Tools of my trade – techniques and technology for non-fiction writing

What image pops into your head when you think of a writer?  For many people, I gather it’s an image of a solitary figure, toiling for long hours in a shed or an attic, maybe even still writing in longhand or using a typewriter, surrounded by books and dust, and forgetting to eat.

Well, in my case, the image would be almost totally wrong.  Only almost, because I do actually work in the attic, or more accurately the top floor of an Edwardian town house (it’s not as grand as it sounds – the first occupants were glove makers, working from home, but more about that another time).  In my previous post, I write about the view from the windows.  But I am not solitary – my partner, who is a postgraduate researcher, and I share a study, with our desks facing each other across the floor of the room.  I do have quite a few books, but very little dust.  And I am keen on cooking and even more keen on eating.

Longstanding readers of this blog will know about my notebook habit, and I do write in longhand in my notebooks.  Often this is where initial ideas – or notes jotted down from reading or visits which may morph into a piece of writing later on – are recorded.  I have a general notebook, one for business-related notes, one each for the writing projects I am currently working on or planning, and one for courses I participate in.  Since I discovered the Pentel 1.3mm propelling pencil, most of my notes are written with that as I find it gentler on the hands than a pen.

If I am making notes from books – generally when I am researching historical topics, and referencing academic books – or from online sources, I use a narrow-ruled A4 student pad.  This makes it easier for me to file my notes in a ring binder if I need them for future reference.

For the actual writing, I use my ancient laptop (I really must upgrade it sometime, as it’s getting slower and slower) which I back up regularly.  Mindful of the importance of an ergonomic workstation, I use a separate keyboard and mouse, and my chair and desk are at the right height for me.   I loathe conventional office chairs, so my chair is an early 20th-century ‘smoker’s bow’ which originated in Pembroke College, Oxford, until it was sold off when one of their buildings was re-built.  It has a pleasing patina of age and use, and is built for comfort.  And to celebrate my move to Somerset, I recently treated myself to a new desk, made from reclaimed timber by Pegasus Furniture.

Picture of a desk with laptop, keyboard, diary, pens and books.

Planning a new piece of work – and the steps involved in making it happen – is done in two stages.  The first involves a large sheet of paper, a lot of lovely coloured pens, and often my partner to act as scribe and to challenge my thinking and provide research tips.  The ensuing mind map is then transferred to Trello (my planning tool of choice) as a series of colour-coded lists.  The book I am currently writing has an introduction and 12 chapters.  Each has a Trello list, with the structure, visits, research, reading, interviews, photography etc required for each chapter listed, with notes to myself where appropriate.  I find that working with Trello helps me to keep on top of the various strands of research, and allows me to have an easy overview of what needs to be done – geographically, for example, while I am visiting Hadrian’s Wall to do research for one chapter, it makes sense on the same trip to schedule a visit to Lindisfarne for another chapter; and I see that three chapters will require expertise from the British Museum – maybe I can cover all three on one visit to London?

For each chapter, I first sketch out where I see the chapter going – what I want to include, what angle I am taking, why this chapter is in the book, who are the key people to interview and why, and insights from previous visits where relevant.  Then I do the research, do the site visits and interviews, take photographs were possible, and take lots of notes and voice recordings of my impressions.  Later, these are all collated and, once I have created a detailed structural plan of the chapter, written up into the first draft.  It’s a slow process but it allows for rigorous background research and fact checking, as well as giving me time for ideas to develop as I reflect on, and respond to, what I have experienced.

It may come as a surprise to some people that the actual writing is a relatively small part of the process.  Bear in mind that I write non-fiction, so although what I write is filtered through the lens of my own personal perspective, experience and personality, it is based on something external.  Most of what I write about involves history or place, or both, and therefore writing about it requires close reference to the place, object, event or person that is my subject, and to what is known about it.  For example, my personal reflections on the music of Benjamin Britten in a recent piece for Issue 5 of The Pilgrim are informed and enriched by studying his life and work, as well as by experiencing for myself the sights and sounds of the beach at Aldeburgh which is the setting for his opera Peter Grimes.

