Friday, 28 April 2006

Pride and Prejudice is officially an Icon of England. It was one of 21 new icons added yesterday to the 12 original selections announced in January.

There are now six books which have been accorded icon status. The other five are the Authorised Version of the Bible, Alice in Wonderland, The Lindisfarne Gospels, On the Origin of Species and Domesday Book. These last three were also added yesterday. (Brick Lane is on the list, but I suspect that they mean the street rather than the novel).

What is slightly surprising is that the works of Shakespeare have not made it on to the list (although the Globe Theatre has). Nor has anything by Dickens, although that may be because there is no single Dickens novel that stands far enough above the rest in public esteem the way that Pride and Prejudice does among Jane Austen's works.

I am tempted to nominate the Regency Period as an icon in its own right (I have already put in a nomination for The Archers). At present the early 19th Century is represented by P&P and by HMS Victory, so it may be pushing things to have an eleven year slice of history on top.

In any case I should be husbanding my resources for a more important icon. If we are going to celebrate Stonehenge, Big Ben and the Angel of the North as English icons, then surely we should also include that other giant emblem of Englishness, the Elephant.

Sunday, 23 April 2006

Heyeroines in need of a slap

23. Elinor Rochdale (The Reluctant Widow)

As the creator of the Bridekirk Behemoth, I might be expected to have some sympathy for Miss Rochdale, since one of her most prominent features (mentioned three times in the first two pages) is a trunk. Sadly it quickly transpires that hers is not that sort of trunk, and indeed the more we learn of Miss Rochdale, the less like an elephant she turns out to be.

Firstly there is the matter of her taste in food. While elephants are known for a predeliction for buns (and, if Dr Johnson's Dictionary is to be believed, for pulses of all sorts), Miss Rochdale seems to eat nothing but bread-and-butter. She has this for dinner on her first arrival at Highnoons, and again for breakfast next morning at the Hall. When trapped in the book-room the next day with Master Nicky's dog bouncer, what does she request from Mrs Barrow but bread-and-butter.

Then there is the worrying lack of feathers. Not only does she arrive in Billingshurst without one in her hat, but she then marries Eustace Cheviot. Now of course we know that the magic feather was just a prop, a device to build up confidence, but at this early stage Miss Rochdale would surely have been better off with a bit more confidence. It must therefore be an unwise move for anyone with asirations of an elephantine sort to join herself to a man like Mr Cheviot who, in contrast to Mr Timothy Q Mouse, is well known for not having a feather to fly with.

What about that well-documented pachydermatous personality trait, curiosity? Again Miss Rochdale, or, as we must now style her, Mrs Cheviot, disappoints. On her first night at Highnoons she encounters a Frenchman wandering around indoors, despite the fact that all the doors and windows are locked, and that the side door, which he claims gave him access, does not even exist. Is she curious? Does she wonder what is going on? No. She simply goes to bed. She doesn't even ask the man his name. Presented the next day with a genuine secret passage, she refuses to enter it. I fear that our heyeroine can hardly be described as insatiable.

There comes a brief moment of hope about halfway through our tale, when the scutter of a mouse across the floor makes Mrs Cheviot jump nearly out of her skin - for elephants are notoriously scared of mice. Shortly afterwards Mrs Cheviot visits Chichester and comes back with a dress of grey muslin - about as elephantine a gown as one could hope for, particularly with the treble flounce.

This proves, however, to be a false dawn. Mrs Cheviot's diet continues strictly bun-free despite Miss Beccles eating macaroons, Lord Bedlington tucking into cakes and Mrs Barrow cooking up drop-cakes for Ned Carlyon and his brothers. It is the possibility of French spies, rather than the certain presence of mice that carries most weight in Mrs Cheviot's thinking when she considers whether to move out of Highnoons. Even the choice of grey clothing loses some of its impact when it emerges that the Honourable Francis Cheviot sports the same colour without any indication that he aspires to the elephant set.

