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Wednesday, April 23, 2014

A taste of honey in Provence

Smoking the last of the bees out the old hive

First you buy a plot of land in Provence, complete with an old beehive. Then you go on a beekeeping course, where you meet people whose idea of fun is turning up at an emergency swarm alert. Like fishermen and hunters, they tell you horror stories to check whether your testosterone level is high enough to pass the test. So I've heard about the man who suddenly became allergic after twenty years - died. And the man who tried to speak after swallowing a bee - the swelling closed his respiratory channels. Died. And don't ever ever go in with the bees during a storm - they are 'mechant'. Despite all this, I have now enjoyed 4 days of hands-on beekeeping lessons. Gloved hands-on, as far as I'm concerned.

The same experts who swop these stories, handle bees without gloves and leave their face masks down, while we debutantes naively - and cheerfully - avoid getting stung. My beemaster - we'll call him OBee (because I feel like I'm being taught how to use the force) told me, 'No-one ever forgets the first time he (or she) goes in with the bees...'
bees, honey and brood on old frame

My first time was on a windy day, when an old hand said she wasn't touching the bees in that weather. It wasn't so much that my testosterone levels were up as that I didn't want another fortnight 'looking forward' to it. I had no idea how I would react mentally, although physically I'm not allergic (in theory - there are always the horror stories...) We were doing the spring check so I took my turn to lift up each frame in turn, check for the brood cells, honey and pollen. Later I would learn to distinguish between the cells; workers, drone and queen (sign of swarm preparation); young and old.

Advice I wish I'd been given before going in with the bees? Wipe your nose - it will run, the minute you're trapped in a bee jacket and mask. Tie your hair back. Your hair gets in your eyes, your glasses slip down your nose and prodding at your face through the mesh is likely to draw blood or squash a bee against your skin. The funniest thing I've seen is someone answering a mobile phone through a bee outfit.

The bees were in a filthy mood from the wind and when I was holding a frame, one stung me through my glove - welcome to beekeeping. I was too interested to be scared and if I focused on the activities round me rather than individual bees flying by my face, I could just ignore the angry dive-bombing and tapping at my mask. Until my instinct told me that a bee was inside my mask, not outside . 'Paranoia,' I thought. 'Fact,' my more sensible perception told me. 'Yikes,' I thought, as I focused on said bee hitching a ride on the inside of my face mask. I walked a long long way from the angry hives and luckily my pet bee was calmer than I felt and flew off when I took off the jacket and released her. Then I did a real 'Yikes' dance. And another one when I was given the advice on not opening your mouth when a bee can go into it. So that's what could have happened, I tried not to think.

Another piece of advice that came too late for one of my classmates was to check very carefully for unwanted company when you remove your protective clothing. It's a bit like climbers falling off a mountain on the way down; beekeepers get stung when they've finished working. Your guard is down, you're a long way from the hives and you don't notice the one bee sitting on your shoulder/head/glove. They're attracted by the lovely smells you've acquired while raiding their hive and they travel with you a long way. When OBee turned up at my house in his battered 2CV, I noted the one obligatory bee in the back of his car - like taking your dog out with you.

I came off lightly from that first session compared with the lively 9 year old who'd insisted on accompanying his father, didn't sit far enough way from the action and was stung several times on his bare head. Health and safety is different in Provence. Sheltering in a car after that, the little boy was sharp-eyed at spotting bees still clinging to clothes, but as he screamed 'Kill it!' every time he saw one, I feel that the lesson was counter-productive for his future as a conservationist.

Since then, I've made progress with my own bees and will give you all the gen on that, next blog post. I also bought the full spacesuit outfit, after my moment with interior bee. My face could be improved, but that is not how.

Here's a visual preview of our work with my bees. I love saying MY bees.

Readers of 'How Blue is my Valley' will remember the old beehive on the hillside, here in Provence.Since I wrote about it, we scraped together enough cash to buy the orchard, complete with truffle oaks and bees, but lacking truffles (or we could never have afforded it)

Jean's old beehive in winter

amazon com link

From Ch 15 'How Blue is my Valley' amazon No 1 bestseller on Provence

oversexed foreign bees

There are now dozens of bee orchids and I am disappointed with modern British sex education which tells you how to roll a condom onto a plastic penis, and nothing whatsoever about the birds, bees and flowers. This means that I don’t know if what I read is true, and whether Mediterranean bees will try to mate with bee orchids whereas British bees will not. You can imagine it, can’t you, the British bee bumbling along, zinging to itself as it checks out a sexy fake-bee-on-a-flower; ‘Sex toy huh? We Brits don’t do that sort of thing’ and onward it? he? she? flies. Whereas your Mediterranean bee now, high on sun and flowers, enjoys what’s on offer and doesn’t look too closely.  Do you have a better theory?

Despite frequent dog-walks among the bee orchids, we don’t see one amorous Mediterranean bee; instead we see approximately twenty thousand in their annual reproductive ritual. I scramble down from the woods, attached to a Pyrenean, and spot a shimmering black cloud hanging from a branch a dozen yards away. It is shaped like a rugby ball but bigger, about two feet, and it is not far from the old beehives. I know that at least two of these are active and I suddenly register what I am seeing. It is strange how you can suddenly perceive more detail once you have identified what it is that you are looking at and I now see individual bees around the edges of the dense community ball. Dogs in tow, we take no risks, but head off in the opposite direction. It is only later that I want to go back to investigate.

