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What’s in a name?

The first edition of ‘A Dangerous Game of Football’ – Book 1 of the Jack Burnside Adventures – had a print run of 1500 copies. Hugely popular among the 8 – 12 age group, a second edition was planned with the same cover but with a new title, ‘A Dangerous Game,’ hoping this fast-paced adventure would then attract more girls.

Only later did I realise that the original title was by far the better, standing out from the crowd and attracting as many girls as boys to the series. It was a good lesson learned – the importance of choosing the right title – although in today’s on-line world it is almost impossible to select a title not already in use. I think I have succeeded with ‘Age and the Antique Sideboard’. Whenever I Google the title, up comes a series of beautiful antique wooden sideboards + my book!

I have been told on many many occasions that the success of A Dangerous Game was due in no small part to a camel – a sarcastic, wise-cracking, smelly beast who saved Jack’s life’s on several occasions and developed a fanclub all of his own … Bud. And I had no clue when I began writing Book 3 – The Lions of Trafalgar – that another memorable characterwas waiting in the wings – Capstick – one of the lions that guard Nelson in Trafalgar Square.

I hope a new generation of 8 – 12’s will discover these books – they certainly won’t be disappointed. Recently, I have come upon some very dog-eared copies in various libraries, testament to how often they are read.

For early Christmas shoppers – The Jack Burnside Trilogy is on special offer at £5 per book until December 15. (See website: http://www.barbaraspencer.co.uk)Poster_final_LR

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Spot of Trouble in my Waterworks

Hope you enjoy!

Travels with my granddaughter

So there I am sitting on the floor with my head under the sink.

The question: what am I doing there? is the wrong question. The answer is plainly obvious, since I am surrounded by the bowels of plumbing: two outlet pipes and a u-bend.

The question: what am I doing there at eleven o’clock at night? is also the wrong question. And, had it been asked at the time, I would have said, it is also somewhat irritating. It is quite obvious what I am doing: I am cleaning the drain.

However, the question: do you know how to fit these pieces back together again? That question – however hurtful in its tendency to cast aspersions on my mechanical ability – is entirely relevant to the problem in hand. Bulls-eye!

You could then continue and ask: But shouldn’t you be in bed?  Or: Won’t you get cramp sitting on the floor like…

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A Spot of Trouble in my Waterworks from Age and the Antique Sideboard

So there I am sitting on the floor with my head under the sink.

The question: what am I doing there? is the wrong question. The answer is plainly obvious, since I am surrounded by the bowels of plumbing: two outlet pipes and a u-bend.

The question: what am I doing there at eleven o’clock at night? is also the wrong question. And, had it been asked at the time, I would have said, it is also somewhat irritating. It is quite obvious what I am doing: I am cleaning the drain.

However, the question: do you know how to fit these pieces back together again? That question – however hurtful in its tendency to cast aspersions on my mechanical ability – is entirely relevant to the problem in hand. Bulls-eye!

You could then continue and ask: But shouldn’t you be in bed?  Or: Won’t you get cramp sitting on the floor like that?

However relevant such questions might be when you are in a tight spot (as I was, crouched on my side with my head jammed inside the cupboard under the sink), such perception, however kindly meant, does nothing to resolve the jigsaw puzzle in my lap. And however much I lecture myself that I have done this before (several times) and have profited by having clean smelling drains for yet another six months, the pieces fail to gel: for I simply cannot remember.

 Was the u-bend under this drain or indeed under that?

 Have I lost a piece?

I rush outside and examine the spot on the ground, where I had tipped the disgustingly gruesome water. No! There are no misplaced pieces of pipe … only an inquisitive cat.

So if it is all here in my lap, why does this pipe have three outlets? I’m positive it had only two before I washed it. I scrutinise the pieces. Honest, there really are only two bits of pipe into which it can fit.

 So how come I also have three washers left over?

And: where the hell did I hang my rubber gloves?

Visualisation of the drainage system fails to produce an image of the piece of pipe on which my rubber gloves have, in fact, hung for the past five years. Instead, it produces cramp, my toes curling up like slices of stale bread, causing me to screech in agony and hang on to my toes until the spasm has passed.

I glance at my watch. One o’clock! I look outside at the peaceful square, neighbours on all sides sleeping soundly, the square cocooned in a haven of blissful quiet.