We are ultimately forced to pack away Mrs Cheviot's trunk as a cruel delusion after the incident with the linen list. Mrs Cheviot is found semi-conscious on the floor. The inventory of linens prepared by Miss Beccles is scattered near the fireplace. Assorted Carlyons have arrived upon the scene, as has Dr Greenlaw. Lord Carlyon then asks Mrs Cheviot a very simple question. Before she lost consciousness, was the window of the book-room open? Mrs Cheviot replies that she has no recollection that it was. No recollection. Her very words.

I suspect that you have seen where I am going with this. No amount of curiosity over what Francis Cheviot wanted with the clock can any longer be persuasive. Nor can Mrs Cheviot's sudden predeliction for macaroons. Her determination to wear grey while still in strict mourning cannot be more than custom and practice. Even her decision to throw her lot in with the three ring circus of the extended Carlyon menagerie is insufficient. Nothing that Mrs Cheviot could say or do would allow us to consider her remotely like an elephant.

She may have been stunned by a paperweight, confused by the strangeness of her circumstances, placed under considerable stress by the activities of those around her. There are all manner of reasons that she might not have been at the top of her game, but the simple truth is unavoidable. Mrs Cheviot was asked a straightforward question, and answered that she could not recollect. Yet we all know that an elephant never forgets.

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Saturday, 22 April 2006

To the Savoy Hotel, for the awarding of the Fostergrant Reading Glasses Romantic Novel of the Year 2006. This is one of the high points of the romantic novelists' year, and tends to involve more seriously heavy drinking than either the RNA Summer or Winter Parties (but not as much as the Annual Conference, but then that lasts for several days).

Published authors usually have their publishers buy them tickets, and they sit surrounded by their editors and other key players from the company. Those of us who pay for our own tickets can express a preference for whom we sit with, but in the end we are in the hands of the RNA committee, and in particular those of the indefatigable organiser of the event, RNA vice-Chairman Catherine Jones.

My luck was in. I actually ended up on Catherine's table, together with, among others, former short-listed author Linda Taylor, and two very pleasant people from Darley Anderson Literary Agency, Elizabeth Wright and Lucie Whitehouse.

The food was good. Asparagus with a cured lemon sauce (we did wonder what had been wrong with the lemon before it had been cured), loin of lamb (not quite as tender as the new season lamb from Stourhead that I cooked last Sunday but still yummy in a herb crust), and a dessert featuring thyme sorbet, which I loved, but others found a little too unusual.

The main business of the event was the awarding of the Fostergrant prize, complete with a cheque for £10,000. Five of the seven nominees were there at the savoy, the exceptions being Ashleigh Bingham, who lives in Australia (I believe that she is a little frail, and probably could not face the journey) and Nicholas Sparks. The winner was Erica James, for Gardens of Delight. She has been on the shortlist four times before. I was rooting for The Ship of Brides, by Jojo Moyes, not least because she has been known to read this blog. Jojo was sitting at the table next to mine, and was incredibly gracious about Erica James winning when I commiserated with her.

The Fostergrant isn't the only prize awarded at the Savoy. The RNA also awards a (smaller) prize for the best category romance of the year, and this went to Contracted: Corporate Wife, by Jessica Hart. I was hoping that it would win. I have to confess to having not actually read it (nor any of the other shortlisted books, I'm afraid), but what I liked about Contracted: Corporate Wife was the colon in the title. As regular readers may have noticed, I am all in favour of punctuation in book titles (apostrophes don't count), and titles with colons are thin on the ground (I note that the French takeover of Time Warner Book Group has been good for punctuation, as they have been renamed Little, Brown).

There were speeches as well as prizes. The chairman of the judges, Dr Susan Horsewood-Lee, did go on a bit, and to be honest was not a patch on last year's chairman, Danuta Keane (who wrote a rather depressing piece for Mslexia, which was reproduced in edited form in a recent edition of the Independent). Stanley Johnson, father of the more famous Boris, gave a rambling talk about not very much. Luckily there was still plenty of wine on the table so this did not eat into critical drinking time.

