I’ve waited all summer for this. Since it is a fine, breezy day I risked taking a look at the potato crop. After last year’s disaster, where we lost 2/3 of the harvest to eelworm, blight and scab, I changed tack. Instead of digging deep trenches, I planted shallower, covering the Maris Piper spuds with about four inches of soil. As the foliage came through, I earthed up using a mineralized straw (Strulch produces it https://www.strulch.co.uk). It was a bit of a risk as we had an exceptionally dry summer and spuds like a good amount of rain. Still, today was the day that I found out whether the ruse to defeat the evil worm worked.
The result? Numerous smaller potatoes, even-skinned, dry, despite yesterday’s deluge, and almost free of scab. Best of all, despite a hearty spud having been nibbled – possibly by a mouse – there has, so far, been no sign of eelworm or slugs. I expected smaller spuds, but we have also had some decent sized ones that are perfect for baking. The thick layer of Strulch kept the soil evenly moist, protected the soil from the heavy rain in spring and the deprivations of the dryest weather (we did water at this time). It acted as a superb mulch, kept weeds and pests down and, to top it all, will be dug into the bed as a soil improver once the rest of the spuds have been lifted. All in all, I’d say it’s been a success and I’ll be using the same approach again next year.
Proof Is In The Reading: proofreading the new novel
I’ve spent the last few weeks holed up and proofreading. This is the last stage of preparing a novel for publication. It went through structural and copy edits and then to a professional proofreader and to me. This is my last opportunity to spot errors and make minor amendments. There are always some no matter how thoroughly I’ve editied it before. Sure enough I spotted an inadvertent name blip, winced at the number of times I used ‘winced’, and noted armorial colours that mysteriously changed. That’s what proofreading is all about and I am thankful for the absolute professionalism of the team handling the production of my book.
Proofs for Wheel of Fortune are back with the editor. It’s now time for a thorough purge of my study before resuming editing the second book, Degrees of Affinity. How does so much detritus build up when I’m not looking?
To be fair this mountain was largely the result of boxes being deposited in my room. Accumulated over thirty years, this ‘stuff’ had to be sifted and sorted, trashed and filed one box at a time.
I’ve completed that task. Now I have a lifetime of books to go through, organise and get onto the shelves. First off are the numerous books on a variety of historical topics associated with research for The Tarnished Crown trilogy. Next come those collected in childhood – well-thumbed and with annotations and observations scrawled in a childish hand. The history books from university are another load. The comments have matured, become somewhat pithy at times, and reflect a more searching mind. The stacks that have accumlated since are well-read but pristine. Notes are now made on slips of paper and secured within the pages. Many have been gifts from my family, always on the hunt for presents for Christmas and birthday. It is a time for reflection as I come across old favourites, and a time of preperation before I continue with the second book.
I’m gardening my way through lockdown. Here in the South-West a stone’s throw from the sea, I’m fighting weeds and sticky clay while battling with the next scene for my historical novel, acutely aware I’m fortunate to be able to do so.Lockdown has removed many everyday distractions; I’m less on Social Media and relish the quiet. The sea’s growl upon the shore has replaced the roar of motorbikes racing along the coast roa
There are practical issues to tackle as well as personal. Like many, buying food is proving tricky, but is nothing compared to the plight of my husband recovering from Corvid-19 alone on the other side of the country.
Nature will not be rushed. Getting close up and personal with my garden is one of the best ways I know to focus on what matters. It’s here that I do my thinking: cogitate life’s mysteries, pray, compose and plot. I plant for the future in the belief that there will be one and it is a poignant reminder that our forebears did much the same through plague and pandemic. I think of writing in much the same way: although I might never know the outcome my words might have, I sow them just the same.
I’m currently editing Degree of Affinity, the second book in The Tarnished Crown trilogy set during the turbulent years of the Wars of the Roses. Published by Lion Fiction, the first book – Wheel of Fortune – is due for release in January, 2021.
What have you all been doing over the last few weeks? I’ve been up to my elbows in flour and editing over the Christmas period. Now that the mince pies have been made (and consumed) and the copy edits for Wheel of Fortune completed and returned to my editor, I can pause and wish you all a wonderful New Year.
It’s time to move on from 2019. What do you have planned? Do you know where you want to be at the end of the year or are you just going with the flow? Some things are inevitable (like taxes and the dentist), others – good and bad – take us by surprise.
I’m glad I can’t foretell the future. I might not like what I see. I’ll leave it to a better Conductor than I. Meanwhile, I know I have one book due for release this summer, and another aching to be finished. The garden and family need nurturing. I have places to go and people to meet. Beyond that the next twelve months are a mystery. But I like mysteries – they keep me hooked.
