Food, Glorious Food

Elaine and Francesca on researching food and how they use it in their writing.

Victorian China

Victorian China

Elaine: If we write short stories or novels, historical or modern, regardless of genre, we should always include food and of course plenty of cups of tea. When writing about a character eating, the author is giving the reader information about them. What food they eat could reveal their social standing in society. How they eat it could depict not only their social standing, but also when they last had a meal, and of course their manners. Food is often used in romantic and sex scenes; that was nicely depicted in the Disney film, Lady and The Tramp when they had a spaghetti dinner. What and how we eat has changed over the years and therefore, the meal could indicate the time the novel is set in.

I remember attending the opening of the first McDonalds in Britain, I believe it was 1972. The group I was with were totally shocked that we had to eat with our fingers and we decided there and then that it would never take off. Obviously, we couldn’t have been more wrong. This demonstrates the importance of making sure the food facts are correct because it is easy to get caught out.

Mrs Beaton's Cookery Book

Mrs Beaton’s Cookery Book

I am writing a first draft of a Victorian Saga and there is a lot of information about everything on the Internet; sometimes I wonder how authors managed twenty years ago. However, I purchased a Mrs Beaton’s Cookery Book, which is wonderful. It is more than a cook book. There are pages and pages of etiquette of that time, even what to do if the Queen pays you a visit.

@RobertsElaine11

Francesca: Looking through my fiction I find that food features large – quite apart from those endless cups of tea/coffee imbibed in the kitchen!

Competitions often have a food theme to comply with. I have a couple of stories in this category that have enjoyed comp success. Far From Home, set in 1915, features an Italian called Margherita who is in England without many of the ingredients normally available to her. She has to use lard instead of olive oil, for instance. Through research I also discovered that garlic wasn’t often grown and was viewed with suspicion! Food is the means by which she gets to know a handsome Canadian soldier.

A table of characters ready for a romance, a family bust up or a little mischief?

A dinner table full of characters: are they ready for romance, a family bust up or a little mischief?

Insatiable included the themes of gluttony, lust and greed (the general theme of the comp was the Seven Deadly Sins, so I thought I’d go for a few!) Cue lots of food metaphors in the lustful parts! More research, this time into 1950s food, was required, bearing in mind there was still some rationing in the early years.

But I don’t seem to need a set theme to employ food in my plots. Goat’s Head Soup is about Miranda who holds a dinner party for her husband’s condescending friends. They get their comeuppance when Miranda serves up something a little unconventional.

Then there is Thinking Outside the Cakebox (about a cupcake shop), Foolproof (where the pensioner next door saves her neighbour’s dinner party) and An Alternative Christmas  (where the local hippies save Christmas for their neighbours after a power cut because they have an Aga!).

The cafe above which I was born in the late '50s.

The cafe where I was born, in the late ’50s.

Two of the novels I’ve written are set in cafés. Not surprising since I was born in one. They are a great basis for all sorts of shenanigans. In one of these novels, and in a couple of my others, the main protagonists indulge in dinners a deux – not to be underestimated for their romantic potential.

Yes, food is certainly very handy when it comes to time and place setting, for the senses, for a family bust up, a romance or a little mischief. It’s something we can all relate to.

@FCapaldiBurgess

You can read Far From Home  in the anthology 7 Food Stories from Rome

 

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To Be, Or Not To Be, That Is The Question…

Elaine Roberts touches on the relationship between author and reader.

When you read a fiction book of any genre, what are you looking for? Good plot? Great characters? Good grammar? Escapism? A good ending? Does it have to be believable? Or all of the above?

This could be my “to be read” pile.

There are lots of different types of books out there, because there are lots of different types of readers, and what it’s always good to remember is, there’s room for all of them. Just because a genre isn’t to an individuals liking, that doesn’t make it rubbish. Equally, if you don’t like a book an author has written, it doesn’t mean she is a rubbish writer. Everything in the creative world is subjective, whether it’s novels, films, music or art. It doesn’t really matter what we read, as long as we are reading and encouraging others to do the same.

Women’s commercial fiction is often described as fluffy, with no substance; such a sweeping statement. Many writers work hard at their research, to ensure the facts in the story are correct. I know some authors of women’s fiction that actually interview people that did, or do, the job they are writing about, to ensure they are getting it right. It must be heart breaking to work so hard, then read general comments about the genre. Some novels can take up to a year to write, because the story is intricately woven into historical facts.

