Look At This Cover!

The people who design my book covers have consistently come up with thoughtful, attractive designs, but I think this one is the most gorgeous yet:

'The FitzOsbornes in Exile' - North American hardcover
'The FitzOsbornes in Exile', North American hardcover, released on April 5th, 2011

It’s so glamorous! It’s such a great depiction of the mood of the book! And isn’t that model the perfect Sophie? She’s doing the Queen Matilda chin tilt! And her facial expression! Is she sad, or bored, or calm, or curious, or defiant, or all of those things at once? She’s even wearing the pearl drop earrings Aunt Charlotte gives her for her seventeenth birthday. At first, I thought the dress looked more 1950s than 1930s, but it’s an actual photo from a 1930s edition of Vogue. (The dress is probably more daring and fashionable than Sophie would wear, though – and she must have just had her hair done by Monsieur Raymond, the hair artiste.)

Sitting next to Sophie is Toby. It can’t be Simon, because the figure has fair hair, and it can’t be Rupert, because he seems to be smoking a cigarette. In the background is Veronica, dressed in mourning and dancing with . . . someone. He’s probably not Daniel, not at a Society ball. I guess it could be Simon – in which case, they’re stomping on each other’s feet, out of range of the camera.

I love the colours of this cover, too. I don’t know if the designer planned it, but it brings to my mind the red, white and black of the Nazi flag – a chilling hint of what’s in store for these characters.

Then there’s the beautiful title, written in a lovely 1930s Art Deco font.

Oh, it’s all so very pretty . . . and if you live in the United States or Canada, you can buy your very own copy in two months time! (Actually, I guess you could buy a copy wherever you live in the world, as long as you don’t mind paying a large postage bill.)

I should also mention that the paperback edition of A Brief History of Montmaray is out next month in North America. The cover looks like this:

'A Brief History of Montmaray' - North American paperback
'A Brief History of Montmaray', North American paperback, released on March 8th, 2011

It’s quite different from the North American hardcover, which featured a photo of a castle perched on a tiny island in the middle of the ocean. That hardcover design seemed to polarise readers – some thought it was really striking and interesting, others felt it made the book look boring. Which just goes to show you can’t please everyone. This paperback cover does look a bit more ‘fairy-tale princess’, which could be a good or bad thing. I mean, FitzOsborne princesses don’t tend to hang around on tower balconies waiting for a prince to rescue them, but on the other hand, it is a very nice photo of a castle on a moonlit night. (And is that a full moon, hidden by clouds? Watch out for werechickens!)

North American readers can buy this paperback next month – or they can buy the lovely hardcover edition right now. Or they can buy both!

To Respond Or Not To Respond (To Reviews)

That is the question.

When my first novel was published, I decided I would not respond to on-line reviews, ever. I believed bloggers should be free to say whatever they wanted about a book, and I thought they might feel inhibited if they knew the author was reading their review. Obviously, if a review of my book was negative, I would never, ever argue about it with the reviewer. That would be pathetic and rude. But if the review was positive, wouldn’t it be sycophantic and stalker-ish for me to leave gushing thanks in the comments?

This policy was easy to follow for my first book, because a) there weren’t that many book bloggers around then, and b) hardly anyone read my first book, let alone reviewed it. (Poor Rage of Sheep. She’s like the plain, nerdy girl who gets ignored in favour of her younger, prettier and more charming sister.)

Guercino - La Sibilla Persica
The author wonders whether or not she should respond to that one-star review on Goodreads
Anyway, things are a bit different now. The YA blogosphere is enormous, and growing every day, so lots more reviewers are on-line. I’m now published outside Australia, which means I have more readers and more reviewers. I’ve actually met some bloggers who’ve reviewed my books (and of course, they all turn out to be super-nice people, as well as having excellent taste in books), and personal connections always complicate matters. I have my own blog, too, and sometimes (okay, not that often) I comment on strangers’ blogs about other topics – so if they subsequently mention one of my books, they’ll probably suspect that I will read their opinion at some stage. Occasionally, mutual friends also draw my attention to a blogger’s post featuring one of my books. And it’s not only reviews – sometimes, one of my books gets mentioned in a ‘favourite books of the year’ post, and I feel even more guilty about not saying a huge thank you to the blogger.

So, what should I do? It would be polite to say, “Thank you very much; I am so pleased you enjoyed the book” whenever anyone posts a positive review and I get to hear about it. But if I did that, I’d have to comment on EVERY blog post that mentions my book, otherwise people would say, “How rude! She commented on X’s blog, but completely ignored my post!” And, of course, sometimes I don’t see reviews until weeks after they’ve been posted; sometimes I don’t ever find out about them.

