Book launches – are they all literary conversation and erudite jokes, or a booze-up with books? Based on my own experiences of launching Paternoster and Holy Blood, here’s a tongue in cheek account of what really happens behind the scenes.
1. It’s like a wedding
Like a wedding, you spend the whole event saying, ‘Hello, how are you? Thank you for coming’ to people, before having to dash off to have your photo taken, greet new arrivals, shake hands with the man from the newspaper, and sign books. After the event, you spend a week emailing everyone who came, thanking them for coming, and apologising that you didn’t get to speak to them for very long. Also like a wedding, you spend the whole time being hugged and congratulated by people you’ve never met before and have no idea who they are.
2. Your biggest fan will wax lyrical about your work, but only when your publisher is out of earshot
I love it when people tell me they’ve read my work, and love it even more if they tell me they liked what they read! It’s always a real thrill to have people come up to me at events and say lovely things like, ‘I’ve been waiting for your new book for ages. I’ve been looking forward to this.’ It’s incredibly kind of people and I’m always immensely touched. I just wish they’d say it – loudly – in front of my publishers instead of whispering it to me in the corner.
3. It’s not about you
Have you ever been at a wedding and someone stands up during the reception to announce that they’re pregnant? They hijack the bride and groom’s day and make it all about them. Book launches can have a similar effect on people. It goes like this. I pick up a message from a total stranger, which says, ‘I saw the poster about your book launch and it’s such a funny coincidence because I’ve always thought I could be a writer, too.’ Any other week of the year, I’d write back with encouragement and advice; try to swing off my book launch and make it about you? Nah.
4. It’s all about the catering
When I launched Paternoster, I made the mistake of writing on the invitation ‘Wine and nibbles will be served’. To me, this means ‘A range of beverages and small snacks will be available’ so I was surprised by the deluge of indignant enquiries I received:
‘I can’t drink wine – I’m driving/ breast-feeding/ tee-total – what will I do? By the way, I can’t drink orange juice because my dentist says I’ve got enamel erosion and I can’t have sparkling water because of my IBS and I can’t have anything with sugar in it …’
And then it was ‘What do you mean by ‘nibbles’? Don’t forget I’m gluten free/ dairy intolerant/ only eat organic from named and certified happy vegetables.’
Answering these outraged queries took an inordinate amount of time, so when I launched Holy Blood, I simply put ‘Refreshments will be provided’. This also meant the person who came along, drank five glasses of red wine in quick succession and then left, was discouraged from attending.
5. You will forget your friend’s name
Signing books is a complicated business. First, you have to remember to sign with your special ‘author signing books’ signature and not the one you use on your cheques; and you have to come up with some sort of pithy phrase to make you look open, approachable, witty and intelligent (haven’t found it yet – open to suggestions); and you have to make sure that the ink is dry before you close the book so it doesn’t imprint itself on the opposite page. So it’s hardly surprising, your honour, that after thirty minutes of this I’ve completely forgotten my friend’s name. I look at her, I think ‘I know you. I know I know you, but what the hell are you called?’ So I sign the book with a generic ‘All best wishes’ and pray she won’t ask me to personalise it.
6. You look peculiar in every photo
When I was a teenager, a boy told me I had a dead-pan face. This was very hurtful and I told my mum, who said he was right, I did have a dead-pan face. But looking at the photos from every single talk, workshop or launch I’ve ever given, I think I’ve overcompensated. In every photo, I’m gesticulating wildly and pulling a range of bizarre faces so I look like an understudy for Rowan Atkinson. The only ones where I don’t look demented are, naturally, blurred.
But despite all this, when it’s all over and we’re on the way to the bottle bank with the empties, I think, ‘That was great. Can’t wait for the next one.'
When we think of writer's block, we tend to think of the obvious manifestations of it: all out of ideas; not knowing what to write; feeling the muse has deserted us. It can also present itself as procrastination - anything is more interesting and compelling than writing the next scene, even doing the ironing or putting our socks into alphabetical order. And these other tasks can seem urgent - they must be done now and we can't concentrate on writing until they're complete.
Then there's perfectionism: wanting to write something perfectly first time round, and unable even to start writing as we're convinced that:
1. It won't be perfect first time round (correct - it never is, and actually shouldn't be perfect. The first draft is all about discovering the story you want to tell) and
2. Rewriting and making it perfect is a sign of failure (incorrect - writing is 90% rewriting).
And then there are the blocks that don't look like blocks. Writer's block in disguise. These can be tricky ones to spot, because they seem to have nothing to do with writing at all, but their function is the same - to stop you writing. And, like all writer's block, the reason they need to stop you writing us because deep down you're afraid. Of failure, of success, of writing something that's rubbish or shocking or that reveals who you truly are at heart.
