Plumber’s Muse required, must bring own grommets

There’s a meme, a theory, call it what you will, that writer’s block is a poor excuse for laziness.

This is based on the premise that there’s no such thing as – for example – plumber’s block. That is, someone who makes their living as a plumber doesn’t spend days lying on a chaise longue wafting a scarf over their fevered brow while waiting for their Muse to turn up with a sink plunger and a set of tap grommets.Joseph Bazalgette (c) Science Museum London

I agree.

There is no such thing as plumber’s block.

Because, you see, when a plumber has had enough of plumbing, be it for the day, the week or for life, he hangs up his kneepads and overalls and goes out to the pub – or the beach, or nightschool, or whatever takes his fancy.

Without feeling guilty about Not Plumbing.

If he’s been successful, he will likely have a bunch of other plumbers working for him in the pipework technician equivalent of James Patterson blockbusters.

If he hasn’t been successful, one might ask why the blazes he bothered becoming a plumber in the first place if he hated the work so much (the usual answer is either money, or self-determination).

Nobody becomes a plumber in the hope they’ll become the next Joseph Bazalgette.

Plumbers, on the whole, are practical fellows. If plumbing isn’t floating their boat, the resourceful amongst them will look to start another line of work.

Often, the less resourceful are quite happy being told by someone else when to turn up, what to fit and how much they are going to be paid for the work.

Sounds like my day job.

But here’s the difference between plumbing and writing (if you haven’t already thought of at least one).

Writing novels is not my day job. I’d be surprised if it was yours (if it is, can I have the email addresses of your readers?).

Once the first twelve hours of the working day are over (prep and commutes and aftercare included), who has the energy to commit to creative works month after month, without respite?

That way lies burnout.

Those of us with office jobs know only too well how that feels. Even if you haven’t endured your own, you will know someone who has broken, or is currently resisting collapse.

If you work a day job where this is rife, you’ll know how the fracture lines spread from person to person like a flaw in a cut diamond – invisible to the naked eye, until the wrong knock in the wrong place and suddenly the world is just… splinters.

I’m not broken.

I’m not even close. But I’ve seen it too often, been close in the past when tight deadlines and project goals combine with the satisfaction of doing an enjoyable job, and you spend more time than is healthy on completing a task which doesn’t bring you much personal kudos and takes you away from family, friends and fun.

Maybe that’s the problem I’ve had this year, with the fourth Petticoat Katie story in the trilogy. This novel was never meant to be written right now.

Like the novel I killed in 2012, I’ve spent so much time making excuses to myself for not finishing it, I’d have been better off ditching it and splurging on short stories and poems.

Novels are great fun to write.

But they aren’t the only outlet for my creative energies, and while there is no such thing as plumber’s block there is also a contingent activity known as filling the well.

The phrase is attributed to Julia Cameron, she of The Artist’s Way, and she also says this:

During a sustained period of work, artists require special care. We must be vigilant to not abuse our health and well-being. We must actively nurture ourselves.

While it sounds like the plumber’s chaise longue and floaty scarf again, I’m also thinking of Dean Wesley Smith’s insistence that his perfect chair is ergonomically-fitted. Or, to take a different elemental allegory, there’s Terri Windling’s timely reminder that re-kindling the fire within is feasible, even when the spark seems damped.

So where does this take me?

I’m still ahead of the goals I set when I asked where will I be in ten years time? back in early 2012.

And I promised myself a “leisurely pace of production”.  This does not involve NaNoWriMo, nor does it involve thrashing myself into a tizzy because I haven’t spawned a set word count in any particular time frame, nor does it involve me using those creative energies to come up with elaborate reasons why.

I’ve done my words for this year. The current story’s limp, a steaming pile of spaghetti I don’t have energy to pick through, and my chopsticks are broken.

Other worlds are calling me, worlds where my imagination is happily designing people and cities and a very Scottish mythology underlying stories more graphic, more elaborate, more Gothic than anything I’ve ever written.

Would you rather explore them with me, or laze around while I kick holes in the pipework?

Reclining male nude, Bristol Art Gallery

Published in: on October 28, 2015 at 12:00 am  Comments (2)  
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Still Here

I’m still here. Fitzgerald's Very Thin Mints

I’m still working on the next Petticoat Katie novel, and I think I’m almost finished the first draft.

Unfortunately I have more goats than I can handle right now.

Not real goats, obviously.

Why the long gap between posts, when I’d hit such a good streak of posting every Wednesday?