See how it would be easier to stick with my original policy? But then, sometimes bloggers post such wonderfully insightful and/or hilarious comments about my books that I can’t help wanting to contact them, simply because they sound like the sort of people I’d like to get to know. For example, this librarian, who recently blogged about A Brief History of Montmaray:

“OMG MICHELLE COOPER HIJACKED MY TEENAGED BRAIN! A castle! Nazis! Ghosts! Crazy people! British nobility! NON-British nobility! NOT true love! Diary format! The only thing she left out was sym– wait, she DID include sympathetic socialists. THERE WERE EVEN SYMPATHETIC SOCIALISTS! Who IS this Michelle Cooper person, and HOW IS SHE DOING THIS?!”

Actually, I was laughing too much to comment in any coherent way on that particular post. And it was published last year, and I only read it today, so, kind of weird to comment now, anyway.

I know some bloggers love having authors visit their blogs. But I’m sure just as many bloggers hate the idea of an author butting in on their frank book conversations with friends. (Yes, I know if it’s on the internet, it’s out there for public scrutiny. But I still regard blogs as someone’s personal space.)

So, for the moment, I am sticking with my original policy of not responding to on-line reviews. (Of course, if people e-mail me with their thoughts on my books, I always reply, usually with gushing thanks. And the same thing goes if I meet readers in Real Life.) In the meantime, I’d like to say an enormous THANK YOU to any blogger who’s ever posted a nice comment about one of my books. It really is very encouraging and flattering and all-round awesome for an author to read that sort of thing. And to bloggers who didn’t like one of my books: I respect your right to your own opinion, thanks for giving the book a try, and sorry it didn’t turn out to be your cup of tea. (I make an exception to this for the homophobic librarian who was disgusted by A Brief History of Montmaray because it contained non-heterosexual characters. I don’t respect her opinion. Although, of course, I defend her right to publish her thoughts on her own blog, just as I defend my right to pull faces at her behind her back.)

Authors Seanan McGuire and Sarah Rees Brennan have posted sensibly and eloquently about this issue. Does anyone else have any thoughts on this?

My 2011 Writing Resolutions

Hermann Fenner-Behmer 'De quoi ecrire'
The author ponders her New Year’s resolutions
Here are my writing resolutions for the New Year.

1. Finish writing Montmaray Book Three, ideally by the time my deadline arrives.

2. Start writing my new novel.

That’s about it. I could make some resolutions involving daily word counts, or minimum hours spent at my computer each day, but I know I won’t stick to them beyond February. If I achieve my two stated goals, I will be a very satisfied writer.

Happy New Year to you all, and I hope you achieve your writing goals during 2011, too.

The Kitchen Front, Part One: Carrot Cookies

During the Second World War, the British government introduced rationing so that the population wouldn’t run out of food. I’ve been doing lots of research on this subject for the novel that I’m writing, but I’ve decided that simply reading about it isn’t enough. I think I need to experience it. Well, some of it. I’m not so dedicated to my craft that I’d actually change my entire diet (although some people do), but I have been trying out some 1940s recipes.

One of the main aims of the Ministry of Food during the war was to convince the British public that vegetables were healthy, filling and delicious. Eggs, sugar, cheese, butter and meat were rationed, so housewives were encouraged to be creative with potatoes, parsnips, swedes, cabbage, cauliflower – even nettles. An oversupply of carrots at one stage resulted in a Ministry of Food advertising campaign led by a cartoon ‘Doctor Carrot’, who explained how to make ‘carrot soup’, ‘carrot croquettes’, ‘carrot pudding’, ‘Carrolade juice’, ‘curried carrots and chestnuts with potato border’, ‘carrot savoury’, ‘braised carrots’ and ‘boiled carrots’ (I think they were running out of ideas by the end).

I was tempted by the idea of ‘carrot fudge’, until I read that it consisted of carrots, gelatine and orange essence. I could not see how that could be remotely appetising, and this blogger’s attempt to make it simply reinforced my aversion. However, I thought ‘carrot cookies’ sounded interesting, so I gave them a go. This version comes from the wonderful World Carrot Museum website.

Carrot Cookies

1 tablespoon margarine
2 tablespoons sugar
1 to 2 teaspoons of vanilla essence
4 tablespoons grated raw carrot
6 tablespoons self-raising flour (or plain flour with ½ teaspoon baking powder added)
1 tablespoon of water



Method – Cream the fat and the sugar together with the vanilla essence. Beat in the grated carrot. Fold in the flour. If mixture is very dry, add a little water. Drop spoonfuls onto greased tray and press down just a little.  Sprinkle tops with sugar and cook in an oven at 200° Celsius for about 20 minutes.