Click on cover for more information.

As an author, I worried about how my debut novel, The Foyles Bookshop Girls, was going to be received. Was it too fluffy? Would it be lacking, so the readers found it boring?

The reviews and messages, from readers and bloggers, started to come in and I held my breath. I was absolutely thrilled and read the first one with disbelief. Were they talking about my writing, my novel, when they said they couldn’t put it down and gave it five stars? I thought it was a fluke and continued to be fearful of what everyone’s opinion would be. It’s been a rollercoaster ride of emotions, of my own making I hasten to add, but I have received some lovely messages and reviews. Thank goodness for the readers.

Whatever people may write about any genre, it is important to remember the only thing that matters are the readers, as they are your marker. Yes, I’m sure it would be lovely to be recognised by your peers as doing a brilliant job, but surely that’s not why we write is it? It’s not why I do it. I write because I love to write, and yes, I want to publish the best I can, though not for my writing peers, but for my readers.

It has taken me several years to get my first novel published and if I had any advice for budding writers, it would be do not give up, keep learning and try writing other genres, until you find one that fits you and your style.

Twitter: @RobertsElaine11

Facebook: elainerobertsauthor

Retreating to the Seaside

Francesca reflects on the advantages and fun of writing retreats.

Hastings Old Town would make a good setting for a novel.

Hastings Old Town would make a good setting for a novel.

Do you ever go on writing retreats? I’ve been going on at least one a year since 2010 and I thoroughly recommend them. They’re an enjoyable way to achieve a good number of words, with no household or family day to day incidents to distract you.

That’s not to say that it’s all work, work, work. There’s got to be a balance. It helps to have an agreed format with those you’re on retreat with. In my experience it goes something along these lines:

  • Morning: work till coffee time. Go out for coffee
  • After coffee: work
  • Lunch: Snack lunch provided and shared by attendees
  • Afternoon: Write till around 3.30. Have a cup of tea and a natter.
  • Work till dinner time.
  • After dinner: Watch TV, a film, natter, feedback.
  • Work if you’re a night owl

A lovely old boat in Whitstable which could spark new story ideas

The breaks seem plentiful but are an encouragement. Plenty of mini goals can be set which I always find spurs me on. Having breaks is also an opportunity for feedback.

The proportion of work the participants get done during each period depends on whether they’re a morning, afternoon or evening person. During my retreat in Hastings, my writing buddy, Angela Johnson, achieved more in the mornings, whereas I did more in the afternoons. She also managed to get an early morning walk in most days before even starting! Another writing buddy, Elaine Roberts, is also a morning person, whereas Elaine Everest likes to work later in the day.

A feature of  some retreats I’ve been on is each person cooking an evening meal, which has provided at least four dinners during the week. The other days, particularly the first and last, we’ve eaten out. How much you do that depends on what people want to spend, so retreats can be tailored to a budget. Sharing a house obviously divides renting costs. If you’re prepared to share bedrooms (I’m afraid we never are), it brings the cost down again.

Littlehampton in the winter sun

All but one of the retreats I’ve been on have taken place by the sea –Whitstable, Littlehampton and Hastings – so there is much to inspire a thalassophiliac* like me. Perhaps mountains or woods are more your thing and you prefer to hide yourself away completely. Personally I feel it helps to have shops nearby. The one retreat we did where we were in the middle of nowhere (if you can call being seven miles from Hastings that!), we couldn’t even pop out for milk.

The final feature of all the retreats I’ve attended has been a day out in the middle to somewhere interesting. It’s another chance to recharge those batteries and could even be a chance for a little research.

If you’re looking for a cheaper alternative and you have close family living at a distance, you could always ask to spend a week at theirs. It’s particularly useful if they’re at work during the day and you can get on, while enjoying their company in the evening. It’s not something I’ve done yet but I have thought about it.

To all those on a retreat soon, happy writing – and don’t get snowed in like we nearly did our first year in Whitstable!

Whitstable beach in the snow, 2010

Whitstable beach in the snow, 2010

* A thalassophiliac is someone who loves the sea!

