It’s All In The Title…

Elaine Roberts talks about wrestling with the problem of titles.

I have always read a lot; my mother used to tell me off for not going out to play when I was a child, because my nose was always stuck in a book. There was nothing I enjoyed more than losing myself in a good adventure. Books like The Famous Five, The Secret Seven and The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe were books I read over and over again. Nothing has changed in that I am still an ardent reader, except I now write as well.

Anybody who isn’t a writer would think coming up with an idea for a novel would be the hardest part, but not for me.

My White Board & Plan

My White Board & Plan

Some writers who are learning their trade, like me, may think coming up with the structure and avoiding the saggy middle is the most difficult part, but not for me.

Once the manuscript is written, some might think the editing is the worst part; now I don’t like it, but it’s not the hardest part for me.

Coming up with a title is my biggest problem. Am I the only one? It’s one I have mentioned on a few occasions to different people and have had a number of really good suggestions, yet I can’t seem to make them work.

Why is the title so important?

IMG_0143All the professionals say you should have an attention-grabbing title. The cover and the title of a novel usually draw a reader’s attention first. When you are submitting a manuscript to an agent or publisher, there is no cover to grab their attention so the title needs to make the manuscript stand out from the other hundreds they receive. So a title needs to be memorable and easily understood.

Titles can be about the theme of the novel; an example of this is Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Alternatively, they can contain the main character’s name, such as Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronté. Some titles also contain the character’s occupation or title.

It doesn’t matter whether I am writing a short story, a blog piece or a novel, my biggest sticking point is always the title. The name is meant to give an idea of what the story/article is about. What I find puzzling is that I know what my story is about and yet a catchy title seems to evade me and I don’t understand why. Writers come up with excellent titles all the time and yet I can’t seem to.IMG_7427

Several people have suggested record titles, which is an excellent idea but not one that has helped me with my latest novel. Maybe a film title, but no, that doesn’t work for me either.

Perhaps it is my Achilles heel; maybe I have a mental block on the subject.

I wonder how others decide on their titles, where do they get their inspiration? Any advice would be gratefully received.

@RobertsElaine11

 

Remember, Remember: A Novel Approach to War

As we approach Remembrance Sunday, Elaine and Francesca reflect on the wars and on their own World War One novels.

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Elaine: Remembrance Day and all that it stands for is important to me. I was brought up in the armed forces and the 11th November was sacrosanct in my home. I have made sure that my children have grown up knowing it is important to remember that men and women made the ultimate sacrifice so they can have the freedom of life and speech. I am not interested in the politics of it all; for me the poppy is a symbol of peace, courage and loss, amongst other things.

A newspaper headline the day WW1 started for Great Britain

A newspaper headline the day WW1 started for Great Britain

The research I have done for my historical novel has made this year even more poignant. The patriotism to King and country was astonishing and the numbers in which men volunteered to fight was incredible. Then there was the work that the women did on the home front. Trying to find the words to convey this in my novel, without getting carried away and it becoming a war story, has been difficult.

I have read many articles on how writing a historical romance is not taken seriously. However, the facts still have to be correct, but they are woven into the story so the readers don’t necessarily take them in, but it adds reality to the story.

While I am fortunate to have never lost anybody close to me from either World War, I have lost friends, or have friends whose lives have been changed forever, through various subsequent conflicts. The day never fails to reduce me to tears as I remember them and all that have gone before.

@RobertsElaine11

It hasn't been easy trying to translate the writing on this Italian document.

The Italian document from World War 1.

Francesca: This is always a very poignant time of year for me. As I ‘remember’ members of my families who died in both wars. I say, ‘remember’, as obviously I never met them. Despite that, I still feel a profound sense of loss. 

Two of my great uncles, Tommy and Cyril Jones were both killed in 1943 . They were 35 and 22 respectively. Tommy was killed in action in Sicily. Cyril died at sea when his ship, the HMS Fidelity, was hit by a U-boat. 

My grandfather, Lorenzo, died in 1915 at the age of 29, from septicaemia caused by a gunshot to his thigh, in a Red Cross hospital in Modena. These details are contained on a hand-written document that belonged to my father, which gives an account of Lorenzo’s death. 

