Friday, 23 December 2011

You can't have everything...

I've been a terrible blogger, and an even worse writer lately, but I'm sure you'll all be thrilled to know that this Christmas there has been no last-minute present panic (yet) or waking up in a cold sweat at 3am with the desperate realisation that tomorrow is daughter #3's Christmas play and I haven't yet started assembling bits of costume. This year, beds are already made up - with actual clean sheets - in preparation for the arrival of my brother and his adorable family and not only are presents bought, but also wrapped, hopefully meaning I'll be able to go to bed before the sky starts to lighten on Christmas morning. This year the fridge has been calmly stocked by a timely Sainsbury's delivery rather than a last-minute raid on the Spar shop in the late-night garage, and the chocolate-and-pizza-encrusted sofa covers have been washed. In other words, this year I am In Control of Christmas.

It's all something of a displacement activity, of course. It's the season of angels and lighting candles and counting blessings and I am doing both of the latter, for reasons that will become clear in time. In the meantime I'm wishing you all the happiest and most peaceful of Christmases and the best and brightest of New Years. xxxx

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

And the winners are...

The Oscars may have gold envelopes and perma-tanned celebrities dripping with diamonds, but on this blog we have to make do with an empty Rice Krispies packet and me in my pyjamas for the purposes of winner-selection. It's not pretty, so at this point you might like to imagine James Franco standing onstage holding my Rice Krispie box and reading out the following list of people who'll soon* be receiving copies of In Bed with a Stranger. Ok, so... The winners are...

(suspenseful silence)

Jacqueline, Jo, Carol, Amanda, Jane and Amit.

(thunderous applause. Kisses to the winners from JF.)

Thank you hugely to everyone who emailed an entry - the cereal box was fuller than ever this time and I'm so sorry I don't have enough books to send one to everyone whose name was in there. I really need to get my study tidied up so it can revert to its alternative incarnation as a spare room when my brother's family come at Christmas, so if there are extra books looking for homes I'll post them to the next names out of the box. (It's an indication of just how chaotic this place is that I don't have a clue how many books I have under the landslide of Christmas shopping, roll-wrap and miles of brown paper Amazon stuff into their boxes.) (Why do they even do that? It's not like books can get broken.)

On the upside, the absence of a pressing deadline this year has meant that for the first time ever I'm all over the Christmas thing. Oh yes. Only December 6th and I've actually bought more than four presents, though I must confess I haven't quite got round to handcrafting individual place-card holders from pomegranates, making my own Christmas Morning Clementine Marmalade or witty freeze-ahead canapés, proving that it's not lack of time that prevents me from being a domestic goddess à la Kirstie or Nigella, but congenital slovenliness. Gosh - who knew? Anyway, my seasonal enthusiasm has been given a boost by sneakily deleting 'Now That's What I Call Xmas Volume 487' and all similar festive-pop-trash from every ipod in the house and replacing it with my new top Christmas album by Emmy The Great. Sadly my favourite track isn't on youtube for convenient sharing (apart from sort-of here) so you'll just have to take my word for how fab it is and download it, but this one's also excellent. Poor Mrs Christmas - like the Military Wives she does deserve some sisterly sympathy.

In the midst of all this Organisation I'm not writing much, but I am thinking. A lot. And mentally girding myself to get this book written in a great big reclusive rush once Christmas is out of the way. (Because that always goes well, doesn't it?)

*'Soon' being a relative concept, given the December postal service. Sooner, say, than it would take to travel to that new planet whose name I can't remember but which is 9 millionty light years away. Or something.

Monday, 21 November 2011

Back to Books...

In the same way that the UK is out of step with the rest of the world in terms of Downton Developments (sounds like a construction company) we're also a bit ahead in book scheduling, so I've been delaying posting about Part 2 of my duo until it was a bit closer to its US release date. It's still another month until In Bed With A Stranger hits the shelves on the other side of the Atlantic, but at least the first part of the story is out now, so it doesn't feel too premature to be talking about its follow up. I'll try not to give away too many spoilers!

In the post I did on Craving the Forbidden I mentioned the minor panic I had when nearing the end about writing a sequel. At that stage, deeply immersed in taking Kit and Sophie to their grand Happy Ever After, the thought of anything jeopardising or undermining it was unbearable. And I hadn't really thought about what would happen in the second book either, or what could possibly come along to rock Kit and Sophie's love for each other. When it comes to writing I'm really not a natural planner, but the prospect of having no roadmap at all felt slightly insane, even by my standards.

But then I realised that real life is like that all the time, and that if Sophie and Kit themselves had no idea of what storms that lay ahead there was no reason why I should. I also decided it wasn't a case of drawing out the conflict that had already kept them apart (any couple that keep going round in circles with the same old arguments without resolving them probably won't be getting a telegram from the Queen on their Diamond wedding anniversary) but at looking at aspects of their characters and their history that had the potential to develop into new issues entirely. The ingredients for the second story were all there in the first. Kit's (*ahem* - trying to avoid spoilers) family background, along with his unwillingness to show emotions were two areas that raised red flags for future peace and harmony, along with the chip Sophie has on her shoulder about her own upbringing, and a minor health problem that had been put into the first book for fun (and for the sake of realism!) From there, and with a desperate urge to get them out of Alnburgh and somewhere a bit warmer and more exotic, the story kind of fitted itself together .

