Lisa Jewell In Conversation With John Miller At Hampshire Writers’ Society Gala Evening

Joy Carter, Vice Chancellor of the University of Winchester and Patron of Hampshire Writers’ Society headed a group of very special guests in attendance at the Gala Evening which brought the curtain down on an incredibly successful 2017-18 season.  Her pleasure at introducing friends and colleagues, including the university’s Chancellor Alan Titchmarsh MBE, DL, HonFSE and Society President, Barbara Large, was palpable.

Members of the Society will know only too well of the troublesome few months that Barbara has faced and everyone’s delight at Barbara’s arrival into the auditorium was manifest by the first of two impromptu and prolonged standing ovations such is the love and esteem in which she is held by one and all.

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Joy Carter and Alan Titchmarsh

Barbara spoke briefly and eloquently about her time in convalescence and (dare it be said?) somewhat predictably, she has busied herself with writing a new book containing recipes for health, recuperation and love.

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Barbara Large with her soon-to-be-published book

When Barbara’s short address was complete the stage was handed over to Alan Titchmarsh who in his own inimitable way charmed and informed the audience in equal measure.  His knowledge of teaching and learning and of the details and skills of creative writing are clear and extensive.  One might be lulled into imagining that because Alan’s style of communication is so self-effacing this was just some other ‘ordinary Joe’ but by the end of his time on stage, it was obvious to all that here was a man of immense talent and huge experience with a wealth of knowledge to share.  He did so generously and humbly.

Main Speaker: Lisa Jewell with John Miller

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Lisa Jewell has written no less than 15 best sellers which isn’t bad for someone whose writing career started in order to try to win a tipsy holiday wager!  As is so often the case creativity finds adversity to be fertile ground.  Lisa, trapped in an untimely, toxic marriage eventually managed to escape and found herself enrolling in an adult education Creative Writing class.

From these difficult beginnings, she was to be found out of necessity writing in coffee shops and cafes and this remains her prefered working environment.  To this day her daily writing routine revolves around forsaking her domestic setting for rather more anonymous surroundings where her next novel can take shape amongst the clink of teacups and pastry crumbs.  Lisa never allows herself to ask for a Wi-Fi code preferring a strict regime so that her creative juices can flow unimpeded.

As her career has developed Lisa has found herself in the position of sometimes almost having to write to order – her publisher asks for creative output and Lisa obliges by producing riveting copy with or without the help of her muse.  Waiting for higher inspiration is a luxury her hectic schedule simply can’t afford and neither is she precious about whether it’s characters or plots that drive her storylines. She’s happy to take whichever approach is working best for her at any given time.  Espousing web connectivity whilst writing, Lisa identified that for her at least, modern technology can often be a double-edged sword.  The research potential of the internet is unprecedented but so too are the distractions that can come with web-browsing.   These distractions can often work to thwart writing progress, however, one traditional activity that all writers should embrace, Lisa advised, is the age-old bedrock of reading as much as possible.

Lisa’s talk was guided by the very capable and incisive John Miller who was able to tease out informative writing habits and revealing aspects of writing professionally throughout Lisa’s talk. One thing which Lisa has still yet to come completely to terms with are the occasional negative reviews which goes to show that even successful and experienced writers, like those just starting on their writing journey, are equally affected by reviews, good or bad.

Lisa’s latest novel hits the shelves on July 12th and for members of the Society, it will be a wonderful read in light of Lisa’s excellent address.

All images © Lexica Films

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Erica James in conversation with Sarah Benton At Hampshire Writers’ Society

Main Speaker: Erica James with Sarah Benton

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With in excess of 5.5 million copies sold and counting, Erica James is one of the UK’s best-selling authors.  Her writing story is of hobby-writer turned national and now international publishing phenomenon and over the years she has been witness to and part of the tumultuous changes that the publishing industry has undergone.

Engaging in writing as a way of escaping a dark period of her life, Erica found the feeling of control (dare we say power?) that she could exercise in her fictional worlds a heady substitute for the events surrounding her. This is perhaps familiar to many fiction writers as the white heat of novel writing takes over their everyday lives.  But Erica, being a person not to undertake any new activity frivolously enrolled on an Arvon course.  It was here that she first experienced sharing her creative output with others.  She overcame her acute anxiety and just about managed to avoid scarpering on the first evening! Thankfully her need to achieve overcame her fear of failure and her output during the course was warmly received by the tutors with one, in particular, spotting real if nascent talent.

As seems often the case Hampshire Writers’ Society (although not then quite in its present manifestation) had a role to play. Erica attended a course organised by Barbara Large in Southampton and from there submitted the first three chapters of a manuscript to an agent working for Curtis Brown. Suitably impressed, Erica was asked to send the whole manuscript and found herself telling a white lie to the effect that it was finished. Working flat-out under enormous pressure again due to personal and domestic difficulties, Erica sent the whole thing off within three months and the rest, as they say, is history.

Erica’s presentation took a different and refreshing format arranged as it was as being ‘in conversation’ with Sarah Benton of her publisher Orion. Sarah herself provided an insight into the publishing industry side of Erica’s story. The process of selecting a new novel for publication is a painstaking and rigorous process and at least at Orion is based on consensus, which seems less capricious than the methods some Houses employ. Sarah agreed with Erica that when a track record of quality writing is evidenced the writer’s opinions should be listened to especially when editorial decisions are being taken. To this end, Erica related how sometimes she has been proved correct when fighting her corner in the face of editorial decisions that she has felt were ill-advised.