But it was a kind of non-war record that got me started on the historical novel I’m currently working on. A ‘hint’ on the Ancestry website led me to discharge papers which hugh-morgan-jnr-discharge-ww1did in fact turn out to belong to a maternal great-grandfather, Hugh Morgan. I’ve never seen a photo of him (he died in 1927), but I know from the document that at 24 years of age he stood 5′ 5″, weighed 140 pounds, and that his chest measured 38″ when expanded. It also tells me he had tachycardia and that his heart beat at 130 bpm. And that’s the reason he was being discharged in 1915, after only 227 days service.

It was the stamped message on the form that gave me the story: ‘Never likely to become an efficient soldier.’ Poor bloke. He’d marched away with a Pal’s Battalion, wanting to do his bit, only to be rejected. How did he feel about it? Relieved? Annoyed?Ashamed he wasn’t up to it? Gradually I wove the beginnings of a story from it, but I’m not entirely sure where it will end. I look forward to finding out.

@FCapaldiBurgess

…And Things That Go Bump in the Night

Francesca and Elaine talk about their take on Hallowe’en!

Francesca: From ghoulies and ghosties, And long-leggedy beasties, And things that go bump in the night, Good Lord, deliver us!

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Apple Bobbing

Who remembers that poem/prayer from long ago? As a child we’d recite it every Hallowe’en. At my infants school we did apple bobbing in the hall. Apart from this, we barely marked the occasion at all.

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Reluctantly celebrating Hallowe’en. Yes, the cat is me!

How different it is nowadays. I can’t believe the amount of ‘stuff’ there is to buy for Hallowe’en. ‘Stuff’ is my polite word for ‘tut’ (as in ‘rubbish’). It’s an odd kind of tradition to encourage children to honour, a bit of a throwback and an amalgam of several festivals from different traditions. I did mostly avoid it when my own brood were young – even at the risk of being called a spoilsport. The one time it was celebrated in my house was down to my mother-in-law, who decided to buy some ‘tut’, I mean Hallowe’eeny bits, for the kids.

aunty-maureen-scary-cropped

Mum didn’t just make up good ghost stories, she loved ghostly practical jokes too!

Having said all that, the occasion is rather a gift for writers. My mother was particularly adroit at telling her own made up ghost stories, although to be honest, they frightened the life out of me – which is maybe why I avoided Hallowe’en with my own children.

I’ve written only a few ghost stories in my time but I do enjoy tapping into the darker side of fiction now and again. You really can go anywhere with it, from a benign presence in a house to a full-on terror fest. Of course you don’t need to wait until Hallowe’en to write one but those nights rapidly drawing in certainly create a better atmosphere for them than the long summer days.

@FCapaldiBurgess

 

Pumpkins carved by my family

Pumpkins carved by my family

Elaine: It’s that time of year again when old people are afraid to open their front doors and children and adults dress up as all things evil. I have never celebrated Hallowe’en and my children weren’t encouraged to either. I was more of a Guy Fawkes child, although you no longer see any homemade guys outside shops. There is something about Hallowe’en that does scare me a little, which is probably why I have only written one short story about this time of year. However, I do know from family and friends that I am in the minority.

I have watched enough films and programmes where this time of year has been part of it. You may have guessed I don’t watch scary films either, but I always thought the house decorations and the people dressing up was just part of the film. However, on my trip to Boston I discovered that is not so.

Faneuil Market Place, Boston, New England

Faneuil Market Place, Boston, New England

Early one morning, my husband and I visited Faneuil Hall Market Place, in Boston, New England, which is a beautiful market with historical buildings around it. On our way we passed dogs wearing red capes and horns and other such costumes, which made us smile, as they were being lead by their owners in similar outfits. I didn’t really think anything of it; I truly thought these people were a little eccentric, mainly because they were dressed similarly to their dogs. That was until we stopped to eat in the food court, where everyone shared long, wooden tables. My face must have looked a picture as we sat with an elderly witch, with all the accessories and her face painted, as well as a skeleton, a red horned and tailed devil, and a werewolf. I looked around to discover we were very underdressed and probably the only people in the market, at that time, not in fancy dress. There was a party atmosphere with everyone laughing, joking and admiring each other’s costumes.

