What’s in a Name?

Pensive me 2

Malgosia 

We all know that a rose “by any other name would smell as sweet”. It is, after all, a flower and you can’t change its appearance, or its scent by giving it a different name. Call the same blossom bogstink, however, and our perception of the flower might change.

Names are powerful. They carry with them a resonance and depth of meaning that work on many levels, some buried so deeply in the sub-conscious that we are not even aware of them.

This is why a great deal of time and money is spent trying to find the right name for a new product. The right name will spark a desire to own, or eat, or drink whatever it is that is on sale. A Jaguar, with its connotation of speed and glamour is for more desirable, than the now defunct Datsun Cherry.

It is also why finding your characters matters. Find the right one and so much can be implied, age, status, gender. No reader will empathise with Cruella de Ville, or Draco Malfoy, while Harry Potter is Every Boy, as opposed to Every Man.

House of ShadowsSometimes, as with Jo Docherty, in “House of Shadows” name and character simultaneously at once. It is almost as if I had already known her from somewhere in my past. I could see and hear her, I know all about her family and how and she ended up living with her grandparents.

I also knew exactly what Ann, the girl in the blue dress, looked like. It took me a time to find the portrait of her, painted by Thomas Gainsborough, but it was there in the museum Art Gallery, just as I had remembered.

Names play an important part in “Shadows on the Grass”. Cover 1The Dzierzanowski’s Polish surname sets them apart from post-war British society, in which they have to find their place.

The father, Gregor, suffers the indignity of having his name Anglicised at   work, because his work mates cannot cope with an unfamiliar juxtaposition of consonants.

Today, in a much more multi-cultural world, we make an effort to get our tongues around other people’s languages. When I was growing up, however, it was an accepted fact that no one would try.

The little girl in the picture was Christened, Malgorzata, Anna, Maria Chmielinska. Her first language was Polish and her parents, who did not have much money, sent her to a private nursery school when she was three years old, to make sure that she would be fluent in English, before she started full-time education at five.

Once at La Retraite, the nuns decided that my surname was impossible, my first name even worse and I became Margaret Anne.

Unless this has happened to you, it is difficult to understand what a huge impact this forcible re-naming can have.

For decades afterwards I struggled with this other persona. This English girl who wasn’t me.

What was worse, was that I wasn’t Polish either. At that time Poland was behind the Iron Curtain and was impossible to visit. Even communication with the rest of the family was difficult and possibly dangerous for them. I didn’t see any of my relatives who lived in Poland, until I was seventeen. By which time the political situation had changed and travel between the Eastern Bloc countries and the west was easier, though still not without its difficulties.

I still have vivid memories of the stone-faced East German guards going through our papers on the train and the way in which our possessions were searched on the way out Poland, in case we were smuggling any forbidden currency.

My sister, Anuk Naumann, she too has a story behind her name, but that is for another time, are both known not by the names we were given at birth, but by ones we either found, or grew into.

I suspect this search for identity is crucial to the way we see the world and to our art. Being uncertain of your own story is surely the greatest spur to constructing a narrative, where you, as the writer, or the artist, are more or less in control.

 

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Is this Chance or Synchronicity?

Birdcage Walk.

#Friday’s Favourites was a blog about “Birdcage Walk” by Helen Dunmore. It is a book, I’d wanted to read since it was published, because the book is set in Bristol, the city that has inspired so much of my work and the title refers to a place, I know well.

That, has proved not to be the only connection.

Needing to find something on the bookshelves in my office, I embarked on a wholescale re-vamp. I decided that my books and any anthologies, or magazines that have my stories in, I would put on the same shelf. It was interesting to see how much there was and to come across one or two pieces that I had forgotten about.

HensYears ago, in the 90’s I had some stories published in a magazine called “Hens”. It was set up by Harriet Kline, a friend of my daughter Posy Miller’s from university, to promote writing by women.

Looking through edition 5, I found, not only my story “Bubbles”, but also an interview by Helen Dunmore under the title “Published Women”.

A claim to fame? A salutary tale? Or one to be encouraged by, as we were all writers somewhere in the middle of our careers?

Who knows?

It just seems strange to discover, at the same time as I am reading her last novel, yet another link to this brilliant writer.

***

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#Friday Favourites: Birdcage Walk by Helen Dunmore

Birdcage Walk.“Birdcage Walk” is a novel I have wanted to read it since it came out. Then my mum lent me her copy and a few days later, when Mike was shopping, he rang me from the supermarket to ask if I wanted him to buy it for me.