Then it was all over, and we made our way to the Coal Hole for the proper business of the day.

Sunday, 16 April 2006

I have just finished the rewrites for Anne-Marie. Tomorrow I will give the whole thing one final read to make sure that I haven't made some horrendous mistake, and if all is well it will be in the post to Ampersand on Tuesday.

At the start of this process Lord Alexander's Cipher; or, the Bridekirk Behemoth was 101,572 words long, spread over 11 chapters. It is now a trim 89,775 words, broken into 21 shorter, more pacy chapters.

But there is more than just an 11.6% reduction in length. In the course of revising LAC;o,tBB I have, I think, made the story more plausible, yet more exciting. I have made the heroine more real.

I have also corrected three significant continuity errors. I have amended more than a dozen cases where the wrong character is apparently in the scene. I have picked up seven cases of misdescribed relationships. I have corrected hundreds of more minor errors in grammar and spelling.

Looking back at what I sent to Ampersand in the first place I can only conclude that they were mad to sign me up when they did (but don't tell them that). I just hope that they now have a book that they can work with. It is certainly a much better book than it was at Christmas.

Now for the sequel. I have a month for research before I start writing it.

Saturday, 15 April 2006

The Wenlock family took a tour of Somerset yesterday, in pursuit of ideas for the sequel to Lord Alexander's Cipher; or, the Bridekirk Behemoth. Our first stop was at Glastonbury, where we climbed the Tor. Conditions were far from ideal; the tower loomed out of low clouds; it was real Marion Zimmer Bradley weather.

So what has this to do with the novel that, for quite a while, has carried the working title of Lady Cardington's Folly; or, the Limehouse Leviathan? My original idea was to have the story involve the Nautilus, or something like it. Unfortunately I was beaten to it by James McGee's Ratcatcher. But I now have a new idea, which features a somewhat deluded nobleman, the Earl of Avalon, who is incensed by Walter Scott's relocation of Arthurian legend to Scotland in The Lady of the Lake. The true Lake, he believes, is on his own estate.

A lake that looks something like our second destination, Stourhead. The Earl of Avalon's great house, with landscaped gardens, eyecatchers, follies, etc, is not, of course, going to be Stourhead itself, but is certainly inspired by it.

By the afternoon the mists and clouds had dispersed, and after touring the house, with its wonderful Regency library (a little too much of the rest of the house was restored to Edwardian grandeur following a bad fire in 1902), we walked around the lake, stopping off at the Grotto, the Temple of Apollo, the Gothic Cottage and the Pantheon.

My story is to be set in 1814, immediately after the defeat of Napoleon. The Earl invites our heroine, Miss Laeticia Leintwardine, to play the part of the Queen of Beauty (a part for which she is eminently qualified) in a great Arthurian pageant. Of course such an event attracts the interests of others, and neither the Earl's plans, nor the course of true love, will run entirely smooth.

There will be buckles swashed, and derring done, but also hearts lost and hearts won. How it all works out in the end I will only know when I have written it, but I hope that I will have some idea after my writing week in deepest darkest Wales at the end of May.

Tuesday, 11 April 2006

The bookshop stands on a quiet street in an as yet unknown corner of Oxfordshire. We will call it Mostly Books because of the great number of books which make the surrounding shelves their home, and rest on the tables between cups of freshly-made coffee.

Mostly Books is due to open on 1 July. Nicki and Mark, who are setting it up, are blogging about their experiences in the run-up to the launch. Currently they are wondering what books to include in their first consignment of stock.

Lord Alexander's Cipher; or, the Bridekirk Behemoth won't quite be available on 1 July, at least, not this next 1 July, but Flora Thompson's wonderful Larkrise to Candleford (cruelly pastiched above) is a book that no Oxfordshire bookseller should be without.

With all the talk of the Wottakars merger, and the rise of Tesco as the biggest bookseller in the country, it is good to see bookselling on a more human scale. I wish them all the luck in the world.

