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Can Do Better: Why ‘Best’ Is Not Good Enough.

 

Do you remember being told as a child that ‘you can do better’? Do you recall how that made you feel – encouraged, perhaps? Despondant? The other day I posted an oft quoted phrase on a well-known media platform and asked for comments. What I didn’t say was WHY I was interested in the feedback. This is the reason.

Some years ago a young person experienced severe self-doubt over school-related performance, which compounded already very low self-esteem. In the course of therapy, this person was told, ‘The enemy of the best is the good enough.’ Devastated, the young person interpreted the quote to mean that only the best is good enough. 

Redoubling their efforts, the young person excelled in their chosen subject at university, only to suffer a complete breakdown as a result. Despite attaining academic excellence, they never felt that they had earned the accolades they had been given, because ‘good enough’ wasn’t ‘the best’.

Subsequently, when the young person recently heard the phrase again, their reaction was one of dismay – much to the surprise of the person who quoted it. And this is why.

The person explained that, during the Second World War, Soviet commander General Zhukov had applied the well-known phrase to the availability of Soviet tanks compared with those of the German army.

The Soviet T34 was fast to manufacture, easy to drive, quick to manoeuvre and reasonably well armed. In the face of such opposition, the German army reacted by producing tanks that were far superior and massively over-engineered. As a result they could not produce enough of these gold-plated versions to outgun the Soviet tanks. In this instance, it was the number of tanks that counted, not the quality. As General Zhukov said, ‘The enemy of the best is good enough.’ 

Hearing this, the young person thought about it for a while and then, looking up, said, “I have spent my life thinking that in order to be accepted at school and to be of value to society, I had to be the best, but no matter how hard I tried I could never be perfect.”

To this young person, the phrase meant the opposite of its intended meaning. 

Throughout childhood and into adolescence, young people are exhorted to try harder, do better, never accept ‘good enough’. A quick search online of the word ‘encouragement’  came up with dozens of images of high-achieving children and advice on how to improve their educational outcomes. Few showed alternative concepts of success. Even where parents are given tips on how to raise a child to be kind, helpful, and resilient, the values placed on these virtues rarely filter into systems used to gauge results. Effective parenting – and by default, the competence of the parent – is itself judged by the success of the child. Attainment is measured in scores and grades, goals set and targets met. By the time they reach adulthood, many people are wired and primed to respond to similar phases in the way the young person did – not in terms of being encouraged, but with raised levels of anxiety at the implied criticism. How many of us recognise the anxious child within ourselves, the one who feels they don’t deserve praise, who ‘must do better’? 

As a society, we want our children to strive and to make the best of the opportunities offered to them. Empty praise is just that and does nothing to encourage individual expectations. But there is also an undercurrent of cultural unease in the way children are raised that speaks of a fear of featherbedding young people and which says that praise will undermine effort and therefore performance. Raise the bar, make them work for it. But the bar is also a rod used to beat under-achievers. 

Attainment is a matter of societal and individual viewpoint driven by a history of ambition and fear. We are all the victims of these pernicious attitudes and the perpetrators. Only by recognising the effect of our inherited perspective towards success and the language that surrounds it, can we modify and change the way we approach our children’s future.  Our best is good enough.

Growing for Gold: the Enduring Appeal of Saffron

‘Saffron Walden’ – a name forrmalised by Henry VIII in a charter granted in 1514.

It’s one of those things people seem to know about the past  (like Henry VIII had six wives and that spices were used to disguise rotten meat – more on that later): saffron, they say, was worth its weight in gold. It was so valuable that they even renamed a village – Saffron Walden – after it. However, two of those three statements are incorrect. In growing for gold, what is the enduring appeal of saffron from antiquity to the modern era? But first a recap on the fate of my own modest project.

Saffron corms ready to split and replant.

Having enriched the soil first, I replanted the saffron in the original position. I’ve selected the fattest corms for this bed and will nurture the smaller ones into productivity elsewhere. It’s not a crop for the impatient: I might get a few flowers later this year, but the corms will not produce their best for at least another year after that. 