I wish now that I had said yes, as this is a book that I would definitely want to keep. Not only is it set in Bristol, one of my favourite cities, but I know Birdcage walk well, as it is close to where I went to school. The path through the disused graveyard sparked my short story “Angels’ Wings” and like Helen Dunmore, the city and its history, have inspired a number of my novels, particularly “House of Shadows”.

“Birdcage Walk”, however, has a depth and quality to which I can only aspire. It tells the story of an unknown woman writer, Julia Fawkes, well known in her lifetime for her radical views, but now completely unknown. Nothing she wrote has survived, which gives rise to the question of what writers, especially women, can expect to leave behind them.

Julia is mourned by her daughter Lizzie and it is through her eyes that we see the world of radical thinkers to which Julia and her circle belong and the way in which they struggle with the moral and ethical consequences of the French Revolution.

Lizzie has removed herself form their circle, to marry a man, whose values are in complete opposition of her mother and stepfather. At first totally in love with Diver, she gradually begins to see that there is a darkness in her husband, which will threaten everything she knows and loves.

The gradually rise in tension is almost unbearable. The details of eighteenth century life vivid, yet unobtrusive, the images of the terrace of houses rising up above the Gorge, symbolic of the themes of the novel.

The book is at once a psychological thriller, a historical novel and a treatise on legacy and loss. What makes it all the more poignant is that this is Helen Dunmore’s last novel. In the Afterword, she writes,

“The question of what is left behind by a life haunts the novel. While I finished and edited it I was already seriously ill, but not yet aware of this. I suppose that a writer’s creative self must have access to knowledge of which the conscious mind and the emotions are still ignorant, and that a novel written at such a time, under such a growing shadow, cannot help being full of a sharper light, rather as a landscape becomes brilliantly distinct in the last sunlight before a story.”

Helen Dunmore died in June 2017.

 

 

 

Why What You Wear Matters

In my last blog I talked about how I see my characters. Part of that picture is, of course, what they wear. In “Picking up the Pieces” Liz is partly defined by her hippy skirts and un-tameable hair, Elsa by her designer outfits, while Bernie’s clothes come from chain stores. In “House of HOS cropped AShadows”, black is Jo’s colour. She is an artist and with her silver blonde hair, her black top and jeans and dramatic silver jewellery the image she projects of herself reinforces what she does.

Jo loves beautiful things and although she works with paint and mixed media, using her hands as well as her brushes to produce her paintings of Kingsfield, with their sinister implications, even in her studio she can wear her usual black and look elegant and very much herself.

Years ago, my sister, Anuk Naumann, said that she thought she ought to dress like an artist. She had just given up work as an architect to concentrate full time on her painting. Changing her way of dressing was both symbolic and practical. There is no doubt when you first meet her that Anuk is what she does.Anuk and book

What you wear is a signal to the rest of the world, for we all make instant judgements about the people we meet, and can lead to useful conversations, or at least when you tell someone you write then that does not come as a complete surprise.

It also shows what you think about yourself and how you are feeling. Not bothering, or even being able to wash and dress can be a sign of severe depression. Dressing conventionally, never daring to try anything different, can reveal a lack of confidence, as can,  choosing to dress in a particular role and taking on all the attributes that go with it.

This paradoxically can also be liberating, because dressed as a Goth or a biker, or a punk, you are free to behave in ways you could not before and to explore areas of your personality that would otherwise stay hidden.

On a deep level, what you wear and how you look reinforces your view of yourself. Being a writer is a solitary way of life. It is too easy to slop around all day in pyjamas or old jeans, but for me to look as I see myself, is vital.

We are visual creatures. As writers we use this in our work. In real life it matters too.

Question is, what does a writer look like/wear? I’d love to know your views.

Food for Thought: Tea at The Grand

Tea at Avon Gorge

On Saturday, I joined my mum, my daughter, my sister, niece and sister-in-law for afternoon tea at the Avon Gorge Hotel in Bristol. We were there to celebrate two big family birthdays, but one of the reasons I chose that hotel from all the others in Bristol is that the Avon Gorge is the model for The Grand in “Picking up the Pieces.”

Being brought up in Bristol and going to school just down the road, this hotel had always intrigued me. Clinging to the side of the Gorge it looks out on the Suspension Bridge and the river far below. I imagined it as a romantic place and conjured up an Art Deco Interior with a large Victorian conservatory, where my characters would meet and Elsa would break the devastating news that sets off the action of the novel.

