News! Unchained to be unleashed at library launch

We are thrilled to announce that preparations for the launch of Unchained have been finalised and even more delighted to reveal it will take place in the gorgeous surroundings of Bristol Reference Library. Less than two weeks to go and the excitement at BWW Towers is mounting!

Join us for the launch

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If anyone out there hasn’t heard the details, the launch event is part of the Bristol Festival of Literature (lots of other great stuff going on there) and will be at 7.30 on October 23rd. Every local writer or even reader we know should have had an invitation by now, but if you have somehow been missed, do leave a comment and we’ll get one to you.

Or download our Press Release (.pdf file 220KB approx)
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unchained coverOf course we hope the joy will not be confined to Bristol. This is  celebration of all libraries, everywhere and other things besides. If you can’t join us on the night, the book is in bookshops now and available to order online. Don’t forget the proceeds are going to a great cause, the National Literacy Trust.

There’s still a lot to do before the Big Day, but now we have the book in our hot little hands.  Worth a small celebration!

Bristol Women Writers

By the way, this post will be stuck fast to the top of this page for the time being – but don’t forget to have a look at the new posts which will still be coming up underneath.

Children and writing don’t mix – or do they?

Jenni O'ConnorJenni O’Connor, novelist, haiku poet, journalist and copywriter,  is also mother to Zoe, aged four. Here she muses on the unlikely fusion between writing and parenting.

“Children and writing don’t mix.” So said one famous male writer, whose name escapes me, presumably as he hastened to the haven of his oak-panelled study, slamming the door to shut out the sound of a wailing baby.

I was musing on this truism today, as I juggled a lorry load of commercial writing commitments with a two-hour long school day – my daughter has just started school and is in the midst of an extended settling in period. Having picked her up, fed her and admired a motley collection of leaf paintings and drawings, and reassured her that it really is OK not to have been able to recognise all the numbers from one to twenty in her second week at school, I then fired up the laptop and CBeebies simultaneously, so I could finish a press release while she enjoyed a bit of time out.

Oh, the guilt! Looking at it that way, children and writing really don’t mix. There’s never the head space, even if there are – on occasion – periods of twenty minutes or more when it might, just might, be possible to pen anything more profound than a shopping list. If only I weren’t so tired.

“How did you write a novel with a baby?” I’m often asked. The truth is, I didn’t. I wrote it before she came along, having very sensibly negotiated a four-day week with my very understanding employer. (I’ve never been a pre-dawn writer, nor a midnight-to-two-am one).

But, around naps and short periods at nursery, and Thursday mornings with gran-gran, I did manage to edit it, and eventually (in 2012), Reach for a Different Sun was nominated a quarterfinalist in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award. When it came to the Unchained anthology, I’m embarrassed to admit that my story was the only one to show up at the first editorial workshop as a first draft stream of consciousness, and it was only with the many thoughtful, insightful and diligent insights from my ‘writing buddy’ that I managed to knock it into any kind of shape.

And yet, and yet. When Zoe was one, and I was just about able to step back and reflect on the wonder and madness of becoming a parent, I wrote a collection of haikus, exploring the journey into motherhood, the marvels and miracles of a baby’s first milestones, and the evolving relationship between parent and child. Perhaps this shortest of short forms, along with flash fiction, is best suited to new (and new-ish) parenthood, given as it is  to capturing and distilling the essence of a given moment in time.

But the greatest gift which parenthood can bring a writer, to my view, is the opportunity to see the world through a child’s eye once more. The chance to regain the awe and wonder in simple things, to stop running just to stay still (in theory, if the laundry, washing up and ironing are ever done), and smile. Children smile, on average, 400 times a day – but by the time they reach adulthood, this is generally reduced to just 20.

So even if it seems impossible; even if there isn’t, in this moment, the time to connect the creative neurons and put fingers to keyboard, I’d urge all writers who are also parents of young children to do this: stop, breathe and observe. Your child or children will bring you untold insights, truths and delights – just by existing. If you’re so inclined, you can jot them down and save them for the day when you finally have more time. And even if they don’t refresh your writing mojo, these moments have the capacity to enrich your life, as long as you’re prepared to stop and listen.

Reach for a Different SunJenni’s first novel, Reach for a Different Sun, is available on Amazon. Her company, Kaiku Communications, specialises in copywriting for print and web. She is currently planning her second novel – though she realises this may take some time!

