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Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Award-winning author Charlotte Betts reveals her favourite English chateau


I have just finished Charlotte Betts' latest novel, Chateau on the Lake, which is yet another gripping romance from this award-winning novelist. I first came across Charlotte because she has written several books in one of my favourite periods - the seventeenth century, but for this novel we are invited to explore the 18th century and Revolutionary France.

After the death of her parents Madeleine Moreau must travel to France to search for the relatives she has heard of, but never met. The meeting proves disastrous and she is given shelter at Chateau Mirabelle, a breathtakingly beautiful castle which is home to the aristocrat Etienne D'Aubery. Of course there is a little competition for Madeleine's affections, with the handsome Jean Luc, and plenty of dark and sinister secrets in the Chateau's past.

Charlotte Betts recreates the detail of the period painstakingly, whilst still providing a pacy and satisfying romance. The sense of the course of the French revolution with all its horrors - the guillotine, the starving peasants, the mob violence - all these are faithfully depicted, whilst never losing the forward momentum of the plot. It is a hard thing to do, to juggle romance against such gritty realism, but Charlotte Betts does it seamlessly.

I wondered, after the attractions of France, which would be Charlotte's favourite English chateau, a place in which to spend a quiet afternoon - 

Corfe Castle is one of my favourite historical sites to visit. We often holiday in Dorset and I love the way the castle is the focal point of the village. It's always been sunny when I've visited and I like to sit quietly in the sunshine and allow the tourists' voices fade away. If I close my eyes and listen to the echoes of time it's almost possible to unlock the secrets of the past. I conjure up a vision of Lady Mary Bankes who, when her husband was away, led the defence of the castle during a six week siege by the Parliamentarians. What a wonderful novel that would make! Perhaps I shall write about that one day.

National Trust


With her talk of English Civil War sieges, I might just beat her to it. (Only joking of course!)
Find out more about Charlotte Betts on her website

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Red Rose, White Rose - Joanna Hickson researches Cecily Neville

My article on Red Rose White Rose by Joanna Hickson - Queen of the Castle. is featured in the Historical Novel Society Magazine this month. You can find it here on their website if you are a member of the HNS. If you like historical fiction, why not join? 
Red Rose White Rose

For those who are not members, here's a little insight...
The article describes how Joanna Hickson's research for this densely researched novel took her on a journey to visit a number of  castles where Cecily Neville lived, in order to build a picture and soak up the atmosphere. A heavy fall of snow made two particularly difficult. She tells us that Maxstoke Castle, a place where Cecily was under house arrest later in her life, was a classic four-square medieval moated castle, ‘a small jewel as opposed to a rambling fortress.’ Joanna explained, ‘The gates are still fortified with the iron-cladding installed by Cecily Neville's brother-in-law, Humphrey, 1st Duke of Buckingham and bear his cypher.' Here is Joanna's picture of that snowy day - there was no room for it in the article.
Maxstoke Castle
The other difficult castle to visit was apparently Ludlow. Looking round these castles in the snow, she says, 'gave me a very good impression of the dangers faced by the inhabitants of a freezing, draughty castle in winter.’
Ludlow Castle
According to Joanna, ‘Fotheringhay was Cecily Neville's favourite castle. 'It is where Richard III was born and, a hundred years later, Mary Queen of Scots was beheaded – two monarchs whose tragic histories may have caused it's subsequent decline into a mere footprint in the soil of the Northamptonshire landscape.’

Fotheringhay Castle

Cecily Neville is a fascinating character, and in Red Rose, White Rose we watch her mature against the background of constant in-fighting by her male relations. If you are a fan of the Wars of the Roses period, then this is a wonderful read. By the introduction of Cuthbert, Cecily's fictional illegitimate half-brother, we get an insight from a male as well as a female perspective into the feuding Plantagenets and their bloody battles for land and stronghold. Recommended.

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Learning and Leisure - the disappearance of 'Night School'


In the old days people went to 'Night School' to learn a new skill, like a language, or carpentry, or DIY, or car maintenance, and you had to book well in advance to secure your place. That idea morphed into 'Adult Education', and that into 'Adult and Community Education', as if by adding the word 'community', whole communities would suddenly be engaged in out of hours education. For the past couple of decades I have been a teacher for adults at day and evening classes and have noticed big changes in the way adults learn and are taught. Class numbers are dwindling, and the average age is getting older. Aren't younger people interested in leaning new skills, I wondered?

The first thing you notice  if you turn up at a government-funded  leisure class is the mounds of paperwork. The increase in paperwork was first highlighted as far back as 2008 in this article  in The Guardian. On the obligatory termly feedback forms, learners ask over and over again for less paperwork, but their pleas are ignored, despite the fact this might be the only criticism they have of the class. The vast amount of paperwork is to ensure quality of teaching, an admirable aim, but remember, these are adult customers we are talking about, not children forced into a learning environment. If they don't feel the class meets their needs they can ask to choose another course, ask for a refund, or complain. Few do, as the quality of teaching is often excellent, with or without the 'peer review, mid-term survey 'etc etc.

Some of the classes are classes  earn you a qualification, for example an NVQ or similar, but according to the Adult Learning Survey figures, only 25% of the classes are of this type. The rest are leisure learning classes such as 'Holiday French', 'Watercolour Painting', 'Guitar for Beginners'. These provide a social as well as an educational function, though the coffee breaks might well now be consumed by form-filling, as the learners puzzle over whether or not they really know how to play Scarborough Fair well enough to tick it off on their list of objectives, and whether or not playing to each other counts as evidence, or whether the tutor must video it.

