Norah Lofts, and why you should read her

Norah_LoftsI had a massive Norah Lofts binge over Christmas. Lofts is a deeply unfashionable writer who people in the know keep saying should be rediscovered. Alison Weir has been plugging away at it, and, brilliantly, was instrumental in getting some Lofts books back into print, while the availability of ebooks and the possibility of finding out-of-print books on ABE or Amazon means that there’s never been a better time to discover her.

Lofts was born in Norfolk, in 1904. She came from a farming family, something which had a lasting influence on her writing, as you will see, but worked as a history teacher before she turned to writing full time. Over a long and busy career she wrote more than 60 books, mostly historical, but with a good handful of excellent psychological thrillers too (the Hammer horror film The Witches was based on one). The Oxford Book of Historical Stories calls her ‘one of the undisputed queens of historical romance.’

I first came across Norah Lofts at thirteen, when I was making my first forays into historical re-enactment and was advised by the organiser to read Lofts for her incomparable grasp of historical detail, and because many of her books are set in Suffolk, where the Tudor house we were re-creating, was. Her ability to handle historical detail, work it effortlessly into a story and endow it with great emotional charge, is certainly second to none. I came to Lofts for the research. But I stayed for the storytelling. How’s this for an opening?

‘At the age of seven I was a skillful pickpocket. I could also sew neatly, write a tolerable hand, make a curtsey and a correct introduction, dance a little and play simple tunes on the harpsichord.’

It’s the start of ‘Felicity Hatton’s Tale,’ the first story in the third book of her fabulous Old Vine trilogy. Lofts had a particular liking for taking a house and tracing its residents through history. Other people have done this with towns (notably Edward Rutherfurd, in Sarum, London and others) but no-one has done it as convincingly as Lofts.

The house at Old Vine is built by Martin Reed, a runaway serf at the turn of the fifteenth century, who takes his own destiny into his hands after his lord refuses him permission to marry the girl he loves. The rest of the first book, The Town House, takes place over Martin’s lifetime. But the fabulous thing Lofts does is to shift viewpoint with each chapter, to the old woman who comes to look after him, then his daughter-in-law, Anne, daughter of an impoverished knightly family who marries beneath her, then his grand-daughter Maud, then his secretary. They’re all such different people, in motivation, life-experience and style of thinking, and the fresh perspectives allow us to see the characters we have come to know intimately, as other people see them. Thus we see them change and grow old – young, hopeful, Martin keeping stoically on, Anne who we first knew as a teenager becoming bitter, alcoholic and cruel.

The second book in the trilogy takes us through the sixteenth and seventeenth century, and the third book from Georgian times to the modern day, when the house is no longer lived in by Martin’s descendants. Throughout the series there are incredible stories, and, I should add, incredible TEENAGE stories. Ethelreda Benedict, forced out of the island home she shared with her father when it was flooded by the draining of the Fens. Felicity Hatton, who has to survive in Georgian London after her father’s gambling addiction has beggared her family. And (perhaps my favourite), the dreadful Anne, who calculates that marrying the woolmaster’s son and living in a town house with glass windows might be a come-down for her family but it will lead to a far more comfortable life for herself than staying in her parents’ isolated hall forever unable to afford the dowry for a respectable match.

Like Alison Weir, I rate the House trilogy the most highly, but the prolific Lofts produced many more books worth reading. Broadly speaking, her historical fiction falls into two categories – historical biography, and Suffolk books. The historical biography is not confined to England – there is a splendid book, Crown of Aloes, about Isabella of Spain – and includes one of the most sensitive fictions written about Anne Boleyn, The Concubine.

The Suffolk books, which include the House trilogy, all take place in or around a fictional town called Baildon, which is similar to (though not identical with) Bury St Edmunds. One of the joys of being a hardcore Norah Lofts fan is the way places and families recur across the books, so the fictional world becomes deeper and richer than anything that could be achieved in one book alone. We know which family has a streak of gambling addiction, which breeds the best horses, which local in is best and who built the Assembly rooms. One particular strength of Lofts as a writer, in a genre which can often focus on the rarefied and privileged lives of the wealthy, is that she is as interested in the lives of the ordinary people as those of kings or queens. Even her Anne Boleyn book is told from the viewpoint of a serving maid. Lofts’ farming background comes into this in a big way, writing as she is about a rural country through centuries when most people were closely tied to the land. Martin Reed first meets Anne Blanchfleur when he is visiting his sheep, and her mother lets him heat his tar pot on their fire. Lofts understand the economics of farming: what it means to have a farm of a certain size, or to carry out the work yourself (as another knight’s child, Henry Tallboys, does in the Knight’s Acre trilogy).