If, before travelling to America, I had given it more thought I would have realised that the Salem Witch Trials had taken place just over the water.

@RobertsElaine11

Link: The History of Hallowe’en

Ill Advised?

Francesca’s been investigating the death certificates of her ancestors in the hope it will help her with research for her novel.

For anyone who’s been watching the TV series, Poldark, you’ll know that one of the characters died of something they called ‘putrid throat’. (I won’t say which, in case you haven’t caught up with the first series.) This revolting sounding affliction, it would appear, is what we in modern times call Diphtheria. There have been other names for it over the centuries like ‘putrid fever’ and ‘membranous croup’.

mother-and-sisterAlthough I tend to write more contemporary then historical fiction, I’ve recently been writing a novel set in 1915. In it, one of the characters, a young woman, dies, and I’ve had to consider what might be the cause. Her mining village is based on the one some of my ancestors lived in around this time, so I thought this might be a good place to start.

A couple of years ago I ordered a few certificates – birth, marriage and death – from the General Register Office, having found several family members on an ancestry site. I discovered that three of my female ancestors – my great gran’s mother (M), sister (S) and daughter (D) – died at age 42, 16 and 28 respectively, in 1891, 1899 and 1935.

d-and-b-1931-cert

‘D’ in c1932, with her first child.

S is recorded as dying with phthysis, D with phthsis pulmonales, while D died of pulmonary tuberculosis. Clearly the last one was TB, but I was surprised to discover the first two were also.

TB is clearly a strong contender for the death of my character. But why did so many people contract it? What conditions caused it? Was it rife in that area? Why did it only seem to strike the women in my family? These are all aspects to look into to make my story stronger.

It seems unlikely that everyday Victorian folk referred to the disease as phthisis. More likely they called it tuberculosis, TB, or consumption. Other terms over the years have included lung disease, scrofula and white plague.

Looking at death certificates for the other side of my mother’s family, I’ve discovered one great-great grandfather died in 1892, aged 46, of apoplexy. Until I read that, I thought apoplexy was a description of someone getting extremely angry. Medically it’s a type of stroke. Worth remembering.

His son died on the operating table aged 36, in 1927, during a second operation for appendectomy complications. mor-father-and-sonTalking to a friend about it she asked how it would have been paid for before the NHS came into being. Good point. The 1911 National Insurance Act provided only basic medical care. This great grandfather was also a miner, and I believe that hospitals were often provided by mine owners or jointly by them and workers via subs. Could they have paid for him to go to the Cardiff Royal Infirmary for the op? Perhaps my family simply had some savings?

Considering all this has certainly thrown up more questions than answers so far. Finding out what they died of is only the beginning. There is much scope for research.

gran-c1964

Great Gran, c 1964, who suffered much loss in her long life.

If, like me, you can mine family records, (sorry, no pun intended), they can be a good start for research. A word of caution: discovering family deaths and their circumstances can be harrowing. I cried when I found out why sixteen-year-old S had disappeared from the census. I cried again when the certificates confirmed my mother’s story of not only D’s death from TB, but that of her prematurely born baby a month later.  I try to imagine how Great Gran must have felt, losing all those family members. She was ninety-seven when she died, but never talked about it. She also lost a toddler son in 1922 and two other sons in World War Two. Life was cruel.

Perhaps if I can inject a little of that emotion into writing about a character’s death, I’ll not go far wrong.

@FCapaldiBurgess

 

A big thank you to my cousin Janine who lives in Australia. She also has undertaken much interesting research into our shared family.

Links:

Another word of caution: if you’re interested in finding your ancestors’ certificates, whether death, birth or marriage, the various ancestry web sites are a good place to start, but don’t buy them from those sites, as they’ll cost you three times as much than they will from the General Register office, which you can find here.

Another interesting web page about old names for illnesses, The Glossary of  Old Medical terms, can be found here.

It’s Only Words, Isn’t It?

As the new term gets started, Elaine and Francesca think about their writing year ahead.