So, wherever and whatever your circumstances, all the best and I hope you’ll have a happy, positive and healthy 2020!
It’s pouring here so there’s no autumn planting going on. Instead, for the next week or so, I’ll be working through the historical notes, acknowledgements, glossary, etc for Wheel of Fortune (set during the Wars of the Roses). That’ll keep me in my editor’s good books and out of trouble.
Writing historical notes is completely different from compiling notes for a purely fictional novel. While The Secret of the Journal series had a substantial element of history, The Tarnished Crown series is firmly rooted in the historical past. As a result there is less room for manoeuvre. Facts have to be checked and double-checked, research extremely thorough, and the glossary extensive. I’ll be including a map and hoping that someone will kindly take my rough sketch and turn it into something readable – an artist I am not. The Plantagenet family tree is, at least, simple, even if a description of the Wars of the Roses is not.
Edward, Edward, Edward… And it doesn’t help that, while there is a smattering of Georges in the period, the plethora of Edwards leaves the mind spinning. Nor is life made simpler when the same individual might be know by several titles. We have Edward, Earl of March (Edward IV) and his son – Edward, Prince of Wales. Edward, Prince of Wales (another one), Edward (Earl of Warwick), and Edward, Prince of Wales and Earl of Salisbury, Earl of Chester and Duke of Cornwall – also known as Edward of Middleham. And that’s to name but a few. If in doubt yell “Edward!” and see who comes running.
So, in between sowing broad beans and garlic and planting cyclamen for winter colour and salvias for the summer, I’ll be working on notes about Edward (all of them), George and Richard as well as Isobel, Isabelle and Isabel. As you settle down in front of the TV with your book of Jordans and Andys, Katies and Laurens, kindly spare me a thought, if you will.
‘The Migrant’ blog tour with author Paul Alkazraji
Author Paul Alkazrji has caused a bit of a stir with his new book The Migrant. Taking a moment out of his busy blog tour, Paul joins me to tell us more about the background to The Migrant and his writing life. I laughed when he said his reading included authors such as Alistair MacLean. I grew up devouring thriller/mystery/suspense novels, which is probably why I like the genre too.
So, Paul,The Migrant is a work of fiction that involves very real issues. How do you find the balance between fact and fiction – between entertainment and harsh reality?
The Migrant is quite a gritty story. It portrays racist violence, riots on the streets of Athens, and people-trafficking from Albania. They are harsh realities in these countries. I hope, though, that because of my own faith framework the reader will not be left feeling bleak or sullied by what passes before their eyes. At perhaps the worst moment in The Migrant the camera turns away. The reader knows what happens, and the fact of it is shocking enough, but it is not depicted. Scenes are not as graphic or gratuitous as some that can be found in mainstream fiction. I personally have a low tolerance of it, though, like everyone else, as entertainment in the mainstream pushes at that line, the danger is we become increasingly desensitised to it. The fulcrum of ‘acceptable’ harsh reality vis-à-vis entertainment is moving.
Not everyone may be comfortable reading The Migrant, but so far the novel hasn’t been criticised for the harsh realities it portrays. I hope that people will trust me enough as a writer to walk with me through troubling and dangerous places that I will bring them out of. Jude is a good character in whose company it is safe to travel, despite the people and events around him.
You write in a very specific genre. What made you choose this area?
The genre of thriller/suspense/adventure has been a favourite in my adult life, including authors like Alistair MacLean and Frederick Forsyth, which have had their influence on me. I very much enjoy reading and watching documentaries about current affairs and more recent history. As a writer, I’ve understood that to create a captivating story a key way is to keep your characters in some kind of intriguing situation from which they will move on to another. It could be a state of physical danger, or something as intangible as the fear of a dream, but there should always be a kind of dilemma or knife edge of drama close at hand, even if it is only a delusion in the mind of a character. That said though, I’m not interested in tension solely for thrills, but as an absorbing effect around the lives of Christian characters and their worldview. It’s so important to me that a story fleshes out those realities.
Aspiring writers always want to know where a good plot comes from. How did you find and develop the idea for The Migrant?
Quite simply by giving my protagonist, Jude Kilburn, a compelling desire to find and help the character of Alban, and then by throwing all kinds of obstacles in his path to thwart the realisation of that. The obstacles came quite naturally out of the local context of Albania and Greece, and all that has truly happened there in recent years.
Characters are central to a story. How did you develop yours?
By profiling the major ones and giving the minor ones a memorable characteristic that singles them out from the rest of humanity. I sketched all this out before placing them in the story, then tried to make sure they acted consistently with the characteristics given them, maybe even changing the plot if it became at odds with their personalities.
