The Blogg52 challenge

This is my 52nd entry At the Quill tagged #Blogg52 and want to spend a little time meditating on this blog challenge and the value of blog challenges generally.

I came to Blogg52 after an invitation from Susan Casserfelt, one of the two curators (the other being Anna Hellqvist). It wasn’t a personal invitation, I think Susan sent it out to all the members of Egenutgivarna, but it came at just the right time. I was looking for something to give me a reason to blog on a regular basis, but the Blogg100 challenge that some of my friends were taking part in seemed far too demanding. Blogg100 encourages participants to post blog entries one a day for a hundred days; by contrast Blogg52 calls for one blog entry a week over a year.

I started blogging with the hashtag Blogg52 in March last year (here’s my first entry). Clearly I didn’t quite manage one blog entry every week or I’d have finished in March 2015. However, counting backward from today this is my 52nd entry.

On balance, I’ve enjoyed participating and the discipline has been very good for me. I’ve tried to follow the rules set out on Anna H’s website and have read, I think, the majority of all the entries that everyone taking part in the challenge has posted. I’ve also managed to comment on at least one – and often more than one – blog entry every week, though as I’ve been reading many of them on my mobile phone it’s often been easier to post comments on Facebook rather than on people’s blog sites.

It has to be said that I haven’t found all of the entries interesting – some have been written on subjects about which I am indifferent others have just not caught my attention – but many have been interesting and most weeks I think I have learnt things. And I’ve certainly been entertained.

I’ve also “met” some really nice people here – people whose comments on my own writing I have looked forward to receiving.

From the beginning I was aware that, as the only person blogging in English in a Swedish challenge, I was putting up a barrier between my writing and potential readers that went beyond subject matter and style. I know from personal experience in the reverse situation that, however good my receptive skills in Swedish may be, reading longer texts – especially more literary ones – requires a greater effort and I remain “tone deaf” to many of the nuances and references. I presume this is the same for Swedish speakers coming to my efforts. Yet I have been delighted to see (with the help of Google analytics and WordPress statistics) that many people have come to my blog posts over the months, even if not so many have been motivated to leave comments on the website or Facebook. (For links to the most popular entries see below the bar at the bottom of this entry.)

Of course, I greatly appreciate the comments I’ve received from everyone who’s made the effort, but especially from my more regular commentators: Kim, Eva and Pernilla.

In fact, at the very beginning, I was concerned enough at the thought that other Blogg52ers might think I was an English-language imperialist muscling in where I was not wanted that I actually asked the curators if it was okay for me to join in as an English-language blogger. I’m grateful that they were so welcoming.
#blogg52
I’ve already mentioned discipline as one of the most important values I think taking part in a blog challenge has. Even though I missed a number of weeks on a couple of different occasions throughout the year – mostly when real-life intruded – just knowing that on Wednesday I was going to try to publish a blog entry, that some people would be looking out for it and that I might disappoint them if I didn’t manage were powerful motivators.

Some days – as today – I have found myself composing the entry actually on publication day. More often, recently, I have managed to plan my entry a couple of days in advance and draft the entry beforehand. Even today’s piece I’ve actually been turning over in my mind for a couple of days now, though as I write this sentence it is 12:59.

Along with the discipline, motivation and planning, following a blog challenge has also helped me to better compose my entries.

I had an idea at the beginning that I should restrict myself to a maximum of 800 words. It was Kim who asked me, Why? And as I had no good answer I gave up that idea. Instead I find myself writing pieces that run naturally to about 1200 words – sometimes a couple of hundred more, sometimes two or three hundred less. Within this length I’m learning how to pace myself – to tell a story when I’m telling a story, or to present an idea when that’s what I have to share – so that there is a rhythm to my writing. I try to compose a good introduction, something to hook a reader’s interest. I follow it with a couple of higher and lower points along the way and a solid conclusion. I know I haven’t achieved this with every piece that I’ve written, and I know that some weeks I have been considerably more successful than others, but it’s my impression that I have become a better writer (if only of blog entries 🙂 ) as the challenge has gone on.

So where do I go from here? I see two ways forward.