Let's have a look at some of the ways writer's block comes in disguise, and what you can do to address it.
We all live busy lives, and tiredness seems to be a feature of modern life. When tiredness is writer's block in disguise, it shows up at times you've set aside for writing. Up till that point you're bright eyed and bushy tailed, then the moment you think about writing, you slump. This can be the case particularly if you're trying to establish a writing routine. You've decided you want to write for half an hour each day, and have marked out clear spaces in your day to accomplish this, but whenever it's time to write, you feel worn out.
The reason you suddenly feel tired at these times is because humans are naturally wary of change. Setting up a new writing routine, like establishing any new habit, is a change, and subconsciously you rebel. Sometimes the rebellion takes the form of tiredness. Your mind regards change as unwelcome, so sets about finding a way to prevent it.
To overcome this block in disguise, try this technique. Use tiredness to overcome perfectionism. Accept that you feel tired, and decide that you'll write anyway, but because you feel tired, any words at all class as a victory. This means that you're free to write absolute rubbish and that's OK - you're doing the best you can despite feeling tired. It's very likely that once you start writing, your energy levels will rise and the writing will get easier.
2. Being a little bit poorly
I'm not talking about having the flu or a stomach bug here, but that niggly not-very-well feeling when you think you might be about to get a headache, or might be about to come down with a cold, or are just not feeling 100%. Like tiredness, this is also resistance to change. Perfectionism can rear its unhelpful head, too, as being a little bit poorly makes it unlikely that you'll turn out a perfect first draft.
Overcome this by firstly checking that you're really only a 'little bit poorly'. Are you still able to go to work, look after the kids, go for a walk or read a book? If so, this might well be writer's block in disguise. Like tiredness, you might find that once you start writing you experience a miraculous recovery. Actually, writing can help you to feel better if you're ill. I write when I can feel a migraine brewing - it often helps.
But how to start writing when you're feeling poorly? The trick to use is 'just ten words'. Commit to writing just 10 words. They have to form a coherent sentence, you can't just write 'blah blah' ten times. If you haven't spontaneously combusted after 10 words, commit to writing 10 more. Keep going in this way for 5 minutes. If you've hated every single second of those 5 minutes, stop writing. If you're feeling a little more settled, write in the same way, 10 words at a time, for another 5 minutes.
3. Other people
This is a sneaky disguise because it appears that the block is completely outside your control. It manifests in this way: you've set aside some precious time to dedicate to your writing, but then a friend rings you up, having a minor crisis such as needing someone to pick up her kids while she waits in for the boiler repair man, or she's had a bad day at work and can you come over for a chat?
You've got a choice here: to yourself and your writing, or to your friend. Depending on the crisis, you might decide your friend needs you and ditch your writing to go and help her. Sometimes this is unavoidable. In these cases, reschedule your writing date immediately.
But sometimes the 'crisis' isn't urgent. It doesn't have to be dealt with right now, and if you were ill or on holiday your friend would cope. You have the option to say, 'Sorry, I'm not free right now' and get on with the writing session you had planned. The question is, are you a bit relieved by your friend's cry for help, because it gives you a valid excuse for missing your writing session? If so, this is a block in disguise. It's a block, because it's stopping you from writing.
Overcome this by learning to say no. It's a lot easier to say no if you've made an appointment with yourself in your diary and have committed to it. If you find it hard to say no, ask yourself if the appointment was a hot date, would you be so willing to forgo it?
When you've said no, approach your writing session by using the 'just 10 words' technique, as there's a good chance you'll be squirming with guilt for daring to put yourself and your needs first, and that can make concentration difficult.
Writer's block can be sneaky and manifest in ways that seem to bear no relation to your writing. How does your writer's block come in disguise? Tell me about it in the comments below.
Wishing you happy and block-free writing!
Publication day always catches me out. I see my book advertised for sale, saying it’s available for pre-order, and the date when it’s expected to be published; and I get the emails from my publisher with a rough date when they expect the book to be out, but still I’m never prepared. It’s like getting married: you know the date but it always seems to be weeks away, until you wake up on the morning of the wedding and wonder which shoes you’re going to wear.
This time, I was expecting my latest novel Holy Blood to come out at the beginning of April, and had a schedule prepared for blogs and announcements and invitations to the launch. The publication date is always a little hazy to allow for hold ups with the printer and distributor, so when the doorbell went on Friday afternoon, I genuinely thought it must be someone collecting for charity or wanting to read the meter. I didn’t expect a large and hefty box of books to be thrust into my arms. But it was, and there they were, the copies of Holy Blood I’d ordered months ago when it was accepted for publication.
At least this time I got my copies of my book before my mother. When Paternoster was published, I knew it was coming out in June, and for some reason I thought that meant the end of June, so I went away on holiday. I was staying in a seaside cottage, weirdly called ‘Eden Cottage’ (the name of my protagonist) and along from it was an ‘Aidan Cottage’ (the name of the other major character in the books). Just to add to the weirdness, there was a little ornament hanging up in the cottage with ‘Paternoster’ written across it. The signs were all there. The cottage was only a couple of hours from my mother’s house, so I went to see her for the day. She lives 300 miles away from me, and I don’t get to see her that often. A mere two hours to get to see her was nothing.
I was at my mother’s house when a parcel came for her, and in it were six copies of Paternoster that she’d pre-ordered. She got her copies before I even knew it was published. When I got home at the end of my holiday, my author copies still hadn’t arrived. I had to wait another few days. But Mum got hers, and mightily pleased she was to get hers before me, too.
Anyway, this time it was just me and the cat to open the box and take out the books as carefully as if they were new born lambs, and line them up on the table and admire them.
This is my fourth published book, and I still feel the same sense of disbelief as I did when I held the first one, Sacred Site. It’s a mixture of wonder that the book is finally, actually done and finished and a proper book, the text neatly aligned and the cover all shiny and thrilling. And I can’t quite believe that I’m the one who wrote it. Every time I flick through the pages a bit of text catches my eye and I think ‘Did I write that?’ Sometimes I’ve forgotten how I wrote and crossed out and rewrote and got fed up and walked away and came back and tried again. I forget the bits that made me laugh when I wrote them the first time, and still make me laugh when I read them now. Again there’s that sense of amazement for forgetting them. They seem like someone else’s words, not mine. I don’t know whether that’s because it’s a long time from finishing a book to seeing it published (almost a year for Holy Blood) and I’m so deeply into writing a new book that I’ve dismissed the old one from my mind, or whether the writing was simply channelling, after all. Sometimes it jolly well feels like it.
I think that the thing that makes it all wonderful though, is it that when it's a ‘proper’ book it distances itself from me: the book is an entity all on its own. The umbilical cord that tied it to me has been cut: it’s time for it to make its own way in the world. It’s a strange and amazing feeling, and one I never get used to.
Do you ever feel overwhelmed by the sheer volume of words in your life?
Think about it. You probably start the day by checking your phone for messages and emails, and maybe you'll also have a look at social media, just to find out what's going on and what you've missed while you've been asleep. Then you might go onto a news website and catch up on the headlines.
Next it's off to work. Reports to read, reports to write, emails to read and respond to. PowerPoint presentations. Staff appraisals. On and on those words go. And lunchtime is probably spent on your phone or tablet surfing social media.
Back home and there's more social media, and then you get to write your own stuff - the novel or poem or short story you're working on. A whole day full of words.
It struck me recently how full of words my life has become, and I've added to the volume of words by returning to study. Lots of books to read, seminars to prepare for, and lots of essays to write. Don't get me wrong - I love words. Words are my bread and butter. But sometimes, you can have too much of a good thing.
So at New Year I decided that instead of writing a list of everything I wanted to do, be and have this year, I'd cut pictures out of magazines and make a collage in my bullet journal. Not only was it fun to play around with scissors and glue, and deciding on the arrangement of the pictures, but seeing the pictures gave me a much more powerful emotional attachment to what I want from this year.
It's said a picture paints a thousand words, and that's true, but it also creates an emotional response. You can write out what you want and why you want it, but making a picture of it so that you can spend time gazing at it and reconnecting with those emotions, is a powerful way to remind yourself of what it is you want in your life, and what's important to you.
Writer’s block – that feeling of being so stuck and uninspired that doing anything else, even the ironing, seems more appealing than trying to write – can be caused by many things, and sometimes the cause is that you’re writing the wrong thing.