Trial and error, dearth and glut is precisely what our Medieval forebears would have encountered as they attempted to establish new crops on a commercial scale. Too little rain, too much, low temperatures, mice – all affected productivity as much as they do now. With the initial outlay on corms and limited harvests in the first year, saffron was a risky business. Labour-intensive husbandry – both to keep the fields weed free and in the delicate, time-critical harvesting of the fragile stigma – raised costs even further. But the potential rewards were great.

Wild Saffron fields in Gran Sasso National Park

Recorded in antiquity in Egypt, Mesopotamia and Crete, as well as in Persia and Alexander’s Greece, saffron had a global appeal. It was used variably as a dye for cloth, a pigment in art works, and for a wide range of medical conditions including a cure for headaches and heart problems and a salve for wounds. It was thought to have mood-altering qualities and indeed can produce a sense of euphoria due to its compounds (safranal and crocin might have an anti-depressant effect by maintaining the balance of dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin (Hosseinzadeh et al., 2004)). Studies in humans show there can be a benefit to patients with anxiety and depression, so perhaps it is then not surprising that it was also an ingredient in some forms of incense and used in both civic and religious ceremony. 

In cuisine, we think of saffron as a flavouring and colourant in dishes requiring an exotic touch. English cookery books from the late fourteenth and early fifteenth-century show an extensive use of saffron despite its exorbitant cost, appearing in almost a half of the recipes in the compilation from Harleian MSS. 279 & 4016, Two Fifteenth-Century Cookery-Books (Thomas Austin) (1430 – 1450) and over a third in Forme of Cury (c1390). Demand remained high with production in England peaking in the Sixteenth-century, before a slow decline and the eventual cessation of production in England altogether.

Crocus sativus – the saffron crocus

It takes upwards of 150 flowers (roughly 450 stigma) to produce one gram of saffron. I won’t be growing enough saffron to sell, but the few delicate strands added flavour to the Medieval dishes I’ve tried (see below).  

Saffron is now grown in other regions, including in Iran and Afghanistan, Greece and France and remains as valuable today as it was in the later Medieval and Early Modern periods. Its high value perhaps accounting more for its  intoxicating appeal than its slightly bitter flavour and hay-like aroma, saffron nonetheless offers a link to the past and a tantalising glimpse of its potential for the future.

 

And the odd ones out of the three statements I mentioned at the beginning of this blog?

  1. Henry VIII did indeed have six wives.
  2. Saffron was worth far more than its weight in gold.
  3. Spices were not – I repeat not – used to disguise rotten meat. But more on that in a future blog

This is basically rice pudding. I tried it because it uses almond milk and is therefore suitable for those with a dairy or lactose intolerance. I added saffron, which turned the  pudding a glorious golden yellow and imparted a subtle flavour.

Rys. Take a porcyoun of rys, & pyke hem clene, & sethe hem welle, & late hem kele; þen take gode mylke of almaundys & do þer-to, & seþe & stere hem wyl; & do þer-to sugre and hony, & serue forth.

Take a portion of rice, and pick it clean, and boil it well, and let it cool; then take good milk of almonds and thereto, and boil and stir it well; and do thereto sugar and honey, and serve forth. 

 

Two Fifteenth-Century Cookery-Books  (Thomas Austin, comp.)

 

Up For Auction: A Once-Lost Medieval Manuscript Witnesses History

St. Catherine of Siena, as Christ and a host of saints appears to her, and offers her a bejewelle
St. Catherine of Siena. Illuminated manuscript on parchment c.1475 Image: Bloomsbury Auctions

Sometimes you come across an item that represents more than the sum of its parts – such as this single exquisite leaf of medieval manuscript from the third quarter of the fifteenth century. Once lost, this extremely rare piece is due to be auctioned on 6th July, 2021 by Bloomsbury Auctions, London. It is certain to attract attention from those interested in the work of one of the finest illustrators from a country  renowned for its illuminated manuscripts. It also resonates with the history of those with whom it is associated.

Attributed to the Master of Margaret of York, the miniture shows St. Catherine of Siena in an illustration typical of the period and region from which the book originated. And therein lies the significance for me, for the manuscript had been commissioned by Louis de Gruuthuse (Lodewijk van Brugge) in about 1475.

