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Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Writers in the 17th century were obsessed by character

A jobbing writer in the 17th century, just like me, was obsessed by characters. This is because the News Sheets of the day from London were dull and factual, designed to inform rather than entertain.
The Weekly News and the London Courant were the first papers (1622),  followed by the London Gazette in 1663. But none of these papers ran what we would call today "human interest" stories.

So a new wave of character writing sprang up to give the public what we would call entertainment, or tabloid stories. Wycherley the playwright lists the common targets of this new breed of writer:

"lying jests against the common lawyer; handsome conceits against the fine courtier,delicate quirks against the rich cuckold and citizen."

Also popular subjects were ridiculing the fads and fashions of the day, as in this pamphlet about ridiculous fashions, The World Turned Upside Down.In order to get material, the seventeenth century writer
"frequents clubs and coffeee houses, the markets of news, where he engrosses all he can light upon: and if that not prove sufficient, he is forced to add a lie or two of his own making.." (Samuel Butler)

So, not so different from tabloid journalists of today then. The writer of the 17th century  was mostly printed in pamphlets and chapbooks, pocket sized thin booklets that could be easily carried for sale on the street. On the left you can see a peddlar with a tray of books and chapbooks. The upright citizen's greatest fear was that he would feature in one of these and his reputation be ruined, a fact I exploited in my book The Gilded Lily.I used some of the larger than life characters in my book too - the avaricious pawnbroker, and the swaggering rake, as described by Rochester:
Room, room for a Blade of the town,
That takes delight in roaring,
Who all day long rambles up and down,
And at night in the streets lies snoring.

That for the noble name of Spark
Does his companions rally,
Commits an outrage in the dark,
Then slinks into an alley.

Apart from characters, the sensational and unbelievable made easy subjects, often with lurid woodcut illustrations. See below for The Mowing Devil and  The Womanish Man.

Today pamphlets and chapbooks are popular for poetry, but there is a whole range of possibilities inherent in this  medium, for a few ideas about chapbooks today, visit - The Book Designer
For more in depth  information on 17th century pamphleteering I recommend The Function of the New Media in the 17th Century

Thanks to The Newberry, Chicago
Bodleian Library Collection article

Monday, 26 March 2012

Nutmeg - a perfect little novel

I received Maria Goodin's debut novel via the Amazon Vine programme, having heard it was already set to be translated into four languages even before publication. Published by Legend Press - a small independent publisher, I can quite see why.

I was totally enchanted by this novel which is at once funny, moving and thought-provoking.

The story hinges around the relationship between Meg and her eccentric mother, who is terminally ill. The book is a sensory delight as Meg's mother is obsessed with cooking. What's more she has never told Meg the truth about her childhood but has told her stories that fictionalise Meg's life. Meg's memories are made from her mother's stories. Most of the stories involve food - the tastes and smells of pastry and cakes, herbs and spices. Rebelling against this fictional life, Meg takes refuge in science and cold hard facts. But cold hard facts cannot tell the truth as well as fiction can, and it is this that makes the book so engrossing.

Meg's mother is endearing precisely because of her story-telling and eccentricity, something which Meg's boyfriend, the rational Mark, sees as lies and mental illness. Mark is determined to cling to his own myth of scientific sanity, and his attempts to do so mean he rides rough shod over others sensibilities. When Meg eventually finds out the truth about her childhood, she is left wondering whether the memories her mother invented for her gave her a better start in life than the truth.

The divide between fact and fiction is a slippery one, and one which Maria Goodin exploits brilliantly. So much so, that at the end of the book when Meg's mother's funeral arrives you are left wondering how much of Meg's portrayal of it is real and how much of Meg's story was "True".

Tender, funny and poignant, this has definitely been the highlight of my reading year so far, and one I shall be recommending to all my friends.

Check out Legend Press's website for an extract, or to buy a copy.

Friday, 23 March 2012

My New Book Resolutions

I've just finished book number three, eighteen months of research, and 150,000 words later and it is finally done and off to my editor.  It always amazes me that what takes so long for me to write can be devoured so quickly by a reader. And isn't it sod's law that the moment the book has gone off, I suddenly remember lots of little errors I should have corrected.