No two writers – not even two non-fiction writers – will approach their work in the same way, or use the same tools and technology in their writing, but this is how I work.  The process evolves, too – prior to my discovery of Trello, I used whiteboards and a lot of coloured maker pens and sticky notes.  Trello is essentially a digital version of this, which has the advantage of leaving my walls free for inspiring art!

I am committed to making this blog freely available, and not putting material behind a paywall. As a writer, I am doing what I love – but I still have to make a living. If you have enjoyed this post, and if you are able to do so, perhaps you would consider supporting my work by making a small contribution via the Buy Me A Coffee button. Thank you!

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A writer’s desk – my working environment, coffee shops and the view from the window

It has been a bit difficult to concentrate on writing blog posts recently, for reasons which I will tell you about very soon, but it’s given me the chance to think about how and where I work best.  For one thing, I have been choosing a new desk, which proved to be a surprisingly fraught process.

My current workstation is a little computer desk on the large and sunny landing with a view over the fields.  The landing also has my reading chair, a compact 1920s armchair which nobody but me finds comfortable.  I love working here – but the desk itself is just too small to spread out my books and papers – things keep falling off the edge!

Over the years, in various work contexts, I have occupied a large open-plan office (my idea of hell), my own room (nice, but a bit isolating – I tend to get engrossed and forget about meal times), shared offices (the success of this depends on whom you are sharing the office with!), and dual-purpose space (desk in guestroom or dining room).  The common factor is having my own desk.  Having recently read about various free-ranging creatives who work anywhere, as long as they have their laptop with them, I toyed with the idea of giving up on a desk altogether and being a roaming writer.  I can see a few issues with this.  Firstly, the cost.  Most of these free-ranging creatives seem to work in coffee shops.  As it’s not reasonable to expect a retailer to provide a table for hours at a time without income from the sale of coffee, this would seem to be expensive compared to using one’s own home which one is paying for already.  Secondly, the effect on my waistline – the purchase of coffee is inevitably accompanied, at least some of the time, by the purchase of cake.  Thirdly, the effect on productivity – with the best will in the world, if I have editing to do, or a complex piece to research which involves not only internet searches but reading books, this requires a level of uninterrupted concentration which is not really possible when out and about.  (Fourthly, we have the current restrictions on visiting coffee shops etc because of the pandemic, but hopefully this is a time-limited problem).

Last but not least, I like my favourite resources within easy reach of my workstation. A diary (page to a day, so that I can write my to-do lists alongside appointments and deadlines), notebooks (one for each current project – see my recent blog post about my notebook obsession), pens and pencils, a mousepad and mouse (I have never been able to get on with the integrated ones on laptops), a coaster for drinks.  I also have at least one ‘to read’ stack, of books and papers relating to whatever I am currently working on.  It could be argued that I should tidy these away on a bookshelf and bring them out when required – except I know from experience that this would ensure I never get round to reading them!  Sometimes there’s a vase of flowers, or crystals (currently a big piece of fluorite), or an interesting pebble I’ve found on the beach.

In short, my working environment isn’t particularly portable.  I’m happy to spend the occasional few hours elsewhere with my laptop, but I am most settled, and concentrate best, at my desk.  As I’m now writing full-time, therefore, it seems not unreasonable to treat myself to a good desk that does what I need it to do and is aesthetically pleasing – I have to look at it all day, after all.  Simple, you might say, just go and buy one.  Yes – but which one?

I’ve had to work out how big I need a desk to be, in order to accommodate my laptop, all the stuff mentioned above, and have space to spread out books and papers when I’m researching.  I have learned the hard way that I need to get the height right, too, in order not to damage myself in the long term.  Also, what kind of desk do I want to look at every day?  I browsed a lot of office furniture catalogues and felt uninspired – I really don’t like the corporate, nine-to-five look of most of them.  My desk may be my work space, but it’s still in my home, and it would be nice if it was pleasant to look at.  What kind of ‘look’ does the rest of my furniture have?  A lot of it is quite industrial (for example, the coffee table is made out of reclaimed timbers from Indonesian fishing boats).  Something artisan-made from reclaimed wood, then?  Eventually, I found just the thing on Etsy – made to order, to my size specifications, using scaffolding planks and industrial steel.  It is being made as I write this.