It wasn't without its traumas though - mostly when I heard back from my editor that the ending I'd masterfully orchestrated needed completely rethinking. I love my editor and after five years of working with her I trust her completely, so once I'd finished sobbing my way through a whole box of tissues and eaten all the biscuits in the tin I thought about it and realised she was absolutely right. In my eagerness to tie up both books I'd brought back the alluringly red wine-and-Gitanes-infused Jean-Claude from the opening of book 1 to throw a spanner in the works, without pausing to notice that in doing so I'd made the conflict completely external. Duh! Schoolgirl error! Once I'd banished him back to his loft in Paris or wherever, Kit and Sophie were left to thrash it out alone.

I'm always going boringly on about writing to music, and the book started to flow much more easily once its soundtrack came together. It all began with this song, which really suited the happy/sad mood of the beginning when Kit comes home but communication between them stalls...

I also had to throw in a bit of Sting when the action moved to Marrakech (thank goodness Kit's mother hadn't decided to live in Margate) and this wonderful song, by Loreena McKennitt, which could have been written specially for one of the scenes in the book.

Other songs in the constant loop on my ipod included this one from new discovery Maria Mena, and this one, which inspired the scene on the beach. I also listened to this song a lot - mainly on youtube so I could enjoy the MV too (I thought I was hard on my heroes but it seems I have a long way to go before I'm playing with the big girls.) Finally - there's a tune that gets a mention right at the end, at Kit and Sophie's wedding. Knowing Sophie wouldn't walk down the aisle to anything traditional I thought for ages about what she would choose, and eventually decided that as she moved forward into her future with Kit, she'd want to embrace her past. So she comes into church to this tune.

I have copies of both UK and US releases cluttering up the floor of my study here and since I can't write in an untidy study I could do with getting rid of some. If you'd like one just send an email via my website contact page, containing your postal address, and I'll pick out 3 Modern winners and 3 Presents winners. I'll put all the people who entered the last giveaway and weren't lucky back into the draw too (whether they like it or not. I'm bossy that way.)

Friday, 11 November 2011

My Favourite Remembrance Day Poem

LAST POST by Carol Ann Duffy

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,

He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If poetry could tell it backwards, true, begin
that moment shrapnel scythed you to the stinking mud…
but you get up, amazed, watch bled bad blood
run upwards from the slime into its wounds;
see lines and lines of British boys rewind
back to their trenches, kiss the photographs from home-
mothers, sweethearts, sisters, younger brothers
not entering the story now
to die and die and die.
Dulce- No- Decorum- No- Pro patria mori.
You walk away.

You walk away; drop your gun (fixed bayonet)
like all your mates do too-
Harry, Tommy, Wilfred, Edward, Bert-
and light a cigarette.
There's coffee in the square,
warm French bread
and all those thousands dead
are shaking dried mud from their hair
and queuing up for home. Freshly alive,
a lad plays Tipperary to the crowd, released
from History; the glistening, healthy horses fit for heroes, kings.

You lean against a wall,
your several million lives still possible
and crammed with love, work, children, talent, English beer, good food.
You see the poet tuck away his pocket-book and smile.
If poetry could truly tell it backwards,
then it would.

Monday, 7 November 2011

Downton: It's all over bar the Christmas episode

**Warning - contains SPOILERS and a little bit of SNEERING**

The first morning of winter here today; frost on the cobwebs, mist over the fields and a feeling of deep sorrow in my heart as I contemplate Sunday nights devoid of Downton. OK, so this series really failed to live up to expectations on a serious drama level, but blimey it's been fun. Even in parts when 'fun' might not have been entirely appropriate - like last night when half the cast went down with Spanish Flu at the exact same moment over dinner, leaving everyone else to rush around, bursting into rooms and saying 'you'd better come quickly!' Notably the only people not rushing and bursting were Matthew and Lord G, who foolishly saw the incapacitation of their partners as a convenient moment to indulge in a swift bit of almost-philandering, little realising they were setting themselves up for a dose of guilt and self-loathing that's going to last well into Series Three.

The plot devices have been about as subtle as Matthew's graveside makeup and the time-frame frankly bewildering; galloping at a cracking pace through historical events while the characters and their relationships remain curiously static. Branson the Upstart Chauffeur first exchanged meaningful glances with Lady Sybil in 1912, declared his feelings for her in 1916, touched her waist at some point in 1918 and kissed her for the first time in 1919. If Mary and Matthew's on-off romance has frustrated us viewers over eight weeks, imagine how it must feel to them to be still unresolved after almost eight years. At least Mary's character has developed, although it's a shame she's gone from feisty and fabulous to martyred and moany. The reason I want her to get it on with Matthew in the Christmas episode is simply because they deserve each other; wicked Sir Richard might not be as posh as her but he's certainly far more charismatic and interesting these days. He'd be well advised not to set a date for the wedding just yet and wait for a Bright Young Thing to come along in the next season.

Anyway, I loved every minute, which perhaps shows that 'worldbuilding' (I might just have made that word up) is one of the most important things in creating any kind of fiction. Because the house and the characters and the historical period are brought to life so richly (if not always entirely authentically) it carries you along and makes you willing to ignore the cynical voice inside your head sneering 'that would never happen'. The only really awful jarring note for me this series was Matthew's miraculous recovery, which stretched credibility about a million miles too far. No doubt there are useful lessons to be learnt from it all. Don't put plaster dust in your wedding cake, for example, and go easy on the make-up at funerals, chaps, if you don't want to find yourself shunted over to the cast of The Vampire Diaries. I'll probably have to watch all the episodes again to work out what it has to teach us in writing terms though.

(In the meantime, I'd probably better just get on with doing some...)

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Thank you!