What do I mean by the ‘wrong thing’? It could be a project that’s simply unachievable considering your current lifestyle and circumstances; it could be writing something in the wrong form or genre; or it could be a project that’s quite simply lost its gloss. Clues that you might be writing the wrong thing include:
• A sinking feeling every time you think about it
• You’ve been working on it, off and on, for a period of years, and the end seems as far away as the moon
• If it suddenly vanished, you’d feel relieved
• Your characters aren’t talking to you
You might start out writing something that was the right thing at that time, but over time, it can become wrong for you. This can happen if this is your first large writing project, and you haven’t been able to commit to a regular writing schedule. Over the months and years, you pick it up, do a bit, and then put it aside again. And the longer this goes on, the more stale it becomes in your mind, and the more likely you are to have had a new, fresh idea that’s much more appealing.
When this happens (and it’s happened to most writers, believe me), it’s tempting to say, “I’ll finish this and then write the new idea.” But we’re not talking about having to eat your vegetables before you get your pudding, here. It’s your writing and you can write whatever makes your heart sing. It’s fine to leave the first project for a while, or even abandon it altogether, while you pour your energy and enthusiasm into your new project. The benefit of doing this is you are more likely to get into a regular writing practice if you’re writing something you love, and this can then be used to complete the original project, if you decide to go back to it later.
Sometimes, the idea you have doesn’t fit the way you choose to express it. You might have a great idea and instantly decide it should be a novel. Hold your horses! At the planning and exploration stage, it pays to spend some time thinking about how the idea would develop in different genres or in different forms. How would it work as a play? As a short story? As a narrative poem? Make sure the form and genre you choose are the right ones for the ideas you want to express.
If you’re stuck and a writing project is getting you down, put it aside and ask yourself these questions:
• If I lost it, how would I feel?
• If I wasn’t writing this, what would I be doing?
• What if this idea was written as a play/song/sketch/poem/short story?
Have courage, and make the changes your writing needs to get back on track – you won’t regret it when you’re happily scribbling away on a project that thrills you.
It’s that time of year when the magazine and newspaper supplements are full of things you should do/ should stop doing in order to have ‘your best year yet’. Top of the list is always some sort of detoxing – foods to avoid, foods to eat in abundance, and good health habits to cultivate.
But what about your writing? The start of the year is a good time to review your writing practice, and identify what’s working for you and what could do with tweaking. So how do you detox your writing? Let’s look at how you write, and what you write.
Detox the Way You Write
Take a few deep breaths to clear your mind, and then go to the place where you do the majority of your writing, whether it’s your study, the sofa, or a cubbyhole under the stairs. If you normally write in a coffee shop or library, then imagine the place.
What’s your immediate reaction? If it’s anything other than ‘Oh goody, let’s get writing’, your writing space could do with a detox. How cluttered is it? How sparse? How warm and inviting? Over the past few years, we’ve heard a lot about decluttering – stripping back everything that you don’t absolutely love and have to have in your life, and now the trend has flipped the other way and I’ve noticed a trend towards re-cluttering. But before you rush out to restock on junk, remember that what is sparse to one person is untidy to another. What’s important is what you need to feel comfortable and creative.
Can you easily put your hand on the right notebook, outline or character sketch? If not, rearrange things, discarding and refiling as necessary until everything you need for your writing is close by. This might well be a tidying up exercise, but not necessarily. If you work best with music playing or with a scented candle burning, you might need to move your i-pod dock and candles into your writing space.
My own desk has a scented oil burner, an array of notebooks in bright colours, a mug full of pens, a box of index cards, a light, a radio and a salt lamp on it. Not so bare I feel inhibited, and not so cluttered (for me) that I can’t find what I need. But that’s me – you will have different requirements for your writing, so gather what you need and set up your space so it works for you. If you normally write in a coffee shop and it’s not quite as inspiring as you’d like, shop around trying different places at different times of the day until you find one with the right level of busyness/ peace for you.
Detox What You Write
We all have bad habits when we write. Metaphors and similes that we’re too fond of; words we don’t quite know the meaning of but use anyway; and words we get muddled up. For example, I’m far too fond of describing shock as ‘her heart turned to stone’. The first time it was probably OK, but now I’ve overused it and need to find a better way to describe what shock feels like. I have a bad habit of using ‘like’ instead of ‘as though’ (‘it was like her heart turned to stone’ vs ‘it was as though her heart turned to stone’) and I’m not all that clear on the difference between might and may. But knowing these weaknesses means I take more care when I use them in my writing, and (hopefully!) get them right.
