Fiction notes: Epistolary stories make it real

15/05/2023 at 9:28 am | Posted in Fiction notes | 2 Comments
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Recently I’ve been reading two excellent books presented as a collection of letters and other correspondence. One, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Anne Barrows, was fiction. The other, 84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff, was fact. And yet both come across in a remarkably similar way, which I would describe as warm-hearted and real. Both feature World War Two in their recent past. Against the darkness of conflict, the humour and kindness of the main characters shine out. 

The two books aren’t really that similar. But they both left me feeling moved and uplifted – and curious about the epistolary form.

When you start looking, the epistolary form – also known as a story made from a bunch of correspondence – is everywhere, all through the history of novel (and indeed non-fiction) writing. It’s a great way for an author to present multiple points of view. But until now, I didn’t realise that I was a fan, even though I’d read The Screwtape Letters by CS Lewis, and felt it had a freshness, an immediacy, that in certain ways surpassed his wonderful Narnia tales.

Why are epistolary novels so readable? The Smithsonian National Postal Museum has some interesting thoughts on the subject, as well as a giant list  (even 84 Charing Cross Road manages to tiptoe onto it). The gist is that letters are often written for a small and intimate audience. That means that they’re personal, private and revealing. The reader of fictional letters is able to peer into that intimate world. 

Reading epistolary books has made me notice the use of correspondence in the stories I’m writing. In my current work in progress, for example, a sealed letter was discovered that seems likely to reveal secrets. I have a rough idea of those are, but won’t know for sure until I get to that chapter…

And now, over to you. Do you have a favourite letter that you’ve read, or written, in a novel? 

Wellbeing notes: The Patina of a Person

01/05/2023 at 12:11 pm | Posted in Wellbeing notes | Leave a comment
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There’s an upcoming auction near me on 11th May: The Fine Contents of a Wiltshire Property. I may attend, because there’s a similar scene I’m working on in the novel that I’m currently writing. It’ll be useful research. 

There’s something about antique objects that is innately pleasing, despite or maybe because of the way they’ve changed over time. Consider my great grandmother’s sewing box, pictured here. Maybe one day the parquetry lid will be restored, but even so, it will never again look new. Its surfaces reveal the passage of time – and that is surely part of its charm. Wear and tear, interspersed with licks of polish… there are no short cuts when it comes to creating an aged surface, or patina.

And so it is with people. We all age differently, and we all face different choices when it comes to the process of time. Do we apply skincare creams, including sun block, daily; do we opt for more drastic intervention? How do we react to the arrival of white hair? And do we keep our bodies flexible through exercise?

We each find our own answers to these questions. However, the icon of older beauty for me will always be the white-haired woman (or man), with serene and cared-for features, who accepts and embraces her true age. She has learned the art of self-acceptance, and to love life fully. That is truly something to aspire to. 

Fiction notes: The power of juxtaposition

15/04/2023 at 10:53 am | Posted in Fiction notes, Uncategorized | 2 Comments
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For decades, I wrote non-fiction. Then the poles shifted in my personal life, and now I almost always write fiction. But back in the beginning of my career, I did write a single short story. It was called ‘The Dormer Window’, even though the window in the story was a slanting, attic sort that could be more properly termed a skylight.

When it was published, in Britain and Ireland, no one seemed to mind the architectural inaccuracy. What they liked was the way it juxtaposed the hard drudge of a couple’s ordinary life with a window that revealed their passions and dreams, in unexpected ways. In the story, the husband created an attic bedroom, complete with slanted window above the bed. At night, their reflection revealed them as Chagall’s lovers, entwined and floating in the air. As one editor memorably put it, “It’s about love and DIY”.

I had a quick look for the story yesterday, but couldn’t find it. If I do, I’ll share it on these pages.

But what I really want to talk about is the use of juxtaposition in fiction writing. It’s such a useful device, to put two contrasting things closely together. And it seems to work particularly well for people. To be human is to have duties that we must do, to survive and hopefully thrive. But to be human is also to have powerful emotions. In day to day life we often try to hide these. However, it’s vital for our sanity that there is an outlet for our yearnings, hopes and dreams – a dormer window, if you will.

I invite you to consider what you are currently writing, or perhaps reading. Is juxtaposition present? And, if so, how does it enhance the story?

Wellbeing notes: Teachings from an ancient flower

31/03/2023 at 9:09 am | Posted in Wellbeing notes | 1 Comment
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There’s a magnolia tree that I know and love. With spring blooms of velvet pink, it brings pleasure to all who view it. But my magnolia is more than just a bunch of gorgeous flowers. Its cup-shaped blossoms tell an ancient story. And if I slow down enough to listen to that story, wellbeing results. Here are a few of magnolia’s insights.

‘Age is relative’

Magnolias have been growing for 20 million years. In comparison, humans are so young. It is believed that we have been on this planet for a mere 300,000 years. We are new-born babes compared with the magnolia tree. Maybe we should cut ourselves some slack. We are still learning, and that’s okay.