I should have included a bit about the dedication in Craving the Forbidden in the post I did about the book, but completely forgot until Ros reminded me. After all the lovely, kind comments on the previous post now would seem a good time to mention it!

Monday, 10 October 2011

You should've seen the other guy

Apologies for not having returned to say thank you to everyone who's emailed me in response to the previous post and shared their happiest holiday memories and favourite destinations. Reading them has been a real pleasure, and yesterday I finally got round to picking out the names of five people to receive books. Well done Alison, Sue, Katie, Denise and Holly, and *thank you* for your lovely emails. Florence was the most mentioned holiday destination and also one of the most evocatively described, so going there now feels like a matter of urgency, especially as Autumn has arrived with a vengeance here, hurling leaves against my window and making it necessary to wear thick jumpers and have the lights on all day.

Not that I'm going anywhere if I can help it until I look a bit more respectable. Last week I went down to London with daughter #1 and a friend as she'd been commended in the Foyle Young Poets of the Year competition and was invited to attend an award ceremony followed by a day of exciting poetry stuff at the Southbank Centre. Of course, maternal pride aside, I was thrilled because it was an excuse to meet up with London girls Natalie Rivers and Heidi Rice for lunch and gossip.

It was a glorious sunny day and we sat in the cafe at Tate Modern and looked out across the river as we had a lovely long, leisurely lunch. After we'd reluctantly said goodbye to Heidi and sent her back to her glamorous Southbank office Natalie and I wandered in the sunshine in the direction of St Pauls, where we had a cup of tea in the crypt and listened to a school choir singing in the cathedral above. So far so fabulous. After that we were heading back in the direction of the Southbank centre to meet the daughter when it all went a bit pear shaped. The traffic, being central London, was dire and I walked in front of a bus that was stationary - but couldn't see the courier cyclist hurtling along on its pavement side.

Oops. The rest is a bit hazy, but let's just say lots of blood and an ambulance were involved. Luckily the cyclist wasn't hurt and was extremely nice, picking me up (from which we can deduce he was extremely strong too) and insisting on giving us his name and phone number. Not that I was in much state to take it, but thank goodness for Natalie who was calm, competent and utterly magnificent in a way I just know I would have failed to manage had the roles been reversed (which in itself would be unlikely as she's far too sensible to throw herself into the path of an oncoming bike in the first place.) She kept me calm, fed me chocolate, waited while I was being stitched up, made lots of contingency plans with Heidi for collection of children, then escorted us all right to the platform at Euston station when it was time for our train home. I'm thinking of taking her everywhere with me in future, just to be on the safe side. She's an absolute goddess.

Here's what I looked like yesterday. Shame Halloween isn't for a few weeks...

Friday, 30 September 2011

Craving the Forbidden - the lowdown

My husband is away on a work trip at the moment, so I was up with the lark (or the fat pigeon who lives, noisily,in the apple tree outside my bedroom window) this morning, determined to get on top of the pre-school routine. All went gratifyingly smoothly; scrambled eggs served up to the two daughters who wanted them, #3's packed lunch made (by herself, admittedly) dinner money found for the others, and I was feeling pretty smug as I drove home from the school run. Then I discovered that the guinea pigs were still shut in and sweltering in their eglu and I'd forgotten to brush my teeth. Oh well, almost there.

Anyway, moving swiftly on. The first I heard about the project that was to result in Craving the Forbidden and its sequel (In Bed with A Stranger, out in November) was when I went out for tea with my editor back in 2009. Over scones, champagne and a pot of Russian Caravan (we both agree that it's a crime to have to choose between champagne and tea so usually manage to squeeze in both) she asked if I'd be willing to be one of three of authors doing double-length stories. Given my tendency to write double the wordcount on every book, I'd agreed before she'd even finished the sentence - or told me that Lynne Graham and Penny Jordan were the other authors involved.

My excitement was tempered slightly by the fact that I was in the midst of my struggle to write The Book That Would Not Die (published eventually under the alternative title Her Last Night Of Innocence) but my subconscious decided to take matters into its own hands, and the morning after I got back from London I woke up with an extremely vivid scene in my head. It was set on a train leaving London and heading North (no prizes for guessing where you got that from, Subconscious) and was compelling enough to make me get out of bed and head straight for my computer to write it down. That was the starting point for the book, and over the following months as I wrestled with Cristiano and Kate, Kit and Sophie's story pieced itself together, bit by bit, in my mind. By the time I actually came to write it I had a notebook full of bits of dialogue and notes on scene ideas. Some of them never made it into the finished book, largely because I couldn't remember what they meant. What kind of scenes did I have in mind when I wrote 'beetroot' and 'doormat'??

The one thing that I hadn't quite got to grips with in my head when I started writing the book was the hero's character. I knew what he looked like...

...and I knew what kind of person he was ('distant' and 'disapproving' were the words written on the post-it notes on my computer screen) but I didn't really know why. At first I had him down as being an architect; precise and controlled, governed by rules and order. That was fine as far as it went, but there were still things that didn't fit and loose ends that wouldn't tie up, no matter how hard I yanked them. And then I realised that he wasn't an architect at all but a soldier and everything fell into place. Well, once I'd completely rewritten the first four chapters, anyway.

The course of the story changed dramatically after that, and took me down research routes that were fascinating, eye-opening and humbling, which is why I'm so thrilled to be involved in the Help for Heroes fundraising anthology. Kit Fitzroy is an EOD operative (that's Explosive Ordnance Disposal to the previously uninitiated, like myself) It's an extraordinary job, done by utterly extraordinary people - but there's more of that in the second book, so I'll talk about that next month.