Although I explain to him that bees are at their most docile in a swarm, gorged on honey and contented in the company of their old queen, John disappoints me by refusing to dress up in the antique beekeeping outfit (still in the garage). I was hoping to get one of those photos, ‘Man with bee-beard’ but I suspect I would have been lucky to snap ‘Man running away very fast.’ By the time we go back without dogs and with camera, the swarm has moved on, so presumably the scouts returned and gave the all clear to move into the new home. In the old hive, the new-born virgin queens are fighting to the death until the sole survivor can get on with the job – breeding.

amazon uk link 

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

What do you write about anyway?

Fellow writer Joan Fallon asked me to write about ... how I write. I checked out her blog and found a really interesting interview with a writer I thought I knew, J.G.Harlond. I say 'thought I knew' because the interview revealed aspects of Jane and her work that are new to me. So these are some of the blog posts that will have to wait, while I keep my promise to Joan Fallon; I'm not (yet) blogging about

- my new adopted dog, Sherlock, a 'lost' hunting dog who spent 8 months in a shelter. My plumber (a passionate 'chasseur' himself) agreed with me that odds-on Sherlock is crap at hunting and was dumped in August as a clean-out before the new hunting season. In honour of Lou, we adopted a dog no-one else would want (according to the shelter workers).

- or my beekeeping course. Some readers of 'How Blue is my Valley' have been asking me what's new here in Dieulefit, since I wrote the autobiography about our first year living in France. Answer; we did manage to buy the orchard complete with an occupied bee-hive. I've now had three all-day hands-on lessons in beekeeping so I can look after them. I wish someone had told me that the moment you put on a beekeeping suit your nose runs, your hair falls in your eyes, and if you focus on the bees all round you to find one inside your mesh visor, you have to hope that she is calmer than you are. (And of course it is 'she' because all the workers are female). I got away with it that time but went right out and bought the full astronaut suit.

Antique Provencal beekeeping veils

For those readers who want to know more about my life in Dieulefit, the May issue of the magazine Living France printed an amazing 5 page feature, using my photos. It is always a little scary to read about yourself and learn something new (like 'what not to say in interview'!) but the journalist, Stephanie Sheldrake, was very kind to me and I didn't once think of Rita Skeeter...

This is the start...

Among the questions not asked in Living France are the three Joan wanted me to answer, so here goes.

What am I working on?
I've paused in writing the third 'Troubadours' novel (after 20,000 words, which is about a fifth of one of my medieval novels) because I was asked by Jean-Daniel Belfond of Archipel Press to translate 'The Last Love of Edith Piaf' by Christie Laume, from French to English. If something exciting comes my way, I say 'Yes!' and this is the true story of the relationship between a star at the height of her fame and a talented, beautiful man twenty years her junior, told by his sister. Forget the stereotypes about toyboys. I will certainly be saying more about this book on my blog!

The Last Love of Edith Piaf
How does my work differ from others of its genre?
I won't bore you with mentioning each of my works! If I just take my medieval novels, they are drawn from research in the original French and Occitan, as well as English, so I think the European historical background is unusual and, I hope, accurate, although I also hope it's the story that hooks readers.

How does your writing process work?
I'm a morning writer and a 3am thinker. I write for two or three hours at a stretch, using a laptop, and often outdoors. I always stop at a point where I know what comes next and - touch wood - never get writer's block. I do 'play' my novel in my head at 3am when I can't sleep and I watch what the characters are doing, hear what they're saying, sometimes from future scenes, sometimes revisiting ones already written that have something wrong or missing. I sometimes think that writing is a form of licensed schizophrenia. 'I hear voices'.

Translating, which I enjoy very much, is very different from writing and I can pick up the thread and translate for half an hour at any time of day.

Three blogs you'd recommend?

Check out 

the entertaining blog of a writer with an interesting background

Paul Trembling

I began making up stories before I could write, and that became a habit that I never got out of.  Over the years I’ve gained weight, lost hair, been a seaman, a stores man, a petrol pump attendant, a janitor, a missionary, and an Admin. Assistant.  Now I’m a CSI, a husband, a father, and a dog owner  - but I am still, and always have been, a story teller!

a funny blog by a writer of zany comic fantasy

M.T. McGuire

humorous fantasy author. The books are quite funny too. MTM is 44 years old but still checks inside unfamiliar wardrobes for a gateway to Narnia. None yet. Boring huh?

and then someone who represents all those writers who blog about what they love, for readers who share that love; bloggers who write so well, whether they see themselves as writers or not. Sometimes we 'writers' are in danger of writing only about writing... instead of writing about bees, dogs, French singers or... Yorkshire, with beautiful photographs taken by blogger

Paula Connelly in Nothing but Footprints

The aim of my blog is to share all the things I enjoy as I walk round the British countryside, including scenery, photography, history and nature. This includes reviews of gear bought by myself and my husband, and places we visit, along with different articles on all kinds of walking related topics. As the old saying goes, I'll take nothing but photos and leave nothing but footprints.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Game of Thrones - Richard III and the princes in the Tower

Today being the Ides of March - the 15th - (in UK time), it seems fitting to have a Guest Post about one of the oldest, most famous, most vile (alleged) murders in English history.