First, I’m going to start looking for English language blog challenges and if possible find something which has a similar pace to Blogg52. Once a week for a year, or once a week for a quarter for example. I still don’t think I’m up to attempting a blog entry a day. Blog challenges are not so easy to find in the great Ocean of the Internet – it looks like I need to be a member of a writers’ group – but if any readers out there would like to recommend something, please do so!

Second, as I really don’t want to give up my contact with my Blogg52 friends, and as it seems as though the Blogg52 challenge is rolling on, I’m looking forward to continuing here. However I think I need to change gear somehow. Unless there are howls of protest, from next week I’m going to respond to the challenge from more than one of my websites. Specifically, I’ll keep on writing an occasional piece about writing At the Quill, but I want to introduce you to my new website of travel writing, Stops and Stories. I mentioned it in an earlier entry and it’s just about ready to go public so I hope that next week’s Blogg52 contribution will be on that website.

So, there we have it, just about 1200 words and my fifty-second Blogg52 entry. Thank you for reading.


These are the ten most popular posts At the Quill tagged #Blogg52.

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

Dr Dolittle

Sometimes when I’m stuck for a story idea, I revisit a series of books I enjoyed as a child. (Also, it seems, when I’m stuck for a blog entry.) The books are the stories of Dr Dolittle.

Dr Dolittle and horseIn several places in the books when the doctor and his “family” are killing time, someone is sure to ask the doctor for a story and he usually says that he can’t think of one, but then turns out his pockets. His pockets are full of all sorts of things that he’s picked up here and there over time and there’s always something he can tell a story about.

It’s a good technique, and you don’t have to fill your pockets with odds and ends. Just look around and let your eye light on something. If you’re at home you might look at the pictures on your walls, the things on your shelves, the furniture or animals in your room, or what you can see out of the window. If you’re out, look at the people passing by or the decorations on the buildings, adverts, snatches of conversation, smells, insects, rubbish. Ask yourself, Does thing this have a story to tell me? Why does it look this way? Who used it? Who threw it away and why? Or did they drop it – is it lost? Who is this person? Where is she going and how do I know?

I’ve even used this technique when I’ve been teaching English conversation as a hook to start people talking, telling stories about themselves or their surroundings.

Dr Dolittle, Jip the dog and Dab-Dab the duck aboard shipIf you search for Dr Dolittle on the Internet, as I’ve just done, the majority of the hits you get take you to the Eddie Murphy films from the turn of the recent century or to the 1967 film with Rex Harrison as the doctor. But Dr Dolittle is much older than that. The author, Hugh Lofting, wrote the germ of his Dr Dolittle stories in letters to his children from trenches and battlefields of the First World War. Of all the writing and pictures to come out of the First World War, surely the illustrated Dr Dolittle stories were the most unlikely.

Hugh Lofting was British but married and resident in the USA when the war broke out. In 1916 he was called up, travelled back to Britain and saw service on the Western Front in 1917 and 1918. His experiences in the trenches were, he said, by turns too horrible or too boring to put into letters home to his young family – his daughter was four years old in 1917, his son two. Besides, his children wanted stories and pictures.

Lofting looked around and his eye lit on the animals that were conscripted to fight in the war alongside the humans. Years later he wrote:

If we made the animals take the same chances we did ourselves, why did we not give them similar attention when wounded? But obviously to develop a horse-surgery as good as that of our Casualty Clearing Stations would necessitate a knowledge of horse language.

And so the idea came to him of a country doctor, disillusioned with human society, who prefers the company of animals and who learns to speak with them in order to be able to take care of them.

The letters written 1917 to 1918 became the basis for Lofting’s first novel The Story of Dr Dolittle. Or, to give it its full title, The Story of Doctor Dolittle: Being the History of His Peculiar Life at Home and Astonishing Adventures in Foreign Parts Never Before Printed.