I mentioned earlier that the landing where my computer desk is situated has a view over the fields.  I have discovered that having a workplace with a view is something of a mixed blessing.  Some years ago I moved into a house and chose the larger bedroom as my office because it had stunning views across the rooftops to the hills beyond, complete with sheep (whose bleating was just audible with the window open).  It seemed a waste of the view to use that room as a bedroom.  I positioned my desk in front of the window, to get the full benefit of the view.

View from window, showing rooftops and distant grassy hills.

Reader, a week later I moved the desk.  I was getting precisely no work done.  I spent hours gazing out of the window, watching the sheep move around their fields, watching the birds in the gardens, watching the light and colours change on the hillside as the sun moved around during the day and the shifting clouds cast their shadows, watching the rain sweep through the valley, watching the flock of racing pigeons which went for a fly about at 3 o’clock every afternoon, watching the bats at dusk.  In order to get anything done at all, I had to move the desk to the side, and only allow myself gazing time when on a coffee break or having an eye rest.

Here, instead of sheep, there are a pair of muntjac deer, who graze the field and occasionally venture into the neighbour’s garden to drink from the pond; a barn owl who quarters the field on silent wings, hunting, at dusk and dawn; a kestrel who hovers, defying gravity, high above the field, occasionally dropping like a stone into the grass and emerging with whatever hapless rodent is his dinner for today; tinkling flocks of goldfinches; a pheasant, whose call reminds me of vintage car claxon, and his girlfriends; a pair of red-legged partridges, with their Egyptian eyeliner, who also visit next door’s garden; and an enormous hen buzzard who circles on thermals over the field before sliding off downwind beyond the oak trees.  It’s very distracting – but it’s a nice problem to have.

Spirit of the sea – art, music and glass

There are few sounds more magical than the sound of the sea. Whether it’s the slow, breathing cadence of the beach at Aldeburgh, with the North Sea washing the pebbles up and down the shoreline with each wave of the swell, or the thunder of the storm waves hitting the breakwater at the Cob in Lyme Regis, sending a plume of white into the air, I find the sound of the sea compelling. Sadly I am rarely successful at taking photographs of the sea – in the time it takes for my eye to see the image, by brain to send instructions to my finger to press the shutter release, and the camera to respond, the scene has moved on, and the moment is lost. Writing about the sea is hard too, with words often feeling too solid to convey something so mercurial and transient.

Paintings can be more successful at evoking the sea – I am especially admiring of Maggi Hambling’s sea paintings (there’s a video here where she speaks about ‘painting the sound of the sea’, with images from her exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge in 2010). Music can do it too, and for me the most moving examples are by Benjamin Britten (his Four Sea Interludes from the opera Peter Grimes) and his teacher Frank Bridge (his symphonic poem The Sea). Britten lived and worked in Aldeburgh, on Suffolk’s North Sea coast, and when I walk on the quiet beach there the soundrack in my head is his first sea interlude (On The Beach: Dawn).

My love of the sea is not sentimental. I was brought up on or near it, and I know all too well how its moods can change, and the destruction and death it can cause. It’s not all blue, bathing beaches and bobbing boats. The sea demands respect, and takes revenge on those who trifle with it. It’s also merciless to those who are in the wrong place at the wrong time, those who have to make their living on it and risk their lives doing so. For me, the heroes of the sea are the volunteer lifeboat crews who set to sea in the worst of conditions in order to rescue those for whom they are the last resort. Yes, the sea is beautiful, but it is also powerful and cannot be tamed by humankind.

The British coastline is shaped by that power. Breakwaters and sea defences notwithstanding, the sea has created – and continues to create – a dynamic coast. Erosion and encroachment by the sea (to stick with the North Sea examples, think of Happisburgh which is being ‘lost’ to the sea at a sometimes dramatic rate) is balanced by the creative forces of deposition (for example the giant and ever-growing shingle bank of Orford Ness).