Sunday, 9 April 2006

Miss Snark has announced the results of her writing competition and the overall winner is...


I'm stunned.
Heyeroines in need of a slap

22. Sarah Thane (The Talisman Ring)

When I first started this series of character assassinations studies I was conscious that one or two of my subjects would arouse particularly strong emotions among those who refuse to have any fault imputed to their particular idol. I suspect that Miss Thane is one such icon of heyeroinedom, so I should perhaps tread lightly. I should, but that doesn't mean that I shall. I will, however, attempt to be thorough. I will lay out the evidence, but it is for you to draw your own conclusions.

A careful study of Miss Thane's behaviour in chapter one of The Talisman Ring is not, it must be said, particularly illuminating. This is because she never shows. Nor does she feature in chapter 2 nor chapter 3. Once we get to chapter 4 we discover the reason for this. She has overslept and missed the start of the story. Laziness, or something more sinister? We shall return to that particular point later. For now I shall simply note that had the oh-so-sensible Miss Thane done the sensible thing, and been up and about in the early pages, Ludovic might not have been shot, and we would have escaped the worst of Mademoiselle de Vauban's histrionics. And yes, Eustacie may be a rather over-imaginative young woman, but at least she is professional enough to show up in the first chapter.

Having finally appeared, if not having bothered to get dressed, Miss Thane gives every impression of being one of those people who think that the best way to make up for being late is to talk and talk until we rather wish she hadn't made the effort after all. At the same time she wants to talk in such a variety of registers that we are astounded by her versatility. Within the first three pages she speaks "placidly", "imperturbably", "earnestly", "regretfully", "meekly" and "encouragingly". It is hardly surprising that there is a great scarcity of adverbs in contemporary dialogue tags with Miss Thane's liberal deployment of them here. At least we have a good idea what Heyer means by Miss Thane having "a generous mouth".

This is not the only aspect of Miss Thane's generosity that we become aware of. She is also very free with her hartshorn and her basilicum powder. Quite a travelling pharmacopeia is our Miss Thane. Now why should that be?

Heyer also describes Miss Thane as "sensible", and this is, I know, very much the perceived wisdom, but is she really sensible? The evidence points the other way, and does so even if one ignores her wilful encouraging of poor Mademoiselle de Vauban's morbid fascinations.

Let us take the critical topic of interior decoration. Miss Thane appears to be woefully ignorant on all aspects of cartouches, caryatids and scratch-mouldings, let alone strap-and-jewel work. She probably wouldn't recognise silver-figured oak wainscoating if you nailed it to the walls all around her. Such deficiencies are always regrettable, but can usually be disguised by the deployment of diversionary tactics - fainting fits, megrims, cornflower blue eyes, that sort of thing. Far from adopting such an approach, Miss Thane (grey eyes, but she could surely improvise) throws herself into an elaborate scheme whose success depends absolutely upon her having expertise in precisely this area. Is that sensible, or behaviour more to be expected from one under the influence of... but I get ahead of myself.

Let us instead consider Miss Thane's role in that critical scene where Ludovic is about to be discovered by Mr Stubbs, the Bow Street Runner. Except that she plays no role at all. She has gone out for a "sedate" walk with her brother. Of course I am not going to suggest that anybody read any significance into the word "sedate". Not at all. At least, not yet.

But while Miss Thane was off being "sedate", it was left to Ludovic Lavenham to improvise the obligatory cross-dressing masquerade scene without which no Heyer romance is really complete. He makes a reasonable enough fist of it, but nobody can deny that had Miss Thane been present it would have run more smoothly. Yet it is she who kicks up a fuss about the loss of her "French perfume". Sensible? I think not.

Nor is it sensible to wander about at night in the middle of February in the belief that one is being caressed by balmy breezes on the way to a romantic tryst with a man that she has frequently described as having not a romantic bone in his body. Not sensible, but possibly understandable if one ha been indulging in... but, let us see this through to the end.

