Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Two Great Joys of Independent Publishing

I have been reading and revising my Room To Write novels, trying to work out some kind of strategy for presenting them to my readers in a way that will appeal to them.

One of the great joys of Independent Publishing is energy of making one’s own decisions and taking responsibility for one’s own work. So last night with my Independent Publisher hat on, I sat down and thought of what my novels had in common. I even went back to pre-RoomToWrite days when I was writing for what they now call a Big Publisher.

Another of the joys of Independent Publishing is the opportunity to think and re-think your novels in terms of how they will be seen by readers who might be attrected to them

In my writing career I have been proud (maybe too proud) of the fact that each of my novels is a different creation and; that my work has never fallen too easily into tight genre-corsets (if you’ll excuse the term). I think this was a bit frustrating for my Big Publisher,  although they still rolled my novela out in elegant saga covers,

The fact is, of course - I can hear you saying it - not falling easily into a tight fiction genre can be counter-productive. 

This is said to be even more so in the contemporary Independent Publishing scene. One message regarding this in the swathe of articles, posts and advice is expressed in the almost religious mantra that only distinctive genre designated novels with fittingly dramatic covers will sell on Kindle and Online.

Anyway, although I would always say that each novel is a unique creation I challenged myself to sit down and decide just what my novels have – and always have had – in common. What are the similarities rather then the differences?

What – as an Independent Publisher -  should I focus on?

I came to the conclusion that what they had in common was me with my own family history with its storytelling tradition, my background knowledge of history and sociology. Add to that my deep interest in what makes unique individuals tick whatever the context of their lives.

So I have decided that my novels reflect all of this and are essentially historical novels – a field of fiction rather than a genre. It is true that my stories are inhabited by extra-ordinary 'ordinary' women and men of the rather than Kings, Queens and Chancellors. Add to that the stories focus more or less on the industrial and war-torn Twentieth Century history now, of course – also part of my background.

The one exception to this is my very latest novel The Pathfinder which is set between the country now known as Wales and the North East of England in the second century AD. But this novel was inspired by the journey made by my own family at the turn of the twentieth century from North Wales to County Durham. I have to say that the research and writing of this novel was quite an emotional journey for me.

I asked myself what should I call my category?

I came up with the idea of Extraordinarily Ordinary People in History. So with this in mind, with my Independent Publisher’s hat on I have put together my last six Room to Write novels as a kind of set which will come under the title of  Extraordinarily Ordinary People in History I have revised and redesigned these six  novels keeping in mind that - although each one is unique -  the novels are similar in that they have been written and dreamed up by me, with my own peculiar interests and pre-occupations.    

So, to show you what I have been up to I have put these new editions, in their new clothes, on the sidebar here at LifeTwiceTasted. I hope you like the my newly coined novels with their extraordinatry people and perhaps will be tempted to enjoy their stories.

Now, watch out here on LifeTwiceTasted for an inside track on each of the novels its inspiration and evolution and its extra-ordinary ordinary people.

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

The Need for Writers to Escape from Home.

A lifetime of writing and working from - and at  -home compels one to live a domestically-oriented life even if – like me – your are definitely not domesticated.  
Possibly this is less so for men – think of Roald Dahl

Dylan's Boat House

in his shed! Dylan Thomas  in his Boathouse!  But then there’s Vita Sackville West’s Sissinghirst tower isn’t there?   So my sexist theory doesn’t quite hold, does it? Perhaps class counts more than gender.