Born into a wealthy family c1422 in Bruges (now Belgium), Louis became a notable patron of the arts and collector of books. His collection was second to that of the Dukes of Burgundy at whose Court he served. It is this connection that, for me, makes Louis de Gruuthuse a person of interest, for he played an important role in the political and personal lives of the members of the House of York.

Louis de Gruuthuse (Lodewijk van Brugge) 1427 – 24 November 1492 Image: Wikimedia Commons

In 1468, Louis helped oversee the marriage celebrations of Charles de Charolais, son of Philip, Duke of Burgundy (the Good) to Margaret of York, sister of Edward IV and Richard, Duke of Gloucester, later Richard III. The significance of such an alliance between the two countries went beyond cementing a political connection that was instrumental to Edward’s continued survival, but also helped establish commercial links and cultural exchanges that influenced the English Court in following years.

The connection proved beneficial when, in 1479, Edward IV found himself in exile after the rebellion of Richard, Earl of Warwick who, in the Readeption, restored Henry VI to the English throne. Louis de Gruuthaus ensured safe passage for the beleaguered Edward and it was as his host during the winter of 1472 that Louis reaffirmed his partiality for the House of York, for which Edward subsequently rewarded him with the earldom of Winchester.

As a councillor to both Duke Philip and his son, Charles (who succeeded his father as Duke of Burgundy in 1467), Gruuthaus found himself in a position of influence. This continued after the death of Charles at the Battle of Nancy in 1477, serving the Duke’s heiress, Mary of Burgundy and her step-mother, Margaret of York.

Margaret of York - Wikipedia
Margaret of York, Duchess of Burgundy

Now widowed, Margaret continued to influence Anglo-Burgundian relationships, something she had endeavoured to do throughout her husband’s rule despite his wavering commitment to his brother-in law’s campaigns.

Like Gruuthaus, Margaret also acquired  books, those associated with her numbering about twenty-nine – a significant collection for a woman at the time.(1) It is likely that Gruuthaus’s own extensive collection inspired Edward IV’s acquisition of works for his Royal library, including a copy of Josephus, commissioned by Louis.(2)

While I won’t be bidding on the 6th June, I will await the outcome of the auction with interest as this remarkable witness to history begins the next stage of its long journey .

 

 

 

(1) Kurtis A. Bartow, “Appendix: the Library of Margaret of York and Some Related books,” in Thomas Kren, ed., Margaret of York, Simon Marmion and the Visions of Tondal (Malibu, CA: J. Paul Getty Museum, 1992), 257–262. For the complete list of books associated with the duchess.

(2) T Kren & S McKendrick (eds), Illuminating the Renaissance: The Triumph of Flemish Manuscript Painting in Europe, p.224, Getty Museum/Royal Academy of Arts.

 

 

Details of the manuscript and its provenance (below) have been taken from the Bloomsbury Auction website.

‘St. Catherine of Siena, as Christ and a host of saints appears to her, and offers her a bejewelled wedding ring, miniature on a leaf from a copy of the French translation of the Legenda Maior of Raymond of Capua, this leaf from a illuminated manuscript on parchment made for the grand Burgundian patron, Louis de Gruuthuse [French Flanders (doubtless Bruges), c. 1475]

Single leaf, with half page gold framed miniature attributed to the Master of Margaret of York or his workshop (see below), above a single pale pink initial containing coloured foliage, and 6 lines of elegant Burgundian lettre bâtarde by a professional scribe as yet unidentified but close to that of Colard Mansion, all within gold text frame and full border of acanthus leaves and other foliage, reverse with single word from previous chapter (‘personnes’: see below) at head, followed by line-filler in gold, blue and pink, above 5 lines of rubric opening with large and fine calligraphic initial (with human face poking out it’s tongue picked out in brown ink at its edge), some flaking and scuffing to gold, brown stains to upper margin, else fine condition, 276 by 197mm.

