This week I have been mostly – researching

I was recently commissioned by a literary webzine to write a piece on Strata Florida Abbey in West Wales.  This was one of a number of possible ideas I had pitched to the editor, but I must admit I was thrilled that this was the one they wanted, as it’s a place that’s very dear to my heart.

West doorway of Strata Florida Abbey. Mono photograph.

When I was 17 (a very long time ago), I was at school in North Wales and doing an innovative A level English course which included a large element of creative writing – this was very cutting edge in the 1980s!  My group – there were just 5 of us doing the course – was taken on a number of field trips to provide inspiration for our writing, and one of these was to Cymer Abbey, near Dolgellau.  Cymer was a small Cistercian abbey (the Cistercians were the ‘back to basics’ order of monks which emerged out of the Benedictine tradition at the end of the 11th century.  They were into simplicity, austerity and self-sufficiency).  Cymer was founded in 1198 and dissolved by Henry VIII in 1536.  We spent a couple of hours there, taking in the peaceful location between the hills and the Mawddach river, beside a small farm, in the spring sunshine.  We learned about the silver gilt chalice and paten (vessels used in the Mass) which had been discovered in the 19th century, treasure which was believed to have been hidden by the monks to keep it safe from the king’s men when they came to close and ransack the monastery.  This is the poem I wrote:

Cymer Abbey

The ruins lie like a cracked skull,
empty arches like toothless jaws:
bare homes of stolen treasure.
Each stone is a tombstone for a soul
through the processions of the past.
Chants sound in the vacant roof,
scents of incense in the mists of history.
The pale, thin, golden light of dawn
upon the parchment walls –
the candlelight of centuries.

OK, it’s a bit ‘A level creative writing course’, but I can kind of see why I ended up a writer, and especially a writer who loves writing about place.

My next brush with the Cistercians was a couple of years later – I was at university in West Wales, and every October a group of students would go to Strata Florida Abbey to hold a service in the remains of the abbey church.  In practice, this usually meant a service in the little Georgian parish church next door, as the weather in late autumn in Wales was rarely conducive to outdoor services in the ruins!  The video of that first visit still plays in my head – the little coach winding past the vastness of Tregaron Bog (Cors Caron), the village of Pontrhydfendigaid and the sudden right turn into an insignificant residential lane.  The lane continuing out into the countryside and then, round a corner, the first sight of the abbey ruins – in particular, the iconic west doorway.  At that point, I hadn’t read about the abbey or seen pictures of it, so I had no idea what to expect, except that the people who’d been before said it was rather special.  They weren’t wrong.

Mono photograph of detail of finial on west doorway, Strata Florida Abbey.

The abbey nestles between the foothills of the Cambrian Mountains and the River Teifi.  Even with the later house built over part of the cloister, the farmyard next door, and the parish church and extensive churchyard beside it, Strata Florida has the peace and beauty characteristic of Cistercian sites, chosen as they were for their remoteness from ‘the dwellings of men’.  The west doorway is unique in its architectural style, the spiral triscele finials a nod to the Celtic culture of the generations of Welsh princes and bards who were buried here.  I decided that I would love to be buried here, too.

In the years that passed, I visited Strata Florida whenever I could (easier once I was a grown up with a car!), and a few other abbeys too.  In my 30s, I went back to university part time for a Masters degree, and two of the modules available were on the Cistercians, because a professor in the history department just happened to be one of the world’s leading experts on the Cistercians.  Inevitably, perhaps, I ended up doing my dissertation on the Cistercians, with the title Living Water: a study of Cistercian water management in the context of twelfth and early thirteenth century monastic water systems, with particular reference to selected Cistercian sites in England and Wales (including, of course, Strata Florida!).  I have explored the latrines, drains, troughs and water pipes of almost every Cistercian monastery in England and Wales where there are any ruins remaining.  I have even infected my partner, who is, as I write this, wrangling an essay for a module on the Cistercians for her Masters degree.

Mono photograph of detail of west doorway, Strata Florida Abbey

You would think, then, that I wouldn’t have to do any research for the article I’ve been commissioned to write.  But, frankly, any excuse to get the books out again!  And fact-checking (dates etc) is important.  Also, scholarship does move on.  There have been a number of archaeological digs and research projects since I last wrote about Strata Florida, and Cadw (the Welsh government’s heritage agency, who owns and cares for the site) now has a visitor centre and facilities, as well as an excellent web page.  My most recent visit was in late 2019, and I was able to take some photographs, to accompany the article and this post.