There has been much concern, and rightly so, about the amount of plastic debris being washed up on our coastlines, and the effect of this on wildlife and the marine ecosystem. But there is something else which is regularly washed up on our beaches, which to my mind is a great example of the power of the sea at work to create something beautiful from the cast-offs of our past. I think of it as a kind of recycling, the forces of nature reworking the mundane into unintended gems. I’m talking about sea glass.

Sea glass is formed when pieces of waste glass are abraded by being tumbled in the sea for extended periods of time (sometimes decades or centuries), their sharp edges eventually ground down into a frosted smoothness and pleasing pebble shapes. I have collected sea glass for some years, and there is a vast network of collectors around the world – Instagram is a good place to see their finds.

Sea glass can be found on beaches anywhere – as with any beachcombing, the best pickings are often to be found at the first low tide after a storm, when all manner of interesting things can be washed up. Some parts of the UK coastline, however, seem to yield more glass than others – I have found a lot in the North West, and also some on beaches in North Devon and East Anglia. I hear that the North East of England is a favourite location for collectors, due to the presence of several bottle works in the 19th and 20th centuries – the largest in the country was at Seaham – which dumped their waste glass into the North Sea. I have included a few photographs from my collection, most of which I display in a large glass vase, although the best way to see sea glass and the way it plays with light and colour is to handle it. The blue pendant is a gift from my partner, who found this unusual aqua-coloured and very large piece of sea glass at Lynmouth in North Devon (other people’s partners give them gemstones. Mine gives me sea glass. I am very lucky!).

Sea glass pendant

Most sea glass is a magical pale aqua colour, but some is white, a lot is green, and other rare colours include amber, blue, orange and (most prized of all) red. As most sea glass originated as glass bottles, the abundance of any colour depends on how common the bottles were – blue, for example, started life as medicine or poison bottles, while amber bottles held spirits. Glass bottle tops are sometimes found too, as are the glass marbles which formed the stoppers of early carbonated drinks. Keen collectors have researched the origins of sea glass, which is in itself a social history and archaeology of glass. Occasionally I am lured into researching a piece – for example the reinforced glass incorporating rusting metal wire grids which occur on Crosby beach on Merseyside, which are part of the debris from buildings destroyed in WWII air raids on the city of Liverpool which was dumped there. Mostly, though, I collect it because I am enchanted by what the sea has made from our thoughtless waste. The power that destroys coastlines and wrecks ships has formed something which, in its colour and ever changing reaction to light, is a kind of echo of itself. Have nothing in your homes, said William Morris famously, that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful. Sea glass, I believe, is the most beautiful thing in my home.

I am committed to making this blog freely available, and not putting material behind a paywall. As a writer, I am doing what I love – but I still have to make a living. If you have enjoyed this post, and if you are able to do so, perhaps you would consider supporting my work by making a small contribution via the Buy Me A Coffee button. Thank you!

Buy Me a Coffee at ko-fi.com

Variety is the spice of life, or why I can’t read one book at a time

 

For years, I thought it was just me.  Everyone else I knew seemed to read a book from start to finish, and then move on to the next one.  If asked them ‘what are you reading?’ the answer would be quite simple – one title.  Students, of course, would be reading a lot of books for essays, but their leisure reading seemed always to be done one book at a time.

I have never managed this!  I have always read a lot, although the nature of what I read depends on how I am feeling and what I am doing by way of work.  The more tired and stressed I am, the less likely I am to read anything very demanding, and you know things are bad when I can only manage magazines.  Usually, though, I read books.  Plural.  It’s not that I have a grasshopper brain – I can become engrossed in things for hours, missing meals, completely losing track of time.  But when it comes to reading, I find it very hard to have only one book on the go.

‘But don’t you lose track?’ I have been asked.  I can honestly say I don’t.  Within a paragraph I’m right back in the heart of whatever I was reading.  It’s only a problem if for some reason it’s weeks or months before I return to a book, but that rarely happens.  I usually have at least two, sometimes as many as four or five ‘leisure’ books on the go at once – plus ones that I am reading for research purposes in ‘work time’.  I like to have a range of different genres, or subject matter, so that when I sit down to read I can match the book to my mood or how much concentration I can muster.   It’s such a treat to be able to make a cuppa and retreat to my reading chair on the sunny landing, or curl up on the sofa, or settle into bed, ask myself ‘which book shall I read now?’ and know I have an inviting selection to choose from.