Erica was asked about her writing process and explained that she produced two drafts, the first being ‘in the rough’ and the second one being fairly polished to the point of being able to let the publisher read the manuscript. Erica is an instinctive writer and loves to forge a killer plot-hook from which engaging multi-dimensional characters can operate.  She warned against ‘overwriting’ and Sarah agreed wholeheartedly that this was a pitfall for many aspiring writers.  For those wanting to find out more about Erica’s creative output and writing career visit Erica James’ Official Website.

Special Guest: Ant Ridgeway

If Ant Ridgeway was in any way nervous about speaking to the society it was in no way apparent as he produced an informative and confident presentation that should prove inspiring for any writers out there who might be flagging, blocked or otherwise unproductive.

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Ant’s life-long love of stories and storytelling found early impetus during family trips and seaside holidays from where real-life adventures found their way into his fiction. As a little boy, he found himself constantly making stories up for his own and others’ entertainment.  It is therefore unsurprising that Ant was one of those present at the inaugural meeting of The Hampshire Writers’ Society back in September 2011.  Barbara Large, never far from the action, was quick to spot Ant’s talent for children’s literature and was insistent that he should strive towards becoming published. This is where Jenny Knowles of Little Knoll Press comes into Ant’s authorial journey. Jenny was with Ant on stage during his address and provided a little of her own insight about the part Little Knoll Press has played in Ant’s success.  The launch of Ant’s debut children’s story, Wizzy and the Seaside Adventure was featured in the BBC South documentary which can be found here.  Of course, it is the writers themselves who must make narrative decisions, about word choice, story and character arcs and as such, Ant is best placed himself to explain his own writing process.  Watch Ant’s video: How I write for the best insight into his working practice.

A speaker, when fielding questions from the audience, is often at their most informative and so it proved with Ant and his sage advice to ‘Just keep going!’. Surely this is something that all writers would do well to remember. The presentation was punctuated by videos (see above) showing Ant’s working day and some of the technology he has been able to harness to support the production and development of his writing, proof positive, if any were needed, that good things really are worth waiting for.

 

All images © Lexica Films

Margaret Graham at Hampshire Writers’ Society

The Society’s evening’s proceedings commenced with Dr Judith Heneghan (2018 Winchester Writers’ Festival [15-17thJune] director), who in a brief slot outlined the extensive programme of events planned for this year. The festival’s Keynote Speaker is to be novelist and playwright, Patrick Gale (A Perfectly Good Man, The Whole Day Through and the Richard and Judy bestseller Notes From an Exhibition) who is headlining a festival aimed at extending a panoply of writing opportunities. Whether one is interested in crime or thrillers, contemporary, historical or literary fiction, fantasy and speculative work, poetry, scriptwriting, nonfiction or writing for children up to YA there is something of interest. Bursaries, including ten free scholarship weekend packages for writers aged between 18-25, are available on application. There are also full scholarship packages for writers of any age involved in producing work for children generously funded by the Lindsay Literary Agency. Finally, a number of £50 bursaries, again for writers of any age are available to apply for. Further details, too numerous to include here, are available at the Winchester Writers’ Web pages.

Special Guest: Margaret Graham

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Due to address the society last June, Margaret Graham found herself indisposed as a result of an unfortunate domestic accident and those in attendance at that original meeting heard instead from Tracy Baines. This time around, Tracy found herself part of the audience and so it was with great pleasure that Gary Farnell finally welcomed Margaret to April’s gathering. Margaret commenced by echoing Judith Henaghan’s message about the benefits of attending this year’s Winchester Writers’ Festival but the main theme of her talk was to do with writing craft focussing on the specifics of structure.

A novel way of underscoring the points that Margaret was keen to share was by drawing on the fairy tale Cinderella. It became apparent that this seemingly simple, much-loved story relies on the well-established components of the universally common structural story form that Margaret was insistent must be adhered to. These are:

  • Plot and Subplot
  • Characters
  • Motivation
  • Theme
  • Tension and Conflict
  • Exposition
  • Unique Voice

It is not sufficient, we were told, to have one main plot (which in this example is Cinderella’s emancipation and marriage) there is also a need to have subplots operating within the narrative. The Ugly Sisters machinations, cruelty and jealousy, ultimately thwarted during the climax of the story, offer intriguing and tension-filled counterpoints to Cinderella’s journey from domestic enslavement to high marriage. The characters are all easily distinguished from each other but crucially, Cinderella’s mentor, Buttons also acts as a moralistic example of self-sacrifice balancing the amoral sisters’ behaviour.

Cinderella’s motivation for action is her desire to ‘go to the ball’ and the reader starts to root for her and to discover if she will succeed and overcome the injustices she is faced with. For it is injustice that is the underlying theme of the piece. As such one of the universal human experiences is investigated allowing the reader to empathise with Cinderella’s predicament. Of course, there are several points in the arc where it is far from certain that there will be the happy ending everyone craves. This gives rise to the all-important element of tension that every good narrative arc requires to succeed. Exposition comprises the information contained in the action wherein the reader discovers the nuances of the story. The story must drive forward never standing still and in so doing the risk of stagnation and reader-indifference is avoided. In terms of unique voice, each writer will bring an element of this to their own work thereby setting it successfully apart from others within and outwith their chosen genre.