Probably something to do with minor health issues, Extreme Gardening, and an overall lack of direction over where my writing goes from here.

I’m not about to run out of ideas – no sirree. But the Petticoat Katie series has another three novels waiting, there’s still life in Louis Beauregard yet, and I have at least two other sets of stories on my Explore Further kanban list.

Spoilt for choice.

There were books to be read, too. Stories from other people to be explored, and new art to discover. Friends to meet, focus to re-sharpen, batteries to recharge – a mini sabbatical, in effect.

And perhaps the chance to revisit the reasons why I write, especially on here, and to reduce the flow of unnecessary words that add little to the overall sum of human knowledge but still suck energy from the planet.

Nonetheless, I’m still here.

More later.

Published in: on August 19, 2015 at 9:42 pm  Comments (2)  
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Wild crazy drama, anyone?

With the announcement by Pope Francis that climate change is upon us, I wondered whether it might be time to dust off the post-Apocalyptic novel I wrote back in 1990.

Climate change isn’t the point of the novel. It’s an unusual mixture of WW1, religious upheaval and forbidden love.

OR (if you want the Hollywood version – you’ll have to imagine the accent however):

“One woman’s struggle against the forces of a world in crisis.”

It was hand-written, longhand, and I can’t remember if I even typed it up or just filed it away with my (two) previous unusual novels.

It was also the last novel I wrote without a structured plan. Chances are the storyline is all over the place.Judy Collins: wildflowers (1967) That usually means a lot of work – far more than I’m inclined to take on.

My heroine set off through the story with a map which came straight out of “Albatross” by Judy Collins, a haunting song brimming with imagery both rich and powerful.

Somewhere in the middle was a scene of intense barbarism.

Somewhere parallel to my heroine was an anti-hero she was destined to meet.

Somewhere in my world-building, climate change had ruined the global economy and turned Britain into a poisoned, depopulated, pseudo-feudal state.

And the ending, that I spent (IIRC) 60,000 words charging headlong towards across a blasted near-prehistoric landscape, owed more than a little to Leonard Cohen‘s “Joan of Arc”.

Wild crazy drama and big scenes of bloodshed not dissimilar to (what I’ve heard about) Game Of Thrones.

But I’m not sure where I’ve put the flippin’ thing.

Published in: on June 24, 2015 at 12:00 am  Comments Off on Wild crazy drama, anyone?  
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One Down, Many More To Follow

A couple of months ago I wrote a post justifying why the wordcount’s low on my current work-in-progress.

Basically, my creative time is limited – as is my creative energy. And I’ve been busy paving over my garden so I can free up more of my creative time and energy to write, instead of controlling parts of the garden that aren’t productive.

This work is now over, thankfully.

Summer is heading full-tilt towards us, less than a week before the solstice. The grass has gone, the paving is laid, and the remainder of the work falls under the heading of general pottering about – in other words, no heavy lifting.

Like finishing a novel, it’s been a long task, enjoyable, stretching, with a few false starts and moments of trepidation. Now it’s done, I can sit back and admire it look at all the bits I’d do differently if I had to do it again.

Bee on white oregano flower

My imagination hasn’t been idle, though.

I’ve sketched out a few short stories on rainy days when working outside was impossible, and pondered the work still to be done on the fourth Petticoat Katie novel with a view to finishing it as soon as I can.

More stories await. Characters clamour to say their piece, to have their lives imagined into being, to take me on their travels as if I were their own personal Boswell.

And now, of course, I have a neat and tidy garden space within which to imagine new tales while watching the bees amongst the oregano.

Published in: on June 17, 2015 at 12:00 am  Comments Off on One Down, Many More To Follow  
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Why Print Will Never Die

While I’ve embraced the technology to publish my own stories as ebooks, I’m still firmly in the dead-tree camp when it comes to reading. I’ve also published my own paperbacks through CreateSpace, a neat little library so far, and plan to publish more. I haven’t branched out into hardbacks – yet.

The subtle interplay of communion between writers and readers demands I do so, some time soon, because hardback books have an enduring appeal that honours the work within (and makes it easier to stack them around the home when you run out of bookshelves).

Take a look at this.

Nada The Lily, by H Rider Haggard

In itself, not an especially nice hardback (not any more). Cheap, in fact. And the story – Nada The Lily, by H Rider Haggard – not one of the classics.

I picked up this book from a second-hand sale at my local Red Cross hall almost thirty years ago. It’s a hundred years old.

The story’s even older.

But I can read the book as easily now as its first owner did back in 1914. It might still be readable a hundred years from now, if I look after the artefact that carries the story within.

