Sweet Success

My story ‘Visions’ appears in The Best of CafeLit 2012, a collection of stories from Debz Hobbs-Wyatt’s Cafe Lit website.  ‘Visions’ is about a journalist who gets killed before she is able to file her story, but she does get to have a nice chat with St Peter.  I have to confess that it is a story I wrote a very long time ago… er, about 3 years ago actually.  ‘Small Ones Are More Juicy’ by Patsy Collins, whose blog I follow, is also included, although the other authors I don’t know.  The Kindle version costs £2.04 and the paperback £6.   Please do support it.  (I don’t benefit personally but Debz has put in a lot of hard work on this.)

I’ve just finished reading ‘Mr Norris Changes Trains’, the first book of Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Novels, and have just started the second book, ‘Goodbye to Berlin’.  Although I will review both together when I finish GTB, I can reveal that Isherwood’s work fills me with awe.  The level of detail in which he writes is just phenomenal.  To give an example, the first three pages of ‘Mr Norris Changes Trains’ is taken up with an account of how the main character lights the cigarette of a stranger – Norris, as it turns out.  Throughout the book, he describes every nuance of characters’ reactions, every movement of the body, every fleeting shadow moving across the eye.  It seems to me that, whereas most writers just throw in a few actions to lighten up the ‘he saids’ and ‘she saids’, Isherwood just worked at it and worked at it, until he’d shown the reader everything.

…And next week, I’ll be in Berlin.

Brandenburg Gate, Berlin
(From http://www.tripadvisor.com)




Review of ‘One Pair of Hands By Monica Dickens

I would love to provide an effective link for this book, but Penguin who published it in paperback originally don’t list it on their website.  However, you can get it from Amazon in electronic or paperbased form.  This was actually the first of a large number of books written by Monica, who is actually the great grand-daughter of Charles Dickens.

‘One Pair of Hands’ is autobiography, recounting the experiences of the author (known to her friends as ‘Monty’) in domestic service, whereas her second book, ‘One Pair of Feet’ (which I haven’t read) is about her nursing career.  Born into a wealthy, middle-class family, Monica had no financial need to work at all.  She hired herself out as what was known in those days as a ‘cook general’ because she was bored by her life in society and wanted to have money of her own.  Her account is therefore that much more valuable because she notices and records things that other servants take for granted.  As I’ve been looking for a primary source on domestic servants in the early twentieth century, this was gold dust.  I learned a lot about what happened behind the green-baize door, even that the green-baize door existed, that cooks were always referred to as ‘Mrs’, how domestic services agencies operated and how important daily calling tradesmen were in a servant’s life.

This book was episodic, detailing, almost in diary form, every post the author held, descriptions of the kitchen and the employers.  She moved between posts very quickly, so was able to describe a range of service set-ups.  She was a plucky young woman.

“You know how to make creme brulee, don’t you. Mrs Dickens?”

“Of course,” said she, reaching for her cookery books and practising three times before she got it on to the table that evening.

As a cook, she worked extremely fast, arriving to do everything from scratch for an evening dinner party, only at four-thirty in the afternoon, putting most of us ‘working’ hostesses to shame.

Monica was totally deprecating, detailing every mistake in hilarious detail and attributing her successes to ‘luck’.  Indeed, I was put in mind of old fashioned British values at their best, that general getting on with it, ‘quietly and without fuss’.  (I think that last bit is a quote from ‘Thomas the Tank Engine’.  How random is that?  It’s late.)

Do I recommend it?  As a source book on domestic service, yes.  Did it keep me amused?  It was a bit samey.  Was it a work of literature?  No, definitely not.  The written style was very much ‘plonk, plonk, plonk’ with more or less every sentence containing an ‘and’ in the middle.   Will I read anything more of Monica Dickens?   Yes, I want to read ‘One Pair of Feet’ about nursing.  Books like this are gems for writers because they give detailed insights into different situations and different eras which the history books, academic articles and papers – let alone Wikipedia – can never do.

The Charlie Britten Cafe-Writing Project

Last Sunday, I tried to write in Starbucks in Chelmsford, only to be turned out at 4.30 on the dot, so on Friday lunchtime I decided to give it another go, in Costa Coffee in Colchester.  I intended to make a few forum posts and observe everything life going on around me.fruicake200

Well, Dear Reader, my first problem was that, not being a regular customer of Costa, I ordered the Wrong Thing, a veritable BOWL  of black Americano.  As it was one of the few sunny days we’ve had so far, I headed outside, with this full-to-the-brim pudding basin tottering on a small saucer.  Then, in order to sit down, I had to clear one of the empty tables of the cups, glasses and other rubbish left by the previous customer.  That done, I set up my iPad on a cleanish portion, switched it on and searched for a signal, only to be informed that the cafe wifi is only available inside.  Thank Goodness by 3, then.  (I never use up my monthly allowance anyway.)

So there I was reviewing a story on the Sally Quilter Workshop, in which I’m taking part at the moment, when something worth observing sat down at a neighbouring table – two men in their early to middle twenties, dressed casually, like older students, I thought.  As people do, they got out their phones and compared them.  “Oh,” said one, “you get the Nigel Farage feed as well, do you?”  Then they laughed again, a laugh which was conspiratorial, comradely and yet secretive.  “For me, he’s the only one who makes any sense.”

David Cameron, do you ever visit Essex?  This is the youth of today.   This is our future.  Fruitcake, anyone?  

(I feel cheated, Dear Reader.  I expected to be making worthy, writerly observations, not political stuff.)

Writing the Synopsis

I’ve been to Chelmsford today to hear my husband play the cathedral organ.  As it was such a beautiful sunny day, and Starbucks shut at 4.30, I wrote the first draft of this blog post sitting in the grounds of the diocesan offices – hence the picture, which is not mine, by the way.

guy_harlingsThose of you who have ‘known’ me online over the last few years will know that I have been writing a novel for a very long time  – since 2008, in fact.  In my first post on this blog (which I bet you don’t remember), I reported that I had stopped writing The Novel for the time being because it was losing its punch.  This was always a tactical withdrawal, not a defeat.  When I discussed picking it up again with my amazing online mentor, Anne, I was expecting to be asked for a plan, the very thought of which terrified me.  But no, she wanted a synopsis.  (“Really, Anne, are you sure?  I mean, I’m not going to be sending it to any publishers or agents for a very long time.”)  Oh yes, she was sure.

I once blagged on an online writing forum that it should be possible to summarise a short story in one sentence – two, at a pinch – so, therefore, I ought to be able to run through  my novel in 400 words, oughtn’t I?  Well, Dear Reader, I sweated blood.  The problem – or the beauty of it, depending how you look at it – is that, when stripped down to synopsis size, every inconsistency and slightly dodgy bit in the plot stand out like sore thumbs.  Over and over again, I had to explain  that mc did something because… then she met an obstacle… which she resolved… like this… in a way that made sense and sounded convincing in a few sentences.   Oh, and what is it about her character that makes her interesting?  She’s motor mouth, isn’t she – but can she conquer it?

Composing that 400 words took me three evenings, with the largest part written late on Thursday evening when, suddenly, everything started to fall into place.  It’s not perfect yet by any means, but I feel more confident about doing a rewrite than I have done for a long time.   So, if you are about to start a novel,  do write the synopsis first.

Meanwhile I’m really enjoying ‘One Pair of Feet’ by Monica Dickens.  For several months, I had been looking for a book about servants in the early part of the twentieth century, as part of research for a story about women who ‘take in washing’.  So thank you very much, Fiction Fan, for pointing me towards this one.