There is another sense, too, in which Norah Lofts’ books are realistic, and it is one of the things I like most about her work. Despite her designation as ‘historical romance’, which would conjure up images of happy endings, for Lofts the world is a brutal, unfair place. Good deeds go unrewarded, and, often to a very disturbing extent, bad ones unpunished. Murders are regularly concealed, and criminals live on benefiting from their crimes. This lack of idealising makes her world feel very real. When I used to borrow Norah Lofts books from my local library, their spines would be stickered, seemingly at random, with either a black castle to designate ‘historical fiction’ or a pink heart with a crown on top for historical romance. I wonder how many readers picked them up expecting to be transported to a delicious tale of swooning damsels, only to find they had been sucked into a gritty story of murder and medieval farming practices. Sometimes there is supernatural, and there is often evil – the Gad’s Hall books involve Victorian girls and devil worship – but the down-to-earth nature of her style adds to the plausibility and creepiness, as, for example, in the one I have just finished, The Devil’s Own (also called The Witches, Catch As Catch Can and The Little Wax Doll), published under the name of Peter Curtis, in which the prim heroine is horrified by the sight of the unattractive bodies of her middle-aged neighbours as they dance naked at the Halloween meeting of their coven.

So, where to start with Norah Lofts? To begin with, she did write two books specifically for teenagers, both based on characters from the Old Vine trilogy, Rupert Hatton’s Tale and Maude Reed’s Tale. I would recommend these to younger readers, but really these date to a time before Young Adult fiction had reached the no holds barred place it is in today. Older teens will be perfectly comfortable reading her adult books (and their parents/teachers should be happy with most of them too – if delicate you might want to give the Peter Curtis ones a miss, and The Claw should probably have an advisory sticker but mostly there’s nothing more shocking than you will find in Jacqueline Wilson). The Old Vine books are a good place to start, as is Bless This House, which uses the same ‘house through history’ technique but in a single volume. The first Knight’s Acre book is eventful, and interest in the characters will probably carry you through the second two, even if they are a bit heavy on the farming. Of the biographical books, I have already mentioned The Concubine, and The King’s Pleasure is a sympathetic portrait of Katherine of Aragon, and Crown of Aloes a fascinating book about Isabella of Spain. For those who like their history earlier, The Lute Player is about Richard the Lionheart, or, earlier still, Esther fictionalises an Old Testament book. Lofts is equally comfortable in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and The Lost Queen is a moving book about George III’s younger sister. Goodreads has plentiful reviews, and there is a thriving group there for the hardest of hardcore fans – a group which, I suspect, is destined to grow and grow as a new generation of readers discover the Queen Of Historical Romance. Or rather, Of Gritty, Dark, Agricultural Histfic With Lots And Lots Of Murders….

Learning to write whilst spending a bit of money: some creative writing books that are worth the investment

In September I wrote a post about learning to write without spending any money. My point was that you don’t NEED creative writing courses, useful as they are: many of their elements are things you can access in other ways, more cheaply.

While many of the aspects of the creative writing course experience can be found online, I’m going to get old-fashioned for a moment and say that the one thing you can’t do without is books. You need the long, undisturbed periods of engagement that books provide to take on board some of the complex ideas about writing that some of these authors offer. Of course, if you’re writing you probably like books, so you probably won’t see this as a problem!

One of my biggest regrets about my writing journey is not discovering sooner what a tremendous depth of knowledge creative writing books offered. When I first had a publisher interested in my writing, years back, after a story I’d written was published in an anthology, I went off and bought the first ‘how to write’ book I could find. I’m not going to name it, because I hate criticising other writers’ work online, and anyway, this is going to make me look like an arsehole, but it all seemed terribly pointless and obvious. I knew books had to have beginnings, middles and ends. I knew characters had to be consistent and not change their eye-colour halfway through the book. I wrongly concluded that, firstly, this was typical of the level at which creative writing books were pitched, and secondly, that I knew it all. What I didn’t realise, of course, was that there was far more to it all than that: many ways less obvious than eye colour that a character could be inconsistent through the course of a book, and that while I knew a book had to have a beginning and an end I couldn’t actually have told you what that meant at anything more than a superficial level.

