Greetings! How very good to see you here. If you're wondering where 'here' is, this is the great terra incognita between getting agent (hurrah!), and getting publisher (fingers crossed). But you are most welcome, whatever your relationship is to books, or words, or writing. I hope you enjoy - and please tell me if you do. POSHTOTTY

Sunday, 22 May 2011


What a phrase, eh? Volume II. Enough having fun with blogs, and background research, and James Bond moment with new characters in life; time to get back to the very serious business of writing. I've kept my fingers supple, kept the writing muscle limber, put (as my trainer at the gym used to say) 'the miles in my legs'. Now there's a thing. Is that why writing and running complement each other so well - each word a step, each step an exploration of a thought? It would be good to ask that question of Richard Long.

And that was a shameless digression. Back to Volume II.

Volume II is there, but now I look at it with proper close attention, it seems to be corralled behind a fence. It has a title (and we all know how essential that is), Volume II will be called The Dead Men, but I need to build a gate, I need to build a way in.

The trick that works most often for me in finding that way in is to forget I'm writing a book, but rather to view an opening or otherwise tricky or with-a-lot-riding-on-it scene as if I were directing a film. Where would I put my camera? Whose eye would my camera be? What would it shoot, to start with? Close-up? Panning out? Or zoom down in, from high above?

I see Volume II starting with a child's fingers, scrabbling to loosen something from the rubble of a fallen wall. I can feel the shards of mortar, and chunks of pulverised brick and stone. There's a little grass growing near the fingers - this wall fell some time ago. There are shadows round the fingers, the edge of a skirt and petticoat in frame, shadows beneath, around her feet - sun in the sky. The child is female, a little girl, and something sparkles there in the dirt, that's what she after. Something sparkling, and coloured - gold, red, green -

An embroidered ribbon round a cuff. She pulls the cuff. The sleeve comes up. The bony arm and hand within it, too. We don't see her reaction - we're left thinking, maybe this has happened too many times before for her to have one. What happens instead is there's a shout - another child's voice, but older, male, her brother, and the little girl stands up, we see her whole, for the first time, and looks at where her brother is pointing - and the whole world changes for them both.

I write to music. Cue John Lennon, 'Here comes old flat-top.'

There. I didn't know any of that was going to prove the way in. Now I will write it (and post it), and see where the camera goes next.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011


A fellow writer set me a challenge: 'Blog me the genesis of your book. Where did it come from, and where were you when it did?'

I was in a town called Nordlingen. This is Nordlingen, in the district of Donau-Ries, in Bavaria.

Pretty, huh? Note the almost faultlessly preserved within-the-town-walls circular shape.  The view below is also Nordlingen. Note the almost too-perfectly-preserved buildings. There is a reason for this. Not, for once, in this part of Germany, that the whole place was flattened by the RAF in 1944, and lovingly rebuilt after, no. Everything you see in Nordlingen is absolutely genuinely genuine. Nordlingen is a true Thirty-Years-War survivor, and what you see here is close enough to what the last soldiers saw, when they marched out in 1648, for any such soldier to be still able to find his way around the town today. Blindfold, if need be.

The reason for which, is, Nordlingen gambled, in the Thirty Years War, and lost. When the war ended (in 1648), Nordlingen was left with such a heap of debt it took it two centuries (TWO CENTURIES!!!) to pay it off. The Age of  Reason passed it by - there was no money in Nordlingen to pay to replace those geometric C16th facades with neo-Classical porches and stoops, because Nordlingen was still paying off the amount it had to borrow to stop General Tilly burning the place to the ground. The Age of the Railways arrived, 100 years later - no, Nordlingen had no money for that either, still paying off its debts from when the Swedish juggernaut heaved into town, in Tilly's defeated wake. The world moved on. Nordlingen, beggared beyond belief, was left behind.

I pitched up in Nordlingen in 1998. I was in company with my mate Joyce Hackett, she of the award-winning Disturbance of the Inner Ear, which I most heartily recommend to you, and Cara, one of the loveliest mutts I have ever had the pleasure to know. For Cara's evening walk, we walked Nordlingen's still-intact town walls. Watchtower to watchtower. We had supper at the Sun Inn, whose vistor's book kicks off in 1450. In the morning, we walked around the town, barely able to believe we hadn't suffered some time-slip overnight. Want to know what wattle and daub walls feel like? Run your fingertips along this. Want to understand how doomed you would feel, watching an army advance toward you, trapped within your little walled town? Lean out of watchtower, half-close your eyes, and in your imagination, fill that plain beyond with the rise and fall of marching troops, advancing on you like a sea. Want to know what it would sound like, hearing your own footsteps pounding down an alley so narrow that your shoulders barely fit between the walls, as you run for your life? Here you go. Be my guest.

