Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Jean Armour's Cookery Book: Robert Burns's Plain Tastes and a Hair Thickener to Remember.


Among Jean Armour's possessions, was a cookery book: the Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, by Hannah Glasse, first published in London in 1747. We don't know how much Jean used this book, although I think we might safely assume that it was a gift from her husband, who was in the habit of buying books, especially second hand books, and might have picked this one up for her alongside his own treasured volumes.

We do know that Robert Burns had plain tastes. He preferred simple meals, simply cooked, and wasn't even very keen on puddings and pies. This could be deduced from his poem in praise of the haggis, in which he scorns complicated French cooking, but his wife herself tells us that he didn't like fancy stuff. Not for him the eighteenth century equivalent of the Burns Supper trifle in the shape of custards and syllabubs. Nevertheless, Jean - who had learned how to make sweet milk cheese, and who was a well brought up lass - may have been more interested in the art of cookery than her husband. I find myself wondering if she thumbed through her copy and occasionally experimented.

When I was researching The Jewel, my new novel about Jean, I bought a facsimile copy of Hannah Glasse. I've always been fascinated by old cookery books, ever since I came across an antiquarian book of recipes lurking somewhere on the stacks in Edinburgh University Library, back when I was a Mediaeval Studies student there. It struck me even then that it would be possible to try out some of the recipes, that the history of cooking might be an interesting field of study, more interesting than the Middle English with which I was wrestling.  But this was the 1970s, and I was way ahead of my time. I filed it away in my head, intending to come back and look at it later. Of course I never did, but it's something I've always regretted.

But back to Hannah Glasse. Among the many and varied recipes showing the housewife how to boil tongues and pigeons, how to roast tripe and how to make Scotch Barley Broth (I assume Rab wasn't averse to that one!) there are a great many enticing recipes for sweet puddings, including 'cherrie pies', custards, 'mackaroons' and little plum cakes and fine cheese cakes all of which sound delicious.
There are specimen menus, recipes for cider and other alcoholic beverages, but also for stewed calves' feet and eel soup for Lenten fare. (Not quite so delicious.)

One interesting recipe caught my eye:
 'An approved method, practised by Mrs Dukely, the Queen's Tyre-Woman (I assume this refers to the queen's attire) to preserve Hair and make it grow thick.
Take one quart of white wine, put in one handful of rosemary flowers, half a pound of honey. Distill them together, then add a quarter of a pint of oil of sweet almonds, shake it very well together, put a little of it into a cup, warm it blood warm, rub it well on your head and comb it dry.'

All of which sounds pretty good to me, apart from a certain stickiness in the application. But there is no mention at all of washing it out. I suppose the hair would be nice and shiny and pretty thick, but the risk of attracting bees and wasps in season would probably outweigh the benefits of all that rosemary and sweet almond oil ...

Who among my readers is going to give it a try? I must admit, it does remind me, faintly, of those noxious mixtures I used to make when I was a child and try out on my patiently loving grandad. Just don't blame me if it takes you hours to get the oily stickiness out of your hair! It'll be all Hannah Glasse's fault. Or Mrs Dukely's.

Meanwhile, watch this space for more news of the Jewel, which is due to be published on 1st May this year.


Friday, January 01, 2016

Vodafone Mega Fail

Wot, no Vodafone?

I've been thinking about nominations for the company offering us the very worst customer service of 2015, but it's no contest, really.  Saga were in the running when they tried to double the cost of our house insurance. When I phoned to query this, the pleasant woman at the other end took off a few benefits only to find, somewhat to her surprise as well as mine, that it had actually gone up in price. But when I found a much better deal from LV, they suddenly became penitent and asked plaintively if there was anything they could do to retain my custom. (No.)

BT almost got a nomination when our landline went on the blink, because they make it so damn difficult to contact them on the phone. But then they redeemed themselves by sending out an experienced engineer who fixed the problem with cheerful efficiency.

So there's only one serious contender. I've been pondering designs for the trophy: perhaps a broken mobile phone mast with a customer impaled on top of it.

Vodafone. You take the biscuit.

Here in this picturesque village where I live and write, we have been without a Vodafone signal since 6th December. Nothing, zero, zilch, nada. And no help whatsoever from the 'customer service' department.

Most of us here are with Vodafone because they promised the only real coverage, and for some years, that is exactly what they delivered. To be clear about this, we don't live amid remote highland hills. We don't live on an island.  In fact one inhabitant has just reported that she can get a good signal on holiday in Orkney, but not here. We live in a village some eight miles south of the county town, and with a great many towns and villages round about: in other words, this is a populous place.

On 6th December, our signal disappeared. The weather hadn't been any worse than average: a bit wet, a bit windy, but hardly hurricane level. One by one, we called the company, went through the usual hellish rigmarole of trying to speak to a human being (the human beings when we did speak to them were generally pleasant, so for most of us that isn't the issue) - and then the weeks of sheer flannel began.

We were told, variously, that there was scheduled mast maintenance/there was nothing obviously wrong/there was an unknown issue/there was an unexplained fault and it would be fixed in three days/six days/sometime/never.

We were directed to the website to check the signal. We were told there were no issues. We were told they had no updates. We were told not to worry. We were told maybe there were issues. Again they were investigating. We were told they were sorry. (But obviously not very and not half as sorry as their customers.) We were told to go to websites and go through procedures designed for individuals rather than whole communities. We were told to waste time on forums when we had already phoned them six, seven, eight times and more.

Now we're not unreasonable. If Vodafone had got their act together, told us that there would be a delay and it would be fixed by a particular date, we wouldn't have been quite so furious. Instead everyone has been told something different. This is a village. We speak to each other. We know that we are being fobbed off endlessly, lied to and generally treated like mushrooms rather than valued customers.

Kept in the dark and fed a whole heap of shit.

It is now 1st January 2016 and we still have no signal. Some people here only have a mobile with no landline, so they really are in the shit. There are people on call who can't stray more than a few feet from their houses.

I have lost count of the number of times I have now phoned, tweeted and messaged Vodafone - all with no satisfaction at all. I can't even access my account online. I need to set up a new password, but whenever I try to do this, they have to send a code number to my mobile phone. You know. The one that doesn't work, here in the village.

I have now resorted to contacting my MP, who says she is investigating, because this affects so many of her constituents. It has also been reported to Ofcom. Next, it will be local and regional press, local and regional radio. And Trading Standards. And Watchdog. And anyone else we can think of.

The really ironic thing about all this is that Vodafone laughingly claims to be a telecommunications company. They must be breaking some advertising standard, since nothing we have experienced since 6th December could ever be described as 'communication' by any normal definition of that term. Miscommunication perhaps. And certainly not any kind of customer service. Customer irritation, yes. Customer trust abuse. Customer deception.

A couple of days ago, I gave them another call. Same old rigmarole, but this time, because their lines were busy (When did you ever phone any telephone company and not be told that all their lines are busy?) they put me through another piece of idiocy and told me that if I recited my landline number and my name they would call me back within six minutes. So I did. And sure enough, an automated voice called me up and said that I was in a 'top priority' queue. And then, my friends, the line went as dead as bloody Marley's ghost.

Vodafone - you are behaving like a bunch of shysters. And if you treat your private customers like this, God help your business customers. Tim Peake can phone his family from space. I can't even phone my family from this village.

So what about accolades for good customer service? Well, there have been a few.  A company called Caledonia Water was contracted to undertake a massive and potentially disruptive piece of work in this village early last year: the installation of a new water main. My husband has mobility problems and an advisory parking space outside the house. The guys worked cheerfully through hideous weather, coped with all the serious problems inherent in dealing with old systems in a very old conservation village - and throughout the weeks of work obligingly made sure that Alan never needed to have to walk very far to get to the house. They all deserve medals for genuine, all round, excellent customer service.

Also Amazon. Bezos could teach Vodafone a thing or two about customer service. Not least the way, when you have a problem, you can click on a little button online and somebody will call you back immediately. But of course I don't suppose a telecommunications company like Vodafone is capable of anything so customer friendly or - you know - communicative.

Here's hoping for a mobile signal from Vodafone in 2016. Here's hoping for some compensation. Looking at their past incompetent form, I'm not holding my breath.


Friday, December 18, 2015

Make a Writer Happy At Christmas!

There's a meme doing the rounds on Facebook at the moment about making a writer happy by writing a review. Actually, that should read a 'good review', shouldn't it? I think most of us would rather those people who really don't like our books (and there will always be a significant number, because nobody can write for everybody) would decide not to review it at all.

I know if I come across a book I thoroughly dislike I don't review it. There are a number of reasons why. I seldom finish a book I dislike and I won't review a book I haven't read. The older I've grown, the more I've come to realise that I'm not in the business of making people unhappy - and I know how even a single mean-spirited review, in the middle of quite a lot of praise, can stick with you to a disproportionate degree. It's one of the reasons why I don't check the reviews on my books obsessively, even though I have some lovely reviews for which I'm very grateful.

Personally speaking, when I do find a book I don't like, I find it easier, more generous and less stressful all round to say 'this isn't for me' and move on to something that is.

Incidentally, this doesn't mean those occasional thoughtful and thought provoking reviews you get that do you the favour of taking you seriously. You don't have to love everything about a book to give it a balanced review and I've sometimes had reviews with caveats or observations that have given me pause for thought and even made me a better writer.

Anyway, I didn't share that 'write a review' post for the simple reason that although I appreciate reviews very much - if you really want to do something for writers at this busy time of year and a review feels like a chore, I've an even better suggestion: tell your friends about the books you've loved.

The best marketing tool of all is enthusiastic word of mouth.

I was thinking about this last night, at a pre Christmas get-together with a group of friends. Three of us were chatting and two of us were Phil Rickman devotees. (See post below this for my appreciation of this fine writer!) We were so enthusiastic, so animated, that the third friend made a note of the writer and a couple of titles, while my fellow enthusiast - who recommended Rickman to me in the first place - made a note of another title she had missed. This kind of thing happens to me all the time: friends on and offline recommending books and writers they have read and appreciated, people who know me well, and therefore know the kind of thing I might enjoy.

So go on, spread a little love.

You can even drink wine and eat mince pies while you're doing it!



Friday, November 20, 2015

A binge on the backlist - who I'm reading right now!


When I find an author I love, I’m a binge reader. I’m reading my sixteenth or seventeenth Phil Rickman novel at the moment. I’ve lost count. I began with the Merrily Watkins series as recommended to me simultaneously by a couple of friends. This was before the television series, which I didn’t watch, because by the time it was shown, I had very definite ideas about the characters and I didn’t want to interfere with them. I enjoyed them all, although they did grow very dark towards the end of the series, almost too dark for me. And Jane, Merrily’s daughter, sometimes irritated me to the point where I wanted her to meet with a sticky end. But these were minor matters and I was never going to stop reading. From there, I moved smoothly on to Rickman’s backlist, novels written and published in the 1990s, big, meaty books, right up my street: earth mysteries, witchcraft and the supernatural, folklore, custom and belief, the occasional murder, but all told brilliantly – what a wonderful storyteller this author is!

I find myself racing on, late into the night. And I’ve been reading these books at the same time as I’ve been writing a fairly hefty and demanding new novel myself. But they’ve been just what I’ve needed to take my attention away from my own obsessions. I generally read in the evenings, or – especially when I’ve been writing late into the night – in bed for an hour or so before falling asleep. Every time I go back to one of Rickman’s books it has been a sheer pleasure, the kind of excited anticipation that you only get with a good book.

Once you’ve come to the end, you just want to move smoothly on to the next.

The thing is, though, that I would never have been able to do this without Amazon. Well, I would. But it wouldn't have been easy. I’ve read all of these books on my Kindle, and with the exception of a single short story that I ‘borrowed’ with Kindle Unlimited, I’ve bought them all, steadily, one after another and sometimes two or three at a time.

I checked in one of my local bricks and mortar bookstores last week – I love this bookstore and visit it and buy from it – but they had only one or two Rickman novels in stock as far as I could see and none of that dense and wonderful backlist. I know they could have ordered paperbacks for me but that would have been an expensive business and I would have rationed myself. Or I would have thought better of it and moved on to another author. The simple fact is that we can't all afford to spend as much as we would like on books. 

Most of my purchases were made in that frame of mind where you’ve finished a great book and want more of the same and you want it NOW. They were made late at night when I had come to the end of one novel, heaved a sigh of satisfaction, clicked on that little cart on my beloved Paperwhite and bought a couple more, just to be on the safe side.

I don’t blame the bookstore for this. They only have the shelf space to accommodate the backlist of a handful of starry authors. I still love them, still browse and buy from them (and drink the occasional coffee there as well). But when I’m absolutely addicted to a writer and want to binge, it’s Amazon I’m going to turn to. And when I think about that as a professional writer, I would be crazy if I didn’t want other people to do something similar with my own work - even though I have nothing like Rickman’s amazing backlist.

I don’t know which book to recommend most. I liked Night After Night best of all, but it's the second or third book involving a few of the same characters. You don't have to read them in order, but it's more satisfying if you can. Rickman clearly becomes fond of certain characters (so does the reader) and continues them into new and different series and mini series. The novels are scary, but not revolting in the way some crime novels are revolting – or at least I don’t find them so. The supernatural elements are well handled and believable. The characters are likeable and the villains suitably villainous. The landscapes sing off the page. You’ll want to visit these places if you don’t already know them. And he really knows his stuff where folklore, custom and belief are concerned.

So I can recommend them. But unfortunately, the end is in sight. I've almost read them all. He has a new novel coming out soon. Will my backlist binge last until the new book is out? Well, probably. But after that, I’ll have to move on, find another writer to satisfy the urge. 

I seem to remember that I had a mini binge on China Mieville some time ago. Then I got distracted. But I see that there are a lot of his novels I haven’t read yet. Which cheers me up no end. And a television series of The City & The City - one of the best novels I have ever read - is planned, which doesn't cheer me up at all, because I can't understand how anyone could ever squeeze that amazing novel into the constraints of television. I'll probably stick with the novel. 

So tell me - what books do you binge on? And whose backlist have you found irresistible? 


Monday, October 19, 2015

Timelines, Killer Details and Thank God for Google: Researching Historical Fiction.

So many reference books ...
As usual, I'm reblogging my latest post for Authors Electric here on my own blog, for anyone who might be interested. This time it's about the process, the joys  - and the occasional pitfalls - of historical research.

Those of us who write historical fiction will be well aware that there are various ways of setting about it. There’s no single right or wrong way and the volume of research needed will vary not just according to how well you know the period, how immersed you are in a particular time and place, but will also depend upon the kind of fiction you’re writing, and reader expectations too. One reader’s unacceptable anachronism may well be excused by another reader who is happy to focus on the story rather than the detail. Most writers know their readers, know what they want and I’m not about to argue with that.

Personally speaking, I do masses of research. In fact I have to persuade myself to stop, give myself permission to get on with the writing, because there’s a part of me that enjoys the research too much, especially going back to primary sources: letters, contemporary accounts, old documents of the kind where you have to ‘get your eye in’ even to read them. It’s justified procrastination. But sooner or later, you have to write the book.

The book in question is a new novel called The Jewel, all about Robert Burns’s wife, Jean Armour, due to be published next spring. So you set the research aside, and immerse yourself in the world of the novel. Then two things happen. You realise that you have to go easy on what’s included. Historical research informs the novel, informs the way the characters behave, but if you try to put in everything you now know, the novel will suffer from great indigestible chunks of fact for fact's sake. At the same time – paradoxically - it's only when you begin to write that you discover all the things you really need to know, but that have somehow eluded you.

My favourite Jean and Rab:
Clare Waugh and Donald Pirie
When I was planning this post, it struck me that there are three key points to researching historical fiction. Well, in truth, there are lots more, probably as many as there are writers. But these three issues always loom very large for me, so it’s worth sharing them.

I think of them as TimelinesKiller Details and TGFG or Thank God for Google.

When you’re researching something that really happened, even if you’re going to allow yourself to make up all kinds of things that might or might not have happened, timelines are vital. Knowing your dates. And I don’t just mean what year something happened, but what time of the year something happened – and what else was going on at the same time. It is amazing how often knowing precisely when something happened in relation to something else gives you an interesting perspective on your subject: one that may even be counter intuitive. For example, it soon became clear to me that Jean didn’t actually fall pregnant for the first time in summer, even though the imagination loves to conjure pictures of outdoor dalliance among the mountain daisies, but in the middle of a damp, chilly, Ayrshire winter. Which immediately makes you wonder about the how and the where of it, especially at a time when houses were crowded, privacy was at a premium and both parties knew that her parents disapproved of the poet to the point of paranoia. I have plenty of ideas about the how of it, and I’m pretty sure I’m right, but you’ll have to read the book to find out what I think! 


Time and again, the juxtaposition of dates and events either explained something satisfactorily, or threw up a conundrum that served to make the story more interesting.

Alongside these timeline issues though, are what I like to think of as killer details. These are more likely to come from primary sources: statistical accounts, parish records, surviving letters; and it’s vital to go back to them wherever you can. There is nothing, absolutely nothing, quite like seeing the real signatures of your protagonists, and knowing that the people you are writing about were once there in the flesh, holding a pen, making those marks on that particular piece of paper. (OK, I admit it, I shed a tear when I thought about that one!) There’s the fact that in another document, the word ‘child’ suddenly becomes ‘children’ long before the babies in question were born, suggesting that the midwife must have heard two heartbeats. There’s a contemporary description of the internal geography of an alehouse that allows you to ascertain the truth or otherwise of a particular piece of gossip. There’s the sudden realisation that you have - serendipitously, and while looking for something else - come across the details of another birth that has significance for the plot you want to construct. These are small details that may seem insignificant but they add authenticity. And the excitement of discovering them is incomparable.

Jean lived in a room here. So did Rab - on and off.
Finally, there’s Google. Thank God for Google. Take the tiny, unimportant example of Ballachulish slate. I live in a house – a listed building - with a Ballachulish slate roof. (You can see something similar in the picture above.) This kind of slate is no longer available except in reclaimed and reconditioned form although substitutes are generally used. For a small and relatively unimportant detail in the story, I found myself assuming that Jean Armour’s father – a prosperous Ayrshire stonemason - would have used Ballachulish slate, especially on the houses of the wealthy. But rereading the chapter, it tripped me up. Just how old is Ballachulish slate? When did they start quarrying it? In the olden days before Google, I would have had to go to the library, look it up and waste precious writing time checking when the quarry was in its heyday and how likely it was that an Ayrshire stonemason and building contractor would have had his roofers using it some thirty years before our own house was built. Or - more likely - I would have deleted Ballachulish altogether and reverted to the simple word ‘slate’. Well, it wouldn’t have mattered. It was a minor detail. But in terms of authenticity, all the Ayrshire builders I know have used the description Ballachulish slate. So, it turns out, might Jean Armour's dad. Thank God for Google in dozens of small but interesting ways.

So those are my three important issues. But of course there are plenty more. If you're writing historical fiction, or even considering it - what's the most important challenge for you? 


Even more research books...

My historical novel The Physic Garden is still available
in paperback and as an eBook from most outlets.
If you want to see my first 'take' on Rab and Jean, you can read my play
  Burns on the Solway on Kindle and on most other eBook outlets too.
The Jewel is scheduled for publication next spring.
Watch this space!
Catherine Czerkawska
www.wordarts.co.uk 






Thursday, October 15, 2015

Physic Gardens, Gardeners and Poets

The Physic Garden is on special offer on Amazon at the moment - 99p for the eBook, and I'm not at all sure how long that is going to go on! It could go back to full price any moment, so if you're reading this and have missed the boat, apologies. Not that it's terribly expensive at full price. And because the cover is so beautiful - many thanks to Glasgow Museums for supplying my publisher, Saraband, an image of a sampler that was not only right for the novel, but pretty much right for the date too - the paperback is a lovely book as well. It's one you might be glad to have on your shelves, even if, like me, you prefer reading novels on a Kindle.

Did I really say that? Well, I'm afraid it's true. But sometimes, when I like a particular book a lot, I want to have it in both versions.

And I'm a small time collector of antiquarian books as well, so my shelves are fairly cluttered with old volumes, not even very valuable old volumes either: just extremely pre-loved.

Extremely pre-loved books.
I really do like the smell of those. I honestly don't care about the scent of new books, even my own new books. They sort of smell of paper and nothing else and so does bog roll or printer paper. But old books, very old books - oh, like old textiles, they smell of time, and the perfume of the past, and I can get quite sentimental over those.

When I was researching the Physic Garden - a book I sometimes think I ought to have called The Psychic Garden, because that's what so many people want to call it! - it struck me that my narrator/gardener/bookseller, William, of whom I'm still very fond indeed, would have known all about Robert Burns. The lives of the two would have overlapped, in terms of time although they would never have met. Burns would have died only six years before William first met his sweetheart, Jenny Caddas, taking her swarm of bees. So when William, whose narrative voice was so strong that I was never quite sure what he was going to say next, mentions Robert Burns, and the challenges he must have faced in the houses of the Edinburgh gentry, it seemed perfectly feasible. 'But then, I believe, the poet's father was a gardener too, and it was that work which first took him to Ayrshire where Rab was born,' writes William.
The cottage William Burness built. 

Much more recently, as regular readers of this blog will know, I've been finishing a new historical novel about Jean Armour, the wife of that same Robert Burns. This is no coincidence. I was already immersed in the time and place and had previously written a couple of plays about the poet, but had always wanted to write more, a lot more, about Jean.

Because the new novel, titled The Jewel, is primarily about Jean, the poet's father - also called William - only figures peripherally. He was dead by the time the family moved to Mossgiel farm outside Mauchline. He comes across in most of the biographies as a kindly father, intelligent and thoughtful but very strait-laced and rather grim. His son felt that his father was disappointed in him. Yet it struck me that William  Burness, as he signed his name, must have had some spirit of adventure as a young man. He moved from the North East where he was born, first to Edinburgh to work as a gardener, and thence to Ayrshire. Moreover, he met Agnes Broun, the poet's mother, at the fair in Maybole and married her with a certain amount of precipitation, so it must have been a whirlwind courtship! Perhaps the poet, whose chief virtue was genuine kindliness and who could be impulsive, was more like his father than he knew.

Greenside, Maybole, Ayrshire.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Creative Visualisation: Being There


Been spending a lot of time with this lady!
There has been a great deal in the news recently about something called ‘aphantasia’ or the inability to conjure up images inside your head. You can read all about it on the BBC Website here.

There is a whole spectrum of abilities, and people at one end of it can’t do it at all. I was intrigued to note that the late great Oliver Sachs was ‘face blind’ so that when shown, for example, a photograph of Oprah Winfrey, he had no idea who she was. Well, maybe not everyone does know who she is, but this was not a one off. A series of well known faces provoked a shrug and a shake of the head. There’s a whole section of the population who lead perfectly normal lives without being able to visualise things inside their heads. They know, they just can’t visually imagine.

It got me thinking, especially because I had just finished a draft of a rather complicated historical novel, so I was very much in creative writing mode. Most writers of fiction will know that alongside the perennial ‘where do you get your ideas from?’ question, (which makes a lot of sense to non-writers who are intrigued by it, but provokes a faint feeling of dismay in writers, who are generally drowning in unsolicited ideas), there’s the OTHER thing.