Vita's Tower 

Over the last twenty years, as I have worked (quite hard)  from home, my desire to ‘get away to write’ has become part of the creative pattern of my life. I go away from home for refreshment, for inspiration, for separation, for research. Whatever the reason I have no doubt at all that every time I go away my productivity doubles and my inspiration deepens.
More than ten years ago I won a month’s stay at Annaghmakerrig, in Ireland’s border country. I sat there in a small room (haunted, but that’s another story…) and wrote for a month in the great company of other writers and musicians. In that time I completed the first draft of the
book which became my novel of women emerging from prison,  Paulie’s Web.    While I was there I also met a funny, clever, American playwright and actor. Only recently my memories of him produced the essencs my character ‘Tom’ in Writing at the Maison Bleue, my most recent publication.
Going further back in time, it was at Arvon’s Lumb Bank where I met the luminous Irish writer the late Joh McGahern. At than time I was moving on from writing young adult novels to the wider – although never say greater – field of long adult fiction. I was feeling vulnerable at the time. This feeling of uncertainty still pursues me. Part of being a writer, I think.
John read a slice of the novel which was to be my first adult novel. ‘Oh Wendy!’ he smiled ‘Sure you’re a great writer? Don’t you know that?’ He went on to compare the dilemmas of writing fiction based on one’s own life experience, ‘But then,’ he paused. ‘Aren’t there some things even then that you would never write about? An interesting question. He did tell me of an experience he wouldn’t write about. But I’ve never ever told anyone what it was.
The novel I was working on that week went on to win me a three book contract and effectively launched my professional writing career.’
Moving on, there was the year I went on a workshop led by Helen Carey on the magical Greek island of Kythera, where the ‘celebrity’ writer was the Hellenophile Louis de Bernières who was very popular with the retreaters.
I was pleased there that Helen kept the taught workshop element to the very minimum. I stayed in my apartment by the beach  and I wrote sketches for short stories. Much more important than this,  was transfixed by the sheer presence of the island itself, its history  and the blue sea at its edges.
All these years later I have discovered the poet Marc Morday who was at a workshop on Kythera and was also moved by its beauty and its presence. (See his very special poem at the end of this piece.)
Although my experience of Kythera was more than a decade ago, the island bedded itself down in my consciousness and is just now emerging as a setting for the beginning of the new novel on which I am working which opens there on that island in 1941. I just need to go into my head and open a door and I am on that island again.
Of course In between all these more organised retreats, you can make your own retreat experiences. I do this on my own but also with my writing friend Avril joy. We have  been away ‘off writing’ many times through the years on retreats that might be as short as two days or as long as two months. This longer retreat was in Agde in the Languedoc, my favourite place in the world. It’s a  place on many time levels: a place which has inspired two of my novels An Englishwoman in France and,  most recently Writing at the Maison Bleue.
Of course for Writing at the Maison Bleue I have drawn- albeit in pure fiction - on my experiences of creative retreating for writers on various parts of Britain and out there in the world.
The dramas, dangers and changes in a hothouse atmosphere of the companies of strangers in a place remote from your daily life places you uniquely on your own. You find out more about who your are and what you want to write.
I have seen people grow and change before my eyes. They write. They change; they fall in and out of love, they discover new sides to themselves, stimulated by the fellowship of other writers. And it’s not just writing. I led some mature students on Education retreats in Germany who ended up in tears, disillusioned now with their distant home life – their whole lives turned round.
Willy Russell observed this phenomenton very well in his plat.Educating Rita. .
Many of these retreats are in remote, often beautiful places. This for me is particularly true of the Languedoc. And the islands of Kythira and Cephalonia are still there lurking in my imagination and continue to inspire me in my writing.
I am now researching a new novel which will be at least initially set on Kythera against the background for the tumultuous Battle for Crete in World War 2. It is taking a lot of reading and thinking imagining and empathising.
And perhaps I might have to go there again. Oh dear!
So I would urge any aspiring or experienced writer out there to try this thing and go and write with strangers in a strange place. You can call it a ‘holiday’ if you like. But don’t take any baggage from home – personal or relational!
My experiences, bedded down in my imagination, sinking into the strange soup of my subconscious  have ensured that - while living in the same house for more than thirty years  I am able to be bold, and  write my novels on wide ranging themes set in a wide variety of places,. It keeps me fresh, it keeps me inspired to continue to write new novels set in places that inspire me about people who intrigue me..
And I have not needed a shed, a boathouse or a tower to free me from any restricting domestic pre-occupations or routines.

Ah Kythera!