This leaf has a sublime provenance from Louis de Gruuthuse, the greatest art patron of the Burgundian Netherlands aside from the ducal family, to two kings of France, including François I, the father of the French Renaissance

Provenance:

1. This is a long-lost leaf from BnF MS. fr. 1048 (olim Regius 7336; on the manuscript see I. Hans-Collas & P. Schandel, Manuscrits enluminés des anciens Pays-Bas méridionaux. I. Manuscrits de Louis de Bruges, Paris, 2009, no. 36, pp. 144-45), a copy of the anonymous Légende de la Vie de Sainte Catherine de Sienne, made for Louis de Gruuthuse (1422-92; also known as Louis de Bruges), courtier to Philip the Good and the wealthiest and most important art patron in the Burgundian Low Countries outside the reigning ducal family. The loss of leaves from the parent volume removed the frontispiece with his armorial devices, but an offset of them can be seen on fol. 4v there. The present leaf contains the last word of book I, ch. 7, and the opening of book II, ch. 1, and once sat before fol. 35 in the parent manuscript (see the gallica.bnf.fr website for a black-and-white facsimile).

2. Louis XII (1462-1515, king of France from 1498), who was given the entire Gruuthuse library c. 1500, most probably by Jean V de Gruuthuse, the son and heir of Louis de Gruuthuse, as well as Louis XII’s chamberlain.

3. François I (1494-1547, king of France from 1515), the father of the Renaissance in France and one of that nation’s most important bibliophiles. He had the Gruuthuse arms overpainted in many of the volumes from that library and moved them along with the rest of the royal library into the treasury of the château of Blois (note the parent manuscript has the sixteenth-century note ‘Bloys’ at the head of its first original flyleaf above a description of its contents, doubtless from this move). There the royal chaplain, Guillaume Petit, recorded them in an inventory of 1518, and again in 1544, with the present leaf part of no. 1510, described as ‘Ung autre livre, en parchemyn, intitule: Vye de saincte Catherine de Sennes; couvert de veloux incarnat’ (see H. Omont, Anciens inventaires et catalogues de la Bibliothèque nationale, I, 1908, p. 235). These then passed to the royal library in Fontainebleau, and after the Revolution and foundation of the First Republic in 1792 to the Bibliothèque nationale. Depredations were made early into the Gruuthuse sections of the royal library, and in fact only 155 volumes of the 180 extant from this library now remain in the Bibliothèque nationale. All bar one of the leaves with miniatures were abstracted from the volume in question here before 1831, when the first comprehensive inventories of the Bibliothèque nationale were made (where the parent manuscript is no. 1683: see Omont, Anciens inventaires, p. 344). Where such miniatures were on a recto, a French hand of the eighteenth century added the preceding rubric in the parent volume (this is the case with the leaf in Dartmouth College and the leaf now in a European private collection), indicating that these leaves were removed while the collection was in Blois, and probably before the French Revolution.

4. Three leaves from the parent manuscript (most probably including this one) appeared for sale in a Philip C. Duschnes catalogue of May 1970, with one of these reappearing in Sotheby’s, 21 June 1994, lot 33 (but with the parent manuscript misidentified, and thus Gruuthuse provenance obscured), and another now in an important European private collection. Two further leaves with miniatures are now in Dartmouth College Library, Hanover, North Hampshire, USA (Rauner Library, 470940, gift of Madelyn C. Hickmott [1897-1988], both reproduced online).

5. The present leaf owned by a private North American collector, their sale in Cowen’s Auctions of Cincinnati, in March 2013, lot 51; acquired there by Roger Martin.

Text:

Raymond of Capua (c. 1330-99) served as spiritual director and confessor to St. Catherine of Siena, and thus his account is of paramount importance as an eye-witness record of her life. After her death, he undertook the restoration of the Dominican Order, and was named its second founder. This translation was made by an anonymous Dominican friar, sometime immediately after the canonisation of St. Catherine of Sienna in 1461. It had a short and closely focussed distribution as a text, and may well have been produced under the patronage of the Burgundian court as all five extant witnesses are associated with members of that court or their highest followers. See J.F. Hamburger & G. Signori, ‘The Making of a Saint: Catherine of Siena, Thomas Caffarini, and the Others’, in Catherine of Siena: The Creation of a Cult, 2013, pp. 8-10.