Women as the authors – and subjects – of crime fiction

Jane Jones

From our very own crime-writer Jane Jones

The fascination with what frightens us starts young. When I was a little girl, my grandmother found some pictures I’d drawn which did not call forth the usual fond praise. The images showed a black-hatted figure cutting up naked children with a knife and fork. She was so appalled that she immediately consulted my parents! Was I psychologically disturbed? No more so than any other child after their first reading of ‘Hansel and Gretel’.

At thirteen, I discovered murder mysteries. Previously, the death of a fictional character had tended to upset me: Beth March in ‘Good Wives’, Helen Burns in ‘Jane Eyre’, Bambi’s mother …But when Agatha Christie killed off a character, I felt no distress whatsoever. It simply came with the territory. A particularly gruesome murder might elicit a frisson, but all that really mattered to me was unravelling the mystery, safe in the knowledge that justice would always be done by the final chapter. The novels, despite their subject matter, were not the stuff of nightmares.

I once heard P.D. James suggest that women were attracted to crime fiction because it offers a sense of control over the violence we so greatly fear. She may well be right. I’m not so sure about claims by others that all girls grow up knowing that to be female is synonymous with being prey, although plenty of recent crime novels and drama series have done their best to create that impression. Yes, a tough woman investigator figure might well be included, but this nod to equality doesn’t stop the corpses being preponderantly female, frequently unclothed, and all too often sexually brutalised in ways which are made horribly explicit. It truly is the stuff of nightmares. I’m grateful I didn’t encounter anything like it when I was thirteen; I only wish I didn’t encounter it with such regularity now. Certainly, nothing could ever persuade me to write about it myself.

In Agatha Christie’s world, at least, to be female is not a problem. Women are never killed just for being women. They are killed for the same reasons men are killed: because they are obstacles to the murderer’s pursuit of power, status, property, revenge, security, love or some other highly desirable goal. A woman is not automatically weak, or helpless, or a victim; she is actually quite as capable of committing murder as a man, and often does. She can catch murderers too: Miss Marple’s success rate equals Hercule Poirot’s, and unlike him she is not an oddball loner. Christie consistently presents her as being very much at the heart of her local community.

Body in the Library coverI recently re-read ‘The Body in the Library’ as research for my short story in ‘Unchained’, and was struck by the dominance of the female characters. It goes without saying that Miss Marple outperforms the entire male police force, but where would Colonel Bantry be without his perspicacious wife? The ingenious murders are devised by a bright young woman of humble background whose dashing, handsome, socially superior male partner does whatever she tells him. Even the female corpses turn out to have been active, resourceful human beings before their deaths. No wonder, as a teenaged girl, I enjoyed the novel so much.

Agatha Christie is often dismissed today as ‘cosy’ and ‘unrealistic’, although this may be partly due to the heavy-handed characterisation and overdone period settings that have marked the TV adaptations of her work; I’d love to see a more subtle production team get their hands on it. And just how realistic are all those psychopathic-serial-killer stories, anyway? Not very, I’d argue.

But maybe that’s only because I find them far too scary. Rather like ‘Hansel and Gretel’.

Short stories (1) – learning to love them

Nina MiltonToday novelist and short story writer Nina Milton gives us the first in a series of posts on the fictional form that is the backbone of the Unchained anthology. 

“During the hour of perusal the soul of the reader is at the writer’s control.”

Edgar Allan Poe, writing in the 1830’s in his usual, Gothic style, had possibly given us our first definition of a short story. That is, something that can be ‘read at one sitting’.  For me, Poe’s definition is spot on; short stories can demonstrate how diverse, funny, sad, illogical, cruel, rapturous, shocking and mysterious the human experience can be A short story can really ‘hold onto your soul’, as a deeply affecting reading memory. Or, as Alex Keegan says in Short Circuit (Salt Publishing)  a short story is “saying something, one thing about the world.”

Sadly, though, I sometimes wonder if anybody bothers to read short stories– in anthology, collection or even magazines. I imagine them as the poor step-sister of fiction, sitting alone in the ashes while the big ugly sisters doll themselves up for the Booker or Costa Balls. But occasionally, my heart lifts; I’m riding a train or waiting for a dental appointment and spot a someone with a Granta open on their lap, or enrapt in the Women’s Weekly romances.

Even so, on this side of the Atlantic, short stories are becoming increasingly rare in magazines, and collections only interest a tiny section of the book-buying public. The publications that specialize in new short fiction are read mostly by the wannabe writers themselves. There is often no section for short stories in libraries, and in the large Waterstones in the centre of Bristol they are housed on a floor-level shelf in a forgotten corner at the end of the wall lined with novels.