The amount of paperwork has meant Adult Education teachers in subjects such as the  Arts, Sport or subjects such as Yoga have given up with a system which demands they do initial assessments on people who don't want to be assessed. Adults who have come to a class to relax or because they failed in school find that their first lesson (even in Yoga) consists of an assessment of their current ability, (slightly scary) and that the whole scheme of paperwork is managed by, believe it or not - the school inspectors, Ofsted. Students are confronted by a 'what are your objectives' questionnaire, often when they are a total beginner to a subject. e.g.Q: 'Astronomy - what are your personal learning goals in this class?' A: 'Er...I would like to know more about the stars.'

The National Adult Learning Survey 2010 'has recorded a steep decline in non-formal and informal learning compared with previous NALS. Participation in formal learning is unchanged. The decline in non-formal learning coincides with the shift in public funding away from short courses in favour of longer courses leading to nationally recognised qualifications.'

At the same time, there has been a huge rise in the number of people who now head for the U3A - the University of the Third Age. The U3A runs its classes as interest groups. There is no paperwork, and the teachers are unpaid volunteers. You can join as long as you are retired or semi-retired, and in these days of the internet, lots of people are semi-retired or work part-time from home. Many of the retired people who used to  support Local Authority Adult Education classes have joined the U3A, and groups are thriving and bursting at the seams. This is for several reasons - first because the cost is so cheap to attendees - £1 or £1.50 a class, plus a nominal joining fee. Secondly, there is no paperwork to do and no exams. Thirdly, the classes (described as interest groups) are led by enthusiasts for their subject, who again are often excellent teachers, and the classes are designed to be guided by the needs of the attendees.

But the biggest rival of all to Adult Education and  the U3A is the internet. Now you can tutor yourself in just about anything on-line. A friend of mine recently learnt how to french-polish a table via an online tutorial, including setting fire to the polish. He wasn't warned not to try it at home. In one way, this method of learning is extremely empowering. The emphasis is firmly on the learner motivating him/herself, and there is something to be said for making mistakes in the privacy of your own home where no-one will see you, or grade you out of 10.

So what is lost? In all these ways of learning the inspiration of a one-to-one relationship with a teacher/mentor. I can't imagine anyone will remember their online tutor in quite the same way as they remember someone they have actually had face-to-face contact with. I remember my teachers as people first, and as teachers second. (Thank you, Mrs Wells, Mr Thurloe, Mike Robson, Chris Bostock). Enthusiasm can come over online, but it is not the same as being galvanized by the personal attention of someone who sets you on fire to learn. With the internet method of learning we have to rely on inspiring ourselves, and perhaps that is a good thing, but perhaps we will miss the real-life contact with someone who cares about our progress as an individual.


The U3A method keeps a sharing relationship open, but runs the risk of  tutors being unqualified or inexperienced in their subject. Health and Fitness courses in particular are much in demand with the older age-group, but the U3A has few members qualified enough to lead them. The Adult Education model focuses narrowly on judging quality of teaching by whether or not the forms are filled, and  not on the invisible relationship between learner and teacher. The internet appeals massively to men, conspicuously absent at most of these classes, but engaging with learning online. There is a strong appeal to them in Doing It Yourself.

As a creative writing tutor, I have seen a big shift away from learning in class to learning online. Is this an advantage or disadvantage to the learner? What do you think? Is leisure learning important? If  leisure learning classes were to disappear altogether, would anything be lost?

Friday, 6 February 2015

Page-turning fiction - can it be memorable?

I've just finished a book I've been working on for about eighteen months, and now I am catching up with my reading.
As writers we are encouraged to hook the reader by encouraging them not to pause, but to keep on turning the pages. But - one thing I have noticed is that the more tension there is in the plot, and the faster the pages are turning, the less specific detail I absorb, and the less memorable a scene actually becomes. This means that often the climax, the supposed highlight of the whole book, goes by with barely much attention from the reader.
61hiH7Mks-L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_I was recently reading The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton. I can remember with great pleasure the early scenes, the loving description of the new house where the new wife is to live and its bizarre and expensive counterpart, the miniature house. But once I am concerned about the life or death of Nella's husband I am too busy flipping the pages to sink deep into the words, and although the early part of the book was memorable for me, the latter part was much less so.
Plausibility is also an issue here, because real life is not so frenzied. The passages in my own writing where the pages are turning, are also the ones most likely to be in need of a reality check. So I recognise Ms Burton's problem. Thrillers are not renowned for being memorable because a thriller writer has this juggling act all the time - the more unlikely the plot, the more the writer must convince  the reader by supplying a slew of specifics, explanatory detail, incontrovertible data. But the same is also true of any other novel, including my own genre of historical fiction.
A good novel perhaps should allow the reader passages where the reader must slow and think, and drink in the words, but also produce enough pace to keep readers motivated to carry on. Many novels that have stayed with me are very long. This could be because the length allows depth, and a long novel can have multiple high-points, and corresponding multiple episodes of deepening, where we can take on more detail.
download (1)What do you think? And is this a balance that is easy to achieve? A book that does this perfectly, to my mind, is The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak. Page-turning, and memorable.