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We’re all equal. Really?

Yesterday I went to the House of Lords. Very swanky.

 

I was there to lobby MPs on behalf of other authors about rubbish contracts, meagre advances, closing libraries etc etc. The stuff that gets all of us writers ticking like clocks.

Because it was a lovely day, I decided to walk there from Marylebone Station and my route took me through Green Park and past Buckingham Palace. A garden party was about to take place and the Mall, Birdcage Walk – everywhere – was stiff with ladies in dresses, jackets and hats and men in suits, uniforms or some other form of best-bib-and-tucker. It was all very impressive. Then I walked past Horse Guards where there was a rehearsal going on for the Queen’s Birthday Parade. Even more impressive and I’ll be the first to admit that I do like a bit of pomp and circumstance. Finally I crossed Parliament Square and into the Lords to do my bit for my fellow authors. If you’re looking for pomp and circumstance, the Houses of Parliament is probably a go-to destination.

This was an official reception so there were speeches, lots of speeches, but one was particularly memorable. It was given by Floella Benjamin and she addressed the issue of diversity – or lack of it – in this world: a world where kids books are so often peopled by white kids and not black, Asian or Chinese; where it comes as a surprise to people that women can be airline pilots or brain surgeons;  where books written by black authors are in the ‘black and ethnic minority’ section of the book shop and not there on the same shelves as other novels; where men are supposed to go out to work and women look after the kids. Why is this?  Is it because the rest of us don’t stop and think that we are all basically the same – we’re all just human.

It is getting better, she told us. Hugely better. When she started on Playschool none of the stories were illustrated with anything  other than pictures of white kids… till she pointed it out. No one had noticed except her. Why? Because everyone else who worked on the programme was white.

There is still a long way to go – especially when I thought about the scenes I had witness on my way to the reception. How many of those attending the garden party had been white? Thinking back I don’t recall seeing anyone of colour in a posh get-up. And the soldiers on parade on Horse Guards? The same. Equality and diversity still have a long way to go in every field. This is supposed to be a multi-cultural country but Floella Benjamin’s thought provoking speech made me think that maybe it’s less multi-cultural if you’re on the other side of the fence looking in.

 

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So – did you always aspire to be a writer…?

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In order to promote my new book Civvy Street, I was asked to write a piece for We Heart Writing on this very subject, so here is a taster of my words of wisdom. If you’d like to read the full article the link is at the bottom

I never intended to be a writer, I went to the sort of school (all girls) where we wrote essays on meaty subjects and any creativity was discouraged. We were to a kid, swots; it was that sort of school. When I left school I was completely unprepared for survival in the wild – Latin, history, English, chemistry etc really don’t prepare you for looking after yourself. For some reason I really didn’t want to go to university, so I knew I needed a job that would feed, house, clothe as well as pay me and the army ticked all the boxes. When I discovered the ratio of men to women was 500:1, bearing in mind I’d been to an all-girls school, it was a no brainer.

Read more at:

http://weheartwriting.com/2016/05/from-guns-and-roses-to-hearts-and-flowers-fiona-field/

 

Hedgehog Shenanigans

 

‘Come on, missus, you know you want to.’

 

 

‘Erm, no I don’t. And get your filthy paws off me.’

 

 

 

‘Would a slap on the arse make you feel differently… thought not. Worth a try though.’

 

‘There’s only so much rejection a bloke can take – I’m off.’

 

 

‘He’s gone? Oh… I didn’t mean it, honest. Wait for me.’

 

 

Publication Day

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Today – 5th May 2016 – is the day my nineteenth book is published. Nineteen? How did I get to that number? Surely I can’t be old enough to have written so many because it seems an awfully large number. However, I am thrilled, as I always am, to welcome another creation into the world.

Before I wrote books I had kids. I had three in fact. I don’t know why I say ‘had’ because I still have them although they’re all out in the world, doing their thing, and not really bothering me very much. (This picture is 26 years old!)

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But producing books or children have a remarkable number of similarities. For a start, from flash to bang (or in this case should it be bang to flash?) the process takes about nine months. At times it can be wearing, painful, your emotions are all over the place, your partner doesn’t have a clue what you’re experiencing and, although you know loads of other people have done it before you, it is very, very scary. As another author pointed out to me, with a book, the sleepless nights come before the birth, not after, but other than that, it’s all intrinsically the same.

Anyway, happy birthday Civvy Street.

So where do you get your ideas from?