Look at your own writing and seek out your bad habits. Do you use visible words when writing dialogue? For example, instead of simply using ‘he said’, do you tend to write, ‘he bellowed/ cried/ screamed/ expostulated’?
Not sure about the difference between effect and affect, or between perspicacious or perspicacity? Continual and continuous? Knowing that you have a blind spot when it comes to these words is helpful, because you’ll know to double check every time you use them.
Editors, agents and publishers will point them out, or you can ask a trusted friend to read your work and highlight your writing bad habits.
It can be hard to spot bad habits in your own writing, but here are a few tips:
1. Change the font and font size before re-reading and editing your piece. This shifts the line breaks and makes the writing appear ‘new’ to your eyes, meaning you’re more likely to spot mistakes.
2. Change the size of the viewing pane – if you normally write and edit with the screen at 100%, change it to 150%.
3. Read your piece from the bottom up – this takes away the meaning and flow of the piece and means you can concentrate on the actual words.
With your writing space optimised for happy writing, and an awareness of where you need to adjust what you write, you’ve set yourself up nicely for a year of productive writing.
Happy detoxing and writing!
All the best,
Many years ago, I read an article about the joys and perils of writing groups. I can’t remember the name of the author, or where I saw the article, but it has stayed with me, because it illustrated its point using a story.
It goes something like this. A writers’ group met every week; each week they were given a theme to write about, then they brought their work for comment and critique to the next session. One week they were given the theme of ‘a chair’. They all wrote a story about a chair and read their work aloud at the next meeting. All but one of the participants wrote a story about a rocking chair on a porch: stories that were sentimental and twee. One person wrote about the electric chair, and the story was full of compassion and redemption. The other members of the group turned on the author and castigated him for writing about such a horrible topic, but it was the electric chair story that went on to be published, not the rocking chair stories.
This anecdote was told to warn people that writing groups can have their downsides, but to me it has two further messages for writers:
• Stick to your guns
• Be different
There are many writing competitions that ask for submissions on a theme. How do you avoid the twee and hackneyed (the rocking chair) and find the original and bold (the electric chair)?
Write then Discard
Firstly, write down everything that comes to mind when you think of the theme. Chuck away all your first ideas, as they will be the obvious connections and the ones that the majority of people will write about.
Keep on brainstorming, looking at the theme from different angles, asking questions, and turning the obvious on its head. Keep going until you’re out of ideas.
Quieten the Chatter
If you find it difficult to do this, it could be that your conscious mind (the bit that’s coming up with easy, obvious ideas) is holding sway and needs to be quietened down so your subconscious can come up with more tangential ideas. There are a few ways to let your subconscious come forward:
• Sleep. This technique was used by Milton to write Paradise Lost: he would awake in the middle of the night and dictate 30 or 40 lines of poetry to his wife and then go back to sleep again. If you value your marriage, I don’t recommend his technique, but you could set an alarm for 20 minutes in the afternoon and have a catnap. Start writing the moment you wake up, before the conscious mind has time to interfere.
• Meditation. This isn’t about thinking about nothing, but about quieting your mind so you can calmly watch your thoughts and let them go. Even simply sitting still and counting your breaths will help to numb the chatter.
• Doing stuff with a rhythm such as walking, swimming, cooking or sewing. These activities provide a space where your subconscious can do its thing and push original ideas to the front of your mind.
Go For It!
Once you’ve quietened your conscious, brainstorm as many ideas as you can, digging deeper into the theme until you find an angle that makes you stop and think, “Hey!” Explore that idea from different angles, playing with character, voice and setting, until you get a fizzy, excited feeling and the urge to start writing. That’s your story.
Once you’ve written the story, check that it still reflects the theme. Stories can go off in directions of their own sometimes. If you don’t think you’ve captured the theme adequately, simply send the story to an open competition and have another go at the theme.
Judges often comment that story entries are very dark, and that few humorous stories are entered in competitions. If you can write humour, your story will stand out from the pack. And if you can dig a story out of everyday situations, even better. It’s tempting to throw yourself at the big themes (cancer, miscarriage, death, war), but these get repeated time and again, so find the story in something ordinary and make it extraordinary.
How To Do It
Here’s an example of how I might tackle a short story on the theme of ‘death’.