Keynote Speakers: Mayor David McLean, General Sir Tony Walker and Caroline Scott

Hyde900, a community project originally established to celebrate the 900th anniversary of the founding of Hyde Abbey, continues to develop. It has now evolved into something that has become integral to the cultural fabric of Hyde in particular and Hampshire more generally. Caroline Scott and General Sir Tony Walker, supported by the Mayor of Winchester, David McLean, spoke of the Hyde Soldiers Initiative, a part of the wider Hyde 900 project which seeks to research and document the lives of the soldiers of the First World War who are commemorated in St Bartholomew’s Church, Hyde.

Through her involvement in the Soldiers of Hyde initiative, Caroline has become affected by the soldiers’ individual stories and has researched the particular story of James Lovelock. James’ surviving relatives made it clear to Caroline that whilst there is a national incentive to memorialise the mass of casualties from the wars there is a dearth of will to find out about individuals involved.

Apart from collecting information on regiment, rank and age, Caroline is keen to explore the personal stories behind the names, to bring to the attention of those living in Hyde today, a concept of how the community was directly affected by the terrible events of the time. Caroline asked that those interested joining a working party or who enjoy research could become involved in what promises to be a fascinating task of collecting and collating relevant details to further the aims of the project. Equally, if anyone has any information on any of the soldiers who so sadly did not return, all leads are welcome at this initial stage.

With this theme in mind, General Sir Tony Walker took to the mic to highlight the current Hyde 900 theme of ‘Homecoming’. He spoke of how having access to poetry during his time as a career soldier was a great source of inspiration and comfort and in light of that introduced the forthcoming poetry competition on the theme of ‘Homecoming’. He and his colleagues encouraged participation from Hampshire Writers and everyone looks forward to reading lots of entries. Again, further information is available by visiting Hyde 900 online.

 

 

Helen Dennis at Hampshire Writers’ Society

All those present at the society’s March gathering welcomed the much-anticipated news of the improvement in Barbara Large’s health as her treatment continues. Here is a facsimile of the letter that she sent along to the meeting and which Dr Gary Farnell read out on her behalf:

‘I will be thinking about you all tonight and wishing that I could be with you to welcome all of our wonderful speakers.
My next appointment with the consultant is this Thursday at Winchester Hospital when she will give the results of the recent blood tests. Fingers crossed that the myeloma count will reduce from 5, with the goal of reaching 0 soon.
Please tell our HWS writers that I am busy writing a book titled Scrumptious Recipes Shared with a Pampered Patient, a 70-page easy-to-read guide to help patients and their families cope with illness. It may be printed in time for the book fair at the June HWS meeting.
I miss you all and hope to catch up soon.

Barbara’.

Spontaneous cheers echoed through the auditorium when Gary finished which simply underscores both the regard in which Barbara is held and the extent everyone is rooting for her speedy return.

Now onto the business at hand. Commonly, the society’s monthly meetings offer members and guests the advantage of listening to the wisdom of a Special Guest and a Keynote Speaker, however this month the society introduced a special 3-for-2 offer! Which is perhaps an indelicate way of describing the three wonderful speakers that offered great insights into writing for children, dealing with the publishing industry and all-importantly getting published.

 

Special Guest: Helen Dennis

As we hear so often, Helen Dennis’ nascent writing ambition was also first nurtured at her local library during regular childhood trips accompanied by her mother. It was at the library that Helen first decided that she would become a writer, an ambition that started to take shape when her parents converted an outside loo into a writing den! At the ripe old age of eleven, Helen began work on her first novel, which she described as The Hobbit set in outer space! Helen’s teacher offered her that all-important ingredient of encouragement and when the book was complete it was duly sent off to a publisher.  Helen remains astonished that no-one offered her a publishing deal – a little more time would have to pass for that to happen.

Helen Dennis March 2018

It was as a result of attending the Wiltshire Writers’ Conference and meeting agents that finally set Helen firmly on her journey of realising her long-held ambition of becoming a published writer. At the conference, she met with Beverly Birch, herself a former speaker at the society’s meetings, who really liked the manuscript sample that Helen had provided.  Beverly Birch subsequently asked to ‘see the whole thing’, which proved a little problematic given that the rest of the book resided only in note form or simply in Helen’s head! But Helen had smelled the possibility of success. Undeterred by the task that lay ahead she set forth on a marathon undertaking to fulfil Beverly Birch’s requirement that all the books in the series should be written before any publication could begin. This resulted in four years constant work to get to the point of publication which finally happened in 2012. That comprises a potted and very much abbreviated history of Helen’s writing journey, the rest of her talk focused on the specifics that should help all writers. Using the two mnemonics BELIEF and PLAN, Helen demonstrated some of the things that we should all bear in mind.

BELIEF

  1. Think BIG, but when writing for children always think from a child’s point of view.
  2. Be EXCITED, especially when explaining plot twists or moving the narrative on – have the characters moving during dialogue avoid them being physically static.
  3. LISTEN to the advice of trusted sources even when they say things that you don’t want to hear.
  4. INVEST, especially in time to do the writing and getting to know your readership.
  5. ENGAGE by speaking to readers, especially the younger readers, find them and talk to them.
  6. FINISH and then edit so that the story becomes as fine-tuned as it possibly can be.

PLAN

  1. PURPOSE. Make sure you are always clear about the point of every scene. Try to show your characters changing emotionally from the beginning to the end of each scene. This is what readers will be captured by.
  2. LIST all the different possibilities for showing a scene and try at least ten of them before settling on the final one.
  3. ADVANCE the story and the characters.  They are always underscored by change.
  4. Keeps endless NOTES and always use them to help in the editing process.