Dr Dolittle - The End


This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

The illustrations are by Hugh Lofting and taken from the edition of The Story of Dr Dolittle “Digitized for the Microsoft Corporation by Internet Archive in 2007 from New York Public Library”. Hugh Lofting died in 1947, so his works are under copyright in Europe for another two years – but Microsoft claim the book is out of copyright in the USA as it was published in 1923. If anyone from the Estate of Hugh Lofting objects to my using these illustrations, please get in touch and I will remove them. But I hope you won’t.

Johanna

Johanna
Johanna
All the characters in a novel need to have names. Generally speaking they need to have names that readers will recognise as names and be able to pronounce. For minor characters it might be possible to get away with labels (the guard, the governor, the nurse) but for your main characters a real name is essential. As I’ve mentioned before, names are handles which allow readers – but also the writer – to get a grip on a character. They are also boxes that contain information about the character. Some of this information will derive from the name itself, but most you will add when you introduce the character and as you develop the story and give the character room to act. If you’ve done this successfully, when your character’s name comes up further on in the story your reader will associate a whole slew of information with the character which you won’t need to repeat. So choosing names for your characters – especially for your key characters – is important.

Sometimes names come very easily, sometimes it takes a long time to find them. Last week, my fellow Blogg52er Anna Hellqvist took up this issue and described how long it took her to find the name of one of her characters. I’ve had a similar problem.

In the first part of Elin’s Story I needed an extra point of view character who would be a bit older, more knowing and stand to one side of my heroine. This character offers an alternative perspective on events that otherwise come mediated through Elin. The character also provides a critical view of Elin herself. The character needs to be very close to Elin and this meant I had to make her female and put her into a very similar position, allowing her to share much of Elin’s experiences.

As I am writing an historical novel and my cast of characters includes “real” people, I already have a list of names I have to use. This is both an advantage and a bit of a straitjacket. The historical Elin travelled from Sweden to England in the company of Princess Cecilia and the names of almost all the company are in the historical record. Arriving in London the Princess and her women made an impression and are described – at least, their dresses are described – by eyewitnesses. The Princess had six women in her entourage. Elin was one, and four of the others are named, but it was the unnamed sixth that caught my eye. She would be my extra p.o.v. character.

But what to call her?

I already had an idea of her personality. I had decided she resembled the character of Becky Sharp in William Thackeray’s Vanity Fair. Becky is a subsidiary character and not a particularly attractive one, but she is very astute, very sharp (and so we see Thackeray also choosing his characters’ names with care). Many people find Becky more memorable than Vanity Fair’s principal female character, Amelia. Obviously I don’t want to create a subsidiary character that is more engaging than Elin, but Elin will not be modelled on Amelia. However I do want some of Becky’s acidity.

My first thought was to call my character Rebecca, but a bit of research showed me that this name did not become common as a Christian name until the 1600s. My novel is set in the middle of the 1500s and this character had to have been born in the 1540s. My back story for her gives her an uncertain ancestry, but not a Jewish ancestry. Rebecca was simply not possible.

Popular Swedish women’s names of the period were Kristina, Anna, Margarita, Birgitta and their variants – indeed, among the Princess’s women I already had two Kristinas, one Anna and one Brita. I could have gone for something more exotic – I considered a Polish name or a Dutch name – but eventually I decided I needed a name that was plausible and did not draw attention to itself. I settled on Johanna.

Johanna has a similar biblical quality to Rebecca but is a possible Christian name in the period, perhaps especially in Germany. It wasn’t too far removed from Anna but far enough for there not to be a confusion. (I was already trying to find a way of distinguishing the two Kristinas and didn’t want to go out of my way to create a similar problem.) Johanna it was, and she has grown into her name very nicely.

Johanna is an orphan. She was a ward of the court of King Sigismund of Poland and placed by the King as a maid in the court of his sister Katarina. This is the Princess known to Swedish history as Katarina Jagellonica. In 1562 Katarina married Johan, Duke of Finland, and took her women with her to Åbo. Following Duke Johan’s arrest and imprisonment for treason against his brother King Erik XIV in 1563, Princess Katarina was interned with him and her entourage was forcibly reduced. Some were sent home to Poland, others were “redistributed”. Johanna was added to Princess Cecilia’s court.