You have to wonder why. Surely the short story is the most convenient variety of fiction for this century, easily transported, quickly read – it can fill a single train journey or the wait for your dental check up. Sadly, it is hoisted on its own petard; a good short story ends all too quickly, a bad one is easily thrown aside – no chance of reading on just to see if it gets better in a few chapters – and by its very nature tends not to fulfill that longing to become intimate with a set of characters or solve the puzzle of a longer plot.

In the US, however, the short story is still loved. Jhumpa Lahiri, whose novel The Lowland is short-listed for the Mann-Booker this year, rose to fame in the US by winning the 2000 Pulizter Prize with her debut short story collection, Interpreter of Maladies.

Take a tip from me; reading a short story twice is the best way to get hooked on them. I’ve had to do that a lot lately, as I’ve been writing one third of a new course for the Open College of the Arts – Writing Short Fiction. I returned to my previously loved short stories and analysed them carefully and was stunned by what was hidden in their depths that I’d missed on first reading. It was like that search for the watch you’ve lost…the gold one that your Gran left you… and finding it the bottom of a deep drawer you’d already rifled through.

Lahiri’s stories are a good example. The Third and Final Continent, from that collection is told in the first person. It starts… “I left India in 1964 with a certificate in commerce and the equivalent, in those days, of ten dollars to my name…” The narrator is an elderly man, looking back at his earlier life. It charts events set over several months, in which takes up his first job, marries by arrangement in India, then stays in digs while awaiting the arrival of his wife to the US, where they begin life without consummating their relationship for some weeks. However, despite this extended time line, Lahiri achieves a tight focus by relating the story via specific scenes and charismatic secondary characters and by using a universal theme (the strangeness of new places), a single symbol (the first lunar landing), and a prominent leitmotif (the word splendid!) At the end of the story, the protagonist reaches an ‘epiphany’; that is, he realizes something about his new wife…and his philosophy of life…which he had not before:

Mala rose to her feet, adjusting the end of her sari over her head and holding it to her chest, and, for the first time since her arrival, I felt sympathy. I remembered my first days  in London, learning how to take the Tube to Russell Square, riding an escalator for the first time, being unable to understand that, when the man cried “piper” it meant “paper,” being unable to decipher, for a whole year, that the conductor said “mind the gap” as the train pulled out of each station. Like me, Mala had traveled far from home, not knowing where she was going, or what she would find, for no reason other than to be my wife. As strange as it seemed, I knew in my heart that one day her death would affect me, and stranger still, that mine would affect her…..”

What cheered me further were Lahiri’s own words about the construction of this story – where she ‘got her ideas from’, in other words. She used brief memories her father had given her of his own first days in America: “What inspired me to write the story was the juxtaposition of the moon landing, a spectacular landmark in history, and the story of an immigrant’s arrival to a new country. I don’t think I could have written it any other way.” (Gotham Writers’ Workshop Fiction Gallery, Bloomsbury 2004.) In other words, she’d taken the tiny seed of a family recollection, and allowed it to grow and blossom.

So, my recommendation for this day is; read a short story. Pick any one that takes your fancy, and read it. Then put it away and see if you can find out something about the writer, better still their own thoughts about their writing. Thanks to Google, that’s never too difficult nowadays. Finally; read your short story again. Observe how, in the time it takes to reach your station, (or, mercy on us, be called into the dentist’s surgery), it can tug at you, make you re-evaluate things –  how the writer ‘controls your soul’ with with their brief words.

In the MoorsNina’s latest novel and the first in the Shaman Mystery Series is out now from Midnight Ink.

The long and winding writing road

Gail Swann“We have helped each other deal with rejections and criticism; changes of tense, point of view, direction, and the odd agent … Creative blocks have been dislodged, self-doubt dissolved, technology mastered.”

Gail Swann reminds us of our writing group’s history – and some of her own.

‘How long has your writing group been going?’ is a question I am sometimes asked. The answer tends to bring a tinge of pink to my cheeks. Twenty, um, something years. Maybe twenty five…?

The truth is I am astounded that we’ve kept it alive and well, not just across several decades, but through the epoch-making transition from pen strokes to pixels, to this age where a score of internet hits eclipses the euphoria of rattling out a good word count.

It all began in the preceding century.  I was new to Bristol, afflicted with a burning compulsion to write, and knew no other writers at all in the area. With no handy social networking at my fingertips, the closest I got to feeling part of a writing community was to read Writers Monthly avidly.  But that grown-up writing world seemed way beyond me, until one day I spotted an ad for a new women’s writing group in Bristol. It took a lot of nerve for awkward little me to pitch up at that house in Redland one Thursday evening. I don’t think I said a single word to anyone. The room was crammed with women of all ages, talking animatedly about writing matters. Clearly the ‘call for women writers’ had garnered an enthusiastic response.

