Category Archives: Inspiration

Back to the war

I’ve spent the last three weeks trying to immerse myself back in the First World War, getting ready to present my novel at the ‘pitch it to a literary agent’ event I’m attending next weekend. I’ve been reading (Wounded: From Battlefield to Blighty, 1914-1918 and Undertones of War, the poet Edmund Blunden’s war memoir), watching tv (like the excellent Wipers Times) and chatting to re-enactors. As we’re in the thick of remembrance season, it’s been a good time to be doing this, with plenty of documentaries on tv.

Preserved First World War trenches at Gallipoli, Turkey, Sept 2012

Preserved First World War trenches at Gallipoli, Turkey, Sept 2012

I’ve also been re-reading my WW1 novel and trying to get to the core of what it’s about. I’ve been mulling over my 60-second pitch (relatively straightforward) and trying to rewrite the first page of the first chapter – the bit the agents will read (very much not-straightforward).

I’ve worked on about four different versions – different people, different places and I’m still not happy with anything I’ve got. I’ve got an idea for something new to try tomorrow, but I’m fast running out of time.

Australian National War Memorial, Canberra, March 2011

Australian National War Memorial, Canberra, March 2011


Fieldtrips and re-enactors

Three years ago I bumped into a moderately well-known WW1 historian one afternoon in the car park at work. I mentioned that I was planning a trip to the Somme that summer and he recommended we come along to Beaumont Hammel just before 6am on 1st July where he and some historical re-enactors would be commemorating the start of the Battle of the Somme.

It sounded like a good idea. A few months later, I duly dragged my friends out of their tent in the orchard of a Chateau before dawn and we drove across the quiet French countryside to the small village of Beaumont Hammel. There my map reading skills failed utterly and I was unable to find the road we needed that led to Sunken Lane where everyone was gathering. Some time after 6am, when the battle would have been well underway, we stumbled upon an almost deserted First World War English army camp.

The only person left in camp was the cook. We had an interesting chat. I asked to feel the weight of his Lee Enfield rifle. He said he ought to check it wasn’t loaded first. Okaayyy…. The rifle was mostly made of a lump of wood and was heavy.

Having got directions, we finally made our way down the road to Sunken Lane. The wheat was tall and green, dotted with poppies. It was hot and getting hotter. A platoon of British soldiers marched past, followed shortly thereafter by a solitary German soldier on a creaking bicycle.


The experience made me think I ought to spend some time talking to historical re-enactors to get those little details right. I recently started doing some research and, as luck would have it, I found out that the Great War Society were appearing at the Tower of London this past weekend. This would give me a double whammy of First World War and medieval architecture.

I hustled over early on Saturday morning and first met up with this very helpful woman dressed as a VAD ambulance driver, the same profession as the main female character in my novel.

Re-enactor dressed as member of the  Voluntary Aid Detachement, WW1

Re-enactor dressed as member of the Voluntary Aid Detachment, WW1

The men were also out, doing manly things.

Kit inspection

Kit inspection

Kit and bell tents

Kit and bell tents

I also spent some time wandering around the Tower itself. It hasn’t changed much since the last time I was here about 10 years ago. I guess that’s what happens when you’re getting on for 1,000 years old. Change happens s l o  w   l   y. . .    .     .        .

Beautiful medieval architecture at the Tower of London, the White Tower, the oldest building in the complex is in the centre

Beautiful medieval architecture at the Tower of London, the White Tower, the oldest building in the complex is in the centre

Medieval writing desk

Medieval writing desk



Saying goodbye

On Sunday we heard the sad news that Iain Banks had died. When he announced his terminal illness in April, I’d hoped we’d have him around at least until the autumn, but it wasn’t to be.

As a sci-fi geek (and in particular a lover of his Culture novels), I enjoyed this comment he made in a blog post a couple of weeks ago.

“An ex-neighbour of ours recalled (in an otherwise entirely kind and welcome comment) me telling him, years ago, that my SF novels effectively subsidised the mainstream works. I think he’s just misremembered, as this has never been the case. Until the last few years or so, when the SF novels started to achieve something approaching parity in sales, the mainstream always out-sold the SF – on average, if my memory isn’t letting me down, by a ratio of about three or four to one. I think a lot of people have assumed that the SF was the trashy but high-selling stuff I had to churn out in order to keep a roof over my head while I wrote the important, serious, non-genre literary novels. Never been the case, and I can’t imagine that I’d have lied about this sort of thing, least of all as some sort of joke. The SF novels have always mattered deeply to me – the Culture series in particular – and while it might not be what people want to hear (academics especially), the mainstream subsidised the SF, not the other way round.”