September and the new school year is upon us. For some it is a momentous occasion, with children going into the next level of education. Whether their son/daughter has gone from nursery to reception or from sixth form to university, or anything in between, many tears have flowed.

Just as it’s a new beginning for the children/grandchildren, so it is for the writers amongst us. It’s a challenge, getting back into the swing of sitting still long enough to write some words, after the hustle and bustle of the summer holidays.

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Elaine’s novel planning whiteboard

Elaine: Earlier this month I attended the Historical Novel Society Conference and a Woman’s Weekly workshop on historical writing. Although they were obviously very different, both were a first for me. I gained something from both of them but what astounded me more is that I know more than I realised; it is clearly about putting that knowledge into practice.

My Victorian Saga is technically finished and out trying to get snapped up, although I am sure changes will need to be made. While I am waiting for those decisions, I am planning my next novel. That means I am up to my neck in research, learning some fascinating facts that I hope I can slip into my novel. It’s pretty safe to say there have been times when I thought my head would explode.

I have paper and Post It Notes everywhere. Luckily for me, I have an understanding husband because while I have an office, I have also commandeered the dining table as well!

Francesca: It always seems that I start new novels in September, as if studying for a new course. I guess this is because of sending novels off to the RNA’s New Writers’ Scheme several summers in a row.

Islwyn Morgan, late 1930s.

Francesca’s historical idea came from an incident in her grandfather Islwyn’s family.

Like Elaine, I attended the Woman’s Weekly workshop on historical fiction. Although I tend to write contemporary novels, and have just started a new one, I’ve had an idea for an historical bubbling away for some time that the workshop helped me develop. So which to continue with? 

Because I did a history degree back in the dim distant past, several people have asked me why I don’t pursue that genre of novel. I have written several historical short stories and a serial, but I always seem to come up with masses of ideas for contemporary novels. It would be interesting to proceed with the historical, though there’s a danger I’ll get carried away with the research, for which I’ve acquired several books!

My other goal is to return to short stories. In the past I’ve had sixty-odd ‘out theres’ sent to various magazines, but I’ve sadly neglected them in favour of novels recently. And I’d like to write another serial. 

Time to just get on with it, because as Bruce Lee once apparently observed, ‘If you spend too much time thinking about a thing, you’ll never get it done.’ Good luck with your own ‘new term’. 

Do you have plans for the new school year or are you just enjoying the peace and quiet?

Don’t They Know It Isn’t Christmas?

As the summer holidays end, Francesca and Elaine wonder whether it’s too soon to get ready for Christmas, particularly as a writer. And how do we get inspired by snow in the middle of a heatwave?

Fabulous Entrance To A Department Store In Berlin

Fabulous entrance to a department store in Berlin

Elaine: In the middle of August I went shopping for birthday cards and you can imagine my dismay at finding several shelves already filled with Christmas cards, but what is worse than that is that I was actually tempted to buy some, but deciding it was all a bit crackers, excuse the pun, I didn’t. Since then, I have seen adverts for Christmas items in sales; although they are probably old stock, it does beg the question how early should the commercialism of Christmas start and does it get earlier each year, or is it just me getting older?

Francesca: Ugh, don’t get me started! If Christmas didn’t appear in the shops before December 1st, I’d be quite happy. I was talking to a fellow writer, Ann,  about it this evening, and she suggested after Bonfire Night was okay, which I guess is reasonable. And there are certain things that need to be considered ahead of time.

London Chapter Christmas Lunch Gifts

RNA London Chapter Christmas lunch gifts

Elaine: A cook will plan ahead to make the cakes and puddings along with pickling onions. A writer also needs to have one eye on the calendar so he/she can plan accordingly. If you are a writer of short stories, then now is the time to be considering sending them off to be included in December editions of magazines. If you write novels, and they are going into paperback, then you are too late for this year.

Francesca: Of course some magazines will already have their stock of Christmas stories ready; the time for submitting seems to get earlier each year. I think the latest I’ve sent in a Christmas story is November, after a call out. It’s worth checking with the magazine. But as you say Elaine, it’s definitely too late for a Christmas novel this year. How on earth does one go about setting a story during winter celebrations when it’s still summer, especially in the middle of a heatwave? 