Why women? I never really knew and I was too shy to ask! But I went back to a second meeting. I don’t know what propelled me as I felt so utterly out of my depth, but it was meant to be, clearly. The second meeting, in Montpelier, was much less well attended than the first. Perhaps I wasn’t the only writer who felt at sea. Maybe I even managed to say something. Like my name. My contribution (a poem aptly named Fate) remained securely inside my bag, even then. But what did happen was, that I met Nina Milton.

In the Moors
Nina’s book out now

Nina’s friendliness and encouragement has been enduring. We both continued to attend and take our turn hosting those Thursday evening meetings. Members of all writing-shapes-and-sizes came and went over the years, including the two women who had placed the ad and brought the group into being. Sheila and Suzanne moved away from the area but  they would certainly be amazed at the longevity and achievement of the group.

I have always loved the diversity of the group’s membership. For me, this has been much more than just a writers’ group. BWW, if we think of it as an entity, has seen babies born, and children grow up. It has seen degrees acquired, careers re-imagined, retirement celebrated, and not least, a swing towards cakes rather than biscuits at meetings. We have helped each other deal with rejections and criticism; changes of tense, point of view, direction, and the odd agent. Raison d’être has been re-installed in the wake of writing-crisis episodes, creative blocks vigorously dislodged, self-doubt dissolved, technology mastered.

typewriter

Writers Unchained is the perfect way to describe the collective I’ve been a part of for these past – and I say it unashamedly – twenty five years or more. Being ‘in it together’ has allowed us, over time, to shake ourselves free from the various constraints we all encounter on the long and winding writing road.

The allure of research – and a plagiarist uncovered

Nicola Bennetts

‘What beats me is how a domestic dinosaur has become a chic badge of prosperity.’

Nicola’s recent article in the FT questioned the benefits of cooking on an Aga. For her biography she has left the present day and is delving back into the eighteenth century. Here are some of her recent experiences of research.

Until I began writing a biography I had no idea how many libraries I needed to join.  I now have a collection of plastic cards all, save one, with deeply unflattering photographs.  The lady at the National Archives in Kew told me I was allowed to laugh and snapped me at the right moment so that one’s OK.

Not that the photograph is the important bit.  Oh the libraries!  The Wellcome Library in the Euston Road must be the most silent place in London; you cannot help but concentrate in such a studious atmosphere.  And the Rare Books Room at the British Library is pretty good for head-down serious reading because that’s what everyone else is doing.  The National Archives, as well as taking the best plastic card photographs, must have the cleanest lavatories and washrooms in the whole of the U.K. (with warnings about not using hand cream).  That’s because of the documents you’re going to handle – ancient manuscripts whose pages you may be the first to turn for a hundred years or more.

Research, I was warned, can become obsessive – an end in itself.   Yep, every day I discover fascinating bits of information not strictly relevant to my subject but which, surely, I can weave into the narrative.   I wonder, for example, how many people are aware that Alfred Lord Tennyson, our Poet Laureate for nearly fifty years, was not the first choice for the post in 1850.  When Wordsworth died the Laureateship was offered to Samuel Rogers – he declined. 

Samuel Rogers
Samuel Rogers

Poor Samuel Rogers, he would love to have accepted the honour but felt that, at eighty-seven, he was too old and frail.   Not many people read his poetry these days though there’s one much-quoted line (well, half-line) for which he never gets the credit. 

Do you recognise: ‘A rose-red city – half as old as time’?  It describes Petra and was written by one, John William Burgon, in 1845.  But he filched it;  it’s blatant plagiarism.  Seven years earlier Samuel Rogers had used ‘half as old as time’ to describe Italian temples. 

He deserves more than a salute in a blog post but I just can’t find a way to give him more than a walk-on part in my current biography.  Perhaps the next one . . .

Women and Libraries – Unchained

Jean Burnett

Today’s post is by Jean Burnett. As well as writing historical novels, Jean has a penchant for the gothic. Her short story for Unchained is  ‘The Judge’s Chair’  which  takes place in the famous Bristol Room of the Central Library.

Thought for the day – “A clever woman is like a long tailed sheep. She’ll fetch no better price for that.” (The Mill on the Floss)

Women have had a fraught relationship with libraries through the ages. Traditionally, they had no relationship at all because they were usually illiterate or semi-literate. A few examples of learned women occurred in the ancient world and during the Renaissance, and those women usually ended badly. Elizabeth the First  was famously well-schooled, but a queen was an exception.