A first name is not enough however. At this period in Sweden almost everybody, including aristocrats, identifies themselves with their given Christian name and their patronym – their father’s name. So my heroine is Elin Ulfsdotter, her father was Ulf Henriksson and her mother was Agnes Knutsdotter. Even the Princess Cecilia might be called Cecilia Gustavsdotter after her father King Gustav Eriksson.

Although Johanna’s father was a mercenary who fought for various German princes before taking service with King Sigismund in Poland, Johanna claims he was a descendant of the Norse Earls of Orkney. This means she can also reasonably follow Scandinavian practice. She calls herself Jarlsdotter.

It is an open question whether her father was actually called Jarl or was indeed descended from the Orkney Earls. Johanna tells different stories about him, some of which don’t seem to add up. When challenged she usually turns the question back on the questioner, but sometimes she admits that she was very young when her father died. She has no memory of her mother.

Even though 16th century Swedish aristocrats commonly use their first names and patronyms, they were still very conscious of their membership of certain families. Family relationships were the social networks of the age – a source of pride, assurance, influence and aid. Princess Cecilia was very proud of her family name, Vasa. When Ulf Henriksson died leaving his wife Agnes Knutsdotter to take care of six children under the age of 18 – and four of them girls – Agnes fell back on her family connections. She was a member of the Lillie family and Ulf a member of the Bååt. It was almost certainly through these connections that Agnes was able to place Elin as a maid at the court of Princess Cecilia.

Johanna has no family connections in Sweden, she cannot call on her family for help but must live by her wits. However, she must still have a family name to be proud of and use from time to time to underline her claim to be an aristocrat.

Having been thwarted in my original plan to link Johanna’s character to Becky Sharp with the same Christian name, I decided to explore the possibility of giving her a familial connection instead. I decided that Johanna’s family name would be some variant on sharp. One modern Swedish word for sharp is vass (it can also mean reed), in Icelandic and Faroese – the two languages closest to Norn, the dialect of Orkney – I find hvass, hvassi and vassur. I decided to make Johanna a member of the Vassi family. Vassi seems just about possible as a family name (though I’ve not been able to find it anywhere). It also seems a bit made up. I think it suits Johanna.

And so, I present to you Johanna Jarlsdotter Vassi!

Johanna
Johanna

The picture of Johanna on this page started life as the 1525/1526 portrait of Sibylle von Cleve als Braut by Lucas Cranach the elder reproduced from the copy on Wikimedia.

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

Bothwell in Brussels

James Hepburn 4th Earl of Bothwell. This miniature painted in 1566
James Hepburn 4th Earl of Boswell.
It’s funny how information leaps out at you when you have been sensitised to it. Although I must have read it more than once, I’ve only just realised that the Earl of Bothwell was in Brussels in August 1565. James Hepburn, fourth Earl of Bothwell and Hereditary Admiral of the Scottish Navy is a character I want to use in the fourth book of Elin’s Story, and I’ve been looking for a way to bring him into the novel at least tangentially earlier on so his reappearance won’t be too much of a surprise.

Bothwell, in the title of one of his biographies that I have in front of me, was The Queen’s Man – the Queen being Mary Queen of Scots, whose tragic story of utter incompetence is a foil to the story of her hyper-competent cousin Queen Elizabeth of England. Although Bothwell was nominally a Protestant and Mary a Catholic their mutual interest in a Scotland independent of England overrode religious differences and Bothwell seems to have tried to support the Queen as Scotland’s best hope.

That said, in truth navigating Bothwell’s motives is tricky not least because – as with Mary herself – his biographers tend to be highly partisan. He is the villain who murders Mary’s second husband Lord Darnley, gets away with it, and then forces Mary to marry him as her third husband after having kidnapped and raped her. Alternatively, he is her loyal man of action who rescues her from her loveless marriage and finally sweeps her off her feet.

Neither story ends well, of course. Mary loses Scotland, lives for years under house arrest in England and is eventually beheaded in 1587. Bothwell, fleeing Scotland by sea, washes up in Norway where his first wife (yes, really!) accuses him of adultery among other things and has him incarcerated. Moved to Copenhagen, he eventually dies in the dungeons of Dragshölm, probably insane, in 1578.

The fourth book of the Elin’s Story series is going to be partly a tale of spying and mistrust. It’s set in the middle of the 1570s and one feature of it will be a plot to spring the Earl from prison in Copenhagen in order to have him lead a Scottish army into England to liberate Mary. I want my heroine to have met the Earl beforehand. In August 1565 Elin was a 15-year-old maid in the service of Princess Cecilia Vasa who had just reached Emden in the north east corner of the Netherlands and was staying there as she waited for a formal invitation to visit England.

Fortunately, very little is known about the Earl of Bothwell’s movements in August, beyond the fact that he visited Brussels for a meeting and presumably took a boat from somewhere on the coast of the North Sea, because he made landfall in Scotland on the 17th September 1565. So, plenty of scope to bring him north to Emden.

Meanwhile, the Princess Cecilia and her “family” – as the party are called in the records – were enjoying the hospitality of the Lady of Emden, Katarina Vasa, married to Count Edzard II of East Friesland. That must have been awkward at times. Cecilia and Edzard’s brother Johan had had an affair in Vadstena soon after Katarina and Edzard married and Johan had been caught with his pants down. Literally. He was severely beaten and very possibly castrated by Cecilia’s brother Erik, now (in 1565) King of Sweden. (All this went down in Swedish history as Vadstenabullret – which I think is best translated as “the Vadstena Brouhaha”.)

Of course East Friesland was pretty solidly Protestant – in fact Calvinist – at this time, and unlikely to be an easy place for Bothwell to drum up support for his cause. Also Princess Cecilia was in 1565 still infatuated with Queen Elizabeth and all things English and so not likely to be interested in entertaining Bothwell’s ambitions. On the other hand Cecilia certainly had an eye for handsome men and Bothwell must have had a magnetic personality to go with his good looks. In less than a year, Cecilia had swung around to hatred of England and the English and later in life even converted to Catholicism for political reasons. Could Bothwell have planted a seed? Conviction could be fluid in the 1500s. (As indeed today.)

But I don’t have to take Bothwell all the way to Emden. The capital of the Spanish Netherlands – the political unit that included the modern Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg in 1565 – was Antwerp and I know that the Princess and her family, with Elin as one member, passed through Antwerp on their way to Calais at the end of August. They were five days Antwerp, so here is another place where their paths might have crossed with Bothwell’s.

All this research. What a lot of fun! But wouldn’t it be better to get on with the bloody story?


The original of the illustration, a miniature painting on a copper medallion, is held by the National Galleries of Scotland in Edinburgh. This jpeg is taken from the collection at the Google Art Project here.

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

Writing Historical Fiction

A review of the book Writing Historical Fiction: A Writers’ and Artists’ Companion
by Celia Brayfield and Duncan Sprott
published by Bloomsbury


My copy of Writing Historical Fiction
My copy of Writing Historical Fiction
During February, I have been reading Writing Historical Fiction with interest and pleasure. Although it is more of a book for dipping into than for reading from cover to cover, it does repay reading all the way through. However I think most readers will find, as I did, that some parts seem more relevant and useful than others.

The book is written to inform, to encourage and as a handbook for potential and practising writers of historical fiction and is structured in three parts. The first “Historical fiction”, presents the authors’ perspectives on their subject and a potted history of historical fiction. The second part, “Tips and tales”, is a collection of short essays or extracts by a selection of authors of historical fiction reflecting on the subject or on their own writing. The final part, “Write on” is a combination of practical tips, exercises and encouragement for writing as well as a compendium of possible sources for historical background and detail. Celia Brayfield and Duncan Sprott are both themselves authors of historical fiction, and in the first part of the book they each present some personal reflections on their subject – what it means to them, how they regard historical fiction.

There is a sense in which all fiction (with the possible exception of science fiction) is historical, that you cannot not write historical fiction. The argument goes: even when you set out to write about your present-day, as soon as you have written it down it is already in the past. Even science fiction is frequently a commentary – conscious or not – on the author’s present day, which is why many works of cutting-edge SF can feel remarkable dated when read a generation later.