In the interests of authenticity, I used my most withered carrots (few houses back then had refrigerators). I suspect that 1940s flour was somewhere between our white and wholemeal flour, but I only had plain white flour, so I used that with baking powder. I wasn’t quite sure what sort of sugar was most common then, so I used caster sugar. Unfortunately, I don’t have a 1940s wood-burning stove (or even a gas stove), but I did grate the carrots and beat the mixture BY HAND (mostly because I don’t own a food processor).

Here’s the final product (my apologies for the poor quality image, but the only camera I possess is the webcam inside my computer):

Carrot Cookie
A cookie - made of carrots!

I didn’t have very high expectations, but these cookies were delicious! They were moist and chewy, rather than crisp, and tasted like a cross between plain sugar cookies and pumpkin scones. I must admit they didn’t taste much like carrots, although they were very orange – and very sweet. If I made them again, I’d only use one tablespoon of sugar, and I wouldn’t sprinkle extra sugar on top before baking. It just shows how much natural sugar is in carrots (now those Ministry of Food recipes for ‘carrot lollies’ make more sense to me). I’d also use wholemeal flour next time.

So, a success! But I think my next attempt at 1940s food will be something savoury. Stay tuned for updates on the Kitchen Front.

ARCs

I am feeling very Oscar the Grouch because I’ve just seen ARCs of the American edition of The FitzOsbornes in Exile for sale, for almost twice the price of the real book, five months before publication date. This is not the first time this has happened.

An ARC, for the uninitiated, is an Advance Reader’s Copy of a book. It’s a set of uncorrected typeset pages of the book, bound into paperback form, usually with an early version of the cover art on the front. The first page of the ARC gives information about the book’s publication date, price and other bits of information useful for librarians, booksellers and reviewers (who receive ARCs for free). The ARCs of Random House books also include this notice:

“ATTENTION, READER: THESE ARE UNCORRECTED ADVANCE PROOFS BOUND FOR REVIEW PURPOSES. All trim sizes, page counts, months of publication, and prices should be considered tentative and subject to change without notice. Please check publication information and any quotations against the bound copy of the book. We urge this for the sake of editorial accuracy as well as for your legal protection and ours.”

And then, on the front cover of the ARC, it says “NOT FOR SALE”. Which some recipients of ARCs interpret to mean “YAY! LET’S SELL THIS ON-LINE! FREE MONEY FOR ME!” Even worse, according to Liz B. from Tea Cozy, some librarians in the US are actually putting ARCs on their library shelves, rather than buying the proper book.

Here’s why authors get grouchy about this:

1. Authors don’t earn any money from sales of ARCs. The ARC is produced by publishers and given away free for publicity purposes. A sale of an ARC is not counted towards book sales figures, and it doesn’t earn the author any royalties. Most authors are not rich. They need all the book sales they can get.

2. People buying ARCs are not buying the proper book. They are buying a cheap, flimsy paperback that will fall apart after a couple of reads, instead of a beautifully-produced hardcover.

But, most importantly,

3. An ARC contains grammatical errors, unchecked facts, weird spellings, odd typesetting and many other problems. It is not the final version of the book. My publishers and I go to lots of trouble to proof-read the typeset pages of my books before they are printed, and I want readers to read the corrected, final book, not an ARC. I certainly don’t want readers paying inflated prices for a book full of errors, not when the book has my name on the cover.

So, if you’re a book blogger, professional reviewer or librarian reading this, and you’re wondering what to do with all those ARCs you’ve received – don’t sell them. And don’t give them to someone else who’s going to sell them. If you do, don’t be surprised if the authors and publishers involved get very cross with you.

And while I’m having a whinge – what’s with all those book reviews I’ve been reading lately where the reviewer hasn’t even seen the final copy of the book? For example, a recent review of a YA novel (which I am not going to name, because I don’t think that’s fair to the author or the book) complained about editing problems in the book, then admitted:

“As this review has been assessed from an uncorrected proof, my comments in relation to editing issues need to be considered in this light.”

Well, why didn’t you wait until you could assess the final book, then? This review appeared in a published journal, and its readers want to know about the final, published book, not some earlier, uncorrected version!

Right. Now I’ve got that off my furry, green chest, I’m climbing back inside my trash can for a nap.

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?’

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.

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.