Guest post from Moonyeen Blakey, author of 'The Assassin's Wife', medieval fiction with a supernatural twist. The story of Nan, a servant girl gifted with second sight, draws the reader into one of history's most famous unsolved crimes through Nan's relationships with those in the household of Richard, Duke of Gloucester, later King Richard III

Love him? Hate him? Richard III still inspires extreme reactions and the controversy over where his final resting place should be rages on. Moon joins me on my blog to give her insights, based on years of research, into the dark crime which labelled Richard a villain, helped along by Shakespeare's 'propaganda'.


Dirty, Devilish Deeds in the Tower

Last year's discovery of Richard III's bones under a carpark in Leicester, raised more than new interest in the history of this much maligned king. It stirred the spectres of two, lost, little, noble boys said to haunt the Garden Tower. Who were these waifs in black velvet, doomed to cling hand-clasped and forlorn, confronting us perpetually with their abject misery?  Who could have abandoned them to such a fate?

Those primary school-children who studied history during the 1960s might have had some inkling. According to a 'potted' Children's History Book Series published by Unstead and used throughout schools for 7-11 years in England, these small boys belonged to the Royal House of York. They were in fact the sons of Edward IV, the dashing Yorkist king who took the crown from poor, mad Henry VI of the Royal House of Lancaster. Again, according to Unstead, whole swathes of history could be reduced to just a few relevant sentences summing up the entire later 15th century history of England to something like: 'The rival barons fought for the crown and the strongest set himself up as king.' (Sorry, girls, only manipulative, scheming princesses/noblewomen stood any chance of influencing the menfolk - and then probably by using the usual methods!)

It seemed the peasant population drifted along in some thick miasma of ignorance merely 'obeying orders' and benefiting nothing from the various changes on either side. Kings came and went, princesses were bought and sold, nobles swapped sides and embraced underhand deals, and Richard Neville, the wily Earl of Warwick, manoeuvred all the pieces, like a giant puppet-master, in this fascinating Game of Thrones.

Richard III's bones provided historians with a wealth of exciting information. First he suffered from scoliosis--a painful disease of the spine. Here was meat and drink for all who'd believed the tales of the wicked, hunch-backed uncle who'd crept up the Tower steps to murder the innocent children in the dark! My not-so-scholarly school book displayed just this picture - the twisted monarch leering villainously as he trod his solitary way towards the slumbering lads to snuff out their lives!

Of course the Richard III Society, championed by the passionate Phillipa Langley, refused to accept Richard's infamy. Presenting the public with a charming, romantic reconstruction of the king's head, they quickly won huge support. I suspect many who saw the Unstead History Book refused to believe such a man could have smothered his nephews single-handed. Certainly I was never convinced.

But those two boys - Edward, Prince of Wales, eldest son to Edward IV, and young Richard, Duke of York, his brother, disappeared mysteriously in1486. So what became of them?

The struggle for power is never pretty. Whilst 15th Century England's noble cousins battled for the throne, desperate to provide the country with the strongest ruler, to maintain England's powerful position in Europe, and ensure the longevity of the ruling family, various wicked deeds were performed 'for the best'. Doubtless the princes' murder was such a one.

Henry VI's reign demonstrated the disaster of having a minor on the throne. No one wanted a similiar situation. A united family created strength and security. Noble girls proved useful assets in cementing firm alliances. Eventually everyone might be expected to accept what seemed most expedient for such dangerous times. In this case, to exclude the young princes and plump for loyalty, strength and experience. The logical choice had to be Richard III.

Is it possible that people should desert the princes' cause so quickly? No doubt the commons recalled Edward IV --that handsome, courageous, warrior-king who'd sired them, with admiration and nostalgia. But the people were sick and tired of war. His memory faded into a kind of Mills and Boon Romance--a gorgeous image which had been beautifully created and accentuated by the rumours of his secret marriages and dangerous liaisons. But who wanted to begin on another era of warfare and intrigue? Edward's wife, the fabled beauty Elizabeth Wydeville, was never popular. She had proved greedy and ambitious, promoting her own family beyond the old nobility. People feared she would take the real power behind the throne once her son was crowned. Perhaps it was time to make some drastic changes?

People will see what they want to see. Avoiding close examination of the facts allows one to create a kind of vague, rosy glow over the past. Perhaps it was time to let the princes go...? Perhaps the trail of secrets concerning their disappearance should not be unravelled after all? 

Of course many people stood to profit by their removal. Historians argue still as to who might have plotted and schemed for their demise. The first name which springs to mind is probably Henry Tudor, product of Margaret Beaufort's cold, religious fanaticism, the boy on whom she lavished all her` attention, Determined he should be king, Margaret, clever as a snake, wound her coils about all those noble persons who might aid her to fