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Wednesday, 27 September 2017

Birthday Books

My birthday was last Thursday and I was lucky enough to receive several books as presents. I admit that quite a few of them were on my Amazon Wish List, so it was easy for my family to choose their selections, but others weren't and I'm touched that my friends know me well enough to pick just the right book.

The Maggie O'Farrell was on my Wish List and my husband purchased it on behalf of my mother-in-law who is sadly now in a care home with dementia and Alzheimer's. I love a nice hardback, especially when it's got one of those beautiful ribbon bookmarks inside. I've almost finished this book, which is a memoir, featuring Maggie's seventeen brushes with death. It sounds depressing, but it isn't. In fact, it's quite an uplifting read and is a novel way of approaching the story of one's life. She continues to be one of my favourite authors and I've read everything she's written.

My good friend, Mandy Huggins warned me that I'd be receiving a parcel in the post, which looked like an Amazon parcel and not to open it, because it wasn't gift wrapped. I was a good girl and didn't open it until the morning of my birthday. Inside was a book I hadn't heard of, but I was delighted to discover the author lives in Saltburn by the Sea, where we've enjoyed many a happy holiday. I look forward to reading it. It's next on my list. Mandy has read it and has been raving about it.

Back in August I had a lovely time in London visiting my friends, Nigel and Tom. We first met at The Bedford International Short Story Award Presentation Evening in January 2016. Nigel and I were both on the shortlist and our stories were featured in the anthology. The three of us got on like a house on fire and we've been firm friends ever since. On my latest visit, Nigel took me to The British Library and we took in the LGBT Exhibition there. It was fascinating. One of my favourites exhibits was Kenneth Williams' actual diary from 1967. He had the tiniest handwriting. I told Nigel that I dearly wished I could have picked it out of the glass case and read it from beginning to end. "Have you not read the published diaries?" he asked. "No, I haven't." So, this duly appeared a couple of days before my birthday. A very thoughtful present and it was beautifully gift wrapped, too. I'm tempted to start it and read alongside the Carmen Marcus novel.

As most of you know, I attend The Theakston's Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival at Harrogate most years. An author I have got to know well is Eva Dolan. She has championed my own writing and been incredibly helpful in suggesting agents and how/when to approach them. I've read most of Eva's novels and they're real page-turners, but with a gritty insight into the political and social issues of our times. I'm now lucky enough to be on her publisher's review list, so I receive pre-publication issues. In fact, I've almost finished her latest novel, due out in January, This Is How It Ends. I won't go into detail here, because I've to write a review, but it's excellent. Anyway, the one novel of Eva's I haven't read is Tell No Tales, which is how it came to be on my Amazon Wish List. My son, Matt knows that I love a good hardback, so bought me the hardback version along with the latest Jake Bugg album on CD, which I've played to death in my car.

My husband, Nigel and I visited Howarth Parsonage on a trip to Yorkshire recently and when I saw this in the bookshop I was very tempted. However, I was restrained and put it on my Wish List instead. It was a lovely surprise to open Megan's present and find this. I'm still reading Shirley, so will save this one until I've finished the novel.

I visit my late husband's mother, Doris every Friday for coffee. She's now nearly 91. She loves reading, so it's something we have in common and can chat about. Unfortunately, her eyesight isn't at all good these days and she struggles to read, but she manages. Anyway, she gave me a beautiful birthday card last week and included some cash. I promised her I'd buy books with it, then promptly went into Rugby Town Centre (a rare event) and spent the cash in WH Smith's. It was quite a novelty to buy books from a proper shop instead of online. I had great fun browsing. Hunter Davies A Life In The Day was one of the books I was hoping someone would buy me for my birthday, so this is the one I sought out first (although the Biography Section was very hard to find!). I heard Hunter Davies talking about A Life In The Day on the radio, and last month I bought it for my goddaughter, who is a Beatles fan. I also wanted to read about his wife, Margaret Forster, because I'm a huge fan of her books and most of them are on my shelves.

It's been a while since I read any Marian Keyes, but I'm seeing her latest book everywhere lately, so I thought I'd give it a go. I loved her Under The Duvet collection of anecdotes and articles, so couldn't resist Making It Up As I Go Along.

My final purchase was the brilliant Kate Atkinson's A God In Ruins. Unfortunately, I missed out on the hardback when it first came out. I read Life After Life in hardback some time ago and I absolutely loved it. I've been itching to read the sequel, but now I'll have to read Life After Life again to fully appreciate it. It won't be a hardship, I assure you!

I love birthdays!

Saturday, 9 September 2017

The Retreat West Launch, Reading

I had a fabulous time in Reading on Thursday and I'm so glad my mate Mandy Huggins invited me to attend The Retreat West anthology launch. It was even worth putting up with the horrible Cross Country Trains experience!

We stayed in a fabulous hotel, The Ibis Central, just round the corner from the station. I couldn't fault it for cleanliness, efficiency and hospitality. Antonio on Reception was lovely. He even let me put my overnight bag behind Reception free of charge the next day when I wanted to explore the town and have lunch.

For Mandy and I, our evening began with a lovely meal at Jamie's by the river (I think she's now forgiven me for flooding our table with water! I now have a reputation as being 'a bad pourer').  We'd already sought alcoholic refreshment earlier in the afternoon in the pub next to the station, where I decided it was easier to meet, simply because there weren't any benches to sit on on the station concourse (that was my excuse, anyway!).

I love meeting up with fellow writers. It's also exciting to meet online writer friends for the first time (Amanda Saint and Judith Wilson to name but two). The lovely Jo Campbell and her family were in attendance and I fell in love with Jo's 1960s outfit. How I wish I had the figure for such fab clothes! We had a lovely discussion about Amazon Wish Lists and Save For Later! We promised each other that we'd resume our regular email exchanges and commented that emails had now become something akin to letter writing now that it was so much more instantaneous to chat online via Facebook Message or Snap Chat. Such a shame!

Jude Higgins reading her prize winning Flash

There was a special atmosphere at the launch party in Waterstones with the wine flowing freely and lots of interesting nibbles! There was a real buzz in the room and I dearly wished I'd  entered Retreat West last year. I certainly will be doing so this year, as I would love one of my stories to be published in a similar anthology and be invited to the launch next year. Jude Higgins (whom I've known for many years now) won first prize in the Flash category and read her touching piece about a grandfather in hospital. I met Judith Wilson (and her husband/driver) for the first time, unaware at first that she won the short story category. It was a delight to hear her read her story, On Crosby Beach. I could picture the scene vividly, recalling my first visit to the beach and the Anthony Gormley statues last year.

Towards the end of the launch, Mandy and I decided it would be fun to get our anthologies signed by those authors who had pieces published therein. The idea caught on and it all got very confusing!

Mandy Huggins, Diane Simmons, Jude Higgins and I finished off a great evening with drinks in The Pitcher and Piano and had a lively discussion about MAs and the reason why so many people don't think you're a real writer until you've had a novel published. We then had 'one for the road' in The Ibis Hotel bar. It has to be noted that Mandy was on the Diet Coke by this time and Jude went to bed.

Hotel bar nightcap!
All in all, a most enjoyable evening! I had a lovely time exploring Reading shops and had lunch in Bill's the next day. My son, Matt, has an interview in Reading on Wednesday and I am crossing everything, hoping he gets the job, because I think it would be a wonderful place for him to live and work (and I'd have an excuse to visit the town more often!).

Wednesday, 6 September 2017

Too Many Books! Not Much Time Left!

This morning I was eating breakfast (cranberry and orange bread with crunchy peanut butter, if you're interested) and became aware that the bread (even though I'd bought it yesterday) wasn't particularly fresh. In fact, I didn't even like the taste much either. Rather than wade my way through it, I put it in the bin. Life's too short to eat something that isn't hitting the spot. It occurred to me that it's the same with reading.

The older I get, the more discerning I get about what I read for pleasure. I think that one of the reasons for this is that I'm all too aware of time running out. There are so many damn fine books in the world, that it is impossible to read them all. I have hundreds of books on my shelves that I haven't yet got round to reading (yet I still continue to buy more) and, as one of my Facebook friends said in a recent post, ploughing through a book you're not enjoying for the sake of feeling you have to finish it, is a waste of time; time that could be spent reading something wonderful. Other friends swear by the Page 50 Test. In other words, if you're not enjoying the book fifty pages in, then cast it aside, because it's unlikely to get any better. However, I have been known to abandon a few books fifty pages before the end!

I admit I feel a little guilty about casting books aside without having read them cover to cover, but I do give away the books I've finished with,  either to the secondhand bookshop at the National Trust property where I volunteer, or I give them to friends and relatives. It's not as though I throw them in the bin or (heaven forbid) set fire to them.

I've struggled to find books I'm passionate about recently (maybe this is a sign of getting older!). I get a lot of freebies from publishers as well as goody bags from literary festivals and I have to say it's unusual to find a real gem amongst them. Having said that, All The Wicked Girls by Chris Whitaker (one of at least a dozen freebies from Harrogate Crime) was an amazing reading experience. Why? The characters, sense of place and wonderful writing made it stand out from the crowd. For once a crime novel that didn't rely exclusively on plot!

I'm currently reading Shirley by Charlotte Bronte (inspired by a recent visit to the Bronte Parsonage in Howarth). Boy, could that woman write! It's an old battered hardback copy, a New York edition, in fact, that belonged to my late mother, who was incidentally called Shirley. You even learn a bit of history, too. Can't be bad.

In other news, I had a busy day yesterday, beginning with a bike ride in torrential rain. Tuesday is my National Trust volunteering day and, although we had fewer visitors than in recent weeks, it was an enjoyable day and I got a great short story idea from a young couple.

Another bike ride today, but I managed to avoid the rain showers. I also tackled some much-needed housework!

And yes, I did manage to enter The Writers' Forum Short Story Competition on Monday.

Monday, 4 September 2017

Black Hole Blogger

It has been almost two years since I wrote a blog post. I can't quite believe it when I used to be such a regular blogger. So why did I stop?

Basically, I think it was because I didn't think I had anything interesting to say. For some reason my confidence has taken a knock in recent years and I've been struggling to keep my head above water. It's as if I fell into some kind of black hole.

Hopefully, I'm back to stay now. If any of you are friends with me on Facebook, you could be forgiven for thinking that I'm living the life of Riley and that I'm always away on trips. As we all know, we can present any facet of our lives on Facebook and give a false impression. Yes, I have been away on lots of 'jollies', either visiting friends, attending writing events or having a night or two away with my husband. And great fun all that has been, too. However, I have been struggling with my demons and I haven't been as prolific on the writing front as I could have been.

I have had some wonderful writing successes in the two years I've been away from the blog. I've had more stories published by Woman's Weekly and The People's Friend. I've had one or two competition successes, although I haven't entered very many at all. I've also done a lot of competition judging, including being on the reading panel for The Bath Short Story Award and one of three judges of The Rubery Book Award.

In February this year I started volunteering as a room guide at a National Trust property in Northamptonshire. This has given me a great deal of pleasure and I've made some lovely new friends. I love the role and enjoy chatting to the visitors. This has given my self-confidence a much needed boost and it's something I hope to continue with for many years to come, despite me 'losing' a whole day's writing a week. I do think it's good for the soul to get out of the house and interact with real people instead of fictional ones! It has also provided me with some great story ideas (even though I haven't written them yet). They've even asked me to run a 'Spooky Stories' workshop for children during October half term.

I recently signed a contract with a publisher for a Flash Fiction Collection. I probably shouldn't say much more about this yet, as it's early days, but I'm hoping it will be published next year.

Today I have been out cycling (something I love to do and must make the effort to do most days, as it's brilliant for my mental health) and I've done some writing. I hope to have something to send to The Writers' Forum Competition and I'm working on a new story with no idea of where to send it yet! I've also got a second novel on the go. I'm having fun writing it, but we'll see... I don't think I'm a natural novel writer.

On Thursday I'm off on yet another trip, this time to Reading. My lovely friend, Mandy Huggins invited me to The Retreat West Anthology launch. Mandy has a story in the anthology and I believe other lovely writer friends have, too. I'll be meeting up with Diane Simmons and Jude Higgins again as well as meeting Amanda Saint for the first time. I can't wait.

Friday, 25 September 2015

I Love Autumn!

I love autumn. Not just because it's birthday time for me, but because it always feels like the time for new beginnings. As I've said before, I think many of us associate autumn with the start of the academic year.

I did some goal setting at the beginning of this month and one of the things I did was to sign up for The Fish Flash Fiction Online Writing Course. I've always wanted to write better flash fiction and when writer friend, Diane Simmons recommended this course, I knew I had to sign up. What better way to kick start my writing? I'm currently working my way through the second module and it's great fun. I can thoroughly recommend it. Mary Jane Holmes is a fantastic tutor and turns around assignments in a very short space of time. I'm learning a lot!

I was thrilled to bits when Richard Pike of Curtis Brown Agency said that he'd be very happy to read the revised version of my novel whenever I was ready to resubmit. I've made a few changes already and have written a new outline. Let's just say it's a project that's bubbling under.

A more urgent project is a serial I'm writing for The People's Friend. Again, I've written a rough outline and the first few hundred words. I'm on a tight deadline for this one, so from next week, the serial will have to take priority.

A little bird told me that prolific womag writer, Della Galton, currently has fifty pieces of writing out there. I totted up and I currently have fifteen. My aim is to double that, at least, by Christmas. I submitted a 3,000 word story to The People's Friend this week and have started writing a new one with them in mind. I also have one almost ready to send to Woman's Weekly.

I was thrilled this week to receive an email from Janine Enos of Bridgend Writers' Circle asking me to judge the final few stories in their annual short story competition. I used to judge at least two short story competitions a year, but haven't judged any in a while, so this is something I'm really looking forward to.

Finally, I found out this week that one of my stories has been shortlisted in The Doris Gooderson Short Story Competition. That gave me a much needed boost, because in other news, our beloved guinea pigs died within a week of each other this month. They were six-years-old, so had a good innings, but we miss them so much.

Friday, 14 August 2015


‘These are life-enhancing weeks.’ - Simon Armitage.

This is the quote on the home page of The Arvon Foundation’s website. I would add that these courses can also be ‘a life-changing experience’. 

On Monday 3rd August I turned up at Lumb Bank near Heptonstall for the start of a five day course on Writing TV Drama. The tutors were Simon Block (writer) and Eleanor Greene (TV producer). 

I’d gone along with an old university friend, Margaret. Neither of us had ever attempted to write a script before. It soon became apparent that all but one of the other course participants had, which was a bit intimidating. Even more intimidating was the fact that two of the other course participants had worked in TV - one as a producer of documentaries and the other as a runner on the Bridget Jones Diary feature film, as well as series producer of Billy Connolly’s Route 66. Another lady had been writing plays for fifteen years and had them performed both here and in the States. There was a well known TV actress amongst us, a university lecturer in Script Writing, a Brit School gradate and ex-Sunday Times journalist and press officer for Shell. How on earth could this ex-teacher turned short story writer possibly hold her own amongst such talent? Well, I couldn’t! But I tried my best.

Actually everyone was lovely and we spent most evenings chatting and drinking wine in the garden after dinner. I laughed a great deal, and I also shed more tears than I have in a while (mostly in private!). I imagine most people find Arvon an emotional Haribo mix of a week.
Door to Margaret's Room (mine was on the opposite side)

Lumb Bank is the former home of poet, Ted Hughes. It’s a beautiful, large stone built farmhouse with spectacular views and not another house in sight. There’s a lovely stone barn conversion (I shared a ‘suite’ there with Margaret), a small cottage (for the tutors) and a converted coal-house for a couple to share. Lumb Bank even has its own cat visitor, the lovely Ted. He’s a very sociable cat and had plenty of laps to choose from during our week. There were twelve of us on the Writing TV Drama Course. 

A meal and wine was provided for us on the first night, then three of us had to clear and wash up afterwards. There was an introductory talk by the tutors in the upstairs area of the barn, then everyone disappeared to their respective rooms only to be ousted a few minutes later by the fire alarm. We all had to gather at the Fire Assembly Point near the lane to await the fire brigade. Thankfully, there wasn’t an actual fire and the sight of two hunky fireman jogging down the lane with a torch was rather nice. It turns out that spraying large amounts of deodorant around sets off fire alarms (I won’t mention any names). 

After breakfast on Tuesday, we gathered around the dining table to share our TV Drama idea with the tutors and the rest of the group. I hadn’t come up with a definite idea (I had two or three bouncing around), thinking that we’d have a session to help us generate ideas. So... I thought I’d try and adapt my crime novel idea. I was immediately shot down in flames when the tutors both agreed that my idea was too complicated and I had to simplify it. I felt absolutely gutted. Everyone else’s ideas were amazing and I felt as if I’d turned up at the wrong wedding or came dressed as a bear for a fancy dress party when it was a black-tie do. It was only Yolanda’s kind words (she sat next to me) and Sophie’s winks and encouraging smiles that stopped me walking out to pack my case! I also realised at this point that I’m not good surrounded by a lot of people. I’m so used to spending most of the day on my own.

Eleanor Greene (tutor) was lovely to me and told me to sit with her at lunch and she’d help me simplify my idea, which she did. She’s a very clever woman and has the ability to see straight to the heart of any story in an instant. I can’t tell you how much she helped me that week. 

I was on clearing away and washing-up duty again after lunch and it was a rush to get to the 2pm session in the barn. Eleanor showed us the first episode of one of her all-time favourite TV Dramas, Catastrophe, which I highly recommend. She paused it after each scene and asked questions. It was easy to see how the twenty-six minute episode was put together. The writer and comedian, Sharon Horgan is one talented lady and very funny! We learned to look out for the inciting incident (a one-night stand), the impediment and learned that each scene has a purpose. We learned about genre, sub-plot, obstacles to happiness and conflict. Everything must relate to the central theme. For each of their wants, there’s a ‘but’. And so much more....And a brilliant quote to pin up on your noticeboard: ‘Sub plot is a relevant distraction.’ We then did a writing exercise to explore our characters in more depth.

If that wasn’t exhausting enough, I was then on cooking duties with Margaret and Sarah. Sarah lived near Rugby when growing up and went to the Girls’ High School. We had several friends in common (mostly musicians), so had a lovely chat while prepping and cooking a main course, garlic bread and dessert. Once we’d served dinner for fifteen, we were able to relax over rather a lot of wine. We all met up in the barn at 8.30pm to watch The Eichmann Show, which Simon Block had written earlier this year. By 9.30pm most of us were so tired that we had to go to bed (or in our case relax in the garden with a nightcap!). 

A better night’s sleep and nice chats over breakfast on the Wednesday, but I couldn’t get my head around writing a one page summary of my story (I’m not a morning person and was too busy cooking the night before). At the 10am session, Eleanor asked me to read mine out first. I had to confess I hadn’t done it. I was the only person who hadn’t done it and the only person who had nothing to read out. I felt so cross with myself and that I’d not only let myself down, but the rest of the group. Eleanor was very good about it and told me not to worry. I then was able to get my head together and make notes on what my story should be. I realised I’d got so bogged down with my novel in recent months, that it was blocking me from making the most of my Arvon experience. A novel is a world away from a script and once I realised that and came up with a different story, everything clicked into place. Over lunch Simon Block told me not to worry about writing my one page summary and go straight to the next task which was to write a monologue from one character’s viewpoint. This I found very easy to do and it seemed to go down well when I read it out the next day, but I had to write that one page summary as well, just for my own satisfaction. When I told Eleanor at dinner, she hi-fived me and said I was like a different person. Yes, it took me until Wednesday afternoon to feel comfortable and come out of my shell. 

Wednesday afternoon’s session with Simon Block was my favourite of all. It was a collaborative exercise, which made me realise that this is the sort of writing I like best. There were some great ideas flying around the room. Simon had witnessed someone shoplifting at Kings Cross Station on Monday and asked us to write a scene together about a shoplifter. He asked us lots of questions about the character, the story, the inciting incident and so on. We had such a laugh during this session and came up with a great, action-packed scene that was truly an original and exciting idea. 

Our guest on Friday night was Ben Newman, a former runner and fairly new script-writer who has written a couple of episodes of Shameless, episodes of Strike Back, Miss Marple and Poirot as well as the screenplay for AD The Bible Continues. He was an entertaining and enthusiastic speaker, and we learned how to submit scripts to script editors. After his talk, I had a lovely chat with Yolanda about Cucumber (written by the brilliantly talented Russell T Davies), a drama series we both loved and then another chat with Lita, who admitted she felt as out of her depth as I did on Tuesday. I also managed to stop my friend Margaret dancing on the table. 

On Thursday morning we had a workshop on dialogue and the ability to listen. Live To Listen! is my new motto. I decided that in future I will go to write in caf├ęs, jotting down gems of dialogue in my notebook. We watched the openings of three films: Sunset Boulevard; Broadway Danny Rose and All Is Lost. We then had to write a conversation we’d recently overheard, keeping the action to a minimum. 

Thursday was great, because not only did I have a one-to-one tutorial with Eleanor Greene who asked the right sort of questions so that I ended up with a detailed storyline, but we also had the afternoon and evening free to write. I bashed out the first scene of my script, while sitting in the beautiful and well stocked library at Lumb Bank. 

Thursday was also good for another reason. My son, Matt, phoned to say that he’d passed his driving test. Thursday wasn’t so great either, because it was the funeral of Roy, my ex-brother-in-law, a lovely man. Matt went to support his auntie and cousins at the crematorium in Rugby and in the evening some of the other course participants at Lumb Bank joined me in raising a glass and drinking a toast to Roy. 

Thursday evening after dinner was quite a rowdy one, as most of the women on the course sat at the dining table, recounting naughty and revealing stories about their lives, including a story about having an orgasm in a taxi. I think we shocked the two twenty-something girls who joined us. I was disappointed we didn’t trek off to the pub in Heptonstall, but to be honest we would have been even more exhausted the next day had we have done so and.. there was plenty of wine left. 

You know you’ve had a good night when you’ve still got last night’s make-up on when you wake up. The workshop at 10am on Friday was on genre and plot. We watched the opening scenes of All The President’s Men as an example of good plotting. ‘A good story is both entertaining and universal.’ Each scene has to convey only one or at most two pieces of information. End a scene on a hook. We then looked at two genres - rom/com and family drama, then broke them down into the main plot and the rules of the genre. This was another interactive session and very useful.

We also had a free afternoon on Friday in order to write the first few scenes of our script. I sat in the library again and was joined by Yolanda. She asked me to read a few character parts in her script (she’d written loads... oh, to have the stamina and energy of youth!), which was great fun. I got about four scenes completed, having scrapped my original first scene, as Eleanor helped me discover that it should be the final scene in the episode, not the first! I then had a one-to-one tutorial with Simon Block. He commended me on how I’d turned things around during the course of the week and said my story idea was brilliant (I’m not convinced). We talked it through and he helped me discover the theme and how best to portray it. It was a beautiful sunny day again and we sat outside taking in the breathtaking view of the valley. 

Friday evening was a celebration of the work we’d done so far and a chance to present our opening scenes. A lot of course participants asked others to help them read various parts. The poor actress on our course was very busy that night! She has a wealth of regional accents and characters to draw on. It’s no wonder she won the Gold Medal at RADA. 

Despite a small technical hitch, my presentation was well received. The tutors pointed out that I had a bit too much exposition in my dialogue and a bit too much dialogue, but my scenes flowed really well, my characters were vividly described and there was a warmth to my scenes. I was pleased with that, considering I’d never attempted to write a script before. It was a wonderful evening and everyone’s scripts were amazing. Sarah from Doncaster (there were three Sarahs on the course), although shy and retiring, produced the most amazing comedy and had us all roaring with laughter. She didn’t crack her face throughout. Her dry delivery and perfect comic timing made the whole thing even funnier. I think the whole evening, if not the whole course can be summed up so well in an extract from the email Simon Block sent us on Monday this week:

‘It is very easy for tutors to conclude the week by telling all the students how wonderful they are, and how terrific their writing is. I've seen it done several times. However, while people are generally wonderful on the courses I've taught (and you were a genuinely lovely group to work with), the writing people put forward on the last night is not always uniformly strong. You were genuinely a very strong group. All of you have very strong, very clear ideas that could be realised in script form. But both Eleanor and I were blown away and surprised by the quality of work we heard on Friday night. We expected you to have taken on board what we tried to convey about telling your stories in a sequence of scenes, etc. What what we hadn't accounted for was the quality of dialogue. Very unusual, and very impressive.’

We were lucky in that we had two very talented and inspiring tutors. They complemented each other beautifully. They were kind, generous and patient. What more could you ask for?

I was genuinely sad that the week had come to an end so quickly and reluctant to say goodbye to every single one of the lovely people who took part to make it an unforgettable week. There was talk of a reunion, but even if there isn’t one, I’ve already connected with a few of these inspiring people on Facebook, Twitter and via email and text. 

Would I attend an Arvon Course again in the future? Quite possibly.

Saturday, 25 July 2015

The 2015 Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival, Harrogate Part Two

Lisa Gardner
Saturday kicked off with a cracking interview between Ann Cleeves and Lisa Gardner. The day before Mary Jane Riley had assured me that I’d enjoy Lisa’s writing. I certainly enjoyed listening to her speak about her research and her novels. Lisa has over twenty-two million books in print (imagine that!), which is quite something given that she’s only in her forties. She has an engaging personality and charmed the socks off the hungover Harrogate audience. Lisa told us about her visits to the infamous Body Farm in Texas and how thoroughly she researches each book. The audience was surprised to hear Ann Cleeves confess that the only thing she does in the way of research is to sit in crofters’ cottages, chatting and drinking tea. Lisa has three main crime series, featuring three very different investigators - Detective D.D. Warren; FBI Profiler Pierce Quincy and Police State Trooper Tessa Leoni. Her latest novel is Crash and Burn about the hunt for a missing girl the father claims doesn’t even exist.
I then took some time out to chat to regular Theakston Crime Festival goers, Phil and Lauren. The ever popular New Blood panel at noon was packed out. Val McDermid hosts this panel every year and told us about the large number of first novels she’s been reading since last autumn. It must have been incredibly difficult to choose just four authors to interview. The new bloods were: Clare Mackintosh (I Let You Go); Ben McPherson (A Line Of Blood); Renee Knight (Disclaimer) and Lucy Ribchester (The Hour Glass Factory). These four debut novelists have quite a plethora of qualifications between them. Lucy has a degree in English from the University of St Andrews; Ben has a degree in Modern Languages from Cambridge and is a TV producer/director; Renee has worked for the BBC directing arts documentaries and has written television and film scripts; Clare Mackintosh spent twelve years in the police force, including CID and was a public order commander. It made me question whether a mere ex-Modern Languages graduate and teacher stood a hope in hell of getting a novel published. The New Blood panels are always exciting, because you know that these debut novels are going to be the creme de la creme. I always go home and purchase at least one (I’m currently reading I Let You Go, which is based on a real hit-and-run incident, which took place in Oxford). I was fascinated to hear about each and every one of these novels and how they came to be written. I then thought how useless I’d be, should I ever be invited to the New Blood panel (not that there’s much chance of that!). The question and answer session was interesting, as two ladies (who were both sitting next to each other) proceeded to give an in-depth critique of two of the novels featured, one of which wasn’t entirely positive. You could sense the rest of the audience squirming in their seats. And their question? There wasn’t one. Val then asked if there was anyone in the audience who actually had a question, which caused a ripple of laughter. Val, to her credit, did point out how much writers appreciated readers who had taken the time to study their work in enough depth to give constructive feedback. Well saved, Val!
After I spent half an hour trying to extract roast beef from between my teeth (lunch provided as part of my Rover Ticket package.... the Eton Mess was lovely, however), I had great fun playing Battleshots with Sharon in one of the tents. This was one of the publicity events organised by Crime Files Books to promote James Law’s novel, Tenacity. James is a sub-mariner and we had some wonderfully entertaining conversations with him last year. I lost the game, which was good, because I got to drink a fair few rum n’ coke shots (channelling my inner pirate). Quite a crowd had gathered to watch and the photographer was snapping away. You can see the pics here.
I did a bit of mingling, then was about to go to my room for a bit of a chill and a read, when I came across Sharon in Reception.
“Are you booking for next year?” I asked.
She told me that while relaxing in her room and scrolling through Twitter feeds, she noticed Theakstons Crime had tweeted that they only had seventeen rooms left at The Old Swan for next year, so she rushed down to book.
“And I’ve booked you in, too. I’ve paid your deposit as a present.”
How wonderful is that? I’m so very lucky to have such a generous friend.
The Forensics panel is another popular event at Harrogate and one I try not to miss. The panel was hosted by Lin Anderson, creator of forensic scientist, Rhona MacLeod. She did an excellent job of extracting extremely useful information from Lorna Dawson, a Principal Soil Scientist; Niamh Nic Daeid, Professor of Forensic Science and Director of Research at the Centre for Anatomy and Human Identification at the University of Dundee; forensic entomologist, Martin Hall; and Professor James Grieve, Senior Lecturer in Forensic Medicine and Police Forensic Pathologist. These experts gave us a wealth of insider information and no doubt triggered a series of plot ideas for some members of the audience. Body Farms got an honourable mention once more and so did pigs heads, which are closest to human heads in the way they decompose. Niamh talked about setting fires in sixty-odd cupboard-sized rooms and pointed writers in the direction of Cardiff University’s website for up-to-date forensic information, including fingerprinting.
We’d arranged to meet our lovely writer friend, Amanda Huggins at 4.30pm and found ourselves queueing for the TV Panel at 5pm as soon as we’d said hello. This is always another popular event. We were all gutted that Sally Wainwright had cancelled earlier that week, as we are big fans of Happy Valley, Last Tango in Halifax and Scott & Bailey. She is up there with Jimmy McGovern as one of my favourite screenwriters. This was always going to be a particularly important event for me this year, as I’ve signed up for an Arvon Course in Writing TV Drama at the beginning of August. Sally Wainwright’s are the scripts I’m going to study before departing. Anyway, Paul Abbot replaced her and I don’t think they could have picked anyone better (with the exception of Jimmy McGovern, of course).
Paul Abbot