Helen proved to be a very authoritative speaker whose knowledge and understanding are born of real experience of what it means to become a writer and how to engage successfully with the publishing industry.

First Keynote Speaker: Justin Strain

Justin Strain March 2018Continuing with the evening’s theme of Writing for Children, Justin began his talk with an extract from his immensely popular Kitty Hawkins adventures.  The reading seemed to come to an end all too soon, itself a testament to both his reading skill and the quality of the section of narrative that he shared. Justin also provided a resume of the plot and explained that after much deliberation he chose the self-publishing route for his work using Create Space as his chosen platform. His output comprises historical mystery adventures and The Secret of the Scarlet Ribbon is the first book in his Kitty Hawkins series.

Portsmouth is Justin’s hometown and has provided the setting for his novels thus far. Again public libraries (Justin’s mother worked as a librarian in a number of Portsmouth’s libraries, and also in Hampshire County Council’s schools) played an important part in his development of a love of literature. He grew up in a house full of books, and from an early age was entranced by them, this set his love of adventure and mystery writing off.

Second Keynote Speaker: Anne Wan

Anne’s interest in writing began in 2012 but really got underway with self-published picture books of which she has written 27 as well as a range of poetry and some adult short stories. In October 2016, Anne published Secrets of the Snow Globe – Vanishing Voices, her first chapter book which was aimed at 7-9-year-olds. In 2017 she launched the second book in the series, Shooting Star.

Anne Wan March 2018

Anne similarly had a wealth of practical knowledge regarding the best ways to network and promote self-published work citing launches, book events, school library visits and liaising with local shops and Christmas fayres as all important for increasing sales and expanding a writer’s profile. She recommends joining the Society for Children’s Authors, and Writer’s and Illustrators (or the relevant societies depending on genre) and she explained the value of having an effective support network of writing friends and critical readers to call on. Anne also encouraged writers to attend writers’ conferences as well as engaging with different social media platforms including Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

All photos courtesy of Alex Carter, Lexica Films

Steve McHugh at Hampshire Writers’ Society.

Special Guest: Caroline Routh

Caroline Routh Feb 2018

Caroline Routh is the chief executive of the Nuffield Southampton Theatre which over the last six decades has emerged as one of the leading independent production theatres in the UK. Over the next few years, its evolution enters an important and invigorated phase with the establishment of Nuffield City, a brand new innovative, creative dramatic enterprise right in the heart of Southampton. Nuffield City, scheduled to open its doors on the 16th February 2018, is set to shift the paradigm of provincial theatre in the UK. The new performing arts venue, Nuffield Southampton Theatre (NST) will open in Southampton’s city centre in Guildhall Square. NST will run NST City alongside its long-standing theatre, NST Campus situated on the University of Southampton’s Highfield Campus.

This new state-of-the-art venue will include a flexible 450 seat main theatre, a 133 seat studio, screening facilities, a sprung-floor rehearsal room and workshop spaces. There will also be a bar and restaurant serving award-winning food and drinks, providing the perfect bookends for the artistic and dramatic entertainments that are planned. One of the enduring challenges facing UK theatres, especially provincial ones is to bring theatre to traditionally under-represented audiences.  The drive to encourage community participation through the strapline ‘Southampton can do it’ underscores the campaign to reach as many people as possible with the aim of increasing artistic engagement.

That Caroline explained the theatre is intent on encouraging emerging writing talent was of particular interest to listeners and with the advantage of Arts Council funding a New Writing venue now provides opportunities that include writers’ residencies. The theatre is proud of its continued association with Southampton University and anticipates that collaboration, offering a mutual advantage, will continue into the future.

The new City venue and the handover of the facility including Studio 144 now allows a bespoke creative space for which the theatre will have sole responsibility.  The hope and ambitions for the development of an even greater range of artistic creations have now become a reality.

For more information about the fantastic developments taking place visit the NST here.

Keynote Speaker: Steve McHugh

Steve McHugh Feb 2018

If you’re an aspiring writer of fantasy with a love for creating alternative realities inhabited by believable, vibrant characters then Steve McHugh provided a plethora of useful and practical information on how to go about it. Using the device of familiar urban worlds on which to frame his own humour-infused fantasy, Steve McHugh elevates the intrigue of his plot and sales figures nudging half a million suggest he’s getting things right.

In a story that will be familiar to many struggling writers intent on becoming published, Steve’s journey to becoming a best selling author was not straightforward. Faced by the ever-increasing agent and publisher reluctance to ‘take a punt’ on new writers, Steve eventually decided that the self-publishing route was the only viable one if he was to reach a wider readership. For the most part, publishing is governed by the market and the market, in turn, is driven by revenues. Following very impressive sales figures, Steve was approached and eventually signed by 47 North.  So the formula is simple; self-publish, generate remarkable sales figures, attract the attention of the mainstream players – et voila!

The rules of writing a stand-alone novel are amplified when the writer’s ambition is to produce a series.  For series writing, consistency of world and characterisation must be impeccable or eagle-eyed readers will spot mistakes. To this end, Steve utilises a spreadsheet system to track and map his fantasy worlds as his stories unfold. So familiar is he is now with the nuances of his main characters he is confident he can write them as if they were people that he knows intimately and personally.

An example of the insight his sojourn in self-publishing gave him in the marketing aspects of the publishing was understanding the importance of choosing a memorable title. Contrary to popular myth, whilst you may not be able to judge a book by its cover, a good cover certainly helps to sell one.