I already had, in my head, the first dozen or so characters of my novel. I knew they all somehow related, I knew they fitted into the same jigsaw, but it was only in Nordlingen that I began to see how. This is Yosha, the Jewish merchant. This is the world he trades with, but can never belong to. This is Mungo Sant, the Scottish privateer. This is the world he trades with, but will never trust. And this here - this is my hero, Jack. He stands here, in Nordlingen, the terror of everything he sees; and here in his head are his scars, his griefs, his losses. Here is his story. This is what made him as he is. One man. Thirty years of war.

Saturday, 7 May 2011


I have this character - J, let's call them. I've lived with J a long, long time. I know what J wants, I know J's opinions, I can make a pretty good guess how J would react to just about anything life throws in J's path. I know J's secrets.We're tight.

I've spent a good deal of time crafting a plot for J, and I test new developments in this plot very carefully indeed. I know where J is going, and I excise without mercy anything that don't fit in with that. It's what J would want me to do.

Or so I thought.

I now have this new character in J's life. Came waltzing in without so much as a by-your-leave. Somewhere back there, despite all the care we've been taking, J 'n me, we must have left a door or a window open, a sentence without a stop, maybe, and all of a sudden we look up and there's this new shape in the room. No idea what they think they are doing there, and they, of course, are still so new it's probably an equal surprise to them.

We are going to call this new character M.

M seems to have come from another type of book entirely, which honestly could hardly be more different to the one he finds himself in now. Does this faze him? Not that I can see - nothing like as much as it has thrown me, that's for sure. You hear of this kind of thing happening, and in fact what you hear is that this is what it's all about, what you should be aiming for - the story reaching the kind of critical mass where it makes itself. Where, in effect, as a writer, you have come as close as you can to creating life - with all its whacky unpredictability, and its gleeful pooh-poohing of anything you might call plot for what you can only call the mash-up. Where this sort of curve-ball has been hurled at me, as reader, I've pooh-poohed it - oh, for goodness sake, I've said, how totally unbelievable. That would never happen.

There are words you write and now, apparently, there are words you eat. The writer, this writer, elbowed unceremoniously out of the way, too agog even to remember her nail-file, is now there as reader, and in the nicest place that life, or writing, can put you in: craning forward, all agog, asking 'What's going to happen next?'

Sunday, 1 May 2011


Damn it is so annoying. Where does it go? One minute you're steaming forward, all four engines thumping away and everything you come across is fuel, the next -

Run aground. Run dry.

It's real life, hurling itself into your path. It's the pram in the hall (or the pile in the in-tray). It's a fork in the road, and no bottle to spin, to help you out. It's a headcold. It's a trip.

People comment. Sometimes these are people whose opinions matter. It's a spur. It's a goad.

It's a bummer, the whole thing.

I did take a trip, I was up in Northamptonshire, staying in this tiny cottage so overgrown with ivy and roses that the outside and the inside mix whenever you open a door or a window. Snails silver the doorstep, baby froglets look up at you from the kitchen floor. Roses poke their heads in through the drawing room window and drop petals on the carpet; a fledgling blackbird, yellow mouth agape with terror, must be collected like a palpitating dust-ball from the corner of the porch, and restored to the garden. And there were bees. Great fat black-befurred bees, as big as the top joint of your thumb, half-snoring, half droning their dodgem-ish way round the flowerheads on the creeper outside my bedroom window, and inevitably, bumbling their way in through the window as well. The noise the one made that did this was loud enough to wake me from my sleep. Bang against the glass, BANG against the glass, with the drone deepening in annoyance with every head-on collision between it and window-pane. What's a girl to do? But (barely more awake than the bee) stumble out of bed, locate latch and open the window.

Bee bangs against glass a few more times, does a pratfall to the edge of the frame, walks about a bit, no doubt going 'Ow, my bastard head' to itself, and then miraculously wakes up to the fact that there is no glass, no net curtain ahead of it, and that it's free.

One happy bee.

Writer in pyjamas, still half asleep herself, has thought. There, she thinks. That's what its like. The words are there, banging away at the front of your brain. You open the window - and they're gone.