Recently, I have found I don’t want to read fiction at all.  Even my beloved whodunits are failing to entice me – I now have three new ones by favourite authors waiting to be read, and I can’t quite bring myself to open them.  I don’t know why – I can only suppose that our current circumstances are so surreal that my brain recoils from engaging with further imaginary universes just now.

At the moment, I am reading the following books for ‘leisure’:

On the Red Hill, by Mike Parker.  An intriguing blend of place writing, memoir and queer history, this is set in the hills of mid Wales, in a landscape that’s very familiar to me.  Lyrical nonfiction with a large element of social history, I’m finding it totally beguiling (and Mike Parker has written a history of the Ordnance Survey, which I must read next – regular readers may remember my map obsession!).

Walled Gardens, by Jules Hudson.  I have coveted this beautifully illustrated and pleasingly square book for ages, and when I was having a melancholy phase recently my partner thought she would cheer me up by contacting the author and requesting a signed copy.  I was very moved – both by her loving gesture, and also by Jules Hudson taking the time and trouble to pen such thoughtful words from one writer to another.  The book is not only a guide to walled gardens in the care of the National Trust, but also an overview of garden history and a considered exploration of the social history which provides a wider context.

Ghostland: in Search of a Haunted Country, by Edward Parnell.  Nonfiction again, this is a quirky but effective weaving together of ghost story, place writing, gothic and memoir which defies categorisation.  I met Edward last year at an event at the National Centre for Writing, and on the strength of that and Ghostland I am about to start a 12-week creative nonfiction course for which he is the tutor.

Writing this post has made me think that it might perhaps be worth, every couple of months, writing about what I am currently reading, with a short review of each book.  Occasionally the books I read are a chance discovery, but the majority have been recommended by someone else, and it’s good to be able to pass it on!

 

I am committed to making this blog freely available, and not putting material behind a paywall.  As a writer, I am doing what I love – but I still have to make a living.  If you have enjoyed this post, and if you are able to do so, perhaps you would consider supporting my work by making a small contribution via the Buy Me A Coffee button.  Thank you!

Buy Me a Coffee at ko-fi.com

Noticing things differently – why creative nonfiction is like poetry

Apart from the occasional poem, most of what I write is nonfiction.  Creative nonfiction is a genre which is increasingly discussed – hard to define, but including narrative accounts, personal responses, place writing, reflection and imaginative explorations.  This is what I have written since long before I knew it had a name!

I have long thought that the two forms of writing I engage in – creative nonfiction and poetry – are two sides of the same coin.  That statement may make a bit more sense if I take you back to Wales in 1986, when I first started writing in an intentional way.

In a recent blog post I wrote about being fortunate to be part of a pilot for an A level creative writing course.  The exam board commissioned leading Welsh writers to run creative writing residentials for the students in the pilot because, as most teachers were used to delivering a traditional, Shakespeare-and-the-classics English Literature syllabus, teaching creative writing was something quite new to them.  Six of us from my school travelled with the Head of English, Liz Pugh, to Plas Tan y Bwlch (now the Snowdonia National Park Study Centre) for two days with, amongst others, Gillian Clarke.

A word here about Gillian Clarke.  Now aged 82 and something of a ‘national treasure’ in Welsh cultural life, she had at that point recently published her fourth collection, Selected Poems (although I didn’t read her work until later).  With decades of experience of teaching English and creative writing in schools and colleges, she was the perfect choice to encourage young people to explore the process of writing poetry.  From 2008-2016 she was the National Poet of Wales (the Welsh version of a Poet Laureate), and as well as her award-winning poetry she has created a fine legacy in the form of Ty Newydd, the national writing centre for Wales, which she co-founded in 1990.

Back in 1986, it’s a glorious spring day, with sunshine flooding into the big lecture room at Plas Tan y Bwlch. Huge windows offer panoramic views of the valley and the wooded hills beyond, but we aren’t paying much attention, because Gillian Clarke is speaking.  She has seated us – some 30-odd students aged 16-18 – in a large circle.  She has a basket beside her, and from this she takes a small object, about the size of an egg.  I’m going to pass this round the circle, she says.  Take as long as you like when it comes to you.  What I want you to do is notice.  What do you notice about this object?