Once I finally got my head round how little I knew about the mechanics of fiction, a new addiction was born. I discovered that creative writing books aren’t just good for understanding how fiction works, they’re also there to help you solve problems: they help you understand why your hero is a bit lacklustre, or what kind of plot development would add intrigue to the boring bit. Now that I’m evangelical about it, of course, I’m always getting asked for recommendations, so here they are.

I currently have a shelf of about twenty or thirty that have been useful to me in some way, but as this is meant to be a ‘beginners’ post I’ll limit myself to talking about a few of the stars. These are all books that have worked for me – if anyone would like to add their own recommendations to my list, feel free!

To make the subject more manageable I’m going to divide them into categories, starting with:

1. Books for inspiration and ‘permission’ to write

Dorothea Brande – Becoming a Writer

This book is much loved for pointing out that if you write, that makes you a writer. I mostly like it for telling you that if you want to be a writer the first thing you need to do is to organise your life so that you actually have the time and space to write. People often miss the fact that they don’t have any time in their schedule, because they’ve been told that if they’re determined enough, they’ll do it. Well, so they will, but only if they remember the crucial intermediate stage of sorting things out so that they can.

Stephen King – On Writing

When you read this you end up wanting Stephen King to be your new best friend, which is not something you would expect from reading his books. It’s part honest memoir, part advice for new writers, and it talks you through his writing life (he accumulated more rejections as a teenager than many, less determined writers, do in a lifetime, and kept them all on a spike) and his thoughts on the essential ‘toolkit’ of the writer (tools being things like plot and characters, not highlighter pens and Tippex).

Anne Lamott – Bird by Bird

I haven’t read all of this but enough of my friends love it that it didn’t seem fair to leave it out. The title comes from her father’s advice  to her brother aged ten, who was trying to write a big report on birds that he should have started months ago and didn’t know where to start – ‘Just take it bird by bird.’

2. Books on story and plot

Sometimes books primarily aimed at screenwriters turn out to be useful for fiction writers.

Robert McKee – Story

is one of those. This is the kind of book you should buy rather than get from the library, because you will want to come back to it.

John Truby – The Anatomy of Story

Truby is one of those writers who likes breaking down stories into their component parts and analysing them. You might not agree with his principles but many writers find them extremely useful as a way to build a story. I’ve found his insights invaluable.

3. Books to get you to aim higher

Jessica Page Morrell – Thanks, But This Isn’t For Us

This book bills itself as a ‘compassionate guide as to why your writing is being rejected’. It comes in particularly handy at revision time, but also helps you think about the eventual reader when planning the book. It’s also quite funny.

Donald Maas – Writing the Break-out Novel

It sounds a bit arrogant to be thinking about how to write your break-out novel when you’re still on your first, but this book is actually surprisingly good for the beginner. Maas uses his experience as a literary agent to analyse what ‘break-out’ books – where an established writer jumps into a whole new level of sales- have in common. The resulting discussion covers every aspect of the book from themes through characters to language.

4. Books on revising and editing

Renni Browne & Dave King – Self-Editing for Fiction Writers

This is an old favourite, much loved by writers and editors alike. It ranges from the basic (consistent point of view) to the subtle (eg the chapter on how to make your writing more sophisticated) but it is essential if you want to turn in a professional piece of work. It also has hugely difficult exercises.

David Madden – Revising Fiction

This book is hardcore. It’s like those medieval ‘have you ever fornicated with your sister? with a donkey?’ lists of sins you had to go through to examine your soul. For instance (opening the book at random): ’84. Are your transitions from one place or time, or from one point of view, to another ineffective?’ ‘184. [This is the killer:] Is your story uninteresting?’ There’s a particular moment when you need this book. It’s when you’ve revised four times already and your beta readers have run out of things to say but you’re just desperate to make your book better because you know it’s still not a millionth as good as Codename Verity and you would give your right arm or at least a little finger for any more clues as to what it might be. Just don’t even think about opening it until then.

5. Books on how to get published

Nicola Morgan – Write to be Published

The best thing about this is that it’s not just a book about the mechanics of getting published, it’s also a book about having the right attitude: getting published starts with writing something good. This is the one to recommend to anyone who goes around saying it’s not worth trying to be published because publishing’s a closed shop. Nicola Morgan brands herself as the ‘crabbit old bat’, which really just means she’s refreshingly blunt. She’s also done useful little e-books on how to write a synopsis and how  to write a cover letter to an agent.