Craving The Forbidden is almost entirely set in a hulking great castle on the Northumberland coast, based on an amalgam of Bamburgh and Alnwick and consequently imaginatively named Alnburgh. Usually I seem to set books in locations I can only dream of visiting but we'd had a great holiday in Northumberland the year before so this time all the research was conveniently done well in advance. Most uncharacteristically organised of me.

On the surface I suppose the conflict is staggeringly simple - always the best kind to work with, I find - and as old as the hills. The story is about the attraction of opposites - the spark between two people who come from different worlds and embody different values. Kit Fitzroy comes from a family whose name goes back to the Norman conquest and whose home has stood strong for four hundred years. Sophie Greenham has grown up on a painted London bus and has never stayed anywhere for more than a few months at a time. She's a bit-part actress and reinvents herself with every job that comes along, whereas Kit's identity seems set in the stone that forms Alnburgh's foundations. The idea of permanence makes Sophie shudder, but it's what keeps Kit going. All of that formed the background to the interaction between their characters and made it easy to write.

What was more difficult was managing the pace and splitting the story into two parts with a genuine, convincing absolute Happy Ever After promise at the end of the first one, and there were times at the beginning when I really did think I might have been far too hasty in saying yes to the project before thinking it through! But as I got further into the story, and into Kit and Sophie's heads, I forgot all about that and just let the story unfold until it reached its natural conclusion. Like Kit and Sophie, all I cared about was that moment and the future (ie book 2!) was a long way from my mind.

So, after that quick introduction to the book and its characters, I have some copies to give away. If you'd like to be in with a chance of getting one, email me via the website and tell me the name of your favourite holiday place. I'll pick five favourite holiday places out next week (and probably end up with a few more places on my Must Visit list...)

Now, I'd better go and clear up the mess from breakfast and apologise properly to the guinea pigs. Have a nice weekend everyone!

Thursday, 29 September 2011

Back to Books

Ages ago I mentioned that I'd got a box of author copies of my latest release Craving the Forbidden and promised to blog about it, which - true to form - I've so far failed to do. But as the book is now available on Amazon (and the Mills & Boon website - check out the clever link thing I managed to put over there on the sidebar <-- ) and is about to hit the shelves of bookshops here in the UK it's about time I got my act together, so come back tomorrow for some background information on Kit and Sophie's story, and a chance to win a copy.

In other book news, I also got some copies of an anthology in which I'm honoured to be included, along with fabulous authors Jessica Hart and Amy Andrews. The book that I have in it is Mistress: Hired for the Billionaire's Pleasure (featuring Orlando Winterton, my all-time favourite hero.) It's called Loving our Heroes, is coming out at the end of October and £1 from every sale goes to Help for Heroes. I feel particularly proud to be involved in supporting this charity for reasons I'll explain tomorrow when I talk about Kit and Sophie's story. In the meantime, here's the cover - isn't it fabulous?

Monday, 26 September 2011

Downton Debrief (WARNING: may contain massive spoilers)

My, things are moving fast in downtown Downton aren't they? April 1917 already (the war definitely will be over by Christmas at this rate...) Thomas is back in Yorkshire and back at work, though the wound in his hand still looks alarmingly fresh. Matthew is still in one piece (no surprises there, having seen his battle-dodging last week) and heading back off to the trenches, where the sniping will be far less fierce than in the Dining Room at Downton. Edith finally gets a snogging scene, while Bates is missing in action, Maggie Smith's Jennifer Saunders impression gets better and better and Carson finds it all a bit much.

I really like the way the seemingly irredeemable O'Brien is oh-so-gradually revealing her human side, and I loved the set-up for future heartache in the storyline between Daisy and William. (Relationship Dilemma 1917-style: you don't want to finish with your boyfriend just before he heads off to the trenches incase he dies. But what if he just gets horribly injured...?)

So what did everyone else think of Episode two ?

Thursday, 22 September 2011

It's been a while since I mentioned it...

...but James D'Arcy's looking mighty fine these days isn't he?

*happy sigh* Hero inspiration in every finely-shaped feature. Since the book I'm currently working on is set in a different time-period (and also features a pilot hero) I think it wouldn't be disloyal to Orlando to use him again...

Who are you finding inspiring at the moment? Do share!

Friday, 16 September 2011

This Sunday...

Lay in supplies of red wine, firewood and Kit Kats. Put the kids to bed early and take the phone off the hook. Downton's Back!

I'm desperately excited about the new series, but also a teeny bit apprehensive too. It's set in the same period as the book I'm writing now, and have had in my head for the last 6 years or so - what if it turns out to be freakily similar to the central story in my book? (and annoyingly better?) So much has been written about this time period already and there's no limit to the number of stories still to be told and unique ways to tell them, so I suppose it's unlikely that I'm going to see my particular take on it spookily played out before a TV audience of millions. But let's just say if any of the men have enlisted in the Royal Flying Corps I'll be watching from behind the sofa...

Better stock up on extra wine and Kit Kats, just incase.

Monday, 12 September 2011

A week of contrasts

It was probably a bit daft to squeeze in one last camping trip before school started again: certainly the wise people at the Met Office suggested as much, as did the (very tiny) Voice Of Reason inside my own head, whispering stuff about the need to organise school shoes and PE shorts and track down a whole raft of 6th form text books. But one of my greatest skills is ignoring the voice of reason, so the last Friday of the holidays saw us heading off in the direction of the Peak District, in a car stuffed with waterproofs, hot water bottles, thick socks and wellies - because (*nervous laugh*) we're not completely without sense.