For example, with Donis Xenakis the antagonist, a member of the Greek riot police and Neo-Hellenic Front sympathiser, I set about using five key ways to characterise. (1. Physical attributes. 2. Clothing or the manner of wearing it. 3. Psychological attributes and mannerisms. 4. Through actions. 5. In dialogue.) Donis has heterochromia: one brown and one green iris. He wears mirror-lensed sunglasses with the classic elliptical aviator shape. He thinks he’s as irresistible to women as a saucer of milk to a thirsty kitten. He casts bureaucracy aside to give food to an old Greek man sleeping rough because of economic austerity. He says of migrants in Athens: “I’m sick of them … pushing their trinkets and love bracelets in my face.” The minor character of Ervin loped and ‘always seemed to duck his head when he moved, as if he were dodging punches’.
How do you believe that your experiences have influenced you as a writer?
In every way they are the raw material I’ve drawn upon to make works of fiction. They provide the central casting agency from which I populate a story. They are like the wide angle lens through which I can pan across the landscape of the Balkan region. They give me the spiritual compass by which I’ve navigated the direction the story will travel: from darkness to light, separation to restoration, enslavement to redemption.
How do you get into writing mode?
I treat it as an office worker treats their job. I go to my desk in the morning with a cup of coffee and soon become absorbed in it. I stay there all day until just before dinner in the evening. That way I get it done.
If The Migrant was adapted to film, who would play the lead role and why?
In the BBC’s recent adaption of John le Carré’s novel ‘The Little Drummer Girl’, actor Alexander Skarsgard plays the agent ‘Gadi’, who works with a team of Israelis pursuing a terrorist cell from Greece to Germany. I think Skarsgard could play the strong, risk-taking yet compassionate male character that Jude Kilburn is… very well.
Paul, very many thanks for joining me today in what has been a fascinating insight into your creative process. I, for one, would love to see Alexander Skarsgard play Jude in a TV or film adaptation!
The Migrant was published by Instant Apostle in February.
The author Paul Alkazraji in the Albanian mountains close to the border with Greece. Pic by Andrew LaSavio.
My lovely editor at Lion Fiction has just alerted me to a great review of THE SECRET OF THE JOURNAL series in April’s Woman Alive magazine. It’s reviews like this that keep an author happily scribing into the wee small hours, day in, day out.
I’ve been keeping company with George, Duke of Clarence this afternoon and have had enough of his shenanigans for one day. As a bit of a change I’ve dipped into the chapter on ‘Women’, by P.J.P. Goldberg in Fifteenth-Century Attitudes and come across these gems: “Doghter, temper well thi tonge’, (from The Good Wyf Wold A Pylgremage) and this useful advice to men, ‘whyls they ar yong/If ye luf youre lifys, chastice thare tong.‘ (from the Wakefield pageant). The prohibition against women’s ‘clatter’ that runs through many Medieval texts can also be seen in the present day. It’s a bit of an eye-opener.
On Weeding and Writing: Creative Gardening Writes Novels
Can creative gardening write novels? I think it can. It’s that post-Christmas period when the morning sun reveals the dust on the shelves and the first snowdrops and winter aconites wink under the hedges. I ache to get out into the garden and continue the jobs left undone at the close of autumn.
With Thegn’s help I’ve been concentrating on clearing ivy in the spring garden. Seedlings of ash and sycamore have over-wintered there as well, and their bare stems defy attempts to dislodge them. Where I win the battle, I push crocus bulbs and snowdrops into the loosened soil, and plant wild primroses and spotted pulmonaria (lungwort) under the shelter of the trees. They look sad at the moment but, given gentle rain and warm sun in equal measure, will soon rally, providing nectar for emerging bees.
Such repetitive work gives me plenty of time to think about writing. Often, gardening is when the best ideas filter into my consciousness, bud, and blossom. Over subsequent weeks as the garden develops, I weed out the blind bulbs of ideas that lead nowhere, the weak seedlings that undermine the plot. I feed and tend the stronger saplings whose branches will bear the most fruit and the best storylines. In my garden, I flesh out my characters and prune those that get ahead of themselves. Even the very act of tending the soil gives ideas for the future. While Emma D’Eresby in The Secret of the Journal series hates gardening (because her father loves it), Isobel Fenton in The Tarnished Crown series lives for it. For her, the garden is a place of refuge in a land of turmoil where she, and she alone, is mistress.
Perhaps that’s also one of the reasons I like to garden. Here, I have the time, the space, and the freedom to create. From a simple patch of bare ground I can make a world of my own, whether in my head or on my knees, in the certain knowledge that hard graft now, will bear fruit later.