Artist and patron:

The identification of the artist as the Master of Margaret of York or a member of his workshop was made by the authors of the Manuscrits de Louis de Bruges volume published in 2009 (working from the single miniature remaining in BnF. fr. 1048 and those in Dartmouth College). The artist was active in Bruges from about 1470 to 1480, and takes his name from a book produced for Margaret of York, wife of Charles the Bold (now Bibliothèque royale de Belgique, nos. 9305-06). However, his surviving works indicate that his principal patron was Louis de Gruuthuse, with some fifteen extant works produced for Louis’ apparent personal reading (mostly French translations of Latin works, as here). See S. McKendrick & T. Kren, Illuminating the Renaissance, 2003, p. 217-18.

Items from this illustrious library, quintessentially of the late Middle Ages and made to inspire secular piety and demonstrate bourgeois opulence in equal measure, are of enormous rarity on the market. The last significant codex was that of a manuscript from Chatsworth, containing the Deeds of Sir Gillion de Trazegnies, and dated 1464, sold at Sotheby’s, 5 December 2012, to the Getty Museum, for £3,849,250. Otherwise a somewhat battered copy of Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy, with three miniatures, from the final remnant of the Thomas Phillipps collection, appeared at Christie’s, 7 June 2006, lot 19, and realised £45,600. Perhaps the closest comparables to that here are a series of three grisaille miniatures produced by the Burgundian artist Lievan van Lathem for a grand manuscript made for Duke Philip the Good, Louis de Gruuthuse’s …(for full text, see catalogue PDF)’

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Finding Inspiration: How A Broken Tomb Inspired a Book

‘A picture paints a thousand words’ they say, but I say, why stop at a thousand? I wrote a 5-book series off the back of one image. OK, so it wasn’t a painting, or even a picture. The inspiration for Mortal Fire came from a broken tomb.

I can’t remember where I first saw him, or even his name. I’m not even sure whether his name survived down the long centuries since his image was captured in stone. There he lay, frozen in time – a knight in full armour – his monument to be read like a book. Minute traces of pigment remained trapped in the detail of his sword belt and in the fur of the dog at his feet. His hands, steepled in prayer, spoke of his hope of redemption after death, his collar his affinity in life.

I have seen many such effigies over the years of visiting churches that have become the unintended guardians of the past. Each tells its own story. Whatever we were intended to read from such graceful piety, the dignity of his composure, the emblems of duty, this had a postscript. And it shocked me to my core.

At some point long after the man’s entombment, someone had taken a chisel to his face. It was no accident, nor an act of mindless vandalism. This was a deliberate attempt to erase the man’s identity, his story, his legacy. What struck me on that day as I lingered at his side, was a question in two parts:

  • What had this man done or what did he represent to provoke such a violent response?
  • Who was the umknown person who desecrated the tomb and why?

It was from considering these unknowables that the concept behind The Secret of the Journal series was created so many years later. Although the period in which my protagonist, Emma D’Eresby, was cheifly interested bracketed the English Civil War, the devastating events of that time could have happened in any era. Ignorance breeds mistrust – mistrust, fear – fear, reaction. We see it all the time throughout history; we see it now. The Secret of the Journal goes one step further in its question: what happens when the past and present collide?

I wish I could remember the name of the little medieval church in which the unknown knight lay, or even the corner of England in which I found him. It was a long time ago now. The grass grew lush around the graves in the churchyard, flowers invaded the tumbled stone. I left my knight to rest in peace as he contemplated Heaven ignorant, I hope, of the fate of his legacy, a reminder that history is as much of our present as we are to the people of the future. Those ripples of time continue indefinitely and who knows where they will reach?

Wherever I go and whatever I do, I try to take photographs as a reminder of what I have seen. Although I often fail to make a note of the place (N.B. to self: take a notebook and a pen), the resulting images form a visual reference and the starting point for further research. Sometimes they even become the inspiration for a book. So, have a look through your own photographs and at the people, the places and the things that inspired you to capture them on screen. Now look again and see them as a source of ideas for  your next creation. A picture makes a thousand words.

