The Search for Enlightenment

I possess many of the personality traits of a nerd, but few of the technological skills, which is why it’s only now, three years after I set up my author website, that I’ve discovered my own website statistics. Web statistics tell you how many people have visited your website, which pages they prefer, what they’re looking for, how they found you in the first place and lots of other interesting bits of information. My favourite set of data is the list of key words that my website visitors type into Google and other internet search engines.

Not surprisingly, the most common search words are various spellings of my name and the titles of my books. Most people are looking for information about my second novel, A Brief History of Montmaray, although I was tickled to find several people searching for ‘the island of Montmaray’, ‘Montmaray island’ and ‘Montmaray near the Atlantic Ocean’. (I like to think they’re planning a holiday in the Bay of Biscay and are hoping to drop in at Montmaray.)

There are also quite a few visitors wanting information about my first novel, The Rage of Sheep. Judging by the number of requests for ‘chapter summaries’, ‘quotes’ and ‘spark notes’, I’m guessing these visitors are high school students who are being forced to study the book in class. (My heart went out to one who plaintively asked, ‘What is the rage of the sheep about?’) I’d really like to help, but I think teachers would get suspicious if thirty of their students handed in identical character analyses and chapter summaries, all copied from my website. (However, if you think there is some other information that would be useful to include on my website, please leave a comment or send me an e-mail, and I’ll do my best.) There are also lots of teenage writers searching for writing competitions and writing workshops, and fortunately, I do have some relevant links for them.

Then the list of key words gets more entertaining. There are people with an extremely vague interest in history, who search for ‘historical people’, ‘famous history people’ and ‘historical people with a picture’. Some are more specific, looking for ‘historical people who were known for their gratitude’, ‘lying historical figures who failed’ and ‘historical person whose son left and died and had a secret wife’. Sadly, these searchers are unlikely to find enlightenment at my website, although sometimes I come very, very close to providing an answer. I can only imagine the frustration of the person searching for ‘the handwriting of Anne Boleyn’, only to discover my website provides a link to a handwriting sample from not Anne, but her daughter, Elizabeth. Happily, I was able to help those who were interested in ‘the Duchess of Kent’s popularity as fashion leader in the 1930s’, wanted to see ‘pictures of Princess Elizabeth and Margaret as children’, and wondered about ‘fascism in British aristocracy’. However, the person looking for information on ‘sheep hormonal rage’ was doomed to disappointment.

Finally, there are those who ask the really big, important questions. ‘What would Jesus do in the schoolyard?’ ‘Was Boy George sexy in the 80s?’ And then, the most difficult of all to answer: ‘When does Book 3 of the Montmaray Journals come out?’

The Cazalet Chronicles by Elizabeth Jane Howard

This series is one of my favourite comfort reads, and has the added benefit of being set before and during the Second World War (this means that I can pretend I’m re-reading it for ‘research purposes’).

It won’t be to the taste of those who expect novels to be tightly plotted, with a single protagonist whose goal is clearly stated on the first page and achieved by the last. However, for those of us who love rambling, realistic family sagas set in a fascinating period of history, these books are just about perfect.

The Light Years by Elizabeth Jane HowardThe first book, The Light Years, introduces the Cazalets, a middle-class English family who are rich enough to own houses in both London and Sussex; to send their sons to expensive ‘public’ schools and hire a governess for their daughters; and to have a large number of maids, kitchen staff, gardeners, chauffeurs and secretaries. The story is told from the point of view of all three generations of Cazalets, as well as various servants, friends and mistresses, which does make things confusing at first. Who is the eldest out of the Cazalet brothers? Is Christopher the cousin of Teddy or Simon? On my first (and even my second) reading, I often found myself having to refer to the family tree and the list of characters at the front of the book. However, once all that was sorted out, I was drawn to the teenage Cazalet girls: melodramatic Louise, who longs to be an actress; kind-hearted Polly, who dreads the idea of another war; and plain, clumsy Clary, who hates her stepmother, brother, cousins and practically everyone else in the world, but has a vivid imagination and a wonderfully honest outlook on life (as you can tell, she’s my favourite). The girls’ worries, resentments, dreams, tragedies and triumphs are beautifully portrayed. Their parents are equally realistic, but less easy to like. They vote Tory, believe the British Empire will last forever, think of women as weak, intellectually-inferior beings, have a vague dislike of Jews . . . all typical attitudes of their class and time, but it doesn’t make them very endearing to most modern readers. However, this attention to historical accuracy is one of the strengths of the series. The author describes everything, from what people ate for breakfast, to how they reacted to the Munich Crisis of 1938, so clearly yet so unobtrusively. (This may be because a lot of the story is autobiographical.)