Nothing for it but to give in. And yet …

‘Tomorrow,’ I say aloud, my tone as sorrowful as a solitary nighthawk over Kurdistan, ‘the moment I awake I will call the plumber and that will cost me at least a hundred pounds.’

 It is amazing how the threat of unwanted expenditure clarifies the aging mind.

Instantly the pieces make sense, the long white tubes clipping neatly together to form two drains, one horizontal bar (on which my rubber gloves hang), and a u-bend, each piece clean and sweet-smelling and designed to carry, without leaking, waste water into the municipal drain.

One last job to be done: I stick my head back under the sink, working my way along each pipe inch by inch, trying to memorise where each piece lives in relation to the next.

‘Well’ I say, glancing at my watch and a silently sleeping square. ‘At least I’ve saved myself a ton of money.’

And on that happy thought I take myself off to bed.

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Travels with my granddaughter – Fan Fiction

This weekend my granddaughter was talking about a ‘book’ which ‘literally saved her life’, telling me I should read it. What did I expect? Certainly not what I got. On a fan-fiction site, devotees upload their stories as they write them, snippets, chapters, punctuation and spelling mistakes galore. Readers pick them up and follow, eagerly awaiting the next chapter. The ‘book’ I was given to read had 336,000 hits and yet it was as far from being a readable book as it was possible to be.

To begin with, I thought it a play. Except it wasn’t. The only way I can describe it is: an ungrammatical series of jottings, in which expletives ruled the roost, with absurd situations created just for titillation.

Today, my attention was caught by The Young Writers Newsletter which was shared by Storm Grayson and which is aimed at under-eighteens.

Are they connected? Not in a literary sense, no. To be honest not in any sense because the Young Writers Newsletter is about encouraging young people to write well.

For me, fan fiction sites expose a worrying trend in popularism – is there such a word – with authors appealing to the lowest common denominator. It is also a terrible indictment of our education system. At least forty years ago, people wrote a good hand with words spelled correctly and in their right place.

I can hear the outcry now. Does it matter? Surely you should be delighted that someone is actually taking the time to write?

It does matter. The English language is one of the richest anywhere, so why are we restricting our vocabulary to 200 words, half of which comprise 4 letters and are banned by the BBC for usage before 9pm?

I still find profanity belligerent, aggressive and in most cases, unnecessary. I neither find expletives funny (as comedians on the television seem to think) nor clever (as writers on television seem to think) nor an example to our young. I read on-line that J K Rowling and Piers Morgan swapped expletives. (It may well not have been true – fake news is yet another worrying problem. I was told at the weekend that in some places you can get the sack for being too pretty!)

Indeed, expletives are so widely used that no one notices or comments any more. My problem with all this profanity, if you hear of something often enough it becomes normal. At which point to capture an audience’s attention, you have to push the boundaries of ‘acceptable behaviour’ further and further.

Travels with my granddaughter – why I wrote Broken

Better known as an author of YA thrillers and children’s books, it was a surprise to find myself writing ‘Broken’ which is for primarily for adults. I had just completed the time-slip novel, ‘Time Breaking’. An instant success which took me to many book-signing events at Waterstones, I decided to use the same time-slip format for my next novel but with a male lead rather than a female. Unfortunately, and I plead total ignorance as to why or how it happened, my pen took off and instead of sending my hero back in time, I found myself investigating rivers and monasteries, peat moors, rhynes and clyces. The result was ‘Broken’ although even that was not what I originally intended. Throughout the writing and editing process, it was always ‘Me and Mrs Jones’, taken from the wonderful version of the song recorded by Barry White. Two songs are mentioned in the book and although I tried to get permission to quote from them, I didn’t succeed. So, after much soul-searching, I changed the title to ‘Broken.’

So why did I write it?  The background to ‘Broken’ is modern Glastonbury, where I happened to be living at the time, and its neighbour, Street, although I was born far away in Cheshire and spent a great many years ducking and diving wars on three continents before moving to the West Country. There are many, many sides to Glastonbury, not only the colourful feast of myths and magic that bring tourists to the town from all corners of the world, but also its religious significance as home to St Dunstan, Archbishop of Canterbury, over a thousand years ago. And don’t forget Joseph of Arimathea. According to legend when Joseph arrived in Glastonbury with his twelve companions, he climbed Wearyall Hill and planted his staff in the ground whilst he rested. The following morning the staff had taken root and it grew into the miraculous thorn tree.