 

 

There’s A Storm Coming: Writing Weather

Bank Holiday Monday and it’s brewing a storm. Visitors to this dramatic part of South-West England will be hunkering down on the beaches with BBQs and brollies. Others will escape into Bridport or Weymouth to explore the myriad shops and alleyways, restaurants and antiquities hidden there. Some will brave Portland Bill for a bit of wave-watching. This is where the Portland Race – a stretch of rough and treacherous water – helped the English fleet defeat the Spanish Armada in 1588. Despite the range of lighthouses on the rocky promontory the seas here are no less dangerous for the unwary. Tucked into the lee of the striking red and white striped Portland lighthouse, however, those who relish the thrill can watch the roiling seas in relative safety. Wind-lashed and chilled, it’s all but a quick dash across exposed grass to the warmth and comfort of the nearby cafe.

I’m not going anywhere today. I’m back in the C15th brewing a storm for my protagonist and her family. Consciously or not, I will write the storm into my story, a character in its own right.

All my life I have been fascinated by the changing moods of the weather.  It surrounds us, affecting everything from the clothes we wear to the language we speak. So, do you find the same? Does sea-mist or thunder, thick frost or deep snow inspire you? Make you want to write, paint, sing? Because I know that I could no more neglect the weather in my writing as I can the call of spring in my garden. Today, as the wind thrashes the trees outside, I’ll listen from the tranquility of my room. I’ll watch over the edge of my laptop as the tempest rages hoping, for everyone’s sake, that this one doesn’t make it into the history books. BBQ weather this isn’t.

Book Review: The Thorn of Truth by S.L. Russell

I’m delighted to be in receipt of my friend and fellow author’s latest book: S.L. Russell’s The Thorn of Truth, due for release on 21st May, 2021. It tells the story of Anna Milburn, a seasoned barrister, whose very foundations are shaken when her only daughter is caught in the violent fallout of the murder of a young policeman. I was privileged to read The Thorn of Truth before it went to press and I can tell you, it’s a cracking story.

The Thorn of Truth is the second book in a short series of related stories. The first, The Healing Knife, had me so enthralled that I read it in one sitting.  If you have read and enjoyed The Healing Knife you won’t be disappointed with this new novel. I have read all of Sue Russell’s books and my back-cover endorsement for The Thorn of Truth sums up  the style and substance of what makes her refreshing contemporary Christian novels stand out as authentic, realistic, sometimes gritty and always compassionate.

“S.L. Russell masters the contemporary Christian novel in this beautifully compelling story of the consequences of treading the thin line between heart and conscience.”    

 

The Thorn of Truth by S.L. Russell is due for publication by SPCK on the 21st May, 2021.

The Last Egg

How do you react when you’ve been writing all day and Child Two presents you with The Golden Egg, single-origin 60% cocoa, from chocolatiers Cocoa & Co?

Online Conference: The Battlefields Trust & the Medieval Battlefield

The Battlefields Trust is running an online conference on the Medieval battlefield. Interested in the arms and armour of the Wars of the Roses? This one might be for you. Visit for more details.  http://battlefieldstrust.com/event.asp?EventID=1142&fbclid=IwAR3E3X1ZnuLsWbN3XcLa3-oLxBPtTPFAulAz0BfqqaS0_-sPRJoZdYVR26I

 

Authentically You: Writing, Genre & Identity.

 

Understanding your writing, genre and identity is key to describing your latest book. In an interesting on-line discussion the other day, the question of self-identity came up. This was in relation to how we view ourselves in terms of being ‘human’ and our ‘gender’. This, in turn, had me thinking about something authors are frequently asked: Who do you write like? How does a writer categorise their book’s genre and identity? What makes them authentically you?

The question often stems from people wanting to get their heads around what you write. This gives them an idea of your genre  and whether your books are ones they might read. Fair enough.

For publishers, the question is more pragmatic and commercial: who is the target readership and on what shelf of the bookshop is your book going to sit? After all, a publisher wants to sell your books, so knowing the answer to both of the above is one step on the ladder to publication.

The answer to the question of genre is all your potential readers need to know. The question of how it reads is what they will find out when they pick up a copy of your book. You cannot write like anybody else; your style is authentically you.