Who was that first reader?

I’ll never know. The label on the inner flyleaf says:

R Harris & Son, Booksellers, Printers & Stationers, Northampton

Booksellers' label, R Harris & Son, Northampton

(click to visit the Seven Roads Gallery of Book Trade Labels)


– but there’s no indication of the buyer: no bookplate, no inscription, nothing. The only hand-written mark inside the front cover is a pencilled price, which isn’t original – it’s £2, and the book itself says it’s part of Hodder & Stoughton’s Sevenpenny Library.

Nada The Lily by H Rider Haggard, 1914 edition

Maybe the person who bought this book was a worker in one of the nation’s munitions factories. Maybe a scholar keen for a dose of exciting adventure between Latin and Scripture classes, or a soldier on his way to the Western Front hoping to snatch a quick read while he waited to go up the line to Ypres.

Whoever that first reader might have been, I can’t imagine the book stayed with them until I discovered it in the Red Cross hall in the mid-1980s. So where did this book lie between being printed and my finding it seventy years later in a second-hand sale?

Perhaps in the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, or close by.

Someone – not me – spilled a cup of tea over the cover, and left it long enough to soak in and leave a stain on the pressed board.

The spine is faded to a much paler shade than the front and back covers, which says the novel was shelved for some time.

Is there part of previous owners in the pages of second-hand books? Even those which have been spared the casual underline, the scribbled notes in the margins, the corner of a page folded down?

Mostly forensics would pick up traces of me in this Nada The Lily, I’ve had the book so long. It’s travelled with me all over Scotland, to university in Birmingham and working life elsewhere in England.

Some of my books, like the copy of Aldous Huxley’s Doors of Perception/Heaven And Hell I bought in the same Red Cross hall, have tiny flakes of rolling tobacco in the crease. (The link is to the 1959 Penguin paperback, just like mine.)

Others, like the Marija Gimbutas I bought recently, arrived in the post with old bookmarks – a photograph of a train in India, and a sketch of a girl’s face.

Nada The Lily had a surprise for me too, when I opened the book to re-read it after a number of years.

Tucked near the end, the top folded down against the pages and hidden by the surrounding hardback cover, was a bookmark I’d used the last time I read the book.

Cadbury Schweppes visitor pass, 1990s

Yes, that’s a visitor’s pass from Cadbury Schweppes (as they were then), back in the mid-1990s. I worked there briefly in my first-ever corporate job, what would now be an unofficial internship, and 2015 Me has deduced that I was reading Nada The Lily in my lunchbreak.

So this book’s like an old friend, rediscovered.

Now I know that I can’t have bought it any later than 1994. I didn’t have access to the Red Cross hall any more, and I don’t know if they still held second-hand book sales. (When I think of all the amazing books I got from the Red Cross book sale, all cheap, I’m glad I was in that place and time.)

If I’d been able to download all those amazing books into an e-reader, would I feel the same way?

Galazi, King of the Grey People

No, I don’t think so.

Who amongst us had a Windows PC or a smartphone in 1994? The technology of Then would be obsolete Now.

Not so my hardback of Nada The Lily, still going strong like a frail old lady a hundred years on.

This is the lure of writing historical fiction: technology doesn’t change. Dave Wake pointed this out in a post on electric cars, and Charles Stross writes about the frustrations of writing near-future fiction when the pace of technological change is so flippin’ fast.

Books written with contemporary settings age so. Michael Scott Rohan’s fab Spiral trilogy, set partly in an international freight handling office in the late 1980s, has all the awful feel of that era laid down in black and white so evocatively I have to force myself to read through those sections so I can get to the parts with less tech (and more adventure).

The modern world changes; this Nada, still frozen in time, no less fixed than when I bought it some time before ’94. And the story inside?

Nada The Lily tells the story of the rise to power in southern Africa of the Zulu nation under Shaka kaSenzangakhona. (Much of Haggard’s tale is lurid and sensationalist and no doubt insulting to local sensibilities. The Victorians were big on their Noble Savages – including Scots, Welsh and Yorkshiremen – while ignoring the sufferings under Empire.)

The story is written as a memoir, in 1891, of events which are known to have taken place before 1828. Even back then the novel was historical fiction which avoided the snag of age-defining elements or real-time sociopolitical change.

(By the time of the events of my novel SHADOWBOX, set in 1832, Haggard’s story had already finished. And he was writing three years after the events in my novel THE LAST RHINEMAIDEN. Time travel, eh?)