The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook (revised annually, published by Bloomsbury)

This used to be totally essential. These days, use it in conjunction with the internet – the listings of publishers and agents are pretty thorough but might not be completely up-to-date. It’s pricey for something you would need to replace every year but libraries are very good at stocking the latest edition.

And, for fun:

Sandra Newman and Howard Mittelmark – How Not To Write A Novel

The authors have had a blast making up lots of parodies of bad writing. Embarrassingly, I learnt a lot from it.

 

Acorns, crabs and bloody slaughter, or, what did the Tudors do in November?

Calendar page for November with a miniature of a nobleman returning from a hunt, from the Golf Book (Book of Hours, Use of Rome), workshop of Simon Bening, Netherlands (Bruges), Additional MS 24098, f. 28v. Note the force-fed pigs.

Calendar page for November with a miniature of a nobleman returning from a hunt, from the Golf Book (Book of Hours, Use of Rome), workshop of Simon Bening, Netherlands (Bruges), Additional MS 24098, f. 28v. Note the force-fed pigs.

I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed by the Novemberness of November today. It’s damp and drippy and everything in the garden is dying but the Christmas build-up hasn’t quite started yet, and… bleurgh.
I’ve decided this is the fault of twenty-first century life and if I was Tudor I would be far too busy for Novembery moping so I’m going to jolly myself along by thinking bit about what they would have been busy doing.

When I was writing Five Wounds, which is set mainly in the agricultural landscapes of the north, I was very conscious of how peopled the areas round settlements would have been. These days, farming takes very few people. One man can combine a field that would have taken a whole village to harvest in the past. We might notice the fields change colour from brown to green to golden, but it’s unlikely we’ll have much to do with it. In societies where more people are involved in agriculture, the changing seasons and hence the shifting calendar of agriculture have much more effect on what the people you know are involved in and what’s going on around you.

In a society without refrigeration, canning or air freight, of course, food will also be seasonal, and when the year is going to be shaped not just by the farming calendar but by the religious one, the annual round of festivals will give each month its particular character.

For this reason, one of my starting points for research was the Book of Hours. Books of Hours are devotional books, of which quite a number still exist from the fifteenth into the sixteenth centuries. They are often richly illustrated and, unlike wall paintings which rarely survive undamanged, they often survive as brightly and exquisitely detailed as the day they were painted. What makes them so useful for our purposes is that they generally include a calendar of church feasts, illustrated with full-page pictures representing the months of the year and the activities that were taking place each month. For the Tudors, 1st November, All Saints Day, was the first day of winter. But this didn’t mean farming activity stopped: work went on throughout the year.

Obviously, you have to be a bit careful if you’re writing about the north of England and you’re looking at a Book of Hours from southern Europe – the differing climates can mean different months for activities like harvests and planting. Another source, this time from England, is Thomas Tusser, who was born in Rivenhall in Essex. His ‘A Hundred Points of Good Husbandry’ was published in 1554. It gives rhyming advice for what to do in the garden and fields each month, for example,

‘Set garlic and peas, St Edmund to please.’

-a couplet which shows how the religious and agricultural calendars were intertwined in people’s minds even after the Reformation: St Edmund’s Day was celebrated today, the 20th November.Alongside cutting firewood, the most commonly illustrated activity in the Books of Hours November scenes is the fattening of pigs, by feeding them acorns. Acorns might not be anything other than waste now (unless you’re a squirrel) but in the Middle Ages, ‘pannage’, the right to feed your pigs in royal forests or on common land, was important. You will see people knocking down acorns with sticks, or hooking down the branches to reach them, and either driving your pigs into the forests to rootle under the trees or feeding them in troughs. In one picture the pigs’ heads are held in place over the trough by a yoke, to encourage them to eat as much as possible even when they were no longer hungry. Pigs were an important part of  the rural economy; for some families, bacon would have been the only meat eaten on a regular basis. It was said later on that every part of the pig, ‘everything but the squeal’ was used.Some pigs would be fattened throughout November. Others would meet their end at Martinmas, the feast of St Martin on 11th November.This was the traditional date for slaughter of cattle. It was the time of year when animals were at their fattest but the grass was no longer growing fast enough to feed them. So they had to be slaughtered now, or fed on stored food through the winter, a burdensome expense. The slaughter was followed by feasting as people ate the meat that couldn’t be preserved. At this time of year, there was plenty of other food still available for a feast. In the garden, there would be cabbages and turnips, apples, pears and medlars. The woods would provide walnuts and chestnuts .While the poorer sections of society worked hard at salting and smoking meat from the Martinmas slaughter for the winter, the upper classes could hunt, with a range of game now in season, game birds and animals including hare and venison. The Golf Book of Hours shows a nobleman returning from the hunt. There are two horses in the picture but while he rides one, his servant has to walk, because the second horse is in use for carrying a deer, slung across its saddle.The importance of the job of slaughtering cattle – a job which would have required physical strength – was one reason why battles were so often fought after Martinmas. It’s far easier to drag yourself away from home once the work is done and you know your stores of food are laid in for the winter. One thing that intrigued me about the Pilgrimage of Grace was that the rebels were away from home through the month. I wonder if the women, left at home with the task looming, took the chance of waiting till their menfolk returned even if it meant slaughtering slightly thinner stock, or picked up the poleaxe and had a go themselves.