And it hardly seems a minute since it was last September and I was on my research trip to Seville, to try to fill in the gaps in my research and geography  that could only be done actually in Spain. The tapas and warm breezes seem a long time ago now after months of writing at the computer.
Outside the Museum in Seville, bag contains camera and notebook!
The last few months I have thought of little else but the novel, and as soon as I had finished it I succumbed to the dreaded flu virus. So instead of all the enjoyable things I'd planned to do, like enjoy coffee with friends again and spend more time out side in the garden I've had six days in bed with the lemsip and too many hankies.

But it has allowed me to stop and think about the pressures on us as writers and to re-assess my priorities before I begin another novel. It also allowed me to read - and in doing that enjoy the creations of other writers. Somehow when I'm in the middle of a novel I don't make enough time for just reading.

The beautiful Alcazar, Seville
So here are my 'new book' resolutions, which will hopefully prevent me from taking to my bed when the next one is done.

i. Walk more. I live in a beautiful part of the world, but spend far too much time in front of a screen. To do this, I'll need to be organised, so that I waste less time on inessential computer tasks.

ii Rationalise my on-line social networking. When I first became a writer I joined every site that would have me, thinking that all publicity is good, right? But now I realise I can't possibly do it all if I want to have a life that isn't solely virtual. Although I have made some lovely contacts online, much social networking seems to be intensely competitive and motivated by the fear that if you don't do it your book will fail. But like most of us, I don't want to be under constant pressure, and from now on will only do social networking I think I can genuinely enjoy.And I hunger after the real - in life, in my fiction, and in my relationships with people.

iii. I miss my paintbrush now I'm no longer involved in scenography, so I thought I might join an art group. Getting out and about is essential if I'm not to turn into an unsociable hunched-over old lady who can only talk about her latest book.

iv. The writing is my greatest pleasure so I'm going to move my timetable to give me my optimum writing time (for me 9am - 1pm), and write my first draft quicker. I used to think eighteen months was a long time, but it goes so fast!  I've realised I need much longer for the editing than I do for the drafting, so I'll aim to get all the research and a first draft done in nine months which will give me much more editing time. I love the editing, a chance to make it shine whilst knowing you do actually have a book in front of you.

v.Try to make the next book shorter! This morning Past Times Books (see logo on the right) let me know that they are now going to stock novellas of over 17,500 words. If only! I think I'm probably onto a loser with this one. I could write two short novels instead of one long one, I muse. Trouble is, I rather like the feel of a good meaty historical novel. And I really enjoyed Labyrinth and Pillars of the Earth and Wolf Hall, and had no trouble making it to the end. If the story grips you, then it grips you and I for one am quite happy with a big thick brick of a book.

vi. Eat a proper meal at least once a day without trying to read research papers or books at the same time.
Below you can see some of the books I used for my research during the last year. Most of them have the odd toast crumb or biscuit crumb between the pages as well as my markers. Though I have to say, I do look after my books!

As for my resolutions, I seem to remember making the same ones after I'd finished The Gilded Lily about eighteen months ago, so I'll see if I do better this time round.

What are your resolutions when you start a new project? And do you stick to them?

Which reminds me, it looks like lunch time. Off to make a healthy meal of pea and courgette soup.

Thursday, 22 March 2012

The Apothecary's Daughter

The Apothecary's Daughter delights the senses.

I love the design of this book, which makes a change from headless women or vast expanses of flowing skirt. It is nicely designed inside too, with well-chosen period typography for the title pages and a good clear readable font.

You would not think London in the time of the plague would be good material for a romantic novel, but Charlotte Betts pulls it off superbly. The book tells the tale of Susannah, who, after the re-marriage of her father to the shallow and demanding Arabella, is forced to leave her erstwhile home to find marriage herself. As in all romances, the path of true love does not run smoothly, and in Charlotte Betts's novel, there are obstacles aplenty - not least her new husband, Henry Savage, who turns out to have quite a few secrets Susannah doesn't know about. The novel does not shirk from portraying the harsher realities of everyday life in the 17th century - slavery, the non-participation of women in society, and these aspects add depth to the story.

Unlike many other sketchily researched romances, this one really deserves the title "historical romance" as both aspects are in perfect balance.Vivid and engaging, the research is thoroughly done and succeeds in giving us an insight into this neglected period of English history, with all the smells of the apothecary's trade, the sage, the turpentine, the juniper. If you are looking for a cracking good story, and to be transported to another age, you really can't beat this.