H Rider Haggard falls into the same category as another of my favourite writers, Alexandre Dumas. Their stories have the same enduring appeal and have stood the test of time for over a hundred years. Characters who come alive in their circumstances, in vivid settings, facing choices many of us can’t imagine – and surviving to tell the tale.

Much like my copy of Nada The Lily survived in my travels to tell the tale, to me, of where I found it and where I last read it. If I’d opened up an electronic copy – even if I’d been able to read it in all its typeset beauty – would I have been able to learn as much from the file as I have from this hardback?

I doubt it. While ebooks might be here to stay (points over there) as long as the internet survives, print will never die.

Oh, and one more thing: the publisher. This hardback was published in 1914. The publisher was Hodder & Stoughton.

Hodder & Stoughton, MCMXIV

And they’re still very much in business.

Just A Bit Of Fun

Just for fun, I tried my name in the Time Lord Name Generator.

It told me:

Your Time Lord name is: The Intimidator

Back on Gallifrey, you led a dull and uninteresting life, working as an Archivist, First Class – but now, you travel Time and Space in search of adventure!

Your Type 86 TARDIS is currently stuck in disguise as a filing cabinet, and your latest travelling companion is a genetically enhanced, talking dog, on the run from the evil time-travelling scientist who created him.

Well that’s a relief.

Published in: on May 20, 2015 at 12:00 am  Comments (2)  
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Must be something in the air…

This weekend is Crimefest 2015. I’ll be there. Crimefest 2015

It would be daft not to. International crime fiction festival in your local city, a bare half-hour bus ride from home? Certainly, madam, don’t bother wrapping it.

Hot on the heels of the General Election last week, crime fiction writer Val McDermid exhorts the Guardian to help bombard England with Scottish books to help save the UK. I’ve lived in England now for more than 25 years and still have my accent, but I don’t think that counts.

McDermid is calling on a cultural assault on England, and a little vice versa.As she says in the article:

“What struck me again and again during the [2014] referendum campaign was the staggering depth of ignorance on the part of most English people about the state of Scotland.”

She’s got a point. I wouldn’t have stayed in England all these years if it didn’t suit me, but I still find it remarkable how little the people of England realise that Scotland is different. Maybe that’s what peeves Scots so much about their neighbours.

Same language, sure, but different nuances. Different laws. Different education system. I spent the first five years of my time in England explaining the subtleties of Highers versus A-levels.

Then there’s the food.

Haggis, deep-fried in batter. Italian ice-cream, commonplace due to the immigrants of the early 20th century. High Tea. Cullen Skink. Porridge (with salt).

Don’t get me started on bagpipe music.

I once encountered a young bagpipe player busking in the shopping centre of a major town in the south of England and wondered whether his parents had given him enough money for a single fare only, with the instruction to busk for his fare home. I also wondered whether anyone else in the town realised he wasn’t only not very good, but almost criminally bad.

At least I don’t have to busk my bus fare home from Crimefest.

Published in: on May 13, 2015 at 12:00 am  Comments (2)  
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Get out and vote

Only two events in my life make me feel like I’m a proper grown-up:Votes for Women poster, 1920

One is filling in my tax return.

The other is when I cast my vote.

I’m a fervent believer in representation. One of the highlights of turning 18, for me, wasn’t being able to buy alcohol or get a mortgage, but being eligible to go into the polling booth and choose which party I favoured to run the country.

And you can bet I’m going to cast my vote tomorrow*.

I’ll suffer, on Friday morning, when I have to present myself at the Day Job having bailed out of the election coverage at three or four in the wee small hours, hopefully after learning that the people of the UK have elected a party with a clear enough majority to form a new government (instead of the dreadful shambles we had in 2010, when the business dragged on for weeks).

I do not care that my fellow voters might place their cross against a party at odds with my own beliefs once they are in the privacy of the polling booth, or even if they choose to spoil their ballot paper. I only care that people vote. The Scottish Referendum in 2014 was a high point in voter engagement, for example, that I don’t expect to be repeated across the country on May 7, more’s the pity.

But I happen to disagree with the great Alan Moore, when he said that

Governments should be afraid of their peopleV for Vendetta

although I know what he means. If governments truly represented their populace, there would be no need for fear on either side. Alas, I can’t see many shop workers or call centre assistants on the ballot paper.

My current work in progress – the latest Petticoat Katie story – is set in a fictional 1910, on the edge between steampunk and dieselpunk and goodness knows what else. In all of these stories and novels, in amongst the riotous adventures with airships and monkeys and sonic attacks, the characters are itching for the right to vote.