The British Library, Isabella Breviary. Additional 18851, f. 6v: calendar page for November. The pigs are on their way to market. I think something bad is going to happen to them, also to the cows on the right. I like the way the tall tree in front of the church just has a few leaves left. Mine looks like that too.

The British Library, Isabella Breviary. Additional 18851, f. 6v: calendar page for November. The pigs are on their way to market. I think something bad is going to happen to them, also to the cows on the right. I like the way the tall tree in front of the church just has a few leaves left. Mine looks like that too.

Of course, not everybody reared pigs just for subsistence. Some Books of Hours show pigs being driven to market in the town for sale. So if you lived in a town, November might have been the month when the streets were noisy with herds of squealing pigs being bought and sold. Then imagine how busy a street like the Shambles in York, where the butchers’ shops were, would have been, as all the bought-in beasts had to be slaughtered. These very noisome activities took place not in out-of-town abbatoirs as they do today, but in the very heart of towns, and butchers didn’t just deal with ready-killed carcasses, they were butchers because they butchered.

So, November. Lots of scoffing, but also plenty of gore. We will have get in some serious eating, anyway, before the abstinence of December and the Advent fast begin.

If you want a recipe, we’ll steer clear of the blood pudding and tripe, in favour of roasted crabs.

I used to think ‘when roasted crabs hiss in the pot’ in Shakespeare’s poem about winter meant the crustacea. Actually he was talking about crab apples – little, hard, tart apples that grow wild as well as in gardens.

And why roast them? Well, if you taste one they are mouth-dryingly tart. If you can be bothered to peel them you can use them just like a normal cooking apple, though with more sugar added. But for ordinary Tudors, sugar was in short supply. If you roast them, however, slowly, taking up to a couple of hours, you will find they have turned sweet enough to eat as they are. You can do it on a barbecue, or a baking tray in the oven, and add some cinnamon if you have some.

Happy November!

A ghost story for Halloween: The Bell

This is the story I’m going to use to frighten small children at my kids’ Halloween party tomorrow. Every word of it is, of course, true. That’s what they think, anyway.

The Bell

This is actually a true story. It happened in this house. I didn’t want to tell you before in case you were scared. Is everyone ok with hearing the story? You can go and play in the dining room if you like. The lights are on in there.

You all want to hear it?

All right then.

This is something that happened in Victorian times, about a hundred and fifty years ago. At that time the house belonged to one very rich old lady who lived here all by herself. Her name was Mrs Taylor.

Now, when I say by herself, she actually had servants. There was a gardener called Mr Bean who lived down the street and just came in the morning, but there was also a cook-housekeeper called Mrs Brain who slept in the attic and most of the time, another servant girl who would be the maid-of-all-work.

Being a maid-of-all-work was a hard job. And the shocking thing is, the girls who did it sometimes weren’t even grown-ups or even teenagers, they were children like you. They had to be the first person to get up in the morning, to do the fires, carry up Mrs Taylor’s bathwater and even empty her smelly old chamber pot from under the bed. Then during the day they were at everybody’s beck and call, doing the hard jobs, the scrubbing and scraping and blackleading and fetching and carrying. At night they would collapse into bed exhausted but they still had to listen out for the bell, in case Mrs Taylor wanted anything in the night. There was a bellpull right by her bed and if she woke in the night she would ring it as hard as it could so that it jangled in the attic bedrooms and woke up the poor maid to come down and see what she wanted.