In real life, however, it was very different. There was no glass Palm Court with a small orchestra playing tunes from the shows, or supercilious Maitre d’ and the customers were a greater cross section of people than I had imagined.

None of this distracted from the day. We had a lovely time, chatting and laughing and eating. It did, however, give me food for thought.

As a writer, I find that my ideas often come from places I know. So far my novels, “House of Shadows”, “Picking up the Pieces,” and the forthcoming “Shadows on the Grass” are all set in Bristol.

Although in most of the books, I am fairly accurate there are times, as in “Picking up the Pieces” when it is either not possible, or I don’t want to be accurate about what I am describing. After all, this is a work of imagination not a travelogue and I wouldn’t expect anyone to be able to find my way around the city from my descriptions.

Places are a starting point, then the imagination takes over as do the needs of the story. At least this is how I work.

The first chapter of “Picking up the Pieces” won’t tell you much about the Avon Gorge. It will, however, introduce you to Liz, Elsa and Bernie, three women in their fifties who have to face the total collapse of their lives with the help of each other and much cake.

The novel is currently on offer on kindle for 99p and makes a good summer read. Enjoy.

PUTP picatAvonGorgeHotel1

 

Should you be buying your friends’ books?

friends-books

It’s almost Christmas  and most of us are in the middle of, or have done,  our shopping for presents. For me much of this is done on Amazon. I scroll down wish lists, or remember books I think would suit the recipient and send off for them. A couple of days later, the doorbell rings and that’s another person ticked off on my list.

The best presents I can give my writer friends is to buy their books. A couple of years ago, this worked really well for me. “Sussex Tales” by Jan Edwards was a perfect choice for my sister, while both my husband and brother-in-law enjoyed Jem Shaw’s novel, “The Larks” about flying in the First World War.

My daughter gave her mother-in-law “House of Shadows” and my sister-in-law got a copy from my mum. Result!

None of my writing friends are, as yet, on the best seller list, but buying each others’ books is a way of spreading the word and most of all of supporting each other.

Writing is a solitary occupation and sometimes on a dreary, dismal December morning, when each sentence is wrung painfully out of your consciousness,  you wonder why on earth you do it. When someone tells you that they’ve read and enjoyed your book, then you know.

 

 

Water Spaniels?

water-spaniel

Yesterday I was at a dog show. It was an open show for Irish Water Spaniels and it set me thinking about the breed and the part these dogs play in  my books.

For those of you that don’t know, an Irish Water Spaniel is quite a rare creature. It looks a little like a poodle, with a brown curly coat. Unlike poodles, however, they have a bare chest and a thin whip like tail, which they wag with great enthusiasm. It is best not be anywhere near striking rage of these because they can really hurt. They also have a silky fringe which covers their eyes. Eyes which can be as melting as chocolate, or as evil as a large puddle of stinking mud.

Even the most loving and devoted of owners admit that these dogs have “character” which is, in the dog world, an euphemism for being bloody minded and doing exactly what they want when they want. They can be trained, they can be brilliant gun-dogs and great pets. They cannot, rather like a small child, be relied on to behave under all circumstances.

It’s this particular aspect of the dog that appears in “Picking up the Pieces”. When Bernie, Liz and Elsa set up their catering business Woody plays havoc with their first booking. In “House of Shadows”  Geordie is the reason why Mrs Armitage leaves Damien and Jo to go  alone into the church to search the parish records for the identity of the girl in the blue dress. In my current work-in-progress Jake will bring Eddie and Debbie together. A Water Spaniel also appears in “Master of Trades” the third book in  my  “Dragonfire” trilogy.

So why is this particular breed of dog so important to me? My husband Mike Herwin used to breed them and over the ears we’ve had a number of very distinctive canine personalities who have deigned to share our home.

Having moved into town, we no longer have a dog, so I suppose that writing about them is one way of keeping them in my life. Then, of course, there is the challenge.

Years ago, when we first met, Mike challenged me to write a story which began “It was a dark and stormy night” and ended with “And in one bound Jack was free. ” And it had to include an Irish Water Spaniel. The story was written and published. In the Irish Water Spaniel Year Book, naturally. But this was not the end of it.  He wanted to know if I could put a Water Spaniel in any book or story.

In a short story that is not always possible, or indeed desirable. In a novel however there is always space for one of these “Bundles of rags in a cyclone” (Memoirs of an Irish RM by Somerville and Ross) or as Jo Docherty puts it in “House of Shadows” “It’s like a walking hearth rug, but the face is beautiful, soft as velvet and those eyes under that fringe of ringlets are like chocolate.”

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