The Talisman Ring ends with great excitement, following the discovery of the ring itself. Sir Tristram is rushing off to London on the Night-Mail. Eustacie is in a state of high excitement. Where is Miss Thane? She is walking in a "leisurely fashion". She is slipping into "empty-headed femininity". She is subsiding in an "inanimate heap on the floor", where she misses the actual capture of the villainous Beau Lavenham.

It is perhaps that name that gives us a clue as to what is really going on here. The whole adventure never happened. It was all taking place inside Miss Thane's head. Far from being a witty romantic adventure, The Talisman Ring is nothing more than the terrifying portryal of a vision in opium.

Not Lavenham but Laudanum? You must decide for yourselves.

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Saturday, 8 April 2006

Last night I saw my heroine, Miss Charlotte Hopesay, in the flesh.

Well, not exactly. As I have mentioned, Miss Hopesay's physical appearance is inspired by Heather Findlay of progressive rockers Mostly Autumn. The band played last night in the Corn Hall in Cirencester, which is less than 20 miles from the Wenlock abode, so I went along. I managed to secure a place almost at the front, strictly for research purposes, of course.

Heroes and heroines in less well written romances appear to be able to identify the colour of each others' eyes at a glance across a crowded room. The light level of a typical Regency ballroom cannot have been significantly better than that of the Corn Hall last night, and I found it very difficult to determine the colour of Miss Findlay's eyes from twelve feet away. They were not cornflower blue, flashing green nor (because such things don't exist naturally) amethyst. They were not cool grey, nor an intense dark brown (this one does exist - my eyes are a very deep brown). My conclusion was that they are hazel, not least because there is no real consensus over what colour hazel actually is.

I didn't spend the whole evening staring into Miss Findlay's eyes, however. I also wanted to see how her face reflected emotions, and how she moved about. Being the lead singer in a rock band she managed to express a wide range of intense emotions: sorrow, happiness (even ecstasy), pain and anger. But she was not strutting the stage the whole time, and during breaks between songs, or during other bandmembers' solos, she showed gentler emotions: thoughtfulness, wistfulness, concern, even confusion.

I did less well, from a research point of view, when it came to watching Miss Findlay move. Unfortunately she had not chosen to wear a high-waisted, full-length evening dress in primrose silk, or even a walking dress of sprig muslin. Nor was her footwear - knee-length black leather and suede boots with 3 inch stiletto heels - quite in keeping with what Miss Hopesay would have worn to Lady Stretton's Salon, or as the everyday clothes of a gently-born governess-companion.

But you can't have everything. The music was great, even if I did get absolutely drenched biking home in the wind and rain. Maybe next time the band plays in this area I will be able to persuade Miss Findlay to wear something a little more Regency.
Wenlock Books has been nominated for an award.

Nothing to do with me, or this blog, however. The Wenlock Books in question is a small bookshop in Much Wenlock which has been nominated for the National Book Trade Award for independent bookshop of the year (thanks to Galleycat for the tip-off).

While I was in Shropshire last May, writing a fair chunk of Lord Alexander's Cipher; or, the Bridekirk Behemoth (thanks for the suggestions for alternative titles - I still haven't hit on the perfect one quite yet), I visited Wenlock Books. They manage to cram a huge number of books into a very small space, and they tended to be books that I wanted to read, rather than the latest ghost-written celebrity autobiography.

I'd like to wish them the best of luck with the award, which will be announced on 9 May.

Monday, 3 April 2006

Miss Snark gives her readers less than 24 hours to enter a writing competition, and gets over a hundred entries. That says something about the devotion of the snarklings. The offerings are being posted now, but it will probably take a week for them all to appear. They are going up in the order that they were submitted, and it looks as if the quality is improving as people took longer to draft and redraft. Yet even in the 18 that I have seen so far there are a few really cracking efforts. It will be interesting to see how mine fares at the hands of the snarkling commentariat.