I generally tell people that the best inspiration is a contract and an advance. However, I haven’t always been lucky enough to get my contract renewed (it’s tough enough getting published but it’s even tougher staying published) and, once you’ve been dropped by a publisher, you have to go through the process of writing an entire book with no certainty of being able to sell it. Just like you did with your first novels.  When you are in contract you are often able to run some ideas past your editor but once that safety net has gone you are on your own. And that is when you really need to come up with the ideas.

Generally, because I write romance, I come up with my heroine first. The book is going to be her story and I need to know what makes her tick, what does she do for a living, what class is she, how old is she, what’s her background…? All this is vitally important because it informs  the rest of the book.

One of my favourite books was the Chalet Girl. Guess what she did to earn a crust?

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Spookily, I was on a skiing holiday when I had the idea about a heroine who worked as a chalet host. She needed employment that would feed, house, clothe and pay her as she’d been thrown out of  her home by her super-strict father. Once I had that in place the rest of the story almost wrote itself, especially as we were skiing in a resort where there was a bar which had live music every evening, supplied by one of the saisonniers  who was a brilliantly gifted guitarist. Inspired by him, I made Millie, my heroine, into a talented musician and I knew instantly how I was going to get my happy-ever-after ending.

Another book I wrote was also inspired by a holiday. When my children were small we used to taken them to the Normandy  landing beaches for holidays. The sea there (now there isn’t a war going on) is famously safe and my husband (an amateur  military historian ) and I can both beach-comb for shells – and trust me, there is no conflict of interest! In the graveyard in the village where we were staying was a corner belonging to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and my husband investigated the battle that had taken place there. While he did that, I wondered what it would have been like to be liberated – not joyous and wonderful but utter terrifying as the battle raged all around, as the houses were shelled, the livestock was killed, the farms ruined and thousands were left homeless and destitute. I imagined a farm, just outside Bayeux, and the people who lived there and how their lives were changed for ever shortly after the 6th June 1944.  The result was a book based on some true events.

The Eye of the Storm

There is always inspiration – sometimes just from asking the question ‘what if…?’ or ‘what if she does this?’ you can get the basis for a great story

 

Write what you know – or what you don’t know?

 

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Those of you who know me in real life know that I am not a petrol head. In fact, at the moment, I don’t even own a car. I have access to my husband’s, which is useful for the weekly shop but, much of the time, I get about on foot, or on my bike. It suits me.  However, I was, at one point, inspired to write a book about motor racing: it seemed to tick a lot of boxes; money, glamour, foreign travel, hunky men, pretty women etc etc. So I contacted an F1 racing team – there are a lot in this neck of the woods – and they took me to Silverstone for practise day. It was fun, it was certainly noisy, and I was royally entertained by their hospitality and sponsorship team. I got to look at the cars up close, I saw them zooming round the track but (unsurprisingly) I never got into one, let alone drove it. And then I came to write the book and I found I couldn’t – my imagination refused to make that leap so I could describe what it must be like to travel, at a zillion miles per hour, in a tiny carbon-fibre box, with your bum just inches off the ground, and with cars all around trying to squeeze you off the road. Nope – just couldn’t do it. All that research and I couldn’t write the damn book.

This is probably my fault. Maybe I didn’t do enough research, didn’t talk to the right people, didn’t work hard enough. However, I’ve got a suspicion that I am one of those people who need to  experience things at first hand to make sense of them. In many respect I am incredibly lucky; my early career path gave me the opportunity to sail, ski, rock-climb, pot-hole, abseil, water-ski, fly gliders… As I say, I was very lucky and I find that I can remember – even thirty or so years later – what it was like. I have vivid memories of how much my knees shook, how sweaty my palms were when I walked backwards over a cliff, attached to safety only by a harness and, what looked like, a very thin rope. If I ever need to have a heroine abseil I shall be able to write the scene in graphic detail.

On the other hand, there was no denying that the research I did was fun. It was a wonderful opportunity to get the other side of the security barrier and go places I never would be allowed under normal circumstances. So I can absolutely understand the allure of research. Sadly though, I think I’m going to have to remain an author who writes what she knows.

The truth, the whole truth and … well, the stuff I write

I managed to get myself on the WI speaker circuit. My talk is titled ‘From Guns and Roses to Hearts and Flowers’. When I am asked what it’s about I tell them it is how I went from being a trained killer of men to writing romantic fiction. The last is totally true but ‘trained killer of men?! Come on.