The object passes slowly from hand to hand, as each student holds it, turns it over, gazes at it, frowns or nods in recognition, maybe runs a finger over a detail, passes it to their neighbour.  I watch them as the object makes its way to me, about two thirds of the way round the circle.  Then, it is in my hands – feather light, delicate yet curiously strong, like an eggshell.  The size of a small egg, and almost the same shape, with a hooked point at one end.  Smooth, with hollows divided by sharp, paper-thin membranes.  Notice, Gillian had said.  How should I notice?  I have looked at it.  I have turned it over and over and looked at it from all sides.  I have used touch to explore its textures and weight.  I’m not going to taste it!  But there are other senses I could use – maybe, if I hold it to my ear it will sing of the sea, like a shell?  No.  But how about smell?  Tentatively, I lift it to my nose – earthy, organic, and yet almost like stone.  I hear a soft hiss from Gillian – yesss.  I look at it one last time, and pass it to my neighbour.

Afterwards, Gillian tells us about the object – it’s a buzzard’s skull that she found on a walk, and she has written a poem about it.  But, she says, that’s not why she brought it today.  It’s just a way, she says, of getting us to notice things differently.  She mentions that one person went beyond looking and touching by listening and smelling (I squirm with embarrassment at this).  She’s delighted – this is what she was hoping we would do.  Now, she says, go away and write a poem.

As we move away, she calls me back, and we talk about the senses, and how important she thinks it is that a writer should notice differently – from a different angle, using different senses, and without what we think we know about the object getting in the way of our noticing.  She is enthusiastic, encouraging.  I take my notebook to a corner of the terrace and start to write – this is the poem.

The Buzzard’s Skull

This ritual is new, and yet
along the distance of my mind
I know that I remember.
The circle is held, spellbound;
the sacrament is passed from hand to hand:
a ceremony of initiation?

Blindfold and afraid, I hear
the holy word approach,
rhythmic, sinister,
along the chain.
The object is in my hands,
stirring a memory that
my fingers cannot grasp –
a forest or a beach?
My life,
or life that lingers in my mind,
beyond (my) memory?
My fingers’ eyes have been in the dark
so long,
they are blinded by this light,
and cannot see.

Although I never saw Gillian again after that residential, I followed her career and occasionally heard her on the radio.  I know that many writers were encouraged into writing by her, and I am always grateful to her for that hissed yesss that made me realise that I was on the right lines in how I observed the world around me, rather than just being weird.  She made me realise that I was starting to think like a writer.

And like a writer, rather than solely a poet – because the nonfiction I write is also about noticing things differently.   Poetry is about precisely that – a good poem leaves the reader thinking “wow, I never looked at it like that before” and can weave magic around the most familiar and mundane subject.  Creative nonfiction, I would suggest, has a similar role – to explore the homely as well as the exotic, looking with fresh eyes and an unexpected perspective, touching and listening and smelling and tasting, and telling the stories of people, places and objects with new voices.

Cover of Selected Poems Gillian Clarke

 

Writing about writing, and why I find it difficult

In the course of research for a recent writing commission, I have been reading a number of writers’ websites, their biogs on their publishers’ websites, and interviews with writers.  In these, they talk about their ‘practice’ (their writing process and rationale), their formative influences, and the philosophy underpinning what and how they write.  It’s been interesting, and was necessary in order to write my piece, but the experience has left me feeling more awkward than ever about something I have long struggled with.

Judging by the feedback I get, a lot of readers of this blog enjoy reading about the writing process.  But I find it so difficult to write about!  Talking this through with my partner the other day, I described it as being “a bit like asking someone to talk about why and how they breathe.  You just do it!”

OK, if you are a singer you will want to do breathing exercises, and learn techniques to manage your breathing and make it work for you so as to be as expressive as possible in your singing.  But, basically, you just do it.  And you can’t imagine life without it.  Writing has always been like that for me – I’ve just done it, and can’t imagine not doing it.  I read books and go on courses to learn new skills and techniques, but I’m not learning how to do it – I just do it.