To make matters worse, Mrs Taylor was mean. She paid her servants as little as she could get away with and she fed them on her leftovers: stale bread, scrapings from her plate. Even then they didn’t get enough. And she beat her little servant girls with her walking stick if they made a mistake or didn’t come fast enough when she rang.

Not surprisingly, nobody ever stayed in the job for any longer than they could help, so she was always having to write to the Malton workhouse master or the orphanages in York to see if they knew of anyone who was desperate enough to take the position.

One day, Mrs Taylor was sitting by her cosy fire, reading the latest installment of a magazine story about a missionary being eaten by cannibals, when the doorbell rang.

The cook-housekeeper, Mrs Brain, put down her rolling pin with a sigh and went to answer the door. Of course Mrs Taylor didn’t actually get up and answer her own door – that was what servants were for.

In the doorway stood the master of the workhouse, and next to him, a tiny scrap of a girl, no bigger than Lily here.

The workhouse master tipped his hat. ‘Brought your new servant girl, ma’am. The lady of the house wrote me a letter.’

Mrs Brain screwed up her eyes. The girl didn’t look like she’d be much use. Her arms and legs were skinny as twigs and her cheeks were hollowed out, as if she never had enough to eat. She didn’t just look weak, she looked ill. Her eyes were red with dark circles under them, and she kept her hand pressed in front of her mouth, as if she was always trying to stop herself coughing.

Mrs Brain showed her into the drawing room and Mrs Taylor looked the girl up and down. ‘She doesn’t look much, but she’ll have to do,’ she said. ‘She can start right away. Tell her to go and fetch some water to scrub the floor in the hall, and when she’s done that, the water closet wants scouring.’

She didn’t even ask the little girl’s name.

The girl’s name was Hannah, and she had lived in the workhouse nearly all her life. She was actually suffering from an illness called tuberculosis, which was why she coughed so much. Anyone who cared enough to notice could have seen she was ill, but the workhouse master didn’t care, Mrs Taylor didn’t care as long as the fires were lit and the chamber pots emptied, and even Mrs Brain, who might have been kind to her, only grumbled about how feeble and slow she was, and how she couldn’t carry a heavy bucket of water without stumbling and spilling half. If she had been properly fed, and rested, and kept warm, she might have recovered, but there was no hope of that in this house.

Poor Hannah had a terrible time of it. It wasn’t enough that she was kept on her feet all day long. Mrs Taylor was a bad sleeper, and woke several times in the night, and each time, she would ring her bell and Hannah was expected to come running. Sometimes it was to fetch a book, or a biscuit, sometimes Mrs Taylor complained she was cold and wanted the fire lighting. Each time, Hannah had to struggle out of bed in her thin nightgown in the freezing cold attic room. It was not surprising that her cough got worse, and she grew thinner and thinner.

I am very sad to have to tell you that Hannah died. One night when Mrs Taylor rang the bell and Hannah stumbled out of bed as usual, she found that she could hardly stand up. At the top of the stairs she wobbled, and tried to reach for the rail to stop herself falling, but instead she tumbled right down the stairs and broke her neck. She was only ten years old. The vicar suggested Mrs Taylor might like to give some money to pay for a proper burial for her, but she was too mean, and Hannah’s tiny remains were buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave without even a coffin to protect her from the earth and the worms.

A week or so later, Mrs Brain had to go to visit her sister in Pickering, who was sick. Mrs Taylor grumbled, but she let her go, because she knew that if she didn’t, Mrs Brain might leave, and she might never find another cook-housekeeper to look after such a big house for so little money. So Mrs Brain arranged for Mr Bean the gardener’s wife to come in just before bedtime to help Mrs Taylor to bed, and once again early in the mornings to light the fires. This meant that Mrs Taylor was completely alone in the house.

It was a wild, windy night, so windy that the streetlights blew out and the street was in pitch darkness. The wind rattled the windowframes and blew down the chimneys, making a noise like somebody moaning, ‘Oh, oh.’ Alone in her comfortable bed, Mrs Taylor shuddered. She pulled the thick bedcovers up around her head and tried to block out the noises, until at last she fell asleep.