A cautionary note regarding the necessity to avoid writing gratuitously was sounded with Steve’s advice about treating death and gore responsibly. The shocking elements of these aspects of any narrative diminish if there is too much of them or if they are included just for the sake of it. Occasional violent deaths are effective but when they appear with monotony their ability to shock is diminished and they become irrelevant within the arc of the story. When writing series it is also important that each individual book is able to act in a stand-alone capacity whilst not forgetting that a good approach is to have important aspects of the narrative bleed into the next book in the series.  This acts as a real incentive for reader engagement and is in itself is an important marketing strategy.

Steve McHugh’s talk was packed with writing tips and anecdotes born of hard-won personal experience but he signed off with the very sensible advice that writers should find what works for them and focus on enjoying the process of producing stories that above all else that they themselves want to read.

Images by Alex Carter, Lexica Films

James Aitcheson, Historical Novelist Talks to Hampshire Writers’ Society

Dr Gary Farnell welcomed members and guests and made a couple of announcements regarding forthcoming events.

  • Table bookings are now being taken for those who wish to show and sell their own published writing at the Society’s Book Fair during the June gathering. Karin Groves awaits applications from interested parties.
  • In May there will be a Victoriana and Steampunk event which is being held at Bursledon Brickworks Industrial Museum based in the village of Swanwick.

Special Guest: Janet Owen

Janet Owen is the Chief Executive Officer of the Hampshire Cultural Trust, the county-wide organisation that seeks to connect creativity and heritage. The Trust aims to encourage an integrated relationship between its twenty Arts Venues, over one hundred staff members and four hundred volunteers with its 700k patrons via an extensive and varied programme across the whole of Hampshire County.

Hampshire Cultural Trust is keen to extend and strengthen its current support for literature within the county and as such 2017 was a significant year being as it was Jane Austen’s 200th-anniversary celebrations. The outreach programmes for the year have involved Jane Austen themed Youth writing competitions and the Coastal Shores Arts Programme in collaboration with Isobel Rogers the Hampshire Poet Laureate for the year. Further, the Trust’s close relationship, involvement and support for the Winchester Writers’ Festival continues unabated.

Like many similar charitable organisations in these straitened times, the Hampshire Cultural Trust continues to face financial pressure but its ambition of promoting Hampshire generally and Winchester particularly as Heritage destinations remains undimmed. For more information on the wonderful work that the organisation does, or if you would like to become involved as a volunteer or simply find out more about the fantastic opportunities on offer please visit:  The Hampshire Cultural Trust.

Keynote Speaker: James Aitcheson

James Aitcheson recently embarked on a PhD with the University of Nottingham where he also undertakes some lecturing responsibilities. He is the author of four historical novels centred on the events of the Norman Conquest of England. His undergraduate history studies at Cambridge no doubt providing a wealth of immersive information from which James has been able to weave the magic of his writing. James’ first three books form a series known as The Conquest Trilogy, with his fourth publication, The Harrowing, comprising a stand-alone chronicle. If the trilogy is based on the overarching real-politic of the times The Harrowing takes a rather more personal viewpoint as it charts the lives of five individuals thrown together by medieval circumstance.

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James Aitcheson’s The Conquest Trilogy

The enduring question about the importance or otherwise of historical accuracy was addressed and James explained that even learned scholars disagree over what represents ‘factual’ historical accuracy. Quite simply, reference sources from the period in question cannot in themselves be considered definitive and so there must inevitably be some degree of imagination at play on the author’s part. In order to contextualise how historical novelists themselves view the question of the importance of historical accuracy, James asked the audience to consider whether it would be fair to ask a general fiction novelist whether all the content of their stories was entirely fictional.

James recounted a couple of passages from The Harrowing and from his reading the atmosphere of the North Yorkshire Moors, Ripon and the ancient city’s church were vividly conjured.  His reading was so well received that when he finished there was a spontaneous round of applause.  Whilst James would give nothing too concrete away his next work, which is currently in progress, is going to be a blend of historical fiction and magical realism.  To find out more about James’ work and future plans take a look at his website.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cecily O’Neill at Hampshire Writers’ Society

Following a fabulous performance by members of the Hampshire Regency Dancers resplendent in period costume, Dr Gary Farnell welcomed members and guests to the society’s December Gala Evening.

Special Guest: Eileen Fitzgerald

A specialist in the life and works of Jane Austen (1775-1817), Dr Eileen Fitzgerald was the perfect guest to commence proceedings with a meticulously researched insight into the Regency world that formed the backdrop to Austen’s social and domestic experiences.

In 1768 the Austens took up residence in the rectory of the Hampshire village of Steventon where in due course the family grew to include Jane and her 7 siblings.  The circumstances of family life that the children enjoyed comprised an enlightened and intellectually open atmosphere.  This might have contributed to Jane’s inquisitive nature which evolved as she grew towards adulthood.  Her childhood experiences were such that as a young teenager she produced works now referred to as The Juvenilia and within them, it is possible to discern the subjects and characterisations that she would develop in her later works of literary genius.

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Steventon Rectory, as depicted in A Memoir of Jane Austen, was in a valley and surrounded by meadows.

[Image Public Domain]

 

 

Jane’s father augmented the family’s sparse income with farming and teaching and therefore it would seem that the young Jane would not have been living in opulence.  It is possible that the themes of class, wealth and social aspiration often through marriage, which were to take a pivotal role at the centre of her work, were seeded at this time.  And what work it was, forging as it did an entirely new literary genre of Realism.  Indeed, Austen might have been the first to recognise the truism of ‘writing what you know’.  Eileen identified and discussed both the evolution and the craft of Austen’s writing, citing Walter Scott, ‘Austen managed to find a lightness of touch and married that to an acute sense of place’.  Eileen concluded her talk by mooting the intriguing and inspiring suggestion that Jane Austen and the Scarlett Pimpernel might have been one and the same.