I know I could read and write in Dutch by the age of 5, because that’s when my English-medium education started, and I was hugely frustrated by the vagaries of the language after nice, regular, phonetic Dutch.  But I know that by 7 I was writing my own books, keeping a diary, and devouring chunks of the Pocket Oxford Dictionary.  I wrote stories, poems, and lengthy pieces on natural history, accompanied by full-colour diagrams of leaves and dissected flowers.  By 8 or 9, I was torn about what I wanted to be – a private detective or a writer.

Although I excelled at English language, it was history I really loved, and which in some shape or form I’ve continued to study ever since.  I did ‘A’ level English, though, and was lucky enough to be able to do a pilot of a very progressive (for the mid 1980s) syllabus which included a large creative writing component.  My work was chosen for inclusion in a collection produced by the exam board to be used by teachers and students as an exemplar.  I got a good grade, my longstanding inability to write a decent literature essay more than compensated for by my facility with writing and practical criticism (the latter now coming in useful when writing reviews!).  But although my teacher was enthusiastic about my writing, the message from home and school was clear – you can’t make a living from writing, so do something else.  Interestingly, not one of us went on to study English at university.

Alongside academic essays and dissertations, I continued to write poetry for some years, and a series of jobs gave me opportunities to write across a range of genres: manuals, reports, press releases, newspaper articles, courses and training materials, strategy documents, and for the last decade or so, web content.  Writing was rarely in the job description, but was always a necessary aspect of the work and somehow I managed to subvert things so that it became a major part of the role.  For the last few years I have also been writing commissioned work alongside the day job, and now I’m writing full time, a mixture of commissions, blogging, and working on my first book.

I have from time to time thought about enrolling on a creative writing degree course, but for a couple of reasons I have decided not to.  Firstly, almost all syllabuses are designed for people who want to write novels.  I don’t want to write novels.  I quite like reading them, especially if they are historical or whodunits, but my mind doesn’t work that way and I can’t imagine dwelling within an imagined, parallel universe for the time it takes to research and write a novel.  It’s not that I don’t have an imagination (I do, a very vivid one, which is particularly visual), but I like to start with something factual, often historical, and maybe give a slightly different slant on it.  What story could this object tell?  How might it have felt to be in that place at that time?  Modules on plot and characterisation don’t seem very relevant to me.  The courses which aren’t about novels are generally about poetry, and whilst I do write poetry from time to time, it’s not my passion in the way that non-fiction is.

Secondly, it would mean a commitment of at least a year, full time.  I’m not sure that I can justify that at my age.  It’s not as if I don’t already have a track record of writing, and of getting commissions.  I’m not saying that I’ve got nothing to learn – there’s always more to learn – but I’m not sure that, even if I could find a course that was relevant, it would be the best use of a year of my life.

I can’t conceive of not writing.  It’s as natural for me as breathing, which is why I find it so hard to describe what I do, my ‘practice,’ and why although I’m rigorous about my structure, use of language, tone, and so on, and edit ruthlessly, I find it difficult to create literary-sounding biogs about how and why I write.  I’m interested in places, things, people – especially, but not exclusively, historical.  I always want to know why (this used to drive my family nuts when I was little!).  And then I want to use words to share what I’ve discovered.  Quite apt for the little girl who couldn’t decide whether to be a private detective or a writer!

It’s a process which is often quite solitary, but where the finished product potentially reaches many, many people, including many whom I will never meet.  In much the same way as I weave – first researching the design inspiration and the properties of the materials, then creating the design, then exploring the technical aspects of the piece, then making it – I craft the words on the page into a shape which I am happy with, and which I hope others will find stimulating, interesting or enjoyable.  Just as not everyone is going to like my tapestries, not everyone will like what I write, but as long as I’m pleasing some of the people some of the time, I’m happy!

Photograph of a woven tapestry of a seascape, entitled Lundy 1 by Lisa Tulfer

Lundy 1 by Lisa Tulfer. Woven tapestry, 3×3 inches.

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.

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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.