‘Think out of the box’

Magnolias evolved long before the arrival of bees. So, they attract a much older insect: flightless beetles, that chomp the sticky nectar. So, next time you’re grappling with a tricky problem, you might think of an alternative, ‘magnolia’ solution.

‘It’s fine to be a late bloomer’ 

Although my favourite magnolia tree flowers in spring, it likes to have a small, colourful flurry later in the year. And so it is with our own talents and interests. We are never too old to do something new.

‘Plan ahead’ 

By December, my magnolia will be covered in countless tight buds. The tree will protect them over winter, then enjoy a head start next spring. In the same spirit of looking ahead, what could you prepare today, in order to better use your energy tomorrow?

Fiction notes: Depicting war through the little moments

15/03/2023 at 11:25 am | Posted in Fiction notes | Leave a comment
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I’ll be honest. Long descriptions of war don’t always work for me. But when I read how ordinary people are affected by the conflict… then, I relate to their sorrow. Emotions are all-important. It’s hard for anyone to feel much in the midst of a crisis. But in the aftermath… that’s when people grieve, and mend, and sometimes fracture. That’s when empathy and understanding emerge.

Currently I’m reading a book that embodies this principle. It’s not comfortable material, but it is helping me to understand the effects of war better.

Lucky Breaks is a collection of short stories set in war-torn Ukraine by Yevgenia Belorusets. Like fairytale characters seen through a distorting lens, the women of these stories unaccountably disappear from their ordinary lives, while the businesses of war move in. The women’s homes are destroyed and their offices are repurposed for the war effort. And the women grapple with the changes, unable to make sense of their nation’s new disorder. Rumours abound. One neighbour may have escaped to the country. Another woman – intelligent, educated, artistic and penniless – may have accepted admin work with a man who requires intimate services. Meanwhile, yet another acquaintance develops peculiar habits born of ongoing traumatic stress. 

For me, this mosaic of fragmented lives conveys war more effectively than any detailed battle scene. I think Yevgenia Belorusets’s collection is giving me a better view of conflict. These ordinary people could easily be you or me, or our families. It’s easy to identify with them and feel their pain. I think it matters to bear witness to such all-too-human stories. Sometimes, the reading can even bring a little healing.

Photo: Mike Labrum/Unsplash

Wellbeing notes: Outdoor spring clean

01/03/2023 at 9:02 am | Posted in Wellbeing notes | Leave a comment
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If you see a piece of litter on a country walk, do you pick it up sometimes, often, or never? In my case, if I’m honest, it depends on the litter. Some items can’t easily be picked up. Other times, I’m rushing past on my way to a Very Pressing Appointment, and I’d rather not turn up all mucky. But I hope that I do try to bag litter at least some of the time. 

When you or I pick up discarded rubbish, we’re contributing to a beneficial practice which has been gaining real traction in the UK, and elsewhere. 

This year the Great British Spring Clean runs from 17th March to 2nd April. Look out for individuals, pledging to fill a single bag; and volunteer groups, working together. For ideas on how to join in, see Keep Britain Tidy. In 2022’s Spring Clean, nearly half a million bags of refuse were apparently collected and properly disposed of. That’s a lot of tidying up – enough to make a visible difference.

Walking outdoors is brilliant for mental wellbeing as well as physical health. One of my favourite local walks takes me through woods, meadowland and over a tiny wild garlic stream, all dappled in sunlight. Over the coming weeks, additional flowers will grow along the route: fragrant bluebells like the ones pictured here; dainty lady’s smock; vibrant orchids; purple knapweed and tall, waving daisies. What I’d rather not see among them is an empty can or plastic wrapper, so if there’s anything along those lines, here is my pledge that I’ll be picking it up.

Fiction notes: Who’s telling the story?

15/02/2023 at 8:55 am | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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Novels written in the first person have a certain power. When I read, “I am a free human being with an independent will,” in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, for example, I’m owning that thought. In my imagination, I am Jane.

Now consider these words further along in the same novel: “Reader, I married him”. That’s such a satisfying line – an emotional closure to a handkerchief-drenching plot. But Jane is now addressing the reader… and I am the reader, so therefore I can no longer imagine that I am Jane. So I slip into the role of confidante, which is nearly as good, but not quite. And yet the switch is worth it for the power of that line.

By addressing the reader directly, Charlotte Brontë breaks the fourth wall – she reminds us that Jane Eyre is a fictional character on a metaphorical stage. The stage, with its back and two sides, may resemble a four-walled room. But that illusion dissolves as soon as the audience is acknowledged.

Luckily, the reader’s imagination is elastic, as long as the storytelling is strong enough to support it. I’m quite happy to identify as Jane Eyre for the duration of the novel, except during those times when she addresses me.