I used to think there was a gap but I think of it more as a yawning chasm between non-writers and writers in this respect, and now I know that the ability that creative writers tend to have in spades has a name: hyperphantasia. For most of us, it may be even more intense than that.

Let’s, for argument’s sake, call it super-hyperphantasia.

I suspect most writers of fiction are hyperphantasiacs (if that's even a word!) and if they aren’t, I’d lay bets they aren’t very good creative writers.

But the reports got me wondering if the scientists conducting this research have thought about ways in which writers and other creative people, artists for example, enter this state? To some extent you can summon it at will but I’m not entirely sure you can do it to somebody else’s specification. If you ask me to visualise pretty much anything, I will be able to see it quite clearly ‘in my mind’s eye’ – to the extent that I will be able to describe it for you. I have a strong visual imagination. Years as a playwright – where you always have to see what’s going to be happening and to whom, on stage or on film - have only reinforced it.

I once took part in an experiment in past life regression. It was intriguing, faintly disturbing, immensely vivid. I can still remember who I was, where I lived, how I was dressed, dozens of details. But I have a suspicion that the writer in me was simply inventing the character in response to a number of prompts from the person doing the regressing. Not that she gave me any of these details. She simply asked a series of questions. Where are you? How are you dressed? What are you doing? Where do you live? I knew all the answers, right down to the 'best' shoes that were almost too uncomfortable to wear. But this is exactly what I do when I'm writing.

I had a pair of shoes like this but only in my mind's eye.

I know that when the writing is going really well, it’s similarly intense and vivid. I’m truly elsewhere. I’m in the world of the book or story or play. Mihaly Csikszentmihalji called it a state of ‘flow’, and so it is. Time has no meaning. Then you suddenly come back into yourself and find that several hours have passed by and you have no remembrance of them. And that’s because your mind, your whole imagination has been somewhere else. The room may have grown dark or cold, and you’re hungry and thirsty, and often you feel quite ill and disorientated. Well, I certainly do.

You have been in the world of the book or story or play. You have been seeing it, feeling it, living it and experiencing the emotions of various characters – and for a while at least it doesn’t just feel as real as the ordinary world. It feels hyper real, a place beside which the ‘real world’ feels quite disappointing. You’ve been kind of playing God and sometimes you have the uneasy sense that we’re not really designed to do that. Which is why it takes its toll, why we feel so strange afterwards and so utterly bereft between projects.

Is it worth it? Well I think so. And if you can’t do it, you’ve no idea what you’re missing, literally, so you won’t mind. I’m not sure you can be taught how to do it, but I do think innate abilities can be honed and improved.

I’m often asked about dialogue. It’s hard to teach people how to write good dialogue. There are the usual hints and tips, such as reading it out loud, listening to what people say, how they really speak. But I think good dialogue only comes when you are in one of these states of being 'in the zone', because what you are then doing is not so much ‘making’ people say something as listening to your characters. Climbing inside their heads, overhearing them talk and writing it down – all at the same time. And it’s almost impossible to teach somebody how to do that if they can’t make that quantum leap into being there.

Somebody once said to me that the worlds inside her head were far more real, more vivid than the world outside. I’d identify with that. It doesn’t happen all the time, and I’m not at all sure it could be induced under controlled conditions. Writers of historical fiction have to do a lot of familiarising first, which is essentially what the research is for. It's like a secret agent being briefed before a mission. And then, armed with all that knowledge, you make the quantum leap into inner space.

Also, the experience is not without a few unwelcome side effects: rabid insomnia being one of them. The inner world has a habit of either invading your dreams – not so bad, because at least you’re sleeping - or prodding you awake several times a night, reminding you of its existence. Come back, it says.

And then your characters join in. 'We’re here. We have things to tell you. And no, we’re not going to shut up or go away until you give us the voices we think we deserve.'

If you want to sample a couple of my historical novels to see what happened when I made that leap into the past, you could try:
The Physic Garden
or
The Curiosity Cabinet
And look out for a new historical novel called The Jewel, to be published in 2016.

This post has been reblogged from Authors Electric.