 @FCapaldiBurgess

 

 

 

 

The Novel’s Just The Beginning…

Elaine Roberts talks about the next stage of her writing career

As all of you probably know by now, I have written my First World War One saga, The Foyles Bookshop Girls, and have been lucky to be offered a three book contract with Aria Publishing, which was duly signed. I planned my novel in scenes and chapters, tying in the historical timelines with my fictional one. It was all a huge learning curve for me, but I took my time. Sometimes, I moved scenes around, only to realise my characters were then talking about things that hadn’t happened yet. Thank goodness for modern technology and cut and paste. Imagine doing it on a typewriter.

I am now moving on, and I expect you’re all thinking I’m talking about my second novel. However, while I’m writing that, it isn’t it. I’m talking about another huge learning curve; marketing and promotion. This is something I’ve never done in any shape or form. I’ve never pushed myself forward into the limelight, never wanting the attention, but now I’m having to bite the bullet and force myself out there, otherwise people don’t know me, or my book, exists.

I did wonder if I could carve out a mysterious persona like Banksy, the street graffiti artist, but that’s not possible.

So what will my promotion look like? I’m not altogether sure. My publishers are arranging things behind the scenes and I know that includes a blog tour. For the people who don’t know, bloggers do a fantastic job reviewing books, interviewing authors and hosting competitions. They probably do a whole lot more than that, but I am in awe of the time and energy they put into their blogs, mainly because they love to read and to encourage others to do the same. If you are not a writer, please search out the bloggers on the Internet. They do a wonderful job.

Social media is now a big part of the process of marketing and promoting yourself. Do I hear you all scream noooo? Yes, that was me several years ago, when I was at the start of my writing apprenticeship.

I now have a website, and YouTube has also been mentioned.

Doing talks and being part of an event, instead of a spectator, is another new adventure for me. I’m booked to attend my first event, the War and Peace Revival 2018 at Paddock Wood in Kent. I’m sure as that gets nearer, panic will start to take hold!

I also write short stories/articles in the chosen genre/interest, which in my case is historical fiction.

Wherever your career path takes you, think ahead to your marketing strategy. There will be blogs out on the Internet that probably cover every subject you can think of. If not, start your own. Build your social media platforms; it’s how most people find things out these days. Take lots of photos; we all love a photograph.

Above all else, don’t forget to thank the people that helped you to achieve. In my case, there are lots, too many to name but they know who they are. Some will have just offered a word of encouragement, while others will have given me sound advice and critiqued my outpourings, but they’ve all played an important role in my achievement. Thank you for all that you have given me.

Twitter: Elaine Roberts

Facebook: Elaine Roberts Author

Website: https://www.elaineroberts.co.uk

This Was Real Girl Power!

Elaine Roberts and Francesca Capaldi Burgess talk about how the First World War affected women on the home front.

Elaine: My World War One (WW1) saga, The Foyles Bookshop Girls, is based in London’s West End. When I started writing, it I must admit to being a little ignorant of how life was back in 1914. History wasn’t my strong point at school; I only remember learning about dates and royalty. However, I knew about the suffragette movement and the trench warfare of WW1, but I had to do considerable research about women at the home front, at this time. To be honest, I knew more about World War Two, so I don’t really know why I didn’t choose to write about that.

While the First World War wasn’t the only catalyst for change for women, it did bring women to the forefront of society. Prior to the war, many employers refused to take on married women, so it was mainly single women or widows that were employed outside of the home. Once the men had enlisted to fight for King and Country, women were actively encouraged to leave domestic service and take on more difficult and strenuous work. It’s no coincidence that it was after WW1 that some women got the right to vote and a few were allowed to stand as members of parliament, although that did take a few years to happen. On a practical level, hems got shorter and, in some cases, fashion took on a more military theme. With the men away, they also became the main wage earner; in some cases, the only wage earner. They took on managing the home, the family and elderly relatives, as well as managing the money. Earning a wage, albeit less than men doing the same work, also brought about the feeling of independence for the first time.

 

One of my great grandmothers, 1970s, in the ‘kitchen’ of her house, still reminiscent of the one she had in the mining village in the 1910s.

Francesca: The novel I’m currently working on, set in a Welsh mining village in the First World War, had its origins in my own family. Both my maternal great grandmothers were bringing up small children in 1914, two miles away from each other in the Rhymney Valley. I first got interested specifically in social history in the late Seventies, during my history degree. The story of the woman on the street, field, or in the case of my novel, the mine, is so much more fascinating than that of politicians and monarchs.