In the middle of the night, there was a loud bang on the window. She sat bolt upright in bed, her heart racing. But the tapping continued, until Mrs Taylor realised with relief that it was just a branch of one of the holly trees blowing against the window. She slid back under the covers and went back to sleep.

There was another bang, a lighter one this time. Mrs Taylor half woke up, and groped for the bell. As it clanged in the distant empty attic she remembered she was alone, and there was no-one in the house to answer. ‘Fiddlesticks!’ she said. ‘If that silly girl hadn’t gone and fallen downstairs…’ Light, pattery footsteps sounded on the uncarpeted attic stairs.

Mrs Taylor gasped.

‘Rats,’ she whispered to herself. ‘It must be rats or mice.’ But the footsteps were on the landing now, and were coming closer and closer.

They stopped. Mrs Taylor held her breath. And then there was a cough, just outside the room.

Mrs Taylor froze. She had to send the maid away! Summoning up all her courage, she managed to squeeze some words out. ‘I – I don’t need you after all,’ she called shakily.

The door of her bedroom slowly opened. Mrs Taylor squeezed her eyes tight shut.

‘It’s quite all right,’ she said faintly. ‘You can go back to bed now.’

The footsteps came closer and closer, until at last they stopped right beside her bed.

Mrs Taylor forced herself to open her eyes.

It was Hannah all right, standing only inches away from her, and looking even thinner and sicker than she had done in life. Her skin was a deathly white, and there were still bluish bruises on her bony arms, where Mrs Taylor had hit her with her walking stick just two weeks earlier. Her hair hung down by her cheeks, clods of earth clinging to it. Something writhed in her ear. Mrs Taylor let out a cry of horror when she saw that it was a worm.

The apparition made a little, tired curtsey. ‘I came at once, Ma’am,’ she said. ‘I was in my grave but I came at once.’

Mrs Taylor screamed. ‘I don’t need you,’ she gabbled. ‘Go back to bed – I mean back to your grave – you’re ill – I’ll pay for the doctor – oh, I’m too late, aren’t I? I’m too late! Please, go!’

The ghost gave a slight, feeble smile. But she did not move.

When Mrs Bean came the next morning to help Mrs Taylor dress, she found her curled up into a ball on the floor in the corner of the room, gabbling incoherently about maids-of-all-work, graveyard mud and bells. She went straight back home to fetch her husband, who took one look at her and went straight for the doctor. The doctor decided she must have had a nervous breakdown, and she was sent to a hospital for a very long time.

When she came out of hospital, Mrs Taylor did try to make amends. The house had been shut up while she was gone, and Mrs Brain had found another job in Pickering, near her sister, but she engaged new staff, a cook and two maids, who she paid almost twice as much as she had given the wretched Hannah. She also gave a considerable amount of money to the workhouse master, to buy better food for the paupers. Unfortunately he stole it, and something terrible happened to him as a result, but that is a story for next Halloween.

You’ve probably noticed the bell next to the fireplace. That’s one of the bells Mrs Taylor used to ring to call Hannah. Does anyone want to ring it? No?

On learning to write without spending any money

I’m writing this post because I’ve recently heard some more people bemoaning the fact that they can’t afford to take a creative writing course. I’m all for creative writing courses – never done one myself, but I know a lot of people who have, and who had a brilliant time as well as learning lots. But the idea that people feel held back by the fact that they can’t afford one makes me sad. Honestly, you do not need formal teaching. It is great, but not critical.
So here are my tips about how to put yourself through your own DIY creative writing course. It’s basically what I did, and you have to be very focused and determined to make yourself do it, rather than relying on a course for structure and impetus. But then, you need to be focused and determined if you want to be a writer anyway, so we’ll take that as read. ;-)

I’ve come to the conclusion that there are three main things that people get out of a creative writing course (apart from the kick up the arse to actually write, which we’ve already agreed you don’t need):

1. The generic teaching of the craft – classes, lectures etc.
2. Skilled critiquing of your own writing
3. The supportive peer group

The thing is, all these things can be accessed for free, no matter where you are in the world, as long as you have access to the internet and a library which can order in books it doesn’t already stock.

We’ll take them in reverse order.

3. The supportive peer group
If you have a local writers’ group, great. (I would love one, not least so we could go to the pub afterwards.) Otherwise, join an online writing forum. AbsoluteWrite.com is one. Scribophile is another. And CritiqueCircle. There are loads, and you can join several.
Once you’ve joined, start developing friendships with other writers that you hit it off with. Offer to critique other people’s work – this is vital. It will help you learn to write, it will leave you with a pool of people who will be eager to help you by critiquing your work when the time comes, and it will make the advice they give you easier to take on board.