The question therefore is twofold: What is your genre? and to whom will  your writing style appeal?

Asking a writer to identify the author whose books most closely resemble their own is more difficult than it first might seem. When originally asked the question I must have looked like a rabbit in the headlights. I honestly couldn’t say. It helped when my editor, quite unsolicited, described my style as being similar to P.D. James and, oddly enough, someone else said the same in an unrelated conversation. At least I could now come up with a name. But did it really represent  my books?

The second question, that of genre, also proved to be tricky to pin down – important if your book is being entered for awards. Nobody likes picking up a mug of tea only to discover it’s coffee instead. Getting the genre – or genres – of your book right is just as important. Classifying a romantic-mystery-suspense with a paranormal-and-historical twist is a bit of a mouthful. My publisher entered Mortal Fire in the Adult Romance catagory of the Book of the Year Awards. The genre didn’t quite cover all the bases, but Mortal Fire won GOLD nonetheless, so must have ticked at least some of the boxes.

The current series should be easier – a straightforward historical novel. Yes, but historical romance? Historical suspense? Historical blood-and-guts? A bit of all the above is the answer. You see the problem.

It’s not straightforward at all, so perhaps the other way to look at this classification issue is to ask people who have read the books. The following excerpts have been taken from reader reviews on Amazon for Mortal Fire:

Thoroughly recommend if you enjoy a bit of history, a touch of romance, mystery and maybe some crime too.’

‘Romance and mystery, a perfect combination in this page turner of a novel.’

‘The author conveys the sense of mystery and tension brilliantly. She has researched the 17th century very well.’

‘I was entranced by Moral Fire by CF Dunn. It brings together all my favourite themes: romance, murder-mystery-suspence, history and an elusive “extra” that has not been fully disclosed in this first book in a series… time travel?’

‘This book is both a thriller and romance with the undertones of Du Maurier’s Rebecca.’

 

There we have it. From the point of view of readers (and they are the ones that count), The Secret of the Journal series is a romantic mystery-suspense with a historical twist and might be found on the same shelf as Daphne Du Maurier.

So, how do you categorise your book – simply and succinctly – when someone (reader/agent/publisher/film producer) comes up to you at a party and asks that question? Seperating the question into two distinct parts makes it easier to answer:

Q. ‘Hi. I understand you are writing a book – what sort do you write?’

A. ‘Hi’ you say, quick as a flash and with a confident smile. ‘I write books of…

Q. Who do you write like?

A. I write like me, of course, you might secretly think, but seemlessly reply, ‘You will find me on the shelf next to…’  At which point the reader/agent/publisher declares an undying interest in everything you’ve written and you have a fan for life. No? Well, perhaps you’ve managed to tickle their curiosity and that’s the first step, but getting the pitch right? That’s entirely another road for a future post.

 

 

 

 

Rear Window: A Room With A View

From the rear window I can see the world outside changing. I’ve been laid up for the last five weeks with a plate holding my fibula together and my broken ankle pinned. It’s the last time I’ll be litter-picking on the coastal footpath for a while. Since that interesting episode in early March, winter has drifted into spring. In a normal year I would flow with it, planting and sowing according to the week and the weather, but my recent accident has taken me down another road. 

So, here I am, watching the tips of branches swell into tiny leaves of vivid green and glowing burgundy. Early prunus blossom has given way to blackthorn egg-white froth, and soon the ballerina-pink, double-flowered ornamental cherries will steal the show. Beyond the garden, I can see the Dorset hills greening under the persistent sun where, not long ago, brown-ribbed earth sported dots of white seagulls.

Snow, rain or milk-mist, the ever-changing landscape is a reminder of life’s fragile persistence. For me, writing without reference to the natural world would be to ignore the foundation of our existence. Whether now or a thousand years ago, the patterns of the seasons are tracked by our senses. Without conscious thought, tendrils of nature wind their way onto the page to anchor fiction in reality. Where would I rather be if being there meant not pausing to look, absorb, breathe? Here I am, trapped by circumstance, but free to see.

Illuminated by the roving sun or silhouetted by the moon, the scene encapsulated by my window never ceases to capture my imagination and my heart.