“Historical fiction” is a genre, and genre is a product of the market place and the expectations of readers rather than anything that has to do with the core of creative writing. Some authors are comfortable writing in a genre, others are offended to be categorised as “genre writers”. There is a certain chip-on-the-shoulder quality about authors who find it important to establish the breadth, ancient pedigree and/or superiority of their genre. Brayfield and Sprott tackle this issue well, even entertainingly, but I still detect a faint whining sound when I read the section “On being not quite proper” (pp16-18).

To be fair, there is a prejudice against “historical fiction”, so if the authors did not confront it they would open themselves to charges of ignoring the elephant in the room. They take the perspective that historical fiction is as old as story-telling itself and present an outline history of historical fiction that starts with Gilgamesh and Homer and reaches to the very near present.

The middle of the book is given over to “guest contributions” by twenty-eight practising writers from Margaret Attwood and Tracy Chevalier via Philippa Gregory and Hillary Mantel to Rose Tremain and Louisa Young. (And despite the gender range of those examples, ten of the twenty-eight are men.) Each guest is given a page or two to present a few thoughts about historical fiction, meditate on their own process of authorship, or offer tips and encouragement to would-be authors.

I imagine readers will be drawn to the authors whose work they already know, and as most of these pieces seem to have been written specially for this volume they may find something new. Reading them all one after the other, though, I was struck by the amount of repetition. For example, three or four cannot resist referencing LP Hartley’s famous opening to The Go-Between, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” (I’ve done this myself.) To be fair, the writers don’t all take the sentence at face value, but seeing it come up again and again made me realise how much of a cliché it has become. Unless I can riff a new slant on it I resolve not to use it any more.

Another observation about the guest authors section: all but two are from the English speaking world. The two exceptions are Orhan Pamuk and Valerio Massimo Manfredi. All the rest are British (most of them), Irish (2), Canadian (1), American (4) or Australian (1). This betrays a tendency in the book. Although Brayfield and Sprott do try to be inclusive, they are writing in the first case for a British audience.

The book’s bias to its anticipated audience is particularly noticeable in the final part, “Write on”, in the compendium sections. Here the authors make an effort to present sources for historical research. They do include some pointers for New Zealand, Australia, Canada, the USA and Ireland, but the bulk of their suggestions focus on Britain. I count only six out of a couple of hundred references made to sources in other languages than English. I don’t want to beat them up about this. The book does not set out to be comprehensive and it could be a guide to people working with sources in another country, in the sense that it gives a framework of the sources one might find in Britain as an example. One could reasonably attempt to carry it over to a foreign context.

It would also be fair to say that non-British authors who are researching an historical novel set in Britain will find the suggestions valuable.

More generally useful, though, are Duncan Sprott’s sections in the final part (Planning, Beginning, Drafting and Troubleshooting) and Celia Brayfield’s writing exercises in historical fiction. In particular, Brayfield’s suggestions for finding historical voices, settings, objects and seeing the “street view” are excellent and I can definitely see myself using them. The suggestions for working with classes of would-be authors are more aimed at established writers who have the opportunity to run courses for others. As a former teacher I can see how these would also be useful, though they are not for me at present.

Apart from the exercises, the part of the book I most expect to be revisiting is the section of Celia Brayfield’s “Reflections” sub-titled “Heroine addiction: women as protagonists in historical fiction”. My own novel-in-progress has a woman protagonist and a largely female cast, so I find several of her observations valuable and thought-provoking. In this section’s conclusion (p57) she writes “the consensual image of a prominent female figure will almost certainly be at odds with the historical record, and also with contemporary expectations of a woman” (emphasis added). Overcoming those parallel barriers successfully would be a great trick to pull off.

In conclusion, Writing Historical Fiction is a book with a lot to recommend it. It will be most useful and interesting for wannabe authors of historical fiction in Britain and the English speaking world, but has information, advice and encouragement for many people beyond this (after all) not so very narrow audience. I’m happy to have bought it and read it and will certainly keep it handy on my bookshelf so I can dip into it again.


