happen to your characters to get the story to the next rung?

8. Read. This is the easy one. I’m not advocating spending weeks and months reading hundreds of books, but just take some time out to read for half an hour or an hour. Refresh your mind, read some poetry, or a familiar favourite book. Again too, you could try something new and different that will get your creative juices flowing. If I’m writing fiction, I read a non-fiction, usually history.

9. Write something else. So often I find the minute I start work on one story, I get ideas coming through for another! Usually it’s another story where I’ve already completed the first draft and am just subconsciously mulling it over. Try your hand a a few flash fiction stories or write a haiku. Just don’t forget to make notes!

10. Doodle. Make yourself some brain-storming spider web diagrams thingies. Put your key word – character name, anything to do with your WIP, and then bring lots of lines out from the central idea and at the end of each line, write a word or phrase or idea related in some way to the key word. You can do this for every character, or every location or time slot etc. you can put down anything that is linked with your main character, or it could just be ideas that are tentatively linked. or you could just sit and create a list of words from your title, or your character’s name. You could try googling your character’s name and see what comes up – but don’t get side-tracked! or you could brain-storm with something completely different, say a colour or a sound that is in your story, eg blue – then write all the things you can think of to do with blue: the colour of royalty; means sad or depressed; lapis lazuli used to be used to make the pigment blue for artists – and was more expensive than gold, so hence very little of it used in paintings, only for the special few, which brings us back to royalty again; the Greeks had no colour for blue, and used the word for brass; the bible says sometimes when you pray the ‘heavens are as brass’; does that mean they are blue, or they are hard and impenetrable? Blue is a cold colour, blue is the colour for baby boys – but used to be the colour for baby girls up until the early 1900s, then mysteriously they swapped, did this result in confusion? Hopefully you see how this technique can generate ideas.

So that’s my top tips. Hopefully if you do get stuck with your writing, or you feel like you’re not getting anywhere, one of these might help you to get back on track and find fresh and exciting ideas. Above all, if you are struggling with a particular idea or a specific part of your WIP, don’t panic. Just go and do something else for a little while or try one of these ideas.

Take Time Out

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Malcolm showing how it's done!

We often feel we have to accomplish as much as possible within the span of each day. Sometimes it is our self-esteem that demands that we are ‘achievers’. However, life is not just about work, not merely concerned with achievements. Life should be enjoyable, should even be – dare I say it – fun! Don’t rush headlong towards a nervous breakdown, stop and sit for a while. I often have to remind myself it’s okay to do nothing now and again. Partly it’s my upbringing that says every moment of the day should be productive and useful, and partly it’s the fact that I work from home for a relatively low income and feel a need to demonstrate that I am working as hard as I can, and partly it’s my own character – I’m not naturally one of those people who can just chillax whenever and wherever. And I know some of you out there are the same, admit it!

But our busy lifestyles mean we so often find ourselves lurching from one task to the next, checking them off on our mental to-do list, and feeling that we must keep accomplishing tasks or we have failed. Not so.

It’s okay to take time out, to veg, to just be. Quite often, even when we think we are relaxing, we are still trying to make ‘good use’ of our time by working on some task – completing sudoku or crosswords, reading a book, or even playing a game on our computer.  So rarely do we actually do nothing. But in fact, time spent day-dreaming, listening to the sounds of nature from outside – or the sounds of traffic if nature is far away – and just letting our thoughts drift, this is all time well-spent. We need to rest, not just our bodies but also our minds. and if we allow ourselves that period of rest, we often find that our minds are sharper, our thoughts clearer, and little niggling things we have been working on suddenly seem easy or we can now see the action we need to take. Our brains have time to catch up with the mental filing from all the information we have been absorbing as we go about the routine of our lives.

So – give yourself permission to bunk off and do absolutely nothing for ten minutes twice a day, and see your stress levels plummet, your self-esteem and positive energy sky-rocket, and your creativity will be fresh and maybe take you off in a whole new and exciting direction. It could turn out that the twenty minutes a day you spend doing nothing become the twenty most productive minutes of your day.

 

 

 

Family History and Fiction Writing

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The Marriage of Leonard Brown and Hannah Young, 1920, Liverpool.

 

I’m starting a new series – don’t know how many parts yet – on how personal history, family history research and genealogy can be used to boost your creativity and give additional depth as well as a unique ‘flavour’ to fiction writing of any kind, and my own genre of mystery/crime/paranormal in particular.  First I’m going to discuss how and why I think people – or at least I – get into family history research.

As some of you may know, I’ve been a keen researcher of my family tree for over twenty years. In that time things have changed as dramatically in genealogy as in other fields in terms of the amount of information available to researchers and the way researchers access this information. This is the ‘How’:

When I first started, I used to travel up to London on the train to visit St Catherine’s House and spend the entire day heaving their big index books out onto crowded desks and trawling through handwritten entries in search of that one person I was trying to locate. The sound in the halls was like the buzzing or humming of bees in a hive – constant, low-level busy-ness, occasionally tinged with irritation. After heaving indices in and out of the shelving and cabinets for hours, often all I had to show for it was one reference to a birth of someone that ‘might’ be my ancestor – and I wouldn’t know if it was the right one until I had paid for my certificate and waited a week or two weeks for it to arrive in the post. I have a whole batch of  ‘strays’ – people who turned out not to be the object of my research – same name, same age, but from totally different family a mile down the road. (But their stories, too, intrigue me.) It was slow and painstaking work. Sometimes you had to wait, tapping your fingers on the desk, until someone else stopped daydreaming their way through ‘your’ book and put it back on the shelf – because there was only one for each quarter of each year for each part of the alphabet – and if you were searching for a Mr Brown – especially a J or S or W – you might as well go and get some lunch and try again later.

But – finding the person you had been looking for for a long time – tracking them carefully through parents, grandparents, siblings, marriages, burials and christenings – in the moment you KNEW you had found that person – resulted in a euphoric flood of excitement. On more than one occasion I heard someone shout ‘yes!’ or ‘finally!’ and we all smiled and just went on with our searching – we knew how they felt. There was a kinship in the searching.

Now it’s all so different. You spend ten minutes online and you’ve got three or four generations all off pat. Of course for many that is all they do – nothing is verified, checked or proved – they just appropriate whatever seems to fit in with their ideas of their family. If you can pay the subscription to the various online resource sites, you can have endless materials at your disposal within minutes. For me that’s not really ‘family history research’ but for many, it’s enough.

Now here’s the ‘Why’:

Why do people want to know about people who they may have never met, who may have no influence on their life, be nothing but a shadowy figure in an old family album?

And true, for some people – many – knowing about their ‘roots’ is not important at all. For others, it provides them with a sense of self, of who they are, of the evolution of their kind and the world around them, the development of their own identity over the course of generations.

For some people, myself included, they may feel more confident about who they are,  they may feel they can relate to a world filled with other people all with a history, a lineage, similar to theirs. They may feel a sense of shared experience, even kinship. Family history can be seen as a kind of skeleton to hang on life experiences and events, to create a balanced outlook and, hopefully, an accepting, caring attitude to others. Also, some people (like me) are just plain nosy. Others are looking for explanations for why things are the way they are or for the truth behind events or feelings, or for resolution or closure.

NEXT WEEK: I will be looking at some of the different types of resources available to the family historian – and therefore – available to the writer. I’ll give you a clue. Look at the top of this blog.