Even in modern Glastonbury myths abound which, hopefully, will remain in existence for another two thousand years; such as the rumour that Jesus Christ had lived there, a resident kindly pointing out the house at the end of the High Street where he had lived. It’s also a well-documented fact that some people cannot climb the Tor, pushed back by its powerful ley lines.

Sadly, though, the history of this small area is not always so wondrous. There exists a seedy downside in which drugs and messed-up families prevail, keeping both police and social services on their toes. My daughter swam for Street Swimming Club and when driving her to the pool for training we would pass groups of youngsters sitting on the kerb, and on our return journey two hours later, we would pass the same children on the same kerb, there being neither buses nor anything to do in a small country town apart from staying in with mum and dad to watch telly.

Although ‘Broken’ is an adult read, the main character is Jem Love, a fourteen-year-old schoolboy, who tries to keep his family together after his mother overdoses. The Mrs Jones from the original title belongs to Katrina Jones, a hard drinking, wise-cracking, social worker, with problems of her own; and there is an unforgettable third character, my all-time favourite, Spooky Jarvis, Street’s most famous hooligan, who runs foul of the law as often as he has birthdays.

It sounds dire, doesn’t it? But I can promise you ‘Broken’ is anything but dire. It is funny and outrageous, uplifting, full of hope and it is receiving the most brilliant reviews … so definitely worth a read!Broken_AZ_101916

 

In Pursuit of Fame

Why does an otherwise normal person decide to commit their life to writing a book?

The answer to that question would create a vaste mountain of paperwork because we all have different reasons for setting pen to paper. For Daphne du Maurier, a foremost writer of the last century, it was to escape the unhappiness of a loveless marriage. For me, it was being forced to replace a sparkling career with the more mundane aspects of domesticity – cooking, cleaning and ironing. Maybe it was the tedium of housework that led me to writing for children, who mostly remain ignorant of the need for housework until at least 18.

Nevertheless, regardless of what we give as our reason for days spent peering into a notebook, typewriter or pc, the pursuit of ‘fame’ although strenuously denied is the most likely one, even if the words ‘and fortune’ do not accompany it. If someone says to me, I write only for myself, my retort is likely to be: ‘I confess the lady protests too much,’ which I believe Shakespeare used about Hamlet’s mum in Hamlet. I mean, if they genuinely do only write for themselves, the book can live on a shelf or in a drawer – like Fagin’s ‘guilty secret’. (Dickens) It does not need the Internet.

As a test, ask yourself the question: why should someone buy my book? And does it matter if they don’t? If your answer is: Like hell it does. Then, like the rest of us, you are seeking at the very least recognition as a writer, plus a wish and desire for fame.

Sadly, writing fame has now become an endangered species, and was far easier to achieve in, say, the last years of the 19th century than in these early years of the 21st. To begin, there were fewer aspiring novelists vying for the prize. For the vast majority of the population, the word ‘leisure or spare time’, a basic requirement for the aspiring writer, did not exist. As for leisure pursuits … nope what the hell are those? We were either sleeping or working … no time for fancy embroidery or petite pointe unless it was an occupation that put bread on the table, in which case it was likely to occupy every waking hour. Candidates for writing fame grew from families who had a bob or two to spare, and who were able to educate their children and keep them at home without the family starving to death. Although it is fair to say starving in a garret in Montmartre did become the in-thing for artists around this time. Never the most dependable of men, a good dose of cold and hunger went a long way in their search for both fame and fortune, which brings up the point: how did they manage to live in squalor and never pay the rent and yet spend all night in a bar drinking copious amount of brandy or wine?

Be that as it may, once fame and fortune struck it was for many already too late to jettison the attic in favour of something warmer and more comfortable. Sadly, all too often the cold and damp, not to mention cheap liquor, resulted in TB which took them off at a very young age. (Look at La Bohême and La Traviata).

Surprisingly, this garret business did not apply to writers, mainly, as stated in a previous paragraph because writers needed a smattering of education which had to be paid for. In this regard the Bronte sisters might well be considered cool. Their father’s income was, or would have been, sufficient to keep them all handsomely had not their brother run up huge debts. However, having been fortunate enough to belong to the gentry who actually believed in girls being educated, and living in a picturesque part of Yorkshire, they were able to decide on a writing career as a way of providing for themselves, even if they did have to pass themselves off as men.