Paul Abbot’s CV is impressive by anyone’s standards: Coronation Street, Shameless, Clocking Off, State of Play, No Offence.. to name but a few of the TV dramas he’s written. He admitted that he directly ripped off his own family situation for Shameless, which is pretty shocking in itself. His mother abandoned the family when he was nine and his father left just a couple of years later. His sixteen-year-old pregnant sister took on the role of head of household and between them, all ten children redecorated the whole house, which took them two days, working through the night and skiving off school. He said the only reason they noticed their dad had gone was because there was more room.
Abbot’s humour deflects his obvious inner turmoil. He tried to commit suicide at fifteen, was sectioned and has been in therapy for years. A classic example of the writer’s tormented soul. Abbot is softly spoken and it was difficult to catch his punchlines. He had a couple of rude stories to tell, but we missed his point. He was interviewed by the stunningly attractive Steph McGovern. She’s obviously a big fan of Paul Abbot and said how much she’d love to live inside his head for a day. Abbot said that he’s currently working on seven different projects, two as executive producer and the rest ongoing writing projects. The fact that he’s working on another series of State of Play was very popular with the Harrogate audience. He also revealed he’s working on a musical set in the Old Bailey (and he hates musicals!). There is also going to be a second series of No Offence.
Saturday night was a blast. After a quick shower and change, Mandy and I met in Sharon’s room for a large glass of red. We then walked down to the town centre, as Mandy had booked a table at L'Albero Delle Noci in Cheltenham Crescent (highly recommended). We wended our way back to The Old Swan and sat with Stuart Neville and Steve Cavanagh before mingling with Paul Finch, Col Bury and co. Apparently, the Northern Writers beat the Southern Writers at the football match and injuries were sustained (Luca Veste came off worst with a fractured ankle).
I had a lovely chat with Mandy while Sharon flitted about trying to buy a bottle of white wine that wasn’t warm. Once Mandy left for her B&B, I found myself in the company of the ‘last ones standing’ in The Old Swan bar. An hour earlier the bar declared ‘residents only’ and I was conned into putting someone’s drinks on my room bill with the promise of cash to compensate which didn’t actually materialise. Lesson learned. (He wasn’t a writer) At 4am I staggered to bed.....
I just about managed to get up for breakfast and the 10am Celebrating Patricia Highsmith panel. This was one of the highlights of the festival for me. Highsmith published eight short story collections. I consider myself (so far) to be a short story writer first, and novelist second, so she is on my list of great writers. Andrew Taylor (who reviews crime novels for The Spectator) chaired this panel (brilliantly, it has to be said) of four crime novelists: Peter James; Sarah Hilary; Martin Edwards and Peter Swanson.
Patricia Highsmith
Gay, but isolated, Patricia Highsmith was considered ‘unlovable’ and ‘unloving’... quite a character assassination. She kept pet snails and insisted on taking them to parties and smuggled them out of the country under her breasts when she moved to France. Anyone who does this obviously has a human side. She couldn’t have been all bad. Patricia Highsmith was an alcoholic. ‘Write drunk; edit sober’ was Hemingway’s infamous quote. Someone on a panel had talked earlier about tapping into the sub-conscious by writing in a dream-like state on waking. Many writers experience a more enlivening dream-like state while drinking alcohol. I think Patricia Highsmith has to be one of my all-time literary heroines. Sarah Hilary is obviously a Mr Ripley fan. This panel injected so much enthusiasm into Highsmith’s work, that I’m sure, like me, most of the audience would rush home and seek out some of her novels or short stories. Highsmith’s criminals often get away with their crimes. Now that is close to my own heart... What happens to the ones who get away?
More coffee and chats outside as well as a few goodbyes before heading off to lunch at Hales Bar. Already that feeling of anti-climax and sadness that it’s all over for another year. How can one weekend go so quickly? To compensate there is that warm feeling that I’m booked for next year.
The journey home was long and tiring, but there was the promise of telling my family all about it and feeling enthused about my crime novel once more.