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Jane Austen By Cassandra Austen (1773–1845)

[Image Public Domain]

Keynote Speaker: Cecily O’Neill

Over the course of her professional life, Cecily has directed many dramatic societies and has for years worked in English and drama education.  Her delight in adapting unfamiliar texts for performance has led to the creation of re-imagined classics and original texts for publication and performance.  Members were given a glimpse of this work during her talk, with three wonderful women actors in period dress reciting from Cecily’s own original scripts.  What a treat!  These adaptations include ‘Young Jane’, three plays inspired by Jane Austen’s teenage writings, and ‘Venus and Adonis’ for the Winchester Festival, 2016.  Not only does Cecily hold a PhD in Theatre from the University of Exeter but she is also an Honorary Fellow of the University of Winchester… aficionados of Austen were certainly in excellent company.

Cecily O’Neill is one of those speakers to whom listeners immediately warm, perceiving a richly informed, deeply passionate expert in her twin specialisms of Austen’s literature and drama. It might be said that the young Cecily O’Neill produced her own versions of theatrical juvenilia rounding up as she did teenage friends to present plays in her parent’s garage.  From such humble beginnings, a great literary expert and dramaturge was to emerge.

Cautioning against Laertes’ advice of ‘neither a borrower nor a lender be’, Cecily raised a laugh when she cited Byron’s lowly opinion of The Bard whom he accused of being a thematic magpie.  She also highlighted that Jane Austen herself had come in for opprobrium, being considered by some as creating extremely deficient characters whose lives were devoid of invention.  However, Walter Scott acted as a counter to those who had been slow to embrace Austen’s now universally recognised skill of capturing the realism of everyday lives in economic prose.  He praised Austen’s writing saying that her skill of rendering ‘nature as she really exists in the common walks of life’ was, in essence, a shift in the literary paradigm.  Whilst the modern scholar, William Galperin noted that Scott had recognised Austen’s divergence from standard contemporary practise saying, ‘That young lady had a talent for describing the feelings and characters of ordinary life. The Big Bow-wow strain I can do myself; but the exquisite touch, which renders ordinary commonplace things and characters interesting, from the truth of the description and the sentiment, is denied to me.  What a pity such a gifted creature died so early’.

There would be few if any at this gala evening who would disagree.

Mitchell​ Symons at Hampshire Writers’ Society

Dr Gary Farnell welcomed members and guests on what was a suitably dark and chilly evening the mood of which wasn’t lightened when he read a letter from society chairman, Barbara Large.

Barbara shared the upsetting news that following a consultation with her physician and subsequent hospital examinations she has been placed under long-term medical care and is being treated for a serious condition. However, she and her medical team are optimistic and everyone anticipates that Barbara will be back ‘shiny and new’ in time for March’s meeting and the onset of lighter evenings. Typical of her selfless attitude, Barbara apologised for her absence and I’m sure that when Dr Farnell asked that everyone join him in wishing Barbara a speedy recovery there was unanimous agreement.  Everyone is channelling best wishes Barbara’s way!

Special Guest: Steve Marper

The Hyde900 Project was established in 2010 to mark the 900th anniversary of the founding of Hyde Abbey, the burial place of King Alfred the Great.  The initial aim was to provide a platform to celebrate Hyde’s history and environment and to promote the wealth of talent to be found amongst its local people.  The project proved so popular it was decided to continue it beyond its initial planned period and it has gone on to become a vehicle to support other events in Hyde and the wider Hampshire area.

More recently it has broadened into a serendipitous approach to community-based initiatives with such things as public health and fitness, music, visual arts and written and spoken word being included.

Cycling, with the annual Wantage to Winchester cycle ride and numerous guided history-based walks, have proved to be enormously popular activities.  The Hyde900 archaeology programme, via the Community Dig, continues to investigate the early history of Hyde Abbey and choral music development is promoted through the Hyde900 Choir.  Written and spoken word, also an important aspect of the programme, is promoted through the Hyde Poetry initiative which is now well established and the Hyde900 Writers strand was recently revived.

Following a successful bid for Heritage Lottery funding an extended programme of lectures, guided walks, information pamphlets, music concerts and the provision of space for the visual arts alongside some bursary availability have all been made possible.  For further information visit Hyde99

Main Speaker: Mitchell Symons

Mitchell Symons was born in London and educated at Mill Hill School from where he went on to study jurisprudence at the LSE.  However, this chosen degree pathway did not enthuse him in the way that he might have hoped and he started to work for the BBC as a researcher and subsequently a director.  He also worked as a broadcaster and journalist and currently writes an award-winning column for the Sunday Express.  He was the principal writer for early editions of the once iconic board game, Trivial Pursuits.  Following his involvement in concept development, Mitchell went on to devise many television game show formats based on general knowledge.

Mitchell’s presentation was preceded by the cautionary note that his talk might become a little ‘potty-mouthed’ and that ‘Chatham House rules apply’ – which this report must ignore! Mitchell Symons proved to be a fast-paced, eclectic and tangential speaker who shared a seemingly endless supply of anecdotes without pause.  The warning of ripe language was issued with good reason but Mitchell explained that writers are notorious for their invective and over his years of moving in publishing circles he has become somewhat inured to imprecation.  By his own volition, he has been ‘helping the nation to poo since 1974’ and this, not for the last time, drew laughter from listeners.