The second book, Marking Time, begins when war is declared. The women and children move into the family’s country house and most of the men join the forces. By the third book, Confusion, tragedy has hit the family hard and the girls are embarking on adult life with various degrees of success and happiness. Both books examine war from the perspective of women and girls, and are absolutely fascinating. I also like some of the new characters who appear – for example, Stella Rose and her family, who moved to England from Austria before the war.

The final book, Casting Off, is set in the immediate post-war years, and wraps up the story for each of the characters, not always realistically. I devoured this book, just as I did the others, but it does consist mostly of ‘then X married Y’ – unless X had been unhappily married, in which case it’s ‘then X divorced Y’. Polly’s story is particularly silly, but even Clary’s happy ending doesn’t seem all that believable to me. Still, the male characters who’d been getting away with horrible behaviour for years (specifically, Edward and his nasty son Teddy) do get their comeuppance in this book, which made me very happy – however unrealistic it might have been.

The Cazalet novels were made into a BBC television series, which I haven’t seen, and I’m also curious about Elizabeth Jane Howard’s memoir, Slipstream.

EDITED TO ADD: BBC Radio 4 is broadcasting a series based on the Cazalet books in 2013 (thanks to Jed for the link). This interview with Elizabeth Jane Howard also says, “It looks as if 2013 will be the year of Howard’s maturation: while the nation tunes into the story of the Cazalets, Howard will be finishing the fifth volume of the Chronicle.”

See here for my thoughts on All Change, the fifth volume of the Cazalet Chronicles and Elizabeth Jane Howard’s final novel.

A Rose By Any Other Name

Would Harry Potter have been such a success if he’d been called Nigel Clutterworth? I don’t think so.

I suspect most authors put quite a bit of time and effort into finding the right names for their characters – I certainly do. The Montmaray Journals contain more than sixty named characters, not counting all the real-life historical figures who appear in the story. Here’s how I named some of them:

Sophia comes from the Greek word for wisdom. She was called Elizabeth for a couple of days, but I changed it as soon as I realised that the novel was a getting-of-wisdom tale. Sophie is named after her twin aunts, Sophia and Margaret, who were born and died in 1894, and were going to play a ghostly role in A Brief History of Montmaray until I realised the supernatural elements in that book were getting out of hand. Elizabeth became Sophie’s third name. She’s also named after Jane, her mother (plain Jane), and Clementine, her grandmother (inspired by Winston Churchill’s wife).

Braet von Uberfeldt 'Woman with bible' 1866
The author ponders character names

Veronica is one of my favourite names for girls. It means ‘true icon’. Saint Veronica is the woman in the Bible who offered her veil to Jesus on his way to Calvary; the cloth is supposed to have been stained with his blood and sweat in the exact image of his face. I thought Veronica’s Catholic mother might have chosen that name, and I liked the irony of the family’s most vehement atheist being named after a saint. I also liked the idea of a name full of ‘truth’ (from Latin verus, ‘true’), because Veronica seems so determined to fill her life with facts.

Toby was called Thomas until a couple of days before the first Montmaray book went off to the typesetters. By that stage, my editor had shown the manuscript to a variety of people, nearly all of whom mentioned the novel I Capture the Castle in their feedback. While I could see the similarities between the two books (1930s, teenage girl, diary, castle), I thought the differences (island, royalty, Holy Grail, Nazis) were considerable. However, we both felt we should eliminate any minor similarities where we could, and I remembered that the narrator’s brother in I Capture the Castle was called Thomas. My editor suggested several alternative names, including Tristan, Alexander, Oberon, Benjamin and Adrian, but I decided on Tobias, shortened to Toby by most of the other characters. Now I can’t imagine Toby being called anything else.

Henry was initially Charlotte, shortened to Charlie. However, I ended up giving the name Charlotte to their overbearing aunt. Henry’s full name is Henrietta Charlotte.

Simon is a name I associate with sinister, dark-haired men. I have no idea why, and I offer apologies to any good-natured, blond Simons who are reading this. There is actually a Simon in I Capture the Castle, but he’s nothing like my Simon, so I didn’t bother changing his name.

Rebecca is also a name with sinister connotations, thanks to the Daphne du Maurier novel. It’s also another Biblical name, which is appropriate for the most religious character in the Montmaray series.

Julia was originally called Helena, which seemed a good name for a society beauty. However, Helena was too similar to Henry, so I changed it to Julia. Then I accidentally used the name Helena for a character who appears at the very end of The FitzOsbornes in Exile. Helena is such a minor character that she doesn’t even have any dialogue, so hopefully, the similarities to Henry’s name won’t matter to most readers.

Daniel needed a name that would suit the English grandson of Jewish immigrants from Vienna. As I was doing my usual searching-for-inspiration routine (looking at the author names on my bookshelves, flicking through the phone directory, staring at the contents of my kitchen cupboards), I came across a magazine full of photos of celebrities, including British actors Daniel Radcliffe and Orlando Bloom. Hence, Daniel Bloom. My Daniel’s family name was originally Rosenblum, but his grandparents changed it to Bloom to seem more English – so I was interested to read the recently published Mr Rosenblum’s List, by Natasha Solomons, in which the eponymous character changes his surname to ‘Rose’ for exactly the same reason.

The Colonel’s first name is an enigma even to me, as is fitting for an International Man of Mystery. I think he was called Peter at one stage, but some of my notes refer to him as Andrew. Who knows? It’s lucky that everyone, even his own brother, just calls him The Colonel.

As for the family name of the FitzOsbornes, I needed something grand and Norman, so I used William FitzOsbern as inspiration. He was one of the viceroys of William the Conqueror, who arrived in England in 1066. According to The National Trust Book of British Castles (an excellent read, with some wonderful photos), FitzOsbern built at least half a dozen castles in England in the five years after the Norman conquest. Spelling in those days was not very consistent, so I’ve also seen his name written as fitzOsbern and FitzOsborn. I eventually decided on FitzOsborne, and I’m not entirely certain that was a good idea. People keep spelling it as ‘FitzOsbourne’, so I guess that must be the most common spelling these days. Oh, well. It’s too late to change now.

Romance Without Kissing

Booklist has published a list of their Top 10 Romance Fiction for Youth for 2010, and they’ve very kindly included A Brief History of Montmaray. As lovely as it is to see my book on any list of favourite books, I can’t help wondering why readers keep attaching the word ‘romance’ to it. The new Australian paperback edition features six snippets of reviews on the cover, and three of them, including the most prominent one on the front, mention some version of the ‘r’ word. Look up A Brief History of Montmaray in most catalogues, and it’ll be listed under ‘historical romance’.

A Brief History of MontmarayBut how can A Brief History of Montmaray be a romance when there’s no kissing? When it contains no mutual confessions of ardent love, no marriage proposals, not so much as an invitation to a dance? But wait, what exactly is a romance? The Romantic Novelists’ Association gives a confused definition that suggests it’s anything where the love story is the most important part of the plot. Others claim that the novel’s conflict and conclusion must be about the romantic relationship between the main characters, that the primary aim of the heroine must be to find (and keep) true love, and that it must have a happy ending. I admit that poor Sophie does spend quite a bit of the first half of A Brief History of Montmaray pining after a young man, but it can’t be said that her feelings are in any way requited, and subsequent events make any romantic musings of hers pretty much irrelevant – she’s too busy running for her life.

Well, then, it’s definitely NOT a romance. Why, the very suggestion makes me feel like Kate Beaton’s version of Jane Austen.

A Brief History of Montmaray is not a romance!’ I huff. ‘It’s a serious novel about the political implications of the clash between Fascism and Communism in 1930s Europe! What? Yes, all right, there might be a castle in it. And princesses. And dark family secrets and . . . Never mind about that. It’s definitely not a romance! Here, I’ll prove it. These are the words my thesaurus lists as synonyms for ‘romantic’: sentimental, mawkish, saccharine, syrupy, mushy, gooey, corny, sappy, soppy. See, my book is not those. Also, the thesaurus says: fanciful, head-in-the-clouds, starry-eyed, optimistic, hopeful . . . Bother. That’s Sophie. All right, then. A Brief History of Montmaray is a serious political novel that happens to have a romantic heroine. But there’s still no kissing.’

So, not a romance. I know Jane Austen would agree with me, if only she hadn’t been driven to drink by the horrible things people are doing to her books . . .

Shorthand for Geeks

One of the topics I’ve been researching lately is shorthand. The narrator of my work-in-progress briefly attends a secretarial college in 1939, so I needed to know what she’d learn there. Shorthand, I figured – but then I found out there were all kinds of shorthand. Wikipedia alone lists forty-one different types. The only one I’d ever heard of was Pitman shorthand, so I started with that, and it was absolutely fascinating. It was brought to Australia by Jacob Pitman, now buried in Sydney’s Rookwood Cemetery under a phonetically-inscribed tombstone that states he ‘INTRODIUST FONETIK SHORTHAND’. Apparently Pitman was also used in the United States at the trial of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination plotters. Back before digital audio recorders and voice recognition software, Pitman was the most common way of writing English down quickly, reaching speeds of up to 350 words per minute.

How does it work? It uses very simple symbols to represent sounds and common groups of sounds. Then it speeds things up even more by allowing you to omit vowels and by providing symbols for commonly occurring words. I came across a very nifty website called Pitman for Geeks that explains how proper Pitman shorthand works, then gives step-by-step instructions for learning it the ‘easy’ way. The website author admits that ‘a Pitman teacher would be appalled at the look of it, but as there aren’t many Pitman teachers in the world today, the risk is not high’. Even though I have no reason whatsoever to learn shorthand, this website almost tempted me to try teaching it to myself.

Needless to say, only about one-thousandth of all this information on shorthand made it into my manuscript. Still, I had fun reading about it.

Top Ten YA Books

Earlier this year, Adele from Persnickety Snark ran a poll asking readers to nominate their favourite Young Adult (YA) books of all time. The final Top 100 had a lot of predictable titles (Twilight), as well as a few books I’d thought were either adult (Pride and Prejudice) or children’s literature (Harry Potter). There were also some books that made me think, ‘Oh, why didn’t I remember to add that one to my list?’ (for example, Little Women). Anyway, here are the books that I nominated this year as my favourite YA books of all time:

10. Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons
Possibly the funniest book I have ever read. Flora decides to improve the lives of her unfortunate relatives, whether they like it or not.

9. I am David by Anne Holm
A boy escapes from a concentration camp and makes his way across Europe in search of his mother. Devastating, but ultimately, there’s a message of hope.

8. The Friendly Young Ladies by Mary Renault
They live on a houseboat. Leo writes cowboy books for a living and Helen gets paid to draw gory operations. What’s not to like?

7. Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
A fabulous adventure. Pirates, buried treasure, a marooned sailor, a brave teenage lad – and Long John Silver, one of the scariest villains ever, because you never quite know whose side he’s on.

6. The Hole in the Hill by Ruth Park
I nearly chose Playing Beatie Bow instead, but this book is special. A group of smart, resourceful kids get lost in a mysterious cave system in the wilds of New Zealand and discover something amazing.

5. Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder
A history of philosophy for teenagers. No, wait, don’t run away! It’s funny and exciting and very accessible, with a great twist in the middle and two terrific female narrators.

4. The Shape of Three by Lilith Norman
Only Lilith Norman could make ‘twins separated at birth’ into this kind of convincing, emotionally-wrenching drama. She also paints a wonderful portrait of Sydney in the 1970s.

3. I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
One of the loveliest coming-of-age stories ever (even if I still can’t understand how Cassandra could treat poor Stephen the way she did). And it’s set in a castle.

2. Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson
An adopted teenage girl gives up her religion, her family and her whole community after she falls in love with another girl. But it’s not depressing! It’s funny, warm and smart, and a real inspiration for anyone who’s ever felt different.

1. Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You by Peter Cameron
A teenage boy in Manhattan anxiously contemplates adult life, meanwhile managing to alienate everyone around him. Brilliant, hilarious, touching – the best book about a teenager that I’ve ever read.

Foyle’s War

The novel I’m writing now is set (mostly) in wartime England, so when I heard of this television series, I thought I should take a quick look at it. It sounded a bit dull and worthy, to tell the truth, and I only checked it out because I thought it might be useful for research purposes (footage of Spitfires and so on). Well! I was completely hooked by the end of the first episode. I love it, and I can’t recommend it too highly.

Foyle's War

Foyle’s War is the story of a police officer, Detective Chief Superintendent Christopher Foyle. When war is declared, he decides he wants to do something useful for the War Office, but his superiors insist he remain in his coastal town of Hastings and solve local crimes. This, of course, he does very well. He always manages to track down the criminal, but justice isn’t always done, which is one of the things I like about this series. It’s realistic about the compromises that occur during wartime. Foyle, however, is consistently honest and ethical. He’s also a caring (if undemonstrative) father, and some of my favourite scenes involve his relationship with his son Andrew, an RAF fighter pilot. They rarely hug and they never say ‘I love you’, but the bond between them is clear and strong. Foyle is also a loyal, understanding boss, acting as a sort of father figure to his messed-up sergeant, Paul Milner, and their driver, Samantha Stewart.