If a novel is narrated in the third person, do we identify less with the central character? Logic suggests that we might. And yet consider Jane Austen’s Persuasion. My all-time favourite novel is narrated in the third person. However, Persuasion is stuffed full of dialogue, and possibly the best love note in the English language. There is therefore lots of first-hand experience to read and to enjoy.

What about you? Do you like a character to narrate her own story? And how does it feel to you if she talks directly to the reader?

Wellbeing notes: Putting the fab into February

01/02/2023 at 9:07 am | Posted in Wellbeing notes | Leave a comment
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February can be a challenge. Winter is hard, and in the Northern Hemisphere we’ve already slogged through two months of it. We’ve had illness, snow, and floods. We’ve had storms, and the odd power cut. As I look out of my study window and into the garden, all I can see are bare trees and endless mud.

So how on earth can we start to feel better in February? Here are some ideas…

Bathe in bliss

February is named after an ancient Roman festival of purification. The original version involved making offerings and sacrifices. In the 21st Century, the month becomes an invitation to practise self-care. For example, you might enjoy a cleansing, candlelit bath, with salts. Adding a few drops of lavender oil fits in with the theme of wellbeing. 

Go on a bud walk

The best thing about the month before spring is seeing signs of new life. A country walk may take you to snowdrops, and green shoots that will soon explode into a yellow froth of daffodils. And if we simply look upwards, we may spot the first soft brushes of blossom against a cool, clear sky.

Be kind in unexpected ways

Random Acts of Kindness Week runs from 12th to 18th February this year. Write a note of appreciation, or phone a friend or relative. Give a compliment or a bunch of flowers to a perfect stranger. Kindness benefits everyone, and it all starts with a good deed.

Fiction notes: Why Muscles Do Not Make a Man

15/01/2023 at 9:30 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments
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It is a truth universally acknowledged that when Woman meets potential Mate, one of the things she probably will notice is his muscles (or lack of them). In primal times, it mattered, of course, that a partner would be strong enough to help protect your future children. But does this matter today, in romantic fiction or, indeed, in life?

I have a dog who is stronger than me. Yet he looks to me, and to the other humans in the household, for affection, food and shelter. His physical strength is trumped by his need to be part of the pack. In our human world, the patriarchy became dominant by building on the advantages of muscular strength. But physicality has its limitations. Intelligence, collaboration, adaptability, inventiveness and agility are all useful attributes for a potential mate of any gender.

In fiction, it can be fun to combine different strengths in one delicious package. Think of Superman, the nerdy, bespectacled reporter, with muscles that can save countless others. Or the popular trope of the sexy librarian, in glasses. Glasses are a quick way to suggest intelligence, but maybe there are other descriptors that can work in less expected ways?

The male love interest in my current writing has a healthy, toned body and not, so far, any sign of glasses. But his most attractive quality has nothing at all to do with muscles, although he does use his strength to protect. So what exactly is this man’s mysterious appeal? Well, here’s the thing. He’s kind. And kindness can be the sexiest quality of all. (Though he does have to learn that, sometimes, you have to be cruel to be kind.)

So, what characteristics do you like to see in a hero – or a potential mate? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Illustration: Self portrait by Philipp Otto Runge, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Wellbeing notes: rhyming affirmations

04/01/2023 at 11:56 am | Posted in Wellbeing | 4 Comments
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Perhaps every thought we have – especially the ones we think often, or fervently – has the potential to come true. Hence the expression, ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’. I do believe that humans are hugely creative beings, in ways we scarcely understand. If every thought is a possible manifestation, it makes sense to choose at least some of our thoughts wisely. And the very best way I know of doing that is through rhyming affirmations.

Verses that rhyme have a habit of staying in our minds longer. We may find ourselves remembering them without even trying. They become a mantra that uplifts, in a way that’s reminiscent of comforting childhood rhymes.

I regularly write my own, personal rhyming affirmations, recording them with pen and ink in a journal. They’re not high art – just verses that stick in the mind. Verses that I repeat slowly, and mindfully. Verses that leave me feeling calmer, and happier. If you are at all inclined, I encourage you, today or tomorrow, to come up with a rhyming affirmation for yourself. It can be as simple as two lines that rhyme. Put pen to paper, or finger to phone, and play a little. And remember, no one is judging your creation!

The following rhyming affirmation is one I wrote last year. It’s a bit longer – four verses in total. Yet I have found this one particularly easy to remember, and repeating it slowly never fails to ramp up the levels of joy in my day. It reminds me that anything is possible, and that life – not just in some mythical future, but right now – is filled with a wonderful magic.

I believe

I believe in deeds of kindness

and presents wrapped in love

I believe that people can connect

with intervention from above


I believe in our creations

and doses of good luck

I believe that fortune flourishes

and blocks can get unstuck


I believe in my good health

and my body being able

I believe in friends who help,

who can inspire and enable


I believe in gifts from God

and moments of laughter

I believe, above all, in love

and happy ever after

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