When the article is published, I’ll post a link to the webzine.  Meanwhile, if you don’t already follow this blog, and would like to have future posts drop into your inbox, why not follow TheThreeHaresBlog by email?  I post on average about once a week.  Thanks!

Colour photograph of books about Cistercians, and a notebook.

What do writers do all day?

What do writers do all day?  Well, obviously, we write.  But we also do a lot of other things in order to be able to write, and to make a living out of writing.

Reading

All writers read.  It’s inevitable.  Most of us are writers precisely because we love to read, because words are our ‘thing’.  It would be truly weird, therefore, if we didn’t devour words at every opportunity.  And if we are looking to be published, it helps to know what contemporary writing looks like.  While we all have our individual style or voice, it wouldn’t be helpful for our writing to sound like, for example, Chaucer or Austen or Wodehouse – every era has its language, and anachronisms don’t generally get published.  A 21st century writer needs to write like a 21st century writer.

Research

Most writing requires research.  At the very least, a writer needs to fact-check.  Fiction may originate in the mind of the writer, but in order for the reader to suspend disbelief and enter into the story, the facts need to be right because if they are wrong, it jars.  Journeys need to take the right amount of time.  Police procedures need to be correct.  Medical details must be accurate.  Characters need to speak and behave in a way that’s authentic to the time and place of the story.  The science needs to be right.

I mostly write non-fiction, so research is a major part of what I do.  Even when I am taking a creative, imaginative or whimsical approach, the facts have to be properly researched.  A lot of my topics are historical, so I am applying the academic research skills I acquired while studying history at postgraduate level, not only exploring the ‘facts’ but also how those facts have been interpreted through time.

Getting out there

The publishing industry – whether magazines or books, online or in print – is a mysterious world which any writer who wishes to make a living simply has to get to grips with.  As well as the necessary but tedious self-employment tasks of invoicing, accounts and tax returns, a writer has to learn the ins and outs of the industry: how to pitch, whom to pitch to, what the protocols are, which avenues are a waste of time and which are worth pursuing.  There are no short-cuts to learning this – it takes time and effort.

A significant part of being a writer (rather than someone who writes) is the publicity and networking which is part of the profession.  In practice, much of this now takes place online, and I need to spend some time every week keeping on top of this.  As well as this blog, I am active on Twitter (and to a much lesser extent on Instagram and Facebook).  I find Twitter is the place where I network with other writers, find out about events and opportunities, interact with literary agents and publishers, follow up research interests, and tell the world when I’ve posted a new blog post.  I have got several writing gigs as a direct result of being on Twitter, and it’s more than worth the 20-30 minutes I invest in it most days.

Yesterday, I attended a professional development event at the National Centre for Writing (which conveniently for me is located just down the road in Norwich).  It was led by Leena Norms, and was entitled ‘Creating an online presence for your writing’.  Whilst it might go against the grain for those writers who wish to practice their art in solitude in a garret or writing shed, aloof from the world and commercial concerns, the reality for a jobbing writer is that we have to be our own publicists in order to get, and sell, work, so it makes sense to learn how to do it as effectively as possible.  Leena’s approach is simple, effective and cuts through the mystique that surrounds social media in the creative industries, and although I was already doing much of what she suggested, I now feel better equipped for this aspect of my work.  After all, writing is all very well, but I want to get my writing out there and being read!

Writing

Ah, yes – writing!  This is, of course, what it’s all about, the one thing I really want to be doing with my life.  However, it will be apparent from everything I’ve just said that it’s not enough by itself.  The reading, the research, the social media work, and the engagement with the industry, and the self-employment tasks all underpin the writing itself.

I will post another time about the writing process itself – my writing process, because no two writers are the same.  But for now, I’ll just say this: I think a lot more than I write.  I call it ‘percolating’ because, like coffee, the slow process of ideas becoming infused with reading and research, and forming something new that is complex, nuanced and interesting, takes time.  I probably think for at least 2 hours for every hour spent actually writing.

The Three Hares Blog

If you would like to receive every new blog post direct into your inbox, why not sign up with your email address?  I usually blog every week to 10 days.

Writer’s block – can’t go over it, can’t go under it, got to go through it!

There’s a book by Michael Rosen called We’re Going On A Bear Hunt.  If you have had anything to do with small people in the last 25 years, there’s a high chance you’ll have come across it.  When faced by each new obstacle, the characters sing ‘we can’t go over it, we can’t go under it, we’ve got to go through it!’

I have been reminded of this refrain recently.  I usually write fluently and easily (editing is more of a pain for me than actually writing), but one particular commission has been causing me a problem.  Writer’s block is a well-known phenomenon – the curse of the blank page.  Block can take many forms – I refer to my two main ones as ‘research paralysis’ and ‘if I was going there, I wouldn’t start from here’.