2. Skilled critiquing of your own writing
This is where the friendships with other writers come in. Some websites also have a section where you can post things for anyone to comment.
Of course, I’ve had some wonderful, helpful insights from people I’ve been fortunate enough to know who happen to be talented writers. However, I have found that some of my best critiquers aren’t fiction writers themselves – my readers have been a mixture of writers and keen readers. As a historical novelist I’ve been lucky to have a few historian friends who read my stuff. But I’ve also had excellent advice from friends who simply love reading and are capable of expressing opinions about what they’ve read.

1. The generic teaching of craft
There is plenty of stuff online – helpful blogposts, discussions in forums about particular aspects of craft. However, for depth and detail, I have found books essential. The writers’ forums are fantastic for helping you work out which books, though. (I’ll write another post listing a few of my favourites.)

So, how do all these elements work together?
Well, the first thing you do is begin writing. Start to write your first draft (with or without planning, depending on how you work best).
As you start to write, you will start to understand where the gaps in your knowledge lie. You realise you don’t have a clue how to put together a plot – or, you have a good idea of the plot but can’t work out how to write dialogue.
It may not be a good idea to go rushing to the creative writing books at this stage, though. What I would recommend is to keep going until the end of the first draft, writing and writing without stopping to think. For actually getting through that first draft, you will find your supportive peer group essential. Cheerlead each other, post daily wordcounts, tell your friends when you’re flagging and the chances are you’ll get a friendly nudge back on track.
Once you’ve got to the end of the first draft, you put it in a drawer – don’t show it to anyone yet – and that’s when the creative writing books come out. Take a while to work through a couple. Now you’ve had the experience of writing a whole draft they will make a lot more sense to you than they would have done a few months earlier. You’ll start to get some sense of how much you know and how much you don’t know.
After a month or so, when you’ve more or less forgotten about the story that was consuming you a few weeks earlier, get the draft out and read it again. This part hurts – you will cringe at bits, either because they’re just plain badly written, or because your newfound knowledge from the creative writing books makes you see more clearly what doesn’t work. You go to your supportive peer group, cry a bit online, then buckle down and do drastic rewriting. Then you put it away for another month and do some more reading of creative writing books, maybe critique some stuff for a friend, chat about writing online. Oh, and read more fiction. Obviously. You never stop doing that.
When you come back to reading draft 2, you might feel ready to show it to a friend, or it might be too early for that – if you can see for yourself what needs fixing, better to fix it yourself before asking anyone else to expend effort on it. It might be draft 2 or 3 or 4 that gets read. Once you have comments to work with, you might find yourself going back to the creative writing books again, this time re-reading relevant bits that relate to the comments you’ve had on your draft: how to tighten your saggy middle section, or make your lacklustre love interest more compelling.
There’s no limit on the number of drafts you will need. Keep going as long as you can feel it getting better with each draft.
Of course, you don’t end up with an MA this way. If you’re very lucky, and talented, you might end up with a publishable book. Most importantly, though, through the repeated feedback process of writing-reading-writing-reading, your writing will have come a very long way.

Click here for my post on my favourite creative writing books

Normal service will resume shortly…

Last time I wrote on here was midsummer and now it’s September!
The second half of my summer disappeared in a whirl of moving house with ten days notice, my computer getting broken in the move so I had NO COMPUTER AT ALL for over a month, and finding myself, husband and three children living in a huge, decaying Georgian house with a jungle of a garden. And ducks.
The house move shouldn’t have been a shock – we knew we were doing it – it’s just I never really believed it until it happened. There were legal issues of the sort that make mortgage companies laugh incredulously and say, ‘No. Sorry.’
But here we are. The builders are still here. Much reroofing has been done and much is still to do. There are interesting gaps in windowframes and places where the paint has flaked off to show us a hundred years’ succession of different colours. The garden is so overgrown that we haven’t even been into the corners.
Yesterday, the children started their new school, which my daughter loves so much she wants to go on Saturdays and Sundays too. (We’ll see how long that lasts.) And now I am sitting at my desk in my lovely new writing room with Scrivener open, poised to restart the book!

This is the view from my new window:

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(The things in the sky aren’t UFOs, just a smudge and a beetle.)