This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

Also published on Good Reads.

Talking aloud

Elin's Outline
Scrivener pinboard outline of the first part of Elin’s Story.
Once upon a time I started studying for a PhD. I never completed it because I couldn’t finance myself. (That’s one reason. Life is complicated; there were other reasons, but let that one suffice.) The PhD was supposed to focus on a form of school education called Content and Language Integrated Learning and drew on my experiences and research I carried out in the classroom. Part of the preparation for the PhD involved studying aspects of qualitative research and trying out techniques. One technique which my tutor was keen for me to experiment with was called “vocalised internal monologuing” or “intra-personal communication” – basically, talking aloud to yourself.

Apparently, in an effort to find out what people are thinking when they are doing things some researchers have wired up their subjects and got them to talk aloud. The assumption is that recording what the subject says gives an insight into the subject’s semiconscious or even subconscious choices. I don’t want to reject this technique out of hand – I can even imagine that it might work successfully with people who are able to express themselves at the same time as they are physically doing something that does not require thought – something repetitive. I could certainly see myself talking aloud about what I’m doing whilst washing the dishes for example. In my case, though, my tutor was asking me to talk aloud about the process of writing and analysing written documents while I was actually writing and analysing. It just didn’t work.

It’s hard enough, I find, to dictate into word recognition software (as I’m doing the moment) simply creating a text. If I have to create a text at the keyboard while at the same time talking about what I’m doing, the two processes conflict to such a degree that nothing gets done. For me at least, the creative act of writing and the act of reflecting on the creative act of writing must happen one after the other and not concurrently.

I started thinking about this now because I wanted to say something about my creative process, but putting on the microphone-headphones and starting up DragonDictate tripped me back 14 years into my memories of working on the PhD.

To get back to what I meant to write about when I started…

After expressing my wish last week for a more settled life that might allow me to focus on my writing, I decided to try and do something about it. On weekdays now I am setting myself the task of writing in 45 minute blocks throughout the morning from about 9.30 until about 1 o’clock. I don’t know whether I’ll be able to keep this up – the everyday does still intrude – but at least I can make the effort. The 45 minute rule is intended to keep me from sitting for hours in front of the computer. I’m using the timer in my telephone and when the alarm rings I get up, stretch, walk around, go and make myself a cup of tea. As I have a desk which I can raise or lower, when I come back I make sure I change from sitting to standing or vice versa.

Under the new regime I have created a document in Scrivener for the whole of Elin’s Story, all of the four (or it may be eight) books I’m currently planning. I have written a description of the whole story as a very abbreviated summary, and I’ve started breaking the summary down into chapters.

I’ve lived with this story for getting on for six years now, so I have a lot of it in outline either in my head or in various electronic documents and physical notebooks. The summary is not by any means complete. I fully intend to add to – and probably subtract from – what I have written now, but it feels good to have created this outline structure and to have at least an idea of where I’m going. The full summary is about 3500 words long and the projected novel (all the books together) is 480,000 words, so I have a way to go yet.

My next task is to build up my cast of characters and assign them to different chapters in the first part of the first book so that I know when I am introducing them and can focus on bringing them in appropriately. To help me I am creating family trees, character sets and timelines using Scapple, software that was recommended by my fellow Blogg 52er Lars Billbäck. (Thanks Lars!)

I brought a mass of material with me on memory sticks (I have used two or three different computers to write Elin’s Story over the last five years) and I find that I’m also going out on the Internet to track down other information so I’m not sure how fast the story will advance, but I’ve got things to keep me busy at least. And that takes me to the end of my second 45 minute session dictating this blog entry so I’ll close now and promise to keep you posted on future developments.


The illustration is a screen-capture image from my desktop.

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

The Habits of Successful Authors

Thinking about writing
Thinking about writing.
I did not make a resolution, but I was rather hoping that this year I would be writing frequent blog entries At the Quill – and at least one a week for the #Blogg52 challenge — but I haven’t managed it. The ordinary, the everyday (which has not been either ordinary or everyday as we moved to Brussels on 5th January) has intruded and distracted and I’ve barely managed to keep up appearances on the social networks.