The experience of women in coal mining towns would have been a little different to that of other women in Britain, since most still had their men at home, precluded by the 1916 Military Service Act from enlisting. Life on the monetary front was a little easier than it had been before the war, because of pay increases due to the urgent necessity of steam coal for the navy. But a little more money in your pocket is of no consequence when food becomes short, as it did quite quickly. Women tended to feed their husbands and children first. This often meant they went without. Their health suffered as a consequence.  Many women in these working class environments died of diseases they couldn’t resist, or in childbirth.

Women were considered feeble not only physically but often intellectually. Most working women were in domestic service or did shop and clerical work. Others, mainly middle class women, went into nursing or teaching, but had to leave once they married. Many women, including those in mining villages, took work in at home, like laundry, sewing and knitting.

My Italian paternal grandmother, c1914. She was a war widow and bought her own business in England in the 1930s.

Women’s position in the work place changed during the war, as more men signed up and were eventually conscripted. Women took on factory jobs, then farming jobs when the Women’s Land Service Corp got going in May 1915 (Becoming the Women’s Land Army in 1917). In mining villages, women had long done the job of screening coal. As the labourers who emptied trucks at the top of the pit were sent to war, women were employed to take these back breaking jobs on too.

Some men refused to work with women, afraid that if they could handle the work, it would be undervalued. They were right to be worried. After initial scepticism about women’s ability to cope in the factories, a report in November 1915 found that women were, in fact, more efficient!

Despite coping and getting on with the challenges, women were still seen as poor, weak creatures, in need of ‘Guardians’ to look out for misconduct. The police were also encouraged to keep an eye on them. Women got an allowance while their husbands were away fighting, but the newspapers created the idea that women were frittering it away on items like alcohol. Regardless of this, for many women who’d been bullied by their husbands, it was a time of freedom.

By the end of the war, there were many widows, or women who would never get the chance to marry. They found themselves in a position where they had to work, or keep on working, in order to live. Many women who campaigned to retain their jobs after the war, and fought for equal pay, were considered ‘hussies’. They weren’t discouraged, but kept on fighting to improve their working lives.

We have a lot to thank them for.

 

Twitter: @FCapaldiBurgess         @RobertsElaine11

Elaine’s Facebook Author Page

Amazon: The Foyles Bookshop Girls

Francesca’s Competition Monthly on the RNA Blog

It’s The Real Thing

Elaine Roberts talks about how her dream has become a reality.

When you have a dream, or what you think is an unachievable ambition, and it suddenly becomes a reality, does it live up to what you expected?

Me WorkingIn my case, the dream, or the lofty ambition, was to become a published novelist and to see my name on a cover. I have been lucky to have many short stories published in different countries, but the novel was always my dream for as long as I can remember. There were times when it felt the learning curve, the work, the commitment needed was insurmountable, but it wasn’t. It just needed time, patience and reminding there was no rush. I had to learn my craft.

The followers of this blog will know that I signed a three-book contract with Aria, Head of Zeus, at the end of 2017. Since then, my dream has become a reality. I’ve had structural and copy edits in, thankfully nothing too onerous. Rightly or wrongly, the copy edits made me chuckle because I hadn’t realised how many times I’d used the phrase “took a deep breath”, despite reading through quite a few times before sending it off. Thanks goodness for editors. I met my editor for lunch this week and I think we could have talked long into the night, and without alcohol, amazingly. Part of our conversation was about book four onwards – now that was scary. Joking aside, the team at Aria are lovely to work with.Business Card

Thanks to my son, I now have some wonderful business cards and a nearly finished website, with an interactive business card on it. I got so excited about the card on the website, I was like a child at Christmas. I also have an author page on Facebook. So you can see, I am now on another steep learning curve about promoting myself. If you visit my author page, please feel free to like and follow me. It’s always good to talk.

I’m sharing the cover of my first novel, The Foyles Bookshop Girls, here first.
The Foyles Bookshop Girls

I was beyond excited when it became available for pre-order on the Amazon, Kobo and WH Smith’s e-book sites.