My first thoughts would turn to the hackneyed and (dare I say it?) done to death: cancer, suicide, World War I. After that it might be widowhood, murder or euthanasia. Notice that these are all ‘big’ themes, and over-represented in competition entries. So digging a bit deeper, I might think about the people who deal with death every day: undertakers, morticians, florists, stone masons, and nurses. And does the death have to be of a person? What about the death of a pet? What about pet cemeteries or taxidermists? Could it be about the death of a language or a way of life?
How would humour work in a story about death? Again, try to avoid the obvious and the temptation to make it blackly humorous, and explore instead if there is a way to tell the story with gentle humour and compassion.
A unique slant on a given theme, told in a compelling and original way – that’s the ‘electric chair’ way of storytelling. Give it a go and let me know how you get on.
This month I’ve got an article out in Writers’ Forum magazine. It’s the first installment of a two-parter that looks at what resources are available to writers when they hit a block – whether that’s writer’s block or losing momentum in your writing.
To write the article, I contacted several published authors to ask if they’ve ever experienced a block in their writing, or a time when they felt their writing career had stalled, what they did about it, and what advice they could give to other writers who found themselves in a similar situation.
What astonished me was the number of writers who responded by saying they didn’t feel they could help because:
- They were struggling themselves
- They had no authority to offer advice
The second group was the one that flabbergasted me. Firstly because so many of the writers I contacted responded this way, and secondly because I’d contacted them because I considered they had absolute authority to comment: they were writers who have published lots of books, stories and poems; were bestselling authors; have won literary competitions; and teach writing.
It seems that as writers, however much we publish, however successful we appear to the outside world, we never quite feel as though we’ve ‘made it’. And I wondered if there's ever a point when we can look at what we’ve achieved and feel a sense of satisfaction, or will we always compare ourselves to other writers and wish we were better.
In one regard, this is depressing as it suggests we’re never contented with what we’ve achieved. On the other hand, if all writers experience this sense of ‘Don’t ask me, I’m not good enough’ then we’re suffering self-effacement along with all our literary heroes.
Reviewing the woes other writers confessed to me of crippling writer’s block, lack of time, lying to publishers and agents about how much work had been done on a new novel etc, I started to wonder if as writers this is ‘business as usual’? Is feeling stuck, unimaginative and sluggish the normal state of affairs for writers? And are those days when the words come flowing from the pen to be celebrated because they’re so rare?
Again, knowing that fellow writers are staring at the page with despair can be consoling, even if not encouraging. A sense of ‘we’re all in it together’ if you like. So if writing is so difficult and we never stop to acknowledge what we’ve achieved, why do we do it? Is it a form of addiction, or is it because of the rush we experience when a writing project suddenly falls into place?
And do we become writers, not because we have written, but because we have faced periods of not-writing and have persevered none the less?
I was looking through some old writing course notes the other day, and came across this advice: find the darkest place in your mind, and write about it. The advice continued: what's the darkest thing you can think of? Make it happen to your characters.
It set me wondering - what's the darkest thing I could think of, and is it wise to spend so much time dwelling on the dark side?
I'm currently writing the third Eden Grey mystery, and it starts with an almighty shocker of a first chapter. Rules of the game are if you start high octane, you have to maintain it - you can't slip into a gentle, cosy pace - so I needed a plot that would live up to the opening. I asked myself, "What's the darkest thing one person can do to another?" and I wrote a list. Then I found myself thinking, "If I take that and that, and combine them, I get something that's really dark."
Question is: should I?
In recent years there's been a trend in crime fiction towards ever more sadistic and violent crimes. Books that start in the murderer's mind and show you exactly how they're torturing the victim. Or that are in the victim's mind, and you experience the torture with them. I can't read this kind of material. It's too nasty and gratuitous, and I feel like a voyeur reading it. But could I write it? Probably.
When I'm writing, I find myself simultaneously caught up in the characters' heads, and at a remove from them. I can make terrible things happen to them, and be able to stand back from it all and consciously determine how to craft it. Graham Greene described this as 'a splinter of ice in the heart' - the writer's ability to take a tragedy and turn it into entertainment. Because however literary or artistic our writing is, on some level we're always aiming to entertain our readers, otherwise they'll put the book aside.
The splinter of ice in my heart enables me to write dispassionately about proper nasty stuff - child abuse and people smuggling and murder. And it's only later that I look at what I've written and wonder if maybe I need psychological help. The first time I met my agent, she said to me, "You know, if you writers just got yourselves good psychiatrists, you wouldn't have to write all this crime." Where's the fun in that?
