30.6.13

Mary Robinson - Lady of Passion

Mary Robinson by Hoppner

I became fascinated by Mary Robinson, or ‘Perdita’, as she’s more commonly known. She was a complex character with flaws of vanity and pride, a predilection for spending but hugely ambitious, and a woman of great courage. Despite these weaknesses I couldn’t help but admire her.

She was married at just fourteen to Thomas Robinson, under family pressure as was often the case at a time when love was not considered essential in a marriage. The alliance resulted in the young couple spending time in The Fleet for debt, leaving Mary with a determination to seek her own financial security.

The Georgian period has always been a favourite of mine as it resonates so well with our own in many ways. It had style and elegance, but was very much an age of extremes, one almost as celebrity driven and equally beset by debt, if largely due to the national passion for gambling.

Mary became close friends with Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire, the doyenne of fashion and gambling. Mary too became a fashion icon and renowned beauty, her portrait painted by Thomas Gainsborough, Sir Joshua Reynolds, George Romney and John Hoppner.

Mary by Romney

She enjoyed a brief affair with the future George IV when he was just seventeen, and rather naively expected him to stay true. With her reputation ruined and her career lost, she fought a long political battle for recompense, assisted by Charles James Fox. Unlike many courtesans, she was intelligent, a talented actress and gifted poet who did later achieve the promised potential of her youth, despite many disappointments in life and suffering from a crippling disease from a very young age.

George IV


It is impossible to accurately diagnose the exact nature of the illness which struck her down one fateful night. Very likely it was an acute form of rheumatic fever that possibly affected the nerves, perhaps caused by an infection during her miscarriage. Quite common at that time.

Mary became an early feminist, a writer of Gothic romance in addition to her poetry, largely forgotten today, and despite the considerable pain she suffered, continued writing to her death, becoming known as the English Sappho.

Perdita driving Charles James Fox in her carriage

Mary Robinson died practically penniless in 1800, aged 42, of dropsy, a retention of fluid on the chest which causes heart failure, often linked with rheumatic fever. She asked for a lock of her hair to be sent to the Prince, and one to Tarleton, hero of the American War of Independence and the love of her life. She was buried in a corner of the churchyard at Old Windsor, apparently still wearing the Prince’s miniature

A beautiful and talented actress, poet and fashion icon, Mary Robinson was one of the most famous women of her time. But Mary was destined always to be betrayed by the men she loved: by her father, a prosperous Bristol merchant who abandoned his family for a life of adventure – and another woman; by her husband, a weak and foolish man who bankrupted the family with his inveterate gambling and humiliated his young wife with his numerous affairs; and by the Prince of Wales, later King George IV, who fell in love with Mary when he saw her playing Perdita in A Winter’s Tale

Mary gave up everything for her prince – her career, her husband and her independence – only to be cruelly abandoned when his affections turned elsewhere. And then she met the love of her life. Could she hope this time it would be different? Against the turbulent background of the American War of Independence and the French Revolution, this is the enthralling story of a remarkable woman: a tale of ambition, passion, scandal and heartbreak. 

 

Published 30 June by Severn House.
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21.6.13

Ten Ways to Stimulate your imagination or Solve Writers' Block

1. Cut the stress and stop worrying. You can either solve your problems or block them out. Writing is a sure cure for depression, pain etc. It is a wonderful therapy.

2. Take a break without thinking. Play music, relax, take a bath, lie in the dark or gaze up into a cloudless sky, go for a walk. Relax and do something completely different for a while.

3. Stimulate your creativity by making use of different media, TV, video, film, books, music, newspapers, talking to people, the more variety of sources the better. Jot down any ideas that spring to mind.

4. Release your imagination as you do boring chores such as ironing or gardening, or walk the dog. Develop a hobby which occupies your hands but not your mind. With practise you can learn to operate this ‘day-dreaming’ process at any time of day, and whatever you are doing. Writers learn to live in two worlds.

5. Silence. Hold your mind in perfect quietness. Take a lie down. Close your eyes and hold the character in your head and centre your thoughts on him/her. He/she should gradually come to life, move and speak in your head. Before quite falling asleep go back to your desk and write down what they say. Now consider the character’s motivation which makes them behave the way they do.

6. Write the first thing which comes into your head when you wake in a morning. Then note a time in your diary which you intend to set aside to write. When the time comes write without stopping or criticising your work.