When we got there, the campsite looked like this. At a weekend. In the summer holidays. (*more nervous laughing.*)

Of course, it rained. Quite a lot, as it happened - mostly on the morning we were trying to pack the tent up; a task which took on an interesting 'It's a Knockout' aspect with the addition of gallons of water pouring over the whole proceedings. But in between downpours it was almost freakishly hot and sunny. Well, for Derbyshire anyway, which, happily, is a county generously endowed with pubs in which to dry off. We shopped for new term supplies in beautiful Buxton, and sampled water from the famous spring. It was warm...

Let's just say I was a bit more enthusiastic about the Bakewell puddings in Bakewell. Unsurprisingly, perhaps.

In line with this summer's 'misery tourism' theme we had to make a trip to the Plague Village of Eyam, where we spent an afternoon utterly engrossed in the tragic events of 1665-66 and looking at yet more graves. Honestly, what kind of childhood am I giving my poor daughters?

Before we headed home again on Tuesday, Chatsworth was on the itinerary. Of course, we couldn't have foreseen the torrentialness (if that's not a word, it should be) of the deluge in which we took down the tent, nor the extent of our bedragglement as we trudged - in wellies, gently steaming as we dried out - around the most magnificent house in England. Given time, Daughter #1 might possibly forgive me for making her spend her summer holidays visiting the dead, but showing up at Mr Darcy's house looking like refugees from Glastonbury may take therapy. The house guides were very kind, possibly because we looked like people who weren't really used to being Indoors, and the wallpaper was lovely, but a bottle of water cost £1.50, which made me think rather more kindly about the warm, free water in Buxton. It is a truth universally acknowledged that a man in possession of a large fortune probably got it by fleecing tourists.

Back at home it was all hands to the laundry pile as the countdown to school ticked into the final hours. (Actually, that's just wishful thinking. I tackled the laundry pile heroically and alone.) Once all three daughters had been pushed out of the door, more or less clean and ironed on Wednesday morning, I had just one day to transform myself from weather-beaten tent-dweller to the kind of person who wouldn't be thrown out of a smart restaurant in Charlotte Street.

With the dirt mostly removed from beneath my fingernails, headed excitedly down to London to meet up with a group of fellow Presents authors. Lunch was in honour of visiting Australian writers Annie West and Trish Morey and was champagne-fuelled, delicious and an absolute riot of non-stop conversation. It was heaven to be in heels rather than wellies, eating perfect food cooked by someone else, in the company of wonderful, inspiring women. More efficient people than I took photos (or charmed passing businessmen into taking them, Presents-heroine style.) As the day gave way to evening and the time of my train home approached, neither the flow of conversation nor champagne showed any sign of abating and I dearly wished I could have stayed. Luckily it's a mere seven weeks to the annual Mills and Boon Author lunch... Better get some writing done before then.

What's everyone else been doing over the summer, and how are we all feeling about the onset of Autumn? And is anyone all fired up to get their entry off to New Voices? Let me know if you are so I can cheer you on!

Thursday, 1 September 2011

Fly-by post

Because I'm crazily trying to catch up on washing from last weekend's camping trip* and simultaneously packing for another one tomorrow, I haven't really got time to muse on the bizarre fact that it's suddenly September. So, here's David Sylvian to ease you gently into autumn. He sounds slightly puzzled about it all too, but I love this song and always dig it out for a nostalgia-wallow at this time of year.

Back next week, when the house is empty, I'm looking for excuses to avoid opening my neglected book file, and can start getting excited about New Voices and my upcoming Modern release Craving the Forbidden. I have books to give away...

* the family reunion one, which also involves the team games, all-day drinking and fancy dress - in my case this year no corset, but a rather dashing highwayman's cloak and hat as Adam Ant. Surprisingly warm and practical. Am thinking of packing them for weekend in Peak District too.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

So, where was I?

'France' is the short answer to that, although I have to confess that was only for the last ten days or so and doesn't quite justify my absence from the blog for almost a month. I always struggle to keep up during the school holidays (with the blog as well as much else, like ironing and getting dressed before 3pm) but this year I've been slacker than ever. (Hmm. Am tempted to pretend I've been languishing in a wi-fi-less house on the other side of the Channel all summer, rather than merely for the last week.)

Cleverly I put myself ICO venue-finding this year, hoping that no-one would detect my cunningly hidden agenda of combining family holiday with sneaky research trip for the book I'm trying to write, which is partly set in WW1. The house I found (or rather, two houses as we forced the same friends as last year to come with us again) was a couple of miles outside Montreuil, which is where Field Marshal Haig was based during the war but (rather tellingly) a pretty long way from the front line, which ensured my obsession wasn't allowed to dominate too much. It was also gorgeous. Last year we holidayed boy-scout style, in tents which, despite my best efforts with bunting and solar-powered fairy lights remained more Slumdog Millionaire than Out of Africa. This year I was determined to aim higher in the Gracious Living stakes - to the extent of a proper bed at least - and achieve a week of proper relaxation.

The research part of the week involved a day around Arras, the scene of much action in April 1917, and a trip to Vimy Ridge. There you can walk along reconstructed Canadian and German trenches only 25 metres apart and see the grassed-over scars of old trenches and craters and shell holes, as well as the magnificent monument to the 11000 Canadian missing...

We were pretty close to Étaples, site of the enormous British transit camp and field hospital during the war, but there's little there to see now. Bearing in mind the 'summer holiday' aspect of the trip I'd made a resolution not to drag everyone round endless cemeteries and cast a pall of solemnity over the whole week, but we could hardly drive past the Military Cemetery, with its crazy-beautiful Lutyens arches and steps, now could we? It was just after lunchtime when we stopped, but the sun was casting long shadows behind each headstone by the time we reluctantly left.