(What a long way we women have come!)

Indeed, it is likely there are more writers currently starving in garrets or basement flats than there were in the 19th century, although modern writers are generally cushioned by a weekly benefit cheque, which does to some extent keep the wolf from the door.

But I digress.

Even twenty years ago, becoming a household name as a writer was more readily achievable than it is today. However, if you want someone to blame for this downturn, I suggest you turn your attention to successive laws that have limited our working week in order to give us some much needed leisure time, adequate pensions that allow us to sit at home at the young age of 60 or 65, and twiddle our thumbs, and Tim Berners Lee who created the Internet some twenty-eight years ago.

(The jury is still out as to whether in the long run this will be considered evolutionary progress or a step backwards.)

As a result of this cataclysmic social change, a series of brilliant thinkers invented the play station, mobile phones, Facebook and virtual stores. Amazon sells its books in our sitting rooms, children have become addicted to interactive games, independent bookshops have mostly disappeared, and the invention of E-readers has given rise to free publishing on the web.

Did you know that one million books were published on the Amazon sites last year alone?

I mean, what sort of odds can you give fame against that: a million to one?

I still prefer the old-fashioned way of publishing a paperback because that may have a chance of finding its way onto the shelves in a bookshop or library. I remember vividly doing book-signings in Waterstones for one of my children’s books against the background of The Hunger Games, and seeing teenagers dragging their parents to the relevant shelf and exhorting them to read it.

(They probably still do this, but display the cover of the book to their parents on a mobile or computer screen.)

Of course fame is still possible as a small percentage of writers on Amazon have proved. Lightning does have a habit of striking in strange places – look at Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey.

So … write your book and hold onto your dream of achieving recognition and fame. It’s a wonderful dream to have but the likelihood is it will remain just that, a dream, unless you do something about it. And I mean something with a capital S.

So what does it take to get your book read?  The answer to that is a lot of hard work and a whole helping of luck.

Good writing, good editing and good presentation are a given. More and more writers are using third parties to proofread and edit. Yes, it costs but so do mistakes in the text. And get several people to have a go at the blurb – some is really cringe-worthy.

Genre has never been as important as it is now. We love historical novels, unusual thrillers, and fantasy with vast canvasses (Game of Thrones). Dystopian fantasy is out of favour at the moment and vampires have had their day, as have werewolves and angels, although outrageous comedy and romance remain firm favourites … we still love a happy ending. Series are good … very good. Readers still like to know what happened to each of the characters as they march off into the sunset of the last page.

Nevertheless, whatever you write, you have to promote and work as hard at promotion as you did at your writing. Join groups, use social media, donate your book to libraries. Friends will buy because they want to support you and with luck they will recommend to their friends. Even so, it will take time, trawling the various groups you belong to, commenting and blogging, offering promotions and free copies in exchange for a review. And being generous with your time by reading the work of others … very important.

Yes, it can be soul-destroying and heart-breaking. You will ask yourself a dozen times a day, why am I doing this?

The answer to that question is usually: because I must … it’s a good book and deserves to be read.

So keep pushing.

I learned a very salutary lesson today, hence the reason for this blog. Apparently although I am a ‘very successful writer’ I had never bothered to bring myself to the attention of a prestigious local Literature Festival and so was ignored.

Who’s kicking themselves now!

Opening the doors on my advent calendar:

December is a strange month, the darkest for us here in the UK. we count the hours we see the son at the same time as counting the hours till Christmas. The weather man is our favourite being on television, praying that he might, just might, forecast a downturn in the temperature and the promise of snow. Today’s offering is about a Christmas gone.

A Family Tradition   blend 1-Edit.jpgIt’s that time of year when sentiment is hung on the Christmas tree in close proximity to the angel on its topmost branch. We sing carols while we are wrapping presents and whenever a youngster happens to cross our path, we tell tales of the olden days, never to be forgotten, when Christmases really were magical.

My Christmas starts early, with the arrival of my family to make the puddings; a tradition that dates back to my great-grandmother in the 19th century.