My grandmother died on the same day as Banks. She was 88 and had been in poor health for some time, so it was not unexpected, but it was a sad day nonetheless for the family. She moved to Australia when I was about ten but I was able to visit three times over the last decade, most recently two years ago, so I was able to get to know her a little as an adult.

She had been a successful business woman when she was younger, owning two clothing boutiques whilst raising four children. She loved painting and dabbled in a wide range of craft hobbies, a predilection we certainly share! From leather-work to teddy bears to embroidery – I often received handmade gifts for birthdays and Xmas.

With my grandmother and uncle, March 2011

With my grandmother and uncle, March 2011


Unless your narcissistic tendencies are extremely well-developed, all creative types will spend a greater or lesser amount of time wondering if what they’re producing is actually any good.  With writers, there’s the tendency to compare your work to that of your favourite authors and come to the conclusion there’s no point even bothering.

I came across this quote yesterday that offers some encouragement.

“Use what talents you possess; the woods would be very silent if no birds sang there except those that sang best.”

Henry van Dyke

Bluebell wood at Coleton Fishacre, Devon, taken last month

Bluebell wood at Coleton Fishacre, Devon, taken last month

Work spaces

A couple of weeks ago I moved house again, ten miles east to another leafy South London suburb. One of the first things I did was get my writing space set up. My new room is much larger than my previous one, which means I can keep the desk far less cluttered, something I’ve come to appreciate more and more.

Essentials include my laptop, pen-pot, note pad, scented candles, mug of fresh coffee and my dusty pup. The framed picture on the right is a relatively new addition – a postcard I picked up in the V&A museum shop that says ‘This is where the magic happens’.

New desk set-up

New desk set-up

I also have two bookcases in the room that hold all my books, reference materials and printed manuscripts.

Of the two available rooms in this house I picked this one as my bedroom because of the bay window and the morning sunlight to inspire me to get up and write. In doing so I passed on having the following view of the City of London. Hopefully that will prove to be a productive decision!

Looking north towards the City

Author Mary Carroll Moore wrote recently about the importance of workspaces to writers and artists. Her blog post links to some interesting photos of the workspaces of famous writers.

Hard-earned experience

I’ve recently been enjoying the Quebec-set crime fiction novels of Canadian writer Louise Penny. I came across this interview where she talks about her writing and was particularly struck by the following paragraph. When you’re struggling to wite, it’ s almost inevitable you’ll compare youself to the bright young things who publish at an early age and draw the conclusion that you have no innate talent and nothing of value to say.

You started writing novels rather later in life, so your writing career has been relatively short. Do you ever wish you had started writing fiction right at the beginning?

You know, I tried. Every decade of my life I attempted to write a novel. But I had nothing to say. I was far too self-absorbed, and now I realize I was writing for others, so that they’d applaud me, see my genius, tell me how wonderful I am, or be jealous of my success. One of my favourite lines of poetry is from Auden’s elegy to Yeats: “Mad Ireland hurt him into poetry.” I had to be hurt into writing. To be wounded enough. Humbled enough. I had to learn compassion. Had to learn what it felt like to hate, and to forgive and to love and be loved. And to lose people close to me. Had to feel deep loneliness and sorrow. And then I could write.

Kew Gardens

I’m moving house in a couple of weeks so I thought I’d take advanatage of my short-lived proximity to Kew Botanic Gardens (just about walking distance) and get in another visit.

I’ve come here before when doing research for stories as you can experience many different landscapes (and even climates in the big glasshouses). The different planting often reminds me of places I’ve been on holiday – the hiss of the wind in a bamboo grove or the spicy scent of gum trees.

Fir tree and pinecones

Fir tree and pinecones


One of the things I love at Kew is the juxtaposition of slightly decaying Victorian ironwork with rampant jungle in the glasshouses




Magnolia blossom


The trunk could be some kind of prehistoric creature…


Japanese Zen garden