Elaine: To get into the mood for writing a Christmas story, you can obviously draw on memories, or watching films can inspire you. A few of my favourites are It’s A Wonderful Life, Love Actually and Miracle On 34th Street, all feel good films that spread the love. Music is also a good way of setting the mood. Playing Christmas carols or the usual pop songs that get wheeled out every year definitely gives the feel good factor.

Children and Christmas: always a winning combination

Children and Christmas: always a winning combination

Francesca: Miracle on 34th Street is a favourite of mine too (the original version, with Natalie Wood), but I also love The Muppet Christmas Carol.  Despite that, watching either during the summer is something I would personally find quite annoying. Ditto Christmas songs. Christmas photos might be a good place to start, especially if you have boxes / files full as I do. I have been known to decorate the dining room with lights and table decorations to evoke the mood in August, before sitting at the table to write. Yes, you heard it here first – I am quite mad!

Apparently Selfridges opened their Christmas shop on August 1st this year. Now that is barmy. But if you’re desperate for inspiration it would be a great venue to hang out in and jot down some ideas. There’s also a place called the Icebar in London’s Heddon Street, which I visited a few years ago. Fascinating. Cold. Perhaps inspiring. Difficult to write anything down though when you’re having to wear a thick coat and gloves!

Elaine: Of course, you could just use this year’s celebration to write and get a novel published in time for next year.

Family photos, a good source of inspiration - especially with interesting characters!

Family photos, a good source of inspiration – what are this lot up to?

Francesca: Indeed. Ultimately, the best time to write Christmas fiction, whether a novel, a short story or a serial, is at Christmas. Obvious really. One year I managed to write three Christmas stories during December and it was so much easier than doing it in July. It’s a matter of getting organised. It also helps to put a note somewhere to remind yourself to send them off when the time’s right, as it’s very easy to forget about them.

Tell us, how do you get inspired to write seasonal stories at the wrong time of year?

 

 

 

 

Who’d Live in a House Like This?

Francesca looks at finding the right home for a story’s characters. And she has good news!

All novels, short stories and serials need settings. All characters need somewhere to live (unless they’re vagrants – but I guess even they’d need a place to shelter).

The houses in my stories have a number of origins. The cafe in my first novel was based on my dad’s, that in the fourth novel on one in Whitstable. The main house in my second novel was based very loosely on my own (though so much neater and tidier!). The abode in my third novel was completely out of my head, yet I can picture it as if I’ve lived there. Houses in my current novel are based on those that exist in the village I’ve based my setting on, if you see what I mean! Though I’ve had to make up the interiors.

Some of you might know a computer game called The Sims, where you build homes and people, then control their destinies. I’ve used this program more than once just to build my characters’ houses, to see what they look like.

What does one need to consider when creating a house? How many rooms / bedrooms are needed for a start. Is it a small or large house? Are the characters crowded in or rattling around? What’s their financial status, and does it match or mismatch the house? Is the house in the right period for the story? It would be bad form to have a Georgian family in a Victorian house (unless it’s some kind of time slip), or to give a Tudor house sash windows. The publisher, Countryside Books, has a number of guides on houses from different eras, as well as other period knowledge, which can be very useful for this kind of research.

So, who’d live in a house like this? Do any of them conjure up a character or characters. What’s their story?

Whitstable

Llangrannog

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Llangrannog Tori

Tintagel

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tenby

Newcastle

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Amsterdam

Ightham playground

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Newcastle 2

Hastings

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapel House Pembrokeshire

Wendy House

 

 

 

 

 

 

Scotney

Middle Coombe Farm Devon

 

 

 

 

 

 

South Downs

Arundel Castle

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Any idea what or where any of these buildings are?

Lastly, my good news. First of all, having been a runner up in the People’s Friend serial competition last year, I’m now completing the serial for them. No news yet of when it’ll be published, but I’ll post about it when I know. Secondly, I was longlisted in the Frome short story competition. Lastly, I’ve been shortlisted in the Wells Festival of Literature competition for a children’s story, with my second Young Adult novel, How to Handle Plan B. I won’t know the result of that until mid October.

Happy house hunting!

Links: Countryside Books