I like all the characters, but Sam is my favourite. Thankfully, she’s more than the token female love interest. She does have a brief (mostly off-screen, and not very convincing) romance with Andrew, but right from the first episode, she’s an important member of Foyle’s team. She knocks out a fleeing criminal with the lid of a rubbish bin, and then, when she and Foyle are caught in a bombing raid, gets straight up, brushes herself off and starts administering first aid to the other victims. She wages a relentless battle against men who think women ought to be at home ‘knitting balaclavas for His Majesty’s forces’, but she does it with good humour and good sense. It’s also terrific to see a woman on screen who loves to eat.  (Seriously, I am so sick of fictional girls and women who never seem to consume anything but coffee.) Sam’s relatives, most of whom are vicars, are great, too, especially the uncle who makes his own (undrinkable) wine.

Each episode is a separate, ninety-minute story centred around a crime that involves some aspect of the war, ranging from the internment of ‘enemy aliens’ to Britain’s botched attempts at biological warfare. The crimes can sometimes be a bit contrived and Agatha Christie-ish, but the historical background is carefully researched and a lot of effort seems to have gone into making the sets and costumes as realistic as possible. A shop that’s on screen for less than a minute is filled with authentic 1940s props, for example, and those are real Spitfires taking off from Andrew’s air base. There are a few, very tiny, historical errors, but they haven’t dented my enjoyment of this series (in fact, they make me feel clever for spotting them, so I have a sneaking suspicion the writer put them in on purpose). I haven’t seen the final, seventh series, but I’m looking forward to that. There’s also talk of a spin-off series, set after the war. I’d love to see Foyle paired up (professionally, that is) with Hilda Pearce, the scarily efficient intelligence officer who runs into Foyle several times during the war. They could set up their own private detective agency! And Sam could work for them!

If you enjoy police dramas, or are interested in the Second World War, or just want to watch a lot of terrific British actors, I highly recommend Foyle’s War.

How I Learned To Hate Poetry

I didn’t always hate poetry. When I was little, I loved Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats and the verse of Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll. I liked these poems because they were short, and funny, and made each word ‘do a lot of work’, as Humpty Dumpty observed. They had clever rhymes, and their rhythm had me stomping round the house, singing the words in my head. Poems back then were playful and witty and exuberant.

Then I started high school.

I don’t really blame the teachers. They had a syllabus to get through and a lot of bored, unruly students to control. But my English teachers turned poetry into something to be killed and dissected, rather than experienced and loved. (They tried to do this to novels, too, but novels are simply too large and robust to be damaged by this treatment, and in any case, I was reading enough novels outside class to counteract any ill effects.) It wasn’t just that I hated writing essays about poems. It was the type of poems we had to read. They were all written by men, mostly dead white men, and were usually about subjects I had no interest in. For instance: in my senior year of high school, we had to read something by Les Murray about beans (truly), and something by Philip Larkin about Whitsun (whatever that is). We also studied The Canterbury Tales, which weren’t even written in English. Worst of all, there was John Keats and his morbid, mawkish odes about dead knights and old vases. I walked out of my final English exam vowing I’d never read any poetry, ever again.

I kept my vow, mostly. There are a lot of things other than poetry to read, and I was busy devouring novels and short stories and non-fiction. I did read a few verse novels, by people like Dorothy Porter and David Levithan. I liked them, but I couldn’t help feeling that writers that good would have been better off writing proper novels, with punctuation.

Then I started writing my own novel, A Brief History of Montmaray, and realised almost at once that my narrator, Sophie, loved poetry. It was an essential part of her character, I could see that. Great. Now I’d have to start reading the blasted stuff again.

Well, here’s what I discovered. I still hated Keats, and I didn’t much like Tennyson, either. Reading Idylls of the King was like wading through treacle. I decided I preferred T. S. Eliot when he was writing about cats. But there were some pleasant surprises, too. For a Romantic, Shelley wasn’t too bad at all. I’d only ever thought of Kipling as one of those dusty Victorians with irritating views about India, but I loved The Bell Buoy. I found I absolutely adored W. H. Auden. And I’ve now ‘discovered’ (not really; I’m sure anyone with a degree in English Literature knows all about him) a wonderful eighteenth century poet I’m hugging to myself for the moment. A fragment of one of his poems is going into a pivotal scene of the third Montmaray novel, and I can’t wait to write that scene.

Note that all these poets are dead white men. I read these particular poets because that’s what Sophie and her friend Rupert were reading. In the 1930s. But apparently women wrote poetry, too, even back in the olden days. I haven’t got to them, yet. I may actually end up reading some for pleasure. You never know.