The rest of the week was spent lazing about in or beside the bathwater-warm swimming pool, eating bread, playing the odd, incompetent game of tennis (me, not the athletic-ace kids), drinking insanely cheap Muscadet and eating more bread. We did manage trips to Agincourt and the beach, but the wind was fierce at the coast and the sea considerably colder than the pool back at base-camp, where swimming could go on late into the night...

All in all a fabulous week, right up until the moment when Daughter #3 woke me up with the words 'I feel sick' and reality came crashing back in. On the upside, it was very clever of her to leave it until the last day of the holiday, and there's no doubt that a poorly child is a whole lot easier to look after in a house stuffed with comfortable beds, sofas and en suite bathrooms than a tent, but there was no putting off the journey home the following day. We stopped for one last time in Montreuil to buy a bucket and raced up to Calais. Probably best to draw a veil over the rest of the trip home. We were, however, so relieved to get back that it distracted us from the contrast with the immaculate and stylish house we'd left in France and the one we returned to, with the overgrown, jungly garden strewn with windfall apples and the rancid yogurt in the fridge.

Later, with Poorly Daughter safe and sleeping in her own bed and the washing machine on, we collapsed on the sofa and turned on the TV. Pictures of riots and looting - news that had escaped us in our technology-free French idyll - filled the screen. Switched it off quickly, dug bottle of Muscadet out of its swaddling in a bag of washing and retreated gratefully into twilit apple-scented jungle garden to talk wistfully about ditching TV and internet permanently, and moving to France.

Monday, 11 July 2011

A Wonderful Weekend

I don't get out much. Most weekends see me catching up on laundry, cleaning bathrooms and assisting with homework rather than slinging a smart little suitcase in the back of the car and whizzing off for a couple of days of fun/heavy drinking/inspiration - however, that's exactly what I did this weekend when I went to the RNA conference at Caerleon. (Except for the 'smart little suitcase' bit, but more of that later.)

For reasons mostly to do with deadlines and looming summer holidays this was my first conference, so I wasn't entirely sure what to expect beyond beautiful shoes and lots of wine consumption. Having been the kind of person who always had ten good reasons to go to the union bar instead of a lecture when I was at university I certainly wasn't anticipating wanting to go to every single session, but that's pretty much what happened. From Lizzie Kremer's opening talk on contracts to lovely Sara Craven's summing-up speech I only missed one, when tiredness and the need for tea got the better of us and Natalie Rivers and I sloped back to our flat. (Very good thing indeed that the conference goody bags had been visted by the Green & Blacks fairy - my bar of fruit and nut was practically medicinal by that stage.)

Aside from being monumentally motivating, it was just fabulous to get together with people I don't see nearly often enough and meet lots of new friends, including new medical author Scarlet Wilson. Am sure her books will be as funny and smart and fantastic as she is, so we're all in for a treat. She's also incredibly glamorous, but you'll just have to take my word for that as this is the moment when I have to admit that I have returned home without a single photo. (Again. *sheepish look*) I'm going to say this was due to chucking all my stuff into a bigger suitcase five minutes before I had to leave for the station on Friday, having broken the zip on the small one trying to close it, and forgetting to retrieve my camera from the little pocket, but in all honesty I didn't even notice I hadn't taken it until I got home. Too busy talking to do photos, obviously.

Amongst the many highlights of the weekend were the dinner on Saturday night, when we were lucky enough to share a table with all four gorgeous M&B editors (and were the last to leave the hall at sometime after 1 am...) Fiona Harper's utterly brilliant talk on Getting Emotion on the Page, finally coming up with a pretty satisfactory 'elevator pitch' sentence for the book I'm trying to write in Jane Wenham-Jones' excellent session (with help from Fiona) and - now I come to think of it - just thinking about books and writing for a whole weekend, without having to apply my mind to the contents of the fridge and what to do with them. (The mini-fridge in my room contained a pint of milk and the aforementioned bar of Green and Blacks. No probs thinking what to do with either of those. Maybe should recreate this at home.)

The strangest part was seeing so many faces that were half-familiar from twitter profile pics, and being too shy to approach most of them. It's a funny old thing - like falling into a book and where you know all the characters, but suspecting that you'll come across as a total scary weirdo-stalker if you behave as such. Wonder if this is an age thing? Suspect the yoof of today are much better at making the transition between cyber and real world. Will try to be braver next time.

The train home was ancient, filthy and vastly overcrowded but I had plenty to think about, and I'm not just talking about the salacious details of the conversation the women opposite me were having. Back at home He seemed to have managed fine without me, which was a little impolite, I felt. However, online shop arrived last night and it transpired he had forgotten to order biscuits. *smug face* I would never do that. Nice to know I am needed after all.

Now. Must write book.

Thursday, 30 June 2011

Still no laptop...

...but after a happy afternoon at the Pick your Own farm (or the Pick and Mix farm, as Daughter #3 wistfully calls it) we have STRAWBERRY SOUP JAM.

OK, so you do have to be a tiny bit careful that it doesn't drip off your toast, but it tastes divine. However, the children, having seen it oozing and bubbling blackly for hours in the pan, refuse to believe this and will not be persuaded to try it. Result!