Mitchell Symons is a prolific writer of primarily non-fiction material that includes quiz-question setting, oddly interesting facts and ‘how-to’ rules.  For example, he wrote the trivia for the pilot series of the TV programme Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? but turned down an invitation to become involved with the televised show.  He has also published a book of pithy poems, a couple of which he recited to draw his talk to a close.

Mitchell was intrigued by his audience, claiming he did ‘not understand the purpose of writing societies’ and explained that the idea of writing for no monetary gain appalled him.  After a long and financially prosperous career providing his reading public with titles such as Why Eating Bogeys Is Good For You and Why Do Farts Smell Like Rotten Eggs? Mitchell’s nemesis came in the form of free-to-view internet sites like Wikipedia where content that would have been grist to his creative mill became readily available and free of charge.

Mick Jackson at Hampshire Writers’ Society, Tuesday 10th October

 

With Barbara Long temporarily indisposed, Adrienne Dines kindly welcomed members and guests alike before hosting The Society’s Annual General Meeting. Adrienne presented for consideration the General and Financial Reports for the period 2016/17. A brief synopsis of the proceedings can be found at the end of this article.

 

Special Guest: Jon Walcott

Established in 2008, Little Toller Press is a small, independent publisher based in Dorset whose industry footprint has steadily grown despite its non-London centric ethos. Perceiving a market gap is often the catalyst for fledgling business ventures and it was the dearth of a specialist Nature Writing publisher that formed the germ of Little Toller’s creative profile, a profile that has become to be admired both within and beyond the publishing industry.

The success of any business start-up is rarely a foregone conclusion and this is even less so for those embarking on enterprises reliant on creative industry. This last, allied to the fact that the publishing world in 2008 faced what amounted to ‘the perfect storm’, should have ensured that Little Toller’s existence was short lived. Happily, this was not to be the case. A carefully constructed and meticulously produced early list, that saw lost nature classics re-born, safeguarded the company’s early life. ‘Classic texts of rural writing and illustration brought back into beautiful existence’ (Kathryn Hughes, The Guardian) is but one example of the early impression the press created. This, coupled with a resurgent interest in nature writing and a reading publics’ appetite ever more whetted for well-written words on the culture of ecology, began to establish Little Toller as a niche but significant player.

The next major step for the house came with a decision to look beyond established classics and divine new writing talent but again, the aim was to stay few in number and high in quality. Excellence, in terms of content and product, remains Little Toller’s prerequisite. Following on from John Burnside’s Havergey, Marcus Sedgwick’s Snow and Fiona Sampson’s Limestone Country comes the soon-to-be-released and much anticipated Beyond the Fell Wall by Richard Skelton. The growth of the new writers list has seen the house liaise with trusted literary agents cognisant of Little Toller’s culture with the aim to further augment a nascent stable of contemporary writing talent.

Jon’s commitment to providing readers with exquisite volumes that are a delight to own still underpins the aim of the press. Little Toller is one of the few publishing houses offering discerning readers the chance to acquire books to be treasured and passed on. If second-hand bookshops still exist in 100 years time, a browser finding a Little Toller First Edition, will no doubt consider themselves very lucky indeed.

 

Main Speaker: Mick Jackson

The theme of Mick Jackson’s key-note talk was ‘Finding Inspiration’. Members were treated to a thorough and detailed insight into how Mick finds inspiration for his writing from what, on first appearances, might be considered obscure and unpromising items. One of Mick’s slides showed the interior of his office, a space crammed with stacks of books, magazines, posters and personally precious things of curious interest. By his own admission, Mick is a hoarder, collecting the ephemera of his daily life in the hope that one day some of these things might provide the inspiration for his next piece of work.

Mick, working in light of Adrian Mitchell’s declaration, ‘I like stuff’ takes this modus a long way and we were treated to a glimpse of Mick’s scrapbook, a leather-bound ledger of Dickensian proportion, crammed full of things that have appealed to his sense of humour and curiosity. Working on Tom Waites’ premise of ‘putting interesting things in the same room and waiting until they have children’ is a writing philosophy that has worked well for Mick who believes that ideas beget ideas. Having a sense of physical place to establish a story’s concept goes hand in hand with a love of physical objects and this was perhaps best highlighted while Mick was a member of the UEA’s creative writing graduate programme. He accepted an invitation to explore the grounds of the English aristocrat, the Duke of Portland’s country house. It was a fascination with the labyrinth of tunnels that the eccentric Duke had excavated and how this endeavour connected to the Duke’s need to withdraw from sight, that inspired Mick’s triumphant debut novel The Underground Man, Faber and Faber, 2007.

An example of Mick’s prescience for the direction that some aspects of contemporary writing were to take was his recognition that ‘everything already exists’; that it is the writers who have the ability to find the interesting angle or the new approach who will produce new and original content. It’s all about ‘finding what’s already there and showing it to people anew’. Mick drew on the Michelangelo analogy that suggests the Boy David already resided in the block of marble.

Mick seeks to ask ‘what if?’ as a way of subverting preconceptions.  In doing so he hopes to find a way to show the world differently, in much the same way as the great American post-Beat Generation writer, Richard Brautigan sought to make the ordinary extraordinary.