A few days ago, out of the blue, I received a mail offering me a ready-written blog article. For just a moment there I thought: Here’s someone who’s been reading me and is fed up of waiting for the next blog entry so they’ve written one for me! Not a bit of it, of course, but I was taken in for a moment. The blog article purported to be an info-graphic. The person offering it — let’s call him Steve — said he had just produced it and he thought it might suit my blog. Of course what he was really after was for me to accept his article without looking too carefully at it and not spotting that it was designed to take readers away from my blog to the article’s home website. I went and looked and found the home website was offering writing services (at a price) for bloggers and school students.

As a teacher (former teacher) I have no interest in promoting websites that help students cheat. And as a blogger — albeit an irregular and sometimes reluctant one — who writes about the process of writing, I really have little interest in publishing other people’s work. So, thank you for the offer Steve, but no thank you.

Of course, I read through Steve’s info-graphic — I’m nosey as well.

I wasn’t overly impressed. First of all because Steve hadn’t really managed very well. True there were six or seven images, but then several paragraphs of text. In my book an info-graphic ought to manage to compress all its information into graphical form, otherwise it’s just an illustration.

Secondly, I’m afraid Steve did not quite come up to my standards of literacy. (Modest cough.) Not to say he was illiterate, no, but there were misused prepositions, odd combinations of pronouns, some dodgy punctuation and I wasn’t terribly impressed by the logic of some of his sentences. Now, these are all the sort of slips I might make myself (hopefully not all of them in the same article) but then they’re my slips. I would either catch them before publishing, or publish and then spot them — or get called out by a reader — and hang my head in shame before correcting them and hoping no one (else) had seen them. Why would I be interested in publishing Steve’s uncorrected drafts?

As for the subject: The Habits of Successful Authors. Hrmmph.

Steve had gutted a book and a couple of Internet articles for authors’ writing habits, collected a bunch of author photographs and then composed a dubious analysis. Some of his authors started writing early in the morning, others late in the afternoon. Some wrote stone cold sober, others wrote under the influence of various forms of narcotics from the mild — tea, coffee and cigarettes — to the less so — alcohol, hash, opium and so forth. Some had to write in the presence of certain smells (Schiller), others (Victor Hugo) wrote naked. There wasn’t anything particularly new to me in the list (except for that about Schiller and his rotten apples) and after reading I wasn’t anywhere closer to an understanding of what Steve meant by “success”.

Is success as an author defined by the ability to produce texts? Or is it defined by the ability to get published? Or the ability to attract and hold an audience? I would say all three, but an author’s writing habits are only able to ensure success in the first of these.

Beyond this, the paragraphs of text that followed the pictures basically backtracked on every recommendation they made and ended up saying nothing much at all: Getting up early worked for A, B and C, but starting late worked for X, Y and Z. Writing drunk worked for D and E, but V and W only wrote sober.

The truth is, “the habits of successful authors” are the writing habits that the authors themselves found worked for them personally. That doesn’t mean they’re going to work for anyone else. Of course you can try out different strategies in the search for what works for you, but setting out to copy other people’s strategies because you believe that therein lies the secret of success could also be a distraction from finding how to write yourself.

(Another way to avoid actually learning how to write yourself, Steve, is to borrow — or buy — someone else’s work to present as your own. Just saying.)

What habits work for me? I know from experience that what I need is a regular schedule. I have to get into the habit of sitting down in front of the computer at a fixed time daily and writing – either producing a minimum number of words or staying at the keyboard for a specific period. Once I’ve established my rhythm and can carry on doing it, day in, day out, the occasional short interruption is not a problem. Longer breaks are. Getting started in the first place (and getting started again after a longer interruption) is really difficult.

All my plans for writing success once we moved to Belgium were predicated on being quickly able to get into a regular writing rhythm. I just haven’t been able to do that yet. The mundane, the quotidian, keeps intruding.

I keep trying though.


The medieval woodcut that illustrates this article comes from the collection at ClipArt Etc. I am happy to thank and acknowledge them.

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.