Last night was Daughter #1's High School Prom, which meant the day was given over to preparatory pampering and glamour. Felt like a very proud but utterly knackered Fairy Godmother by the time she and her friends pulled away in the hideously vulgar (but apparently de rigeur) limo. Next time will someone remind me not to have my photo taken with a radiant 16 year old who has spent 4 hours getting ready, when I haven't had time to wash my hair or put on mascara? Today am barricaded in my office and writing hard, as a distraction from the urge to loiter in front of the mirror counting wrinkles and wondering where the years went.

Friday, 17 June 2011

In Search of the Good Life

My laptop net-booky thing died. In laptop years it was probably about 247, and had admittedly had a pretty hard life, but its demise - from a hideous virus caught from some horrid instant-messenger thing downloaded by a daughter - was still a blow. I had such high hopes when I first got it... and although not all of them may have quite been realised, it's been a very faithful companion for the last 3 years.

And yet, a month on and I haven't really begun to look into replacing it. As someone who spends quite a large proportion of their energy ranting at the junior members of the household about the time they spend online and the fact that they 'chat' incessantly to cyberfriends but have a tendency to monosyllabic grunting over the dinner table, the removal of one instrument of addiction has made life a whole lot simpler. It's also forced me to confront the extent of my own internet habit. I wasn't quite at the 'grunting at the dinner table' stage, but I will own up to keeping my netbook open in a corner of the kitchen and checking emails/twitter 25 times every ten minutes, indulging in the odd happy half day hour of James D’Arcy cyberstalking hanging out in my favourite shopping haunts, only half-listening to the children and generally letting large slices of life pass me by. I do of course still have my work computer, but that's up two flights of stairs and is too serious and scary to be used for loafing.

Since the demise of the netbook I have - amongst other things - taught Daughter #3 to sew,watched an entire series of Improving Educational TV on DVD with daughters 2 and 3, not updated my blog, traipsed around the byways of Cheshire collecting elderflower heads and turned them into elderflower cordial, spent an inordinate amount of cash in real shops and had an inordinate amount of fun doing so with Daughter #1 (who is in a state of post-GCSE euphoria and pre-prom excitement), made progress on the new book, not updated my website, assisted in the completion of a 1000 piece jigsaw depicting 1970s toys, made bread, all but disappeared from twitter, cooked stuff from actual recipes involving more than five ingredients, gone to bed before 11pm, got past base camp on Laundry Mountain, been an even more erratic emailer than ever and missed my online friends.

So - to buy or not to buy? that is the question. Feel like I've inadvertently stumbled upon the sunshiny Good Life in the gap where my twilit cyber-existence used to be, but every now and again I think about the all the interesting, inspiring, stimulating stuff going on online and feel my fingers twitch in the direction of my credit card. I think I'll probably give in eventually, but I don't think I'm quite ready yet. Does anybody have a good recipe for strawberry jam?

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

The dog ate my homework?

I know I'm guilty of severe Blog Neglect when I have to remind blogger who I am (and remember passwords.) Ironically, my excuse for not blogging last month was that I was saving up every typed word and every writing moment for my ms, but since I submitted that just before the Royal Wedding and haven't yet had instructions from my editor to re-write it, I can't exactly use extreme busyness as an excuse.

However, although my fingers aren't flying over the keyboard, my head is pretty taken up, sorting out the threads of a story that has been weaving itself in my mind for years now. I remember thinking through it as I lay in the bath at the old house (the one that we left in 2005) and, magpie-like, I've been collecting bits of information to go into it ever since and waiting for the right time to write it. Or at least, waiting until I couldn't put off writing it any longer. That's kind of how it feels at the moment, although I'm doing a pretty good job of putting it off by losing myself in endless absorbing research involving early photography, the Royal Flying Corps and Victorian asylums, amongst other things.

In other news, GCSEs have started and daughter #1 (who I swear was only setting off with her Little Mermaid rucksack for her first day at Nursery a couple of weeks ago) is in exam mode - alternating between exhilaration and despair and showing up my ignorance at every turn by firing questions about Titration Equations and Covalent Bonding at me, none of which I can understand, never mind answer. This makes a slight mockery of my selfless decision not to go to the RNA Summer Party tonight so I could be on hand to dispense wisdom and support, although I like to think that I really couldn't be spared from my Scrambled-Egg-Making post in the morning. A humble role, but vital.

Last night I did take the evening off thinking about the new book and having my ignorance exposed, and went to the cinema with my very naughty friend Liz to see Water for Elephants. It was utterly fabulous. Pure escapism (except for the part during the very, very quiet love scene when Liz said loudly 'What are they doing? I don't understand.') I fell wildly in love with Rosie the elephant, and with Robert Pattinson (predictably) who looks even better with a bit of colour in his cheeks. Christopher Waltz was also brilliant. Here's a trailer - go and see it!

Monday, 2 May 2011

This season's Must-Have accessory

The blissful, extended Bank Holiday weekend is stretching on forever here in sun-baked Britain, and in our house we're slowly getting buried in drifts of newspaper featuring a photographic record of just about every imaginable aspect of Friday's Royal Wedding. Usually I don't have time to do more than scan the headlines and snatch a wistful glance at the Travel section of the weekend papers, but with The Book off my desk (for the time being at least) and nothing more pressing to do than laze around in the sun I seem to have inadvertently become a bit of an expert on the whole occasion. If you want to know what Wills really whispered to Kate's father when they arrived at the altar, or the history of the blue Aston Martin in which they left the reception, I'm probably your woman.

I now feel pretty well qualified to give my own little fashion round-up of the event, and have concluded that while hats (apparently fixed with a drawing pin to the centre of the forehead) may be enjoying a bit of a moment, the thing to be seen in this year is cheap, easily available outside of Bond Street, and transforms any outfit. It is, ladies, The Smile. Let's see who was in on fashion's hottest secret...