This was perhaps one of those keynotes that might have been best enjoyed first-hand, packed as it was with pithy advice and practical suggestions for writers seeking to find their next idea.   If you weren’t there, Mick concluded his talk with the caution that inspiration won’t come to find the writer, it has to happen the other way round.

 

The Annual General Meeting

Adrienne Dines conducted the AGM’s (20016-17) proceedings, with written reports being made available for scrutiny. Presenting a thorough resume of The Society’s position, the report showed progress to be developing in accordance with the committee’s expectations. Membership numbers continue to increase year on year which in turn promotes The Society’s positive financial position. Whilst the need to recruit more members was acknowledged, the current status ensured that all financial commitments for the period of the report had been met with no existing debt burden cited. Appropriate steerage is being informed by the analysis of the results of the recent survey which also evidenced members’ satisfaction that the society has hosted a pleasantly wide variety of events and guest speakers. The proportionate distribution between expertise from both the creative and the business sides of the publishing industry was shown as being appropriate.

The Annual Report, proposed as an accurate reflection of The Society’s position by Sally Russell and seconded by Joan McGavin was accepted. The Annual Financial Report, proposed as an accurate reflection of the Society’s position by Peter Hitchen and seconded by Damon Wakes was accepted.

Tracy Baines at Hampshire Writers’ Society

Wholly unforeseen events indisposed scheduled guest, Margaret Graham which forced a last minute alteration to the evening’s programme. Stepping in to save the day, The Society welcomed short story writer extraordinaire, Tracy Baines to share her wisdom on how to write short stories and how to get them published.

Sitting alongside Tracy was Ian Thornton of the Princess of Wales’ Royal Regiment, whose story of bravery and fortitude, allied to an unswerving desire to promote the charitable legacy of his late brother, was a privilege to listen to.

Special Guest: Ian Thornton

Captain Ian Thornton, a commissioned infantry officer with the Princess of Wales’ Royal Regiment and patron of the charity Words for Wounded is passionately committed to helping his fellow servicemen wounded in the line of duty to live as full and active lives as possible.

Captain Thornton understands all too well the personal cost of military service, having tragically lost his younger brother, John on active service with the Royal Marines in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. After this terrible event, it fell to Ian to organise some of John’s repatriated belongings. Amongst those precious personal items was John’s diary and Ian quickly realised what an important and unique record it comprised. Ian explained that John had already shared some of the diary’s contents and so knew John would not feel that he was being intruded upon. What Ian read seemed at once funny, poignant and superbly well-written. Indeed, it is a testimony to the quality of the writing that John’s diary now resides in the Imperial War Museum but crucially, before it found its way into public display, it provided an inspirational template for the publication of Helmand: Diaries of a Frontline Soldier. Endorsed by ex-Royal Marine and politician, Lord Paddy Ashdown and with a foreword from Simon Weston, the book comprises the diary entries of Ian and John Thornton alongside those of other serving and ex-military personnel. It provides a glimpse into the frontline experiences of those serving in Afghanistan.

The proceeds from the book support both the John Thornton Young Achievers Foundation and the Royal Marines Foundation and to date have enabled youngsters to become involved in a wide variety of activities that they would otherwise not have had the opportunity to experience.

Main Speaker: Tracy Baines

Growing up in North East Lincolnshire, in the estuarine town of Cleethorpes and with the river Humber an ever-present backdrop, a young Tracy Baines sat fascinated at her grandmother’s side listening to recollections of her family’s history. Not least amongst these were the tales of hardship, bravery and adventure of her grandfather’s time serving as a member of the now legendary wartime Baltic Fleet. Tracy promised that her grandmother’s wistful desire that ‘somebody should write these stories down’ held true.

It was this seed, dormant for years, that eventually began to germinate when Tracy visited her public library and found information on a local writers’ group and decided to become a member. Here she was finally able to find the courage to write of her great uncle’s maritime death. Tracy’s mother word processed the handwritten manuscript and duly sent it off to the Grimsby Evening Telegraph. To Tracy’s astonishment and delight, the story was accepted. Tracy wasn’t to know it but this was to be the first of very many publications.

Buoyed by her initial success Tracy wrote a second story and pitched it to Woman’s Weekly but as is often the case, writing success doesn’t follow a linear pattern. Tracy’s new story was rejected but the letter included an invitation to submit further work. Being inexperienced she didn’t interpret this to be the very near miss that it was and fell into the common but mistaken assumption that her story was without merit.

Tracy talked a little about what it means to be successful. For her, that means defeating personal demons in the shape of self-doubt and freeing herself to be the best writer she can possibly become. Here, Tracy was keen to point out that we all must learn as she did – that a story’s rejection is not proof that it is no good – but rather it is probably just not a good fit for its chosen recipient. Tracy stressed the importance of judging the market and submitting work accordingly.

Tracy uses realistic goal-setting as a method for maintaining her writing focus. So take down that scrawled note from behind your fridge magnet that reads ‘To Do: Write a 100k word novel. Win the Man Booker Prize’ and swap it for one that is in Tracy’s words ‘an attainable stretch’. For example, her goals might be that she writes a story every week and pitches to 10 magazines; implicit in this is the need to be realistically ambitious. Only after Tracy, with her husband acting as benign task-master, decided that she would cast aside self-limiting doubts was she artistically free to forge her career as a serious short story writer. From then on she finally understood that life as a writer was not just the preserve of a higher species of human but one that was possible for her, too.

Tracy’s inspirational message was that a writer’s life could be had by those prepared to work at their craft, banish self-doubt and persevere when others might give up.