OK, I was in the army for eight years, I did have a number of postings and I worked with blokes who knew how to fire guns. But… look at me:

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Do I look as if I could swat a fly let alone knock off Johnny Foreigner with my bare hands? I was a trained killer of the filing tray at best. Admin I could do, but killing…? Even a bit of ‘light wounding’  was right outside my skill set. I suppose I could have inflicted a paper cut on someone… maybe… if they’d really pissed me off and it was That Time Of The Month. But not ‘killing’.

However, my description of my transition from army officer to writer rarely fails to raise a laugh, which proves that when it comes to telling a story a little (quite a lot of) embellishment never did a tale any harm. What’s the old journalist’s adage – never let the truth get in the way of a good story? Exactly.

Which is why I write fiction because, with a novel, you can take a good idea and tweak and twist and, maybe, exaggerate bits and bobs until it becomes something much more interesting, much more compelling. And let’s face it, most of real life is as dull as ditch-water and who wants to read that stuff anyway? Making things up is so much more fun.

Yarns

I knit. I knit quite complicated things that take up my evenings for weeks on end.

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And I love it.

I also write books, quite long ones, which take up my days for months on end and I find both processes have remarkably similar properties. They both involve yarns for a start. They are also both processes which need application, dedication and patience. Also, with both, if you make a mistake you have to go back and unpick  your work, because the faults cannot be rectified once it is finished and you – and everyone else – will notice the errors for ever. Furthermore, knitting  only consists of  two stitches, plain and purl, and a few variations such as winding the wool round the needle twice (to make holes) and methods by which you can increase and decrease the number of stitches you are working with. Writing books involves everyday vocabulary and creating a story is a simple matter of putting the words down, one after another on a page to create a believable story about characters that resonate with the reader. Neither activity is particularly complicated but you do have to have the right set of skills if  you are going to wind up with a satisfactory product at the end.

However, I’d never dream of knitting something without a pattern to start with. But when I write a book, I almost never plan out the whole thing in advance. I know it would stop me from making mistakes, from going up blind alleys with a faulty plot twist, and yet – and I am just starting my twentieth book – I still only have the vaguest idea of how I am going to get from page one to the final chapter. And hopefully, as with my knitting, I’ll have enough of a yarn to finish the project.

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Writing Retreats

Yeah, yeah… if you are really serious about your writing you’ll find the time and space to do it anywhere. Proper writers don’t need to get away from it all. Writers just need a desk and a piece of paper… I’ve heard all the comments as to why it isn’t necessary to go on a writing retreat, how it is a waste of money, an indulgence even.

However… blogging as someone who is a wife and a mother and who lives in a very friendly little community, getting more than thirty minutes of peace and quiet at a stretch at any time of the day is a rarity. The thing is, if you sit on your backside for a lot of the day, making things up, there is a sizeable section of the population who do not consider that what you are doing is ‘work’. Therefore, it is perfectly legitimate to interrupt because it doesn’t matter.

It does.

Remember the man from Porlock? Samuel Coleridge Taylor had ‘seen’ the whole of Kublai Khan in a dream and was busy scribbling it down when he was interrupted by the man from Porlock after just fifty-four lines of fabulous poetry. When his unwelcome visitor had departed, Coleridge found his vision had too, and the poem was never completed. I am not saying anything I write is even close to Coleridge’s literary genius (heck, I wouldn’t put my self in the same country – possibly not on the same continent!) but being interrupted just when you have the perfect turn of phrase, the perfect scene, the mot juste is unbelievably frustrating and it happens, if you work from home, on a daily – sometimes an hourly – basis.

Worse, as a wife and mother I am expected to do the shopping, sort the house out, cook food and generally look after my family – I know! They are so unreasonable… but, seriously, if I were a bloke I’d be able to get away with shutting the door and demanding that I must be Left In Peace. Fat chance of that if you are a woman.

So, I go away. I go away to France, to Chez Castillon where I can switch off my mobile, ignore Real Life, stay in my room all day and just appear for meals. It is bliss. It is peaceful bliss.  Even better, I am in the company of other writers who are happy to talk about plot points over lunch, who understand about emotions and the difficulty of getting them on to the page, who will brain-storm you through a tricky patch…And then there’s the competition regarding the Word Count. ‘I wrote two thousand words today,’ says a fellow writer casually, over dinner. Two thousand?! Hell’s bells. So the next day you are determined to equal and possibly better that amount. After all, if she can do it, so can you. Two and a half thousand words… three… amounts you would never achieve at home suddenly  become possible. As does hitting that deadline.

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So, yes, writing retreats are worth it. If only for the sake of one’s sanity

The picture above was taken from my room at Chez Castillon.

http://www.chez-castillon.com