Research paralysis

I’m one of those people who want to know everything it’s possible to know about a subject.  As a student, I felt very anxious about starting an essay if I didn’t feel I’d read every book and article available on the topic.  This is, of course, unrealistic.  Yes, research is important.  Especially if much of your subject matter is historical, as mine is, it’s vital to understand both the subject and the context, and in particular to avoid the heinous crime of being anachronistic – introducing ideas or objects that didn’t exist yet in the period you are writing about.  And if you are writing about living people, you need to get your facts right, and you can’t do that without research, lots of it, and using your critical faculties about what you are finding in your research.

However, the trick is to stop researching at some point, and start writing.  I find this difficult!  There’s always ‘just one more’ book, article or website that looks so interesting, and which might just yield that extra fact or perspective that would make all the difference to the piece you’re writing.  It takes a fair bit of confidence to say ‘OK, I now know enough about this to write a robust, accurate and informative piece on the subject’.  When is it ‘enough’?

If I was going there, I wouldn’t start from here

This is a reference to an apocryphal tale, sometimes set in Ireland or Scotland, where a tourist asks a local for directions to somewhere and is told ‘if I was going there, I wouldn’t start from here’.    Mostly I enjoy specific writing commissions, but occasionally it can feel as if I don’t know where to start.  Sometimes it can be about the format not matching the topic (‘write about this huge topic in 200 words’), or the style being inappropriate to the content (‘write about this complex argument, requiring lots of specialist knowledge and vocabulary, in a chatty tabloid style’).  Not doing it isn’t an option – I’m a writer, this is my job, I’m being paid to do it.  I can make lots of cups of coffee, go for a walk round the block, do the laundry, compulsively check Twitter, but the problem isn’t going to go away.

Can’t go over it, can’t go under it, got to go through it!

I’ve developed a few strategies for dealing with writer’s block.  One is to write – anything, not necessarily related to thing I’m supposed to be writing, but just writing – simply to get the writing muscles exercised and moving again.  Often, something will shift and the block will be removed.

Another is to go back and re-read the brief.  Have I understood it wrongly?  Is there some other way of approaching this?  If all else fails, can I get the reader to collaborate with me in wrestling with this topic?  For example, ‘I’ve been asked to write about X, but I didn’t know where to start, so first I tried looking at it from this point of view… what do you think?  Then I tried if from this other perspective… how about this?’

Having a lot of different projects on the go at once is, I find, hugely helpful with writer’s block.  If one article or post is not happening for me, there’s usually something else that’s going well, and it’s amazing how often one project will provide the solution to a block in another.  The human brain is an amazing thing.  And writer’s block must never be allowed to become permanent.  If you can’t go over it, and can’t go under it, you’ve got to go through it!

#Shelfie – books I am currently reading

Over the Christmas and New Year break, I have been enjoying a bit of leisure to catch up with my reading.  All writers read – it’s just a part of life, like breathing, and since I was very young I have not been able to imagine not having several books on the go at any given time.  This time of year is especially exciting as kind people tend to give books as Christmas presents!

As I like seeing other people’s #shelfies, I thought that today I would share mine with you.

Photo of a pile of books on a shelf.

Starting from the bottom:  Masquerade, by Kit Williams.  Published in 1979 and long out of print, I was recently recommended this and managed to track down a secondhand copy.  The first of the ‘armchair treasure hunt’ genre, the frankly trippy illustrations and accompanying story of Jack Hare – written like a fairy tale with riddles twining through it – created a clue book.  The author buried a piece of jewellery, in the form of a bejewelled 18 carat gold hare necklace, and waited for it to be found by the first person to solve the riddle of the book.  It was claimed a couple of years later, amid some scandal, and the whole affair was chronicled by Bamber Gascoigne (who witnessed the burial of the treasure) in his book The Quest for the Golden Hare.  My interest in the book is, of course, primarily because of the hare who is the hero, and the hares secreted in every illustration – but also in the concept of a picture book for adults, where each image repays close observation, and where the image and text have a dialogue.  Regular readers of this blog will recall my recent review of The Hare and the Moon by Catherine Hyde, which does something like this.

For more on the story of Masquerade, have a look at https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-beds-bucks-herts-47671776.

There are more hares in my next book – over 400 of them!  A Christmas present from my partner, this is one of a series of beautiful coffee table books by Alan Marshall, which feature the work of British printmakers.  This is The Artful Hare, and it’s gorgeous.  89 printmakers interpret the hare, in a variety of styles and techniques which both show the rich diversity of this art form, and also illustrate aspects of the life and mythology of the hare.  This will keep me very happy for a long time – if I treat myself to just one print a day, it will take me well into 2021!