Of course I shouldn't have entered; I should have used the time to push on with the rewrites. I also have the tricky business of coming up with a better title. Anne-Marie is happy with the Bridekirk Behemoth, but feels that Lord Alexander's Cipher isn't quite right, as he neither creates nor breaks the cipher in question. The trouble is, having lived with LAC;o,tBB for so long it is hard to get my head round any alternatives. I shall take advice at the RNA Oxford Chapter lunch tomorrow.

I am, as ever, open to suggestions from my dear readers too.

Sunday, 2 April 2006

The indefatigable Miss Snark is holding a competition. If you are reading this on Sunday you may still have time to enter. Apparently there is to be a prize. I've submitted my entry. When they are all up, I'll ask if anybody can work out which one it is.
In 1809 the journey from Painswick to reading would have taken a day. I have not managed to work out the route from Paterson's Roads, but I doubt that it would have been straightforward.

For me it was simply a matter of following the instructions from my GPS unit, and putting up with a bit of a cross-wind and the odd shower. It took me less than two hours.

My destination was Reading Town Hall, where Julie Cohen was launching her first two books for Mills and Boon.

In Featured Attraction, the hero and heroine find themselves trapped overnight inside a cinema, with a year's supply of popcorn, a year's supply of chocolate-covered raisins, and a year's supply of condoms. It was appropriate that beside the champagne, we toasted Julie's success with at least two of those items.

Being a Bad Girl features a hero who rides a motorbike. She had never ridden on one before she wrote it, although she managed to charm a young man at her local Harley Davidson dealer into telling her all about it. Julie's first ride came when I gave her a lift on the back of my bike during last year's RNA conference. For that she very kindly gave me an acknowledgement in Being a Bad Girl, although she had to admit that the book was already with Mills and Boon, so I cannot really claim to have contributed to the creative process.

Thanks to Rosie for the photo of Julie being deservedly happy.

Saturday, 1 April 2006

I spent quite a bit of yesterday attending a creative writing workshop at the very lovely Painswick Hotel given by the equally lovely Katie Fforde . The event was being filmed for a three part TV series on romantic fiction presented by Daisy Goodwin, which has been commissioned by the BBC and will be broadcast, if everything goes according to plan, in October.

The three programmes will apparently cover "heroes", "heroines" and "happy ever after" or something like that. Katie structured the day along similar lines, so we started with a discussion of the great romantic heroes - not just Heathcliff, Darcy and Rochester, but also more modern examples like Jilly Cooper's Rupert Campbell-Black. Katie argued that romantic fiction allows the reader to have a safe "virtual affair" with the hero, so we had to make the hero someone that readers would fall for in a big way.

Then we had to do some work. We had ten minutes to write a passage that describes a fictional hero - giving some idea of his appearance, what he does, what sort of car he drives, what he's like - but does so allusively, rather than through straightforward physical description. Show, not tell.

After we had read out our passages (and taken a coffee break, and some shorter breaks to change tapes in the camera, reshot the odd fluffed comment from Katie, and worked through all the other joys of being filmed) we moved on to heroines. We nominated various favourites, and discussed the importance of their being realistic. Readers want to identify with the heroine, so she has to be plausible - achievably beautiful rather than impossibly gorgeous, not too stupid, and so on.

More writing for us. This time we had to describe our heroines, but we had to do it from within their own point of view, with no recourse to looking in mirrors or other popular clichés. Since this is something that I have been wrestling with in Lord Alexander's Cipher; or, the Bridekirk Behemoth, I was glad of the chance to have a go at it in a different context.

Then we discussed the whole question of what constitutes romantic fiction, and romances. Not surprisingly we dsidn't reach a definitive view, but the centrality of a relationship between two people that includes a distinctly sexual element (even if not actually consummated), and the importance of an emotional appeal to the reader were both part of the answer.

Another exercise now; a description of the second time that our hero and heroine from the earlier exercises meet each other. The first meeting is usually a chance encounter. The second shows how the relationship is developing. We had ten minutes to get some of that down on our writing pads.

And at that point, with more tape changing and reshooting being done, I had to leave, to get down to Reading for a book launch, about which more tomorrow.