In general, popular belief echoed the words of a Louisa M. Alcott character, “She has read too many books and it has turned her brain.” In Victorian times it was seriously believed that too much book learning affected a woman’s fertility.

By the 19th century, middle and upper class women had access to the new subscription libraries where they devoured three volume novels and the Gothic tales of Mrs Radcliffe. The serious stuff was still out of reach. As late as the 1920s Virginia Woolf complained that she had been refused admission to the Bodleian library in Oxford because she was not a member of the university. (Women were not fully admitted until 1974).

Many years ago I joined the intimidating London Library where I reached for the same volume as the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey. He stared down at me from his great height in astonishment at my temerity. I dropped the book and scurried to the reading room where I found I was sitting at the same table as three famous (male) writers. Thoroughly demoralised, I fled the building, never to return.

The New Birmingham Library
The New Birmingham Library

Happily, no such problems occur in the nurturing aisles of Bristol’s libraries.

Later this month, a sixteen year old girl, shot for going to school in her own country, will formally open Birmingham’s amazing new central library.

Women and libraries – unchained.

WhoNeedsMrDarcy[1]

 

Who Needs Mr Darcy, Jean’s picaresque novel following the exploits of Lydia, the bad Miss Bennet, was published in 2012 by Little Brown.

Photo credit: The new Birmingham Library by Brian Clift on Flickr

Writing groups – who needs them?

Our first blog post is from poet and novelist  Shirley Wright. As Shirley says, ‘It’s all about the words.’

Cautiously I placed a hand either side of the skull, reaching along the threads of memory. Dry beneath my touch, it began to pulse and murmur.
But the words had no meaning. They spoke a language of lost time,
singing of dreams beyond imagination…”
Shirley Wright, ‘How Old Dreams Are Read’, Unchained, Tangent Books 2013

Shirley WrightWhen I left teaching after more than thirty years, I knew that writing was what I wanted to do next, though I had absolutely no idea how or where to begin. But as a teacher, I had no doubts about the best route to follow, because I do believe in collaborative learning. I believe almost anyone can be taught, guided or encouraged towards almost anything if they want it badly enough. So I signed up for evening classes at my local uni, which led to my being recommended day- or week-long courses all over the country. As a result I met lots more enthusiastic individuals who pointed me towards writing groups of various kinds, and to competitions, magazines and events where I could submit my work. Yes, there were huge numbers of rejections and failures, but eventually a few tiny successes came along, then a few bigger ones. The end result? A first novel published last year and now a  poetry collection on its way.

For us scribblers, there’s been an explosion of writing groups, evening classes and weekend workshops in recent years. Certain members of the literati still look down their noses at such things, asserting in their rather snooty way that writers are ‘born’ and can’t be taught, though I suspect Ian McEwan might disagree. He got an MA in Creative Writing from UEA on a course founded by writing luminaries Malcolm Bradbury and Angus Wilson. Clearly, not everyone scoffs.

I’m a great believer in help, as well as self-help. I’m not an ivory-tower writer who battles away in splendid isolation, never daring to breathe a word about my current WIP for fear the muse might desert me or the idea waft onto the ether to be grabbed by someone else who’ll do it better. And ‘help’ isn’t exactly what I mean either. It’s more about interacting with like-minded people who offer suggestions and criticism (yes, that is actually a good word, not a scary or a negative one), provide a sounding-board to bounce ideas off, bring enthusiasm, a different perspective, reassurance when needed, a kick up the backside (ditto) and excellent coffee and cakes. Creative geniuses like Leonardo and Mozart probably were born that way – the rest of us have to work at it and can benefit hugely from support.

I’m quite certain I wouldn’t have achieved any of what I have done so far without the various groups I’ve joined and the amazing individuals I’ve  met who were willing to share with me their passion for words. I’m never going to be famous or make a fortune; but I’ve achieved what I set out to achieve nine years ago, I’ve learnt huge amounts along the way and I’ve formed inspirational new friendships. Like most things, it’s horses for courses, and you need to experiment a bit, dip in and out until you find what suits. But I promise you, writing groups do work.

Who needs them? We do!

lastgreenfieldShirley’s first poetry collection The Last Green Field  is published this autumn by Indigo Dreams .

Time out of Mind

Her Cornish mystery novel, Time Out of Mind is available in paperback and e-book from Amazon,