The Penguin Book of the Contemporary British Short Story, edited by Philip Hensher, is more by way of work – I like to keep up to date with short form writing, both fiction and non-fiction.  So far I am still on Hensher’s excellent introduction, so I can’t comment yet on the stories themselves.

Another Christmas present is From Bears to Bishops: Norfolk’s Medieval Church Carvings by Paul Harley.  In over 130 stunning black and white photographs, this catalogues wood and stone carvings from Norfolk’s 659 medieval churches.  Several of these I’ve seen in person (for example, the Green Man at King’s Lynn Minster, the woodwoses on the font at Acle, and the cat on the font at Castle Rising), and I am keen to explore in search of more.

Regular readers will remember that I recently attended an event for writers at the National Centre for Writing in Norwich.  The highlight for me was meeting Edward Parnell, who spoke about his move from fiction to non-fiction, and the recent publication of his book Ghostland: In Search of a Haunted Country.  Edward kindly signed my copy!  Beginning with the ghost stories of M.R. James (which I re-discovered last year), Edward’s book is an intriguing exploration of place, haunting, and writers, interlaced with his own memoir.  I am less than a quarter through the book, and it’s fascinating – and it’s also inspiring me to go in search of authors I hadn’t previously encountered.

Social history is a major interest of mine, and I am also a textiles geek, so The Button Box by Lynn Knight was always going to find its way onto my bookshelf.  Using heirloom items from the family button box as the hooks on which to hang her narrative, Knight explores the intimate, domestic side of women’s lives through the stories of their clothes.  This is a book to be relished slowly – I am dipping into it a chapter at a time.

Completely different – and straddling the space between work-related reading and reading for leisure – is The Ritual of Writing: writing as spiritual practice by Andrew Anderson.  Purchased on a recent visit to Glastonbury, it covers topics such as responding to the spirit of place, working with old tales, and using the wheel of the year.  Again, a book to be read slowly – with time to reflect on each chapter before embarking on the next.

I can’t remember whether I’ve mentioned this before – I am half Dutch.  The older I get, the more pronounced my Dutch traits seem to be becoming (or so I am told!).  I was therefore attracted to Why the Dutch are Different: a Journey into the Hidden Heart of the Netherlands.  The Author, Ben Coates, is a Brit who has lived in the Netherlands for many years.  In this book, he explores the legacy of Dutch history on the culture, attitudes and behaviours of the Dutch – writing as an outsider observing from the inside, which is rather how I feel sometimes in Britain.  I am enjoying the book immensely – learning a great deal that I didn’t know about Dutch history and geography, and also recognising so much of the national psyche in myself.

Finally – did I mention I’m a textiles geek?!  Some time ago I spotted The Golden Thread: How fabric changed history by Kassia St Clair on the shelves of Waterstones, and promised myself I’d buy it when I had made a few more inroads into my ‘to read’ pile.  I was delighted, then, to find it amongst my Christmas presents!  A friend had also spotted it and thought it was my kind of thing.  St Clair tells the story of fabric , starting from prehistory, through the wrappings of Egyptian mummies, silk and the Silk Road, the sails of Viking longships, medieval wool wealth, cotton and slavery, to the clothing of arctic explorers, artificial fibres, space suits and modern sports fabrics.  This is yet another book to be dipped into and savoured – a rich tapestry of history, laced with literary quotations, which encourages us to look more closely at the fantastic textile creations we use every day, and so often take for granted.

 

Links to books cited are generally to Amazon UK, although where possible I give my custom to my local bookshop, or use Hive.co.uk and Abebooks.co.uk to buy new and used books online.  If you are in the UK, many of these titles may also be available through your county library service.

Norwich’s Writing Quarter – a day at the National Centre for Writing and other explorations

I wonder how many of you regard a day’s professional development as a self-indulgence?  I suspect it may be something unique to writers and other creatives, but I was struck by the use of the words ‘self-indulgence’ no fewer than three times in the first hour of Saturday’s event at the National Centre for Writing.  It seems that a lot of us have difficultly permitting ourselves the investment of time and money into our development as writers.

The National Centre for Writing (formerly the Writers’ Centre Norwich) is based at Dragon Hall on King Street in Norwich, and provides resources, mentoring and events for writers – both online and face to face.  Saturday’s event was entitled The Writer’s Roadmap, and took place in the great hall, upstairs at Dragon Hall.  The wonderful Florence Reynolds is the Programme Officer, and welcomed us to a superbly organised day in a unique venue.