In the spirit of Christmas, I begin the festivities by imparting to my youngest granddaughter that Grandmother Cooke was in fact her Great Great Great Grandmother. Then after the weighing, measuring and mincing of fruit, all but the currants, the sieving of flour and the beating of eggs, the grating of nutmeg and the gentle touch of spices, we take it in turns to stir, all the time employing my brother’s nose. Once he confirms that the mixture is up to scratch, with the correct balance of spice and citrus, we give it one last stir each during which we make a wish and hope for it to come true.

Finally, having left the mixture overnight, I get up early the following morning to put the puddings on to boil.  More time consuming than you can possibly imagine, out comes the cotton cloths that are used every year. Boiled white again after use, they live in the airing cupboard while waiting for their annual outing. After that, it is greaseproof paper and string while the waiting pans are partially filled with boiling water.

I still use the same pan with a dent in the rim that my mother used. Too large for the modern family, that too lives in the back of a dark cupboard all year. While waiting for the water to gently bubble, my thoughts fly back to other ancestors who have stood by a stove waiting as I am doing now.

My great grandmother, a regal woman of sufficient worth to merit a portrait in oils, in a dress of black bombazine, with a jet broach pinned to the shoulder; my grandmother her lisle stockings peeping out from under her almost ankle-length skirt, often baggy and wrinkled at the ankles. A pinafore was her badge of office, as was her glorious red hair tightly controlled in a bun. My own mother, often too tired on Christmas Day to eat her dinner, worn out from washing curtains and polishing brass; my sister who ran a restaurant and used the same recipe to enthrall customers at Christmas as had my great grandmother, which brought customers back in January to taste other culinary delights.

Then, for the past eighteen years … me, for my family.

Each one of us in our turn has waited, head bent to the saucepan, listening out for the tell-tale sound of bubbling that shows the water temperature has achieved perfection. Tied to the stove for the mandatory six hours of boiling, there is little to do except muse on the very different lives of the four generations and be grateful I am living in a century in which ‘wickedly clean’ is not considered proof of respectability.

I frequently check, hastening to refill the kettle when the water level drops. Even that is not the end. Clean cloths and two more hours on Christmas Day.

Although the recipe has never varied, over the years we have tinkered with non-essentials. The family is smaller and we have cut down on quantities. I no longer use silver coins, respecting the fragility of aging teeth, and I omit the libation of brandy which, when lit, flamed blue to thrill the waiting audience. However, there is still both custard and cream if wanted.

On Christmas Day after the traditions of turkey and trimmings, I bring in the pudding. And, as has happened each year for 140 years, there is an expectant hush that precedes the first mouthful. And an even longer hush afterwards in which our palate dances a fandango of delight and our senses, overwhelmed with joyous satisfaction, soar to the heavens and refuse to return … until Boxing Day.

 

 

 

 

My Advent Calendar of Books for Christmas

Opening up yet another door or maybe I’ll cheat and open 3 doors:

If so, it has to be: The Hunger Games trilogy. While I was at one of the very many Waterstones I visited for a Saturday book-signing of one of my children’s books, it became usual for a few people to be curled up in a corner. Loud animated conversation would ring out as children introduced Mum and Dad to the first of these. I have to confess I have been recommended a number of YA novels but none – matched the opening to The Hunger Games.

When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course she did. This is the day of the reaping.

      I prop myself up one elbow. There’s enough light in the bedroom to see them. My little sister, Prim, curled up on her side, cocooned in my mother’s body, their cheeks pressed together. In sleep, my mother looks younger, still worn but not so beaten-down. Prim’s face is as fresh as a raindrop, as lovely as the primrose for which she was named. My mother was very beautiful once, too. Or so they tell me.

     

Sitting at Prim’s knees, guarding her, is the world’s ugliest cat. Mashed-in nose, half of one ear missing, eyes the colour of rotting squash. Prim named him, Buttercup, insisting that his muddy yellow coat matched the bright flower. He hates me. Or at least distrusts me. Even though it was years ago, I think he remembers how I tried to drown him in a bucket when Prim brought him home. Scrawny kitten, belly swollen with worms, crawling with fleas. The last thing I needed was another mouth to feed. But Prim begged so hard, cried even, I had to let him stay. It turned out OK. My mother got rid of the vermin and he’s a born mouser. Even catches the occasional rat. Sometimes, when I clean a kill, I feed Buttercup the entrails. He has stopped hissing at me.