Marc Mordey’s Poem:

 A hymn to Greece #2:

 Kythera, to be precise.

I think

That I could live,

live well

and long,

in a little town

like Livadi

where the Greek coffee

at Rena’s café

is strong

and sweet

and where some of the men

of this small town


to chew the fat

as the honey streaked sun

beats them

Into the shade



Links For You

 Marc Mordey


Arvon’s Lumb Bank

Helen Carey

Sunday, 10 May 2015


Picture this:
She was there on VE Day

Flags festoon the bay windows and the grown-ups buzz  like bees and, the little girl thinks, they are laughing too much. It's all very worrying.
Something is certainly up today. There are even tables and chairs in the street with dishes of jelly and mounds of sandwiches. On old man is  sitting on a low wall squeezing songs from the wireless out of  his accordion, a bottle of beer by his side.
Everyone is dressed for Europe. This little girl is Holland. Her clever mother had transformed one of her nurse’s caps into a Dutch-girl cap with turn-back white wings. Her sister was a dressed for Spain with a flamenco skirt and her brother was dressed for America with a cowboy hat.
Yesterday she fell off her own low wall and broke her arm. Today they crowd  around her and try to sign her plaster. One man writes V for Victory on the underside.  A woman writes V for Victory May 8 1945.on the top.
Somehow she's feels frightened by all this laughter, this strong feeling. It's all very worryong.

Picture this:*

About that time this little girl began to know she was a writer.
'A little girl of three in a Fair Isle cardigan, playing outside a house in Lancaster. With her head of Shirley Temple curls she’s winsome, prettier than she’ll ever be in the many years to come. She’s chalking on the sill of the big bay window.
She stands back and looks at the zig-zag scribble. That looks right. It looks just like her mother’s writing, when she writes her letters. But then the little girl frowns her characteristic frown. Are the squiggles all in one or are there breaks in the line? She runs inside and climbs up to the mantelpiece where she knows there are letters. Letters and envelopes are big in her house these days. There are letters from her Daddy who’s making aero engines in another city. Mammy reads these out to them all, the four of them sitting round the table. The letters always end with Love, Bill.
The little girl likes the way her mother smiles as she reads them. But there was one letter that made her mother cry, about someone called Jimmy, whose plane crashed in America. There’s a photo of Jimmy in uniform on the mantelpiece, a sharp face with smiling eyes under a peaked cap.
Now, the little girl takes one of her Daddy’s letters and looks at it carefully. Ah, yes! There are gaps between the squiggles. So she goes outside and - with the corner of her cardigan – knitted by her Auntie Louie who once told her a tale of swinging a milk can – the little girl rubs the sill so there are now spaces and it is real writing.'

  From my memoir The Romancer 

Getting to be a Writer

Monday, 4 May 2015

Lille and the Best of Travel Writing

All this last week, right up to Friday's Book launch I have been thinking and talking about France. 

So, loving France as I do, I was moved by this wonderful piece about Lille by the immaculate Laurence Phillips. This piece on the Brandt Guide Website is  a wonderful example of the literary art of travel writing. The evocative sensual writing, the sense of place and the evocation of atmosphere all make me want to dash to Lille and dance the night away.

Read this about the square where they dance
From the place du Théâtre I stepped up and through the entrance to the Vieille Bourse, Lille’s timeless Rialto for bibliophiles and chess players, where usually the most physical effort comes from the holding to the light of the slightly foxed uncut pages of a 19th-century novella, or the flourished taking of a queen’s bishop by a cannily primed pawn. 

But it’s not just places that Laurence Phillips shares with us. He observes people with a kindly,  perceptive eye.

I loved his allusions to the dancers:

  • a great bearded bear of a working man in a heavy, plaid woodsman’s shirt..
  • a well-upholstered Juno clasped a tiny lad to her embonpoint
  • a bright tailor’s eyes peered expertly through wire-rimmed spectacles
  •    as a veteran of the dance floor continued nimbly to foot it across the courtyard, his younger companion knees bent, raised, swept and strutted in coy assertion of confident complicity in this ritual courtship.