I should warn you (if you haven’t already gathered from elsewhere in this blog) that I am something of a medieval history nerd, so spending a day in Dragon Hall was, frankly, distracting!  According to the Dragon Hall website, there has been a building on this site for more than a thousand years – Florence told me that there is evidence of a Saxon post hut beneath the undercroft.  The present building was built around 1430 by a merchant, Robert Toppes, although one of the outbuildings is believed to be a century older.  Originally a trading hall, it backed on to the River Wensum, which via the River Yare gave access to the North Sea at Great Yarmouth.  It was part of Norwich’s major role in the trading of wool and textiles, especially to and from the Low Countries, during the middle ages, on which the wealth of East Anglia was built.  Now a Grade I listed building, parts of it have at various points been houses, tenements (housing up to 150 people in the 19th century), a pub, a butchers, and the rectory for nearby St Julian’s Church (of which more later).

We were upstairs in the Great Hall, where the one remaining carved dragon (there were 14 originally) has been rescued from under a pile of rubbish in an outbuilding, restored, and put back where it belongs in the beams of the splendid roof.  Another treat was the remnants of Victorian wallpaper, which Florence pointed out.  It’s lovely that NCW are so evidently proud of the building, and great to see that it’s in daily use and living again.

The event was both enjoyable and very useful, an opportunity to meet with other writers (we tend to be a fairly solitary lot) and also to get some high-quality input from writers with a wide range of experience.  Molly Naylor, who described herself has having a portfolio career which includes poetry as well as writing for stage and screen, spoke about working across boundaries of genre, and the importance of finding our unique ‘voice’.  Victoria Adukwei Bulley spoke about opportunities for residencies and commissions, and showed us some of the output from her residency at the V&A.

But the highlight for me was Edward Parnell, who took us through his experiences with getting his first (prizewinning) novel published and then moving, almost by accident, into creative non-fiction.  As a writer of non-fiction, I often feel that writers’ events and courses aren’t really for me as they tend to focus on fiction and/or poetry (very occasionally scriptwriting) but never non-fiction.  It was a treat to be at something which was explicitly for writers like me – and as well as being an engaging speaker, Edward was generous with his time, staying around to chat afterwards (and signing a copy of his non-fiction book, Ghostland, for me!).

At lunchtime I went exploring.  The Church of St Julian is literally across the road from Dragon Hall, and I had intended visiting many times when in Norwich but never quite got around to it because it’s a little way from the city centre.  This is the place where the woman known as Mother Julian or Julian of Norwich lived as an anchoress (a hermit attached to a church) during the late 14th and early 15th centuries.  Her cell has not survived, but a chapel has been built on the presumed location, on the south side of St Julian’s Church, and there is a shrine to her there, as well as an information centre just up the hill from the church.  Julian (note – the name we know her by is the name of the church she was attached to; we don’t actually know what she was called) wrote the earliest surviving book in English by a woman, the Revelations of Divine Love.  This work was the result of a mystical experience when she was seriously ill and near death, and was revolutionary in its emphasis on God as ever-loving (not a concept the medieval church embraced).  It survived though convoluted channels of transmission in the UK and Europe, mostly treasured by nuns, and in the 20th century became a classic text of Christian spirituality.  Perhaps the most-quoted line is “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”

This part of Norwich is becoming the Writing Quarter, with the National Centre for Writing now based here, and with the history of the first female author in English at St Julian’s.  And from 2020 the Norwich Printing Museum (formerly the John Jarrold Printing Museum) will be relocating to new premises in the restored St Peter Parmentergate Church on King Street.  The collection tells the story of the printed word since the middle of the 15th century when Johannes Gutenberg invented movable type for printing and the age of the printed book was born.  For anyone interested in the written word, a short walk around King Street in Norwich will take you from Julian’s quill, to the printed book, to the laptops of today’s writers.

Writing course at Manchester Writing School

This week I have treated myself to a three day course on Media Skills for Creative Writers at the Manchester Writing School.  This centre of excellence in all things writing related has a formidable reputation, and given the quality of the tuition I’ve received here, I can see why.  Under the direction of unit leader James Draper, we have been taught by journalist and lecturer Rachel Broady.  Rachel has grounded us in technical aspects of writing (especially features) and facilitated us in workshopping our ideas.  Guest tutor Kath Grant gave us valuable input on working as freelance writers, and how to pitch our ideas to commissioning editors.  The small group format means that we have had plenty of opportunities to ask questions, and to receive advice tailored to our interests and circumstances.  Having a more journalistic slant on writing has been an especially good discipline for me.  Watch this space…