Amazon:          The Foyles Bookshop Girls

Kobo:               The Foyles Bookshop Girls

WH Smiths:    The Foyles Bookshop Girls

 

So my opening question was, does the reality live up to the dream? My answer is a resounding yes. It is hard work and there are times when I hate what I’m writing, that’s usually around the 30,000 word mark, but I can’t stop writing. It’s in my blood, my DNA. You can rest assured I have ordered a kindle version of my book but when it becomes available I will also order a paperback copy as well. It’s so exciting!

By the nature of the word “dream”, what you want always feels unachievable, but what you have to remember is, if your dream was easy, everyone would be doing it and then it wouldn’t be your dream, because it would be the norm.

Good luck to everyone who has a dream, no matter how small that is. Stick with it. With perseverance and patience, you can get there. If I can do it, so can anyone.images

Facebook:        Elaine Roberts Author

Website:          www.elaineroberts.co.uk

Twitter:           RobertsElaine11

 

 

Never Work with… Children?

Francesca wonders whether the WC Fields quote applies in writing also. Is creating young characters troublesome?

The original ‘Cosmo’.

A couple of years ago, I received a critique for a novel that featured three-year-old twins, Elin and Rhys. The feedback was greatly encouraging, though it did call into question whether my toddlers would speak and act the way they did. The critiques are done anonymously, so I didn’t have an opportunity to say yes, they would, because they’re based heavily on my eldest grandson, Luca, himself three at the time. For that reason I felt confident I’d got them more or less right.

It wasn’t the first, or last, piece of writing where the child characters were inspired by my own progeny. Around the same time I wrote a long short story (if you get what I mean) about a cute three-year-old called Cosmo, who loved ‘woowoos’, ie, emergency vehicles. He was also based on Luca. The story was sadly commissioned for an anthology that never saw the light of day – but I’m not bitter!

It’s not only Luca who gets to hog the limelight. The third short story I had published,  A New Beginning, in The Weekly News back in 2009, featured teenager Peter. It’s no coincidence that Peter is the name of my oldest son. Since then each of my four children have appeared in at least one story, though not always under their own names. Using them as models for characters has been useful though.

To date I’ve written eleven short stories and five novels that feature children or teens. My first two novels were, in fact, Young Adult. The second of those (shortlisted for the Wells Festival of Literature Children’s Competition in 2016) featured several sixteen-year-olds. While none of them were based on my children, I did use them as source material on various aspects of young adult life. There’s nothing funnier than hearing your teenage son on the phone go, ‘Yeah man, sweet, sweet. Sick!’

Peter in his ‘Bluestone’ days.

Peter and my younger son Jack have both been involved in the music scene, one as a musician, the other as a club DJ. This has been useful for research. Peter even made me a CD compilation of club music, to play and refer to while writing a party scene. I can tell you it’s weird hearing a sample of Thomas the Tank Engine in the middle of a drum and bass piece!

With or without your own progeny, there are plenty of other ways to research children and teens. Observe them in cafes and on trains. Children’s and youth magazines are useful. What’s in with the little kids these days? What are teens wearing, listening to, watching? Get a TV guide and see what programmes are popular. Watch a bit of BBC 3.

Dear Diary…

It also helps if you have a good memory – and a diary. I’ve long been in possession of a journal written in the summer 1971, by half-a-dozen of us who worked at my dad’s cafe. We were thirteen/fourteen at the time. Yes, it was common for that age group to do seasonal cafe work back then. We were fascinated and frightened by boys in equal measure. The diary reveals us to be crazy, bitchy, moody and inclined to stomp off and cry (the others, not me of course!). I’ve recently used the diary, along with my own memories, for a short story set in 1971 about Sandi and Steve. It was a hoot revisiting those mad days of funfairs and discos. Diaries from one’s youth are handy for recalling what it was like to be young.

As the WC Fields quote goes, Don’t work with animals and children. Animals in writing is a whole other subject I might cover another time, but I’d contest the children part. I’ve enjoyed creating children older and younger, playing out their stories on paper. They’re complex, wonderful, exasperating, worrying and hilarious. What more could you ask of a character? And I’ll let you into a secret. Despite coining that quote, WC Fields secretly admired children greatly. So there you go. Do work with children, on the page in a writer’s case. It’s fun!

@FCapaldiBurgess