I’m currently reading a rash of non-fiction books on the Spanish Civil War and its aftermath, researching one or two novels I plan to write in the next couple of years. Democracy – the right of all adult citizens to vote – was its battleground as much as the landscape and cities of Spain.

Voting for the “wrong” party, in so much of democracy’s brief history, was often fatal.

Across the world of 2015, people agitate for the right to choose their representatives, and even when we don’t see it on our TV screens or read it in our newspapers the struggle still goes on. We take this for granted, especially those of us who are female, or own no property, or are under 21.

We’ve had the right to vote for less than a century.

And if we don’t exercise that right, sooner or later someone might decide we don’t really want it.

So as I go to the polling booth tomorrow morning, behind the curtain when it’s just me and a ballot paper and a pencil on a bit of string, I’ll raise my hand and strike a blow for all those who fought and died for this.

X marks the spot.

*For those who don’t know, the UK goes to the polls in a General Election on May 7 2015.

Why do I always end up chasing the news?

Why do I always end up chasing news items?

Halfway through writing SHADOWBOX the papers were full of the story of Cornelius Gurlitt, an eccentric Austrian in his late 70s who not only hoarded over 1200 artworks in his Munich flat, but also hinted he knew the whereabouts of the famed Amber Room of Peter the Great.

The amber carvers who created the Amber Room featured in the background of my novel.

I wondered whether I was missing the boat.

Would the Amber Room be discovered before I published SHADOWBOX, and all that news puff which might have been an easy link to my story would blow away like dust beneath the flicking of a conservator’s brush?

Was I just being daft?

After all, news headlines come and go. Great treasures of the past live on in the imagination, and it seems the Amber Room has proved even more elusive than the Loch Ness Monster.

But now, halfway through writing the next Petticoat Katie novel, the news headlines rise up to taunt me once again.

According to this article in the Guardian, the production of argan oil in Morocco, traditionally a pursuit of Berber women operating as family-run co-operatives, is under threat from exploitation by big cosmetics companies.

And goats.

Did I not promise you goats when I first mentioned the next Petticoat Katie novel? I certainly did.

There are goats. Many, many goats.

Tree-climbing goats on an argan tree. (c) Aleksasfi (via Wikimedia Commons)

Tree-climbing goats on an argan tree. (c) Aleksasfi (via Wikimedia Commons)

So yet again, I find myself at the mercy of the Evil Press Barons hell-bent on ruining the surprise of my current Work In Progress for its potential readers.

Maybe I ought to stop reading the papers.

Published in: on April 29, 2015 at 12:00 am  Comments Off on Why do I always end up chasing the news?  
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Why The Word Count’s Low

This is a long, long story. There’s no point skipping to the end, because the length of the story is part of the journey.

About a year ago, about the time when I was finishing the final chapters of SHADOWBOX and preparing for Crimefest, I took a good hard look at how I spent my time.

Now where did I put my wossname? Painting by Adolf von Menzel, although this is not its title.

Most of my time wasn’t spent writing.

This was not what I wanted.

So I decided to reduce the amount of time I spend pottering in the garden and hire someone in to pave over the grassy half. There were a couple of other requirements in the work, but nothing I thought was too onerous. I started early, asking for quotes in June.

“That’s more than enough time to have the work done before winter,” I thought.


The festive period came and went, with no firm decision on the scope of the work and no progress. Winter came, gently and without snow, but still no work took place.

Spring began, very slowly. Green stuff began to sprout in places where I’d expected to see paving by that point in the year.

Still no final agreement.

This project block was worse than writer’s block. I asked around and others told me I’d regret hiring someone who wasn’t interested in sticking to the schedule, or the requirements, or the scope. Like I’ve done with writing projects in the past, I decided to call a halt to the proceedings – and just do the work myself.

Since the start of the recent good weather I’ve been shifting earth and digging up small rocks and disturbing ants and discovering more muscles than my deskbound self thought existed. It will take me months to finish at this pace, in the time I have to spare.

I wanted this work done before winter.

I want more time to spend writing, adding to my body of work, learning how to tell more entertaining stories. Creating new characters, spending time with old ones, going to this year’s Crimefest to meet up with other writers.

But in an odd way, spending time outside doing manual work has freed up the creative side of my brain, and I’ve been writing more than I did when I was waiting for the work to start.

Isn’t there some sort of lesson in there?

Published in: on April 22, 2015 at 12:00 am  Comments Off on Why The Word Count’s Low  
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