So my challenge is to go as dark as I dare, but be careful not to fall into the trap of writing nasty scenes just for the sake of it. A scene that explores the dark side must have a point to it. In crime fiction, the darker the crime, the more there is at stake, and the more that's demanded of the hero. There's normally a resolution - the baddy gets caught and brought to justice - so the reader is relieved that no matter how much the dark side of human nature upsets the social order, there's always restitution. Society is stronger than evil.
Lurking with my dark side makes me confront what scares me most about human nature, but because this is fiction, it's a safe place for me and the reader. And unlike real life, I get to make it better - my protagonist Eden Grey will face evil and overcome it. The greater the evil she faces, the greater the relief for both me and reader that the thing we fear the most can - ultimately - be overcome.
This beautiful chapel of ease, dedicated to St James, is in Stoke Orchard, a few miles outside Cheltenham. Inside, the walls still bear traces of their mediaeval paintings. Though the colours are faded now, in their heyday they would have been vibrant, even garish. Their purpose was to illustrate the Bible’s teachings to people who couldn’t read or understand Latin, as all services in the church would have been conducted in Latin. The fact they’ve survived the rigours of the reformation of the church and the hammer blows (literally) of Oliver Cromwell’s vision of England, is astonishing. In other churches, the paintings survived only to fall foul of Victorian whitewash. Any that survive, as they do here, are incredibly fragile and increasingly rare, a fact that makes them doubly precious.
But what makes this church so special to me is that it contains a number of pilgrim crosses. The church was on the pilgrim route to Santiago de Compostela: pilgrims heading there from the north of England or from Wales would break their journey at certain points along the way, offering up prayers for a safe journey and return. This chapel is one of those stopping off points. On their way to Spain, pilgrims carved crosses in the stonework of the church, just inside the door. On their way home, they carved a circle around the cross they’d made, indicating they'd safely made it back. To me, these marks are so poignant: a tangible mark of both the faith and fragility of previous times.
My interest in pilgrims and pilgrimages started long ago, as a child taken to visit church after church, abbey after abbey. Was I the only ten year old who could spot a Saxon tower? Later, when I lived amongst Aboriginal people, I came to see correlations between pilgrim routes and the songlines. Walkabout is, arguably, a form of pilgrimage.
And now my latest book, Holy Blood, concerns itself with the holy relics housed in abbeys in the middle ages. Some relics were regarded as so sacred they attracted thousands of pilgrims, whose offerings at the shrine provided a valuable source of income for the abbey. In Holy Blood, the abbey is Hailes, near Winchcombe, a few miles from Cheltenham. It housed one of the most sacred Christian relics of all: a phial of the blood of Christ, collected at the time of his crucifixion. Pilgrims flocked to see the relic: the mere sight of it was believed to ensure salvation.
But Henry VIII, forgetting that he himself had walked barefoot in pilgrimage to the shrine at Walsingham, ordered the destruction of the relics. The Blood of Hailes was removed and tested, and declared to be a fake. A short time later, the Abbey itself was Dissolved, the land given away, and the buildings dismantled.
The plot of Holy Blood came about when on a visit to Hailes, one gloriously sunny summer day, I found myself wondering, ‘What if the Holy Blood of Hailes wasn’t destroyed during the Dissolution of the Monasteries, after all? What if it survived somehow?’
And from there I started reading, widely, about pilgrims and pilgrimages, the Dissolution, monastic life, and what happened to people who continued to believe in relics and the Catholic church. And I did my own pilgrimage, to Walsingham, in Norfolk. Not barefoot like Henry VIII, but still. It was as I imagined pilgrim sites to be in the past: groups travelling together with their priest, some solemn and overawed, others laughing and with a ready quip; the sales of badges and stickers to proclaim ‘I was there’; a strangely festival atmosphere and a disconcerting rubbing shoulders of the sacred and the profane.
But as I stood in the Slipper Chapel, silent and overawed by the press of history, I understood how it might have felt to a mediaeval pilgrim, weary and travel stained, to reach his destination at last. And I saw how embodied an experience pilgrimage is, to undergo the rigours and perils of the journey, which could easily last for months. No wonder they bought badges to mark the event. I’d done nothing more strenuous than sit in a car, but I too, bought a badge, to mark my pilgrimage.
Kim Fleet lives and works in Cheltenham. Her two cats help the creative process by standing on the delete key.