7. Talk yourself through your plot problem before you go to sleep at night. Then close your mind and let your subconscious mind solve it.

8. When the going gets tough, do research. Reading about a subject or period can often bring forth a flow of ideas.

9. Random thoughts. The left side of the brain deals with everyday matters, the right side is the creative unknown area. So forget about why you can’t work out a plot and just jot down random thoughts and practical possibilities. Then think - What If? Each idea can be developed as a flow chart. Remember you can dig deeper as you write.

10. Don’t be too critical. The left side of the brain will argue, reason and shoot down in flames any idea or inspiration from the intuitive right hand side, if you allow it. Don’t! It can have its turn later when it comes to editing.

Finally - give yourself time. Writing a novel is not a process that can be rushed, and you don’t need to know every detail before you start. Plan a little, then free-wheel for a bit and see what happens. Remember: The best ideas come when you are actually writing.

18.6.13

A Baltic cruise on the Queen Victoria

We’ve recently returned from a wonderful Baltic cruise on the Queen Victoria, and what a marvellous trip it was. Dancing into the wee small hours with the sun still shining and sunset blending into dawn is a sight never to be forgotten. Beautiful! Her décor is appropriately Victorian, and the service second to none. Excellent entertainment every evening and plenty of delicious food. The diet starts now. And what a lovely ship she is.

The cruise began with a few days at sea before our first two stops at Stockholme in Sweden, and Helsinki in Finland. Later we visited Tallin in Estonia, Warnemunde in Germany, Copenhagen in Denmark, and Kristiansand in Norway. We enjoyed perfect sunny weather throughout, although not warm enough to persuade me into the pool. Admittedly this picture was taken on the first day so we were more interested in the free champagne.


The Grand Lobby

The highlight of the holiday was undoubtedly a two day stopover at St Petersburg. Once the capital of the Russian Empire, and formerly known as Petrograd, and Leningrad at different times in history, the city demonstrates a marked European influence with many opulent palaces. We viewed many of these from a boat on the River Neva, a splendid way to see any city. But one we actually visited was Catherine’s Palace, known as Tsarskoye Selo. Simply amazing!

Here is the ballroom where the aristocracy would be presented to their Imperial Highnesses before enjoying the ball.


Nearly every room, all magnificently decorated, boasted a delft-tiled stove. It seems the Romonovs liked to keep warm, and who can blame them in a Russian winter.This is the Picture Hall, also resplendent with its built-in stove.


 

We were even shown the Amber room. Breathtakingly beautiful, although we were not allowed to take photos. This was destroyed, broken up and stolen by the Nazi’s in the Second World War. Years of searching post-war failed to find a piece of it, so it has been painstakingly restored, the task taking 30 years to complete.

We also visited the amber workshop where the work of restoration goes on, and where small special panels are often made for visiting dignitaries. The amber has to be carefully cut and carved with tiny drills and saws, then rubbed and polished, an extraordinarily skilled task. We were all given a small nugget to take away with us. We were escorted by a Russian guide, Natasha, with excellent English, who made this visit a real joy.
 

Here is the wonderful facade of the Catherine Palace. Hard to imagine the palace itself was left as a burning wreck after the war, but that too has been restored in all its splendour.





On our second day we were shown the prison where the Bolsheviks kept their political prisoners, a stark reminder of what happened during the revolution.



Also the Peter and Paul Fortress, and the Romonov tombs in the Cathedral. Following DNA tests on Nicholas II and his tragic family, there are now wall plaques to honour them, even Anastasia who was found later.

I would love to visit St Petersburg again as there are so many others places we didn’t have time to see, not least the hermitage and the winter palace. Here is an exterior shot of them, taken from the boat, so a bit rocky.

14.6.13

Edit and Polish

Clichés - Banish them completely. Always search your mind for a more effective and unusual way of expressing your meaning.

Pomposity - Never try to be over-clever with language. Never talk down to the reader. Use your thesaurus by all means but not to show off with long words.

Dialogue - Sift out any words or phrases that don’t suit the character who is speaking.

Journalese - Beware of sounding like a journalist trying to fit everything into one sentence.

Dialect - Use with caution. Confine it to one or two key-characters and tone it down.

Slang - Check that any particular word or phrase was used in the period of which you write. Modern slang soon goes out of fashion. Use with care.

Foreign words - Restrict to a few essential ones to give a flavour, like cherries in a cake.

Jargon - If you are writing about a specialised subject, make sure the meaning of any technical words or phrases are made clear.