And who wasn't...


Oh dear. Who's going to break it to Mrs B that the bored, pouty look is so last year?

Tomorrow it's finally back to school and normality. This will be a bit of a shock, since today everyone here was still in bed at the time when daughter #3 would usually be having morning playtime, but, in the light of my research, am planning to finish off my usual school-run look (consisting of whatever's been left draped over the end of the bed in the last few days and wild-woman hair) with a dazzling smile, a la Middleton ladies. Potential to look slightly deranged is definitely there, but am going to give it a go. It's been that kind of week.

Thursday, 28 April 2011

This calls for a celebration

So, revisions are in (thank goodness for easter chocolate) the bunting is up and the children have been put to work making Union Jack paperchains. Royal Wedding excitement is mounting here by the second.

Call me shallow, but I'm so not interested in the political arguments about elitism and shameless extravagance. It's the wanton romance and emotion of the whole event that I'm excited about. And the outfits... and the excuse to drink champagne in the morning and eat cake all day*. In fact, it's a bit like being at your own wedding without the crushing feeling that you should have started dieting sooner.

So, are you in the mood to celebrate too or are you just going to take advantage of the day off and the fact that she shops will be empty and avoid it all?

(*I'm also a surprisingly excited about the opportunity to gawp at Harry all day. Am I the only one who's finding him oddly inspiring at the moment, in all sorts of ways?)

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Getting Away With It

Thanks to everyone who emailed for my spare copy of Julie Cohen's wonderful book. The winner is Catherine J, so as soon as I can bear to tear myself away from revisions and get down to the post office it'll be on its way to her. (That'll be this afternoon then.)

Actually, following a long phonecall with my editor yesterday, I'm feeling much more positive about the revisions and the book in general. It's been a very different experience writing this one as it's the second book in a two-part continuity, featuring the same hero and heroine, so the usual challenges of building a story have been complicated a little by the need to link the books, but make each one stand alone. I loved doing it, but writing the end of the second book has been really difficult. Probably twice as difficult as normal in fact, as it had to provide a sense of resolution to two stories. It's requiring an awful lot of Toblerone - so much, in fact that I even felt I needed to mention it in the book. Hope it gets past the copy-editor.

Better get on with it. (The book, not the Toblerone.)


Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Crisis Management

So, in the interests of promoting healthy living (always a priority of mine, see the 'Snacks' section for proof) I thought I'd better follow up my last post with some slightly more wholesome coping strategies for times of crisis. Even I have to admit that there's only so much cake, chocolate and Bakewell tart you can use to get you through tough times before it leads to a whole new set of problems, like not being able to go out in public as none of your clothes fit anymore. So, I've been busily trialling some calorie-free alternatives. That don't involve wine either.

I know the lovely (and now envy-makingly svelte) Michelle Styles would say that exercise is the way to go to boost endorphins and clear your mind. She's right, of course, but I've shamefully let my morning run slide this year as I really did find the half-hour recovery period spent gossiping with my running partner afterwards it cut into my working day too much. I guess we could re-schedule it for the evening, but by then my energy-levels have hit the floor and the only running I want to do is a hot bath.

Which brings me neatly onto my rigorously road-tested, calorie-free stress-relief method of choice: reading in the bath.

I do love my kindle, but its one huge downfalls is that it can't really be used in water (as my husband, chief screen-police officer in our house, regularly reminds me) which means I'm still buying paperbacks like a woman with a problem. Reading in the bath has been the thing that got me through the Deadline Weeks (and is my best hope for surviving the subsequent Revisiongate) and going straight to the top of my Book of the Year list is Julie Cohen's Getting Away With It.

Although perfect for bathtime escapism, it's the kind of book you have to keep near you at all times so you can top up your fix at regular intervals during the day, when reality gets a bit much. The thing is, it's so perfectly written that it actually feels like it could be reality, and given that I am about as far removed from the kick-boxing, smart-talking, independent twin heroine as it's probably possible to be, that is quite a feat of clever writing. I identified with Liza all the way. I understood her dilemma perfectly. And I bloody loved her man.

I ordered a copy of the book from Amazon on the day it came out, but before it arrived I spotted it in the book aisle of our brand-new, Wembley Stadium-sized Sainsburys. I'm such an instant-gratification girl I couldn't quite stop myself from slipping it into my basket, which means that I now find myself with a spare copy in need of a good home. So, if you feel a bit like you're swimming against the tide at the moment for whatever reason, and could do with escaping into a fabulous story, drop me a line via the website and leave your address. I'll pick a name out over the weekend.

It's funny too, did I mention that? You know when books are described in the back blurb as being 'laugh-out-loud funny' and you don't laugh once and feel a bit cheated? Well, this one isn't doesn't say that on the back, but I still did A LOT of inelegant snorting. I suppose that would make it a dangerous book to read on the bus, but still more perfect for solitary bathtime devouring. I'd better slip something fragrant and bath-y in with it, so you don't forget.

What's everyone else been reading and loving lately? In the bath or elsewhere...

Monday, 4 April 2011

Three reasons why today is not the day to start that diet...

1. The chocolates and cake that were part of the fabulous haul of goodies the daughters bought me for Mothers Day. (sniff.)

2. The remains of the most outrageously delicious and calorific Bakewell tart in the history of baking, made by my own lovely mother and given to us to bring home after lunch at her house yesterday.

3. The monster revisions I received on my latest ms late on Friday afternoon.

'Nuff said?