This is the best of travel writing, where the reader is treated as a traveller rather than a tourist; it makes one eager to share, to taste, to re-explore a place and its people.

Find Laurence HERE

'Playwright, lyricist, award-winning author and children's poet, Laurence Phillips combines a passion for the stage with an infectious wanderlust. Laurence has been escaping to France since boyhood and has written many and varied books about the country. He has been described by the French press as a charming bon vivant and by British critics as a witty and entertaining enthusiast.'

Monday, 27 April 2015

Fiction and the Armchair Traveller

 (NB This article was first published in the Northern Echo on Saturday 25th April.)

 ‘Just right for the armchair traveller,’ an agent told me, having  read my new novel, Writing at the Maison Bleue.

I never went on holiday as a child living in a small house on a short street in a little South Durham town. That is, apart from a bus-ride to stay overnight with a relative, or a day train trip to local beauty spots Crimdon Dene, Seaton Carew or Whitley Bay.
But even then, in my head, I had journeyed to many exotic places. This was because my mother Barbara was a dedicated reader of books from the library located in a double fronted house at the end of our short street.
So, week by week, our small house was littered with books evoking faraway places like Zanzibar, Peru, South Africa, Borneo, Delhi, Hong Cong, and San Francisco. And that other faraway place: London.
It’s true that at that time these novels reflected an unreconstructed British Empire view of the world, but still they brightened my mother’s world, taking her away from her life as a single parent bringing up four children on low factory wages.
And from the age of eight - as a rather forward child - I was keeping up with her, travelling with her to these faraway places.   So from that small house in the short street in the small town in South Durham I had a an intriguingly wide  view of a world not limited by place, class or time.

This was how I began my career as an armchair traveller and, coincidentally, a writer and novelist.

The novels I read –as good novels do – made these strange places familiar. Without crossing the
threshold of my small house I could walk the mean streets of San Francisco, queue up for my entry to the Coliseum in Rome through the gladiator’s gate, ride through the Rocky Mountains, climb the Eiffel Tower and ride a rickshaw in Shanghai.
In time, when I grew up,  I got to visit such places and check the truth behind the fiction. I was never disappointed. Although there was much new stuff to discover I was pleased I hadn't come to them as a stranger.
I don’t think I am alone in my experience. Many people nowadays live a busy, hurried intense lives and they look forward to holidays which are much more common now than they were in my childhood. Certain people  warm their winters by collecting books to read by the pool or in the garden chair. Or they will read them during the winter so that they don’t arrive at their destination as a stranger.
This was the way, amongst many other fiction writers, I got to ‘know’ Henry James’ Florence, James Joyce’s Dublin, Nadine Gordimer’s South Africa, and Chinue Achebe’s Nigeria. And more recently, Kate Mosse and Sebastian Faulks’s France and Louis de Berniere’s Cephalonia and Solzhenitsyn’s Russia.
There is a difference, of course, between reading as an armchair traveller and reading while abroad. These days when I pack my bag to travel abroad in the flesh I choose novels to read at leisure by the French harbour and alongside of the French canal. The leisure time is enticing. Unlike the armchair fiction which I have read through the cold English winters the novels I take can be anything, from recent national and international prize-winners, to new novels by friends, or recommended by them.
 I am known to compete with my lovely son-in-law as to how many books we can get through in three weeks. He usually wins.
Packing your books can add (often welcome) weight to your luggage. But the advent of reading on Kindle and other eBooks has allowed some readers to ‘load up’ their machine with a dozen or so books and lighten their literary luggage. My practice is to combine the two methods. I must say I like the rustle of pages as I flick through them in the sunshine.
The odd thing for me nowadays is that   novels that other people read during the cold winters, or take for their summer’s travelling  in paperback  or  on their Kindle  - these could be books written by me! 
This is especially so because two recent titles are set in the deep South West of France. 

My newest title, Writing at the Maison Bleue, is set in a fascinating house by the Canal du Midi.