Clarity - Make sure that this applies to all your writing.

Check spelling, grammar, punctuation, split infinitives, repetitions, clumsy sentences etc. Cut out purple prose, useless adjectives and adverbs and all superfluous material which adds nothing to the story while trying to keep its vitality and freshness.

To help you do this, keep in mind your reader who you should be encouraging to use his/her imagination. Understatement is a powerful tool.

It is your responsibility to edit - not the editors. Send in as clean a copy as you can.

7.6.13

Revision

Questions to ask yourself as you revise - not in any particular order.
1. The beginning: Will it hook the reader? The novel needs to start where the problem makes itself most apparent so that a decision will need to be made, preferably coupled with some action. Do not swamp the reader with too much back story in the early pages, or too many minor characters. This will only confuse and slow down the story. You can add these facts later, as and when needed. Make sure you have answered the five W's: Who, what, where, why, when.

2. Check grammar, punctuation, spelling, tense, bad habits, overuse of lazy words. Now is the time to use your thesaurus but don’t overdo it. Repetition: Not just of words but every idea must be fresh. You only need say something once.

3. Theme: must be in sight throughout. Keep to the point. Too many digressions will confuse your readers and distance them from your characters.

4. Character: Are your characters strong? The reader must care about them and be involved with their troubles, in particular the main viewpoint character. Are they credible? Do they have flaws or a saving grace? What is their motivation for every action? Constantly ask yourself why they are behaving in the way they do. Does your hero develop and overcome, or learn to live with a different reality?

5. Dialogue: Needs to have a purpose and it should be clear who is speaking at all times.

6. Time: Make a time chart to check there are no discrepancies. These can slip in when you move a scene. If you use flashbacks, or it is a story taking place in two time periods. Make sure it is clear to the reader where they are at any given time.

7. Structure: Check the inciting incident, complications, crisis or dark moment, climax and resolution. Is the order of the scenes dramatically effective, or would the story be improved by slotting one in a more appropriate place, or leaving it out altogether?

8. Narrative Drive: Does the novel maintain a strong narrative drive throughout? Is it logical and credible? Does everything tie in and make sense? Is the story engrossing or does it sag in the middle? If so, why? Have you lost the plot and digressed too much, padded it with unnecessary description, or simply run out of imagination? Tighten it up and/or make something relevant happen.

9. Pace: This should vary with high dramatic moments and time to draw breath and consolidate the situation in between.

10. Conflict is the stuff of fiction to produce a page-turning story, involving both internal thoughts, problems and emotions, and external between protagonists.

11. Viewpoint: Check that you’ve stayed in it. Use a limited number or you’ll risk distancing the reader from your hero or heroine.

12. Overwriting: Don’t do it. Avoid adjectives, flowery phrases, purple prose, over-explanation, too much emphasis and overstatement.

13. Suspense: There should always be a sense of warning or promise. Chapters should end at a cliff-hanger. Have you withheld a vital clue long enough, or should you milk it a bit more? Are there enough twists and surprises? Clues? Red herrings? Have you led the reader down one path only to hit him with something totally unexpected?

14. Style: Easy, warm, strong, compulsive, rippling with tension, whatever your novel needs, your writer’s voice must shine through. Make sure it suits your chosen genre. Is it commercial and popular, or literary and serious? Fast paced, witty or gentle? Read plenty of books in your chosen genre as a guide, then don’t be afraid to experiment to find your own.

15. Personal: Do not air your opinions in the story, only those of your characters. If you’ve got a hobby-horse write it in a letter to the Times.

16. Emotional involvement: Show, rather than tell. We need to see and feel the physical and emotional effect of your hero or heroine’s fear, his/her reaction to a shocking event, or the passion in the love scene. Right from the first page the reader must live the story and suffer with the character.

17. Transitions: These should flow easily onto the next scene. Don’t clutter the text with trivia, or boring everyday details.

18. Appeal to all five senses. Make each scene evocative, and with a strong sense of place.

19. Length: Check what is normally required for the publisher you’re aiming for in your particular genre. Make sure it fits the market. It’s fashionable now to have shorter chapters, and shorter paragraphs. Punchier and easily accessible.

20. Ending: Tie up all loose ends for a satisfying ending with all problems resolved. Solve the least important first, leaving the original, most important problem till last.

And finally: Check the accuracy – again and again! Facts MUST be correct. Check and double check.