 I know this part of France well, having travelled their consistently through the last ten years. Of course underpinning this physical experience has been my lifelong obsession with reading fiction (and fact!) about France.
This made me a Francophile even before I landed. It was a familiar place to me even when I first arrived. So it’s rather nice  that one early reviewer said the novel was ‘a must for Francophiles.'

All this  might seem a long way for that little girl in a small house on a short street in a little South Durham town. But it’s not that far really. Only as far as the library.

Writing at the Maison Bleue is available at libraries
 and in print and Kindle form HERE   

The official launch is on Friday 1st May (7.30 – 9.30)  The Lafkaido Hearn Culture Centre at the University of Japan Mill Lane Durham City County Durham DH1 3YB  (Opposite the Oriental Museum)  Parking Available

The novel is available from libraries
and in print and on Kindle from

What books will you take on holiday?  

Make me a list of three books and a sentence saying why you will take them.
I will  feature the three most interesting lists here on the blog
and  I will send these readers a free PDF copy
 of ‘Writing at the Maison Bleue.'

Send them to Wendy at

Saturday, 25 April 2015

Until today Joe hadn’t talked very much with Lolla about his writing

Joe, at 19 is the youngest writer at the Mason Bleue retreat. He makes good friends with the oldest writer there: eighty-odd year old Francine. And he makes friends with the celebrity guest writer Kit Hallam.  

Excerpt from Writing at the Maison Bleue 

[...] It was on Giro day when the Award  letter came through Joe’s door. He celebrated his award with his girlfriend Lolla at the Black Bull - their usual meeting place on a corner at a decent distance from their respective hostels.
‘A thousand quid? Y..yum! ’ Lolla smacked her pouting lips – not really a pretty sight. ‘We can celebrate on that, Joe.’ For Lolla celebrating meant something serious up her nose or down her throat. At least, thought Joe,  she did this in a quiet fashion. She had told him more than once that she hated anything vulgar. There were people around them who were vulgar. And that, she said, was the worst thing in the world.
Joe shook his head. ‘No cash, Loll. Really, like! Says here the Award covers the plane and this place on the river. Sunshine and writing. And talking.’ He frowned. ‘Dunno whether I’ll like that. Talking.’ He frowned. ‘Good job I got a passport.’ He said thoughtfully.
His social worker had got him a passport when Jonny Green, a singer who had been in the same care home before his rise to fame, had treated the present generation of kids there to a beach holiday in Spain. In the end Joe had not gone because he’d been in a fight and was seen to have blotted his copybook.
Now Lolla pouted, her eyes gleaming through the long blackened lashes that flapped against her fringe. ‘Not fair, that, Joey. You should see some cash shouldn’t yer? Won the competition didn’t yer?’
Until today he hadn’t talked very much about his writing with Lolla . The writing was mostly his private thing.

In his heart of hearts Joe agreed with Lolla. He wondered if all the winners of the Room to Write Awards got their prize in vouchers and tickets. Or was it just those who lived in hostels for  outsiders?  Maybe it was like clothes vouchers for the needy  He knew he was not as needy as some of his other acquaintances because luckily drugs had turned out to be not his bag. It was a fact that drugs had been pushed onto him in prison when things became hard. And it was true that when he got out he was still using. But he had been rescued from sliding down that road by a guy called Cragan whom he met in the Black Bull. Cragan helped him to get off the gear for good. These days even the thought of the gear made him gag. [...] 

When Joe is writing he starts by making lists

Here's one of the  lists that he leaves on the salon table:

Joe Conroy

Trace at the Seaside -

- Fat Bob and skinny Joan, on duty
- Bob drives the minibus.
-The sea boiling up like soup
- The darker sky simmering like grey custard
- The mini-bus stinking
-  of dinner, salt, vinegar crisps and hair-gel
- Bob and Joan light off to Kind William pub
- As they walk away Bob touches Joan’s arse
- Glass box with weird talking clown – one lass runs off screaming
- Five pound-coins in Trace’s paw
- Bag of chips, ice lolly and three goes on the Waltzer
- Whirling round and round and round
- Sea, lighthouse funfair.
- Sea, lighthouse, funfair
- Woozy, seasick, Trace falls into the arms of a lad with red socks
-They race the tide and the tide wins
- Sheltering from the rain, tucked under the cliff
-  Fucking in the rain that fingers his bare arse
- The boy in red socks can’t manage
- Rain stops. Trace laughs. The lad
- punches her in the stomach and runs
- Trace is sick into a rock-pool 
-  size of giant’s foot
- hermit crabs scuttling for dinner

Friday, 24 April 2015

Ruthie's Idea of a Writing Retreat

Another sample of prose from Writing at the Maison Bleue.   It all started when Ruthie Dancing, a crime writer, met Aurelie leBrun on the place and they made a deal,


A doorway to new writing 

This idea of a writing retreat had been running around in Ruthie Dancing’s head for years. She had nearly pulled it off once, just after she finished working in the prison, but then the idea aborted.  She did this quite often - trying an idea until it broke. She would say that it was a bit like writing your way to half way through a novel and then abandoning it: all part of the creative process.

(On the plane Ruthie tells completer stranger Aurelie leBrun about her dream of a retreat.)

Ruthie’s shoulders sag.  ‘Not possible. Short of resources - and any real business sense if I’m honest. I like to write and I want to share this. But …’
Now Aurélie frowns again, her face concentrating. ‘I have it!’ her fluting voice penetrates the gruff hum of the plane and the crackle of conversation from the other travellers. ‘I have it, Ruthie.’
I’m puzzled. ‘You have what?’
‘I have the house!  I have a house which I develop. Mon cher Serge and I, we take houses and make them good. So many poor old houses in our district waiting for our kind hands. Young people now in France like to build new. They scorn the old. You will have this house Ruthie. You will have this house for your retreats. For your writers and your writing....’ 
Ruthie is perplexed. ‘So …’
Aurélie puts a slim, manicured hand on Ruthie’s arm. ‘Your writers will retreat to my house, which is called Maison Bleue. This beautiful house sits on the banks of our wonderful Cana du Midi.  You will make your fine retreat in my house. We will share the profits.’
‘Profits? I don’t know about profits.’
‘Ruthie!’ Aurélie says firmly. ‘I assure you. There will be profits!’

Old French wood and the ubiquitous  turquoise

 If you would like read the whole of  Writing at the Maison Bleue click HERE

Saturday, 18 April 2015

Sharing Writing on the Salon Table:

I thought you might like a sample of prose from Writing at the Maison Bleue. Writers at the Maison Bleu retreat share their writing by leaving a sample on the table in the great salon in the house by the Canal du Midi.

Veteran writer Francine's  'writing on the table' speaks of her adventures forty years before when she was a child in France in World War Two.

She has been left without her parents 

in the harbour town of Agde


At the deserted refuge I choose a small case from my mother’s collection and in it pack my schoolbooks, two suits that I cut down from suits made for my mother, the shoes with tyre soles that Auguste made for me, my red scarf, the little black and white photograph me and my mother at the door of the house where I grew up. A photograph of me on my bicycle, taken by Auguste. The little package with my mother’s cherry red dress. On top of them I put a cardboard folder with my butcher’s-paper stories on them. I add in more empty sheets where I decide will write more of my life out there in that secret place the country.
            I will have to hold in my head the images of Auguste’s harmless kisses and the loving touches we shared behind the scenes at the blue house.  And I will remember the bad things that went on there. The things we did.
           I wedge the suitcase on my bicycle and walk it down to the harbour. Madame Griche is there outside the laundress’s door, now closed and locked. She has her heavy bicycle with her, with the baskets back and front quite common these days.
I look for Auguste and his mother. But there is no sign them him.   I will not be able to kiss him goodbye.

Writers Francine, Joe, Mariella, Abby, Felix,  Kit and Tom all leave very different examples of writing on the table in the salon at the Maison Bleuethat tells us a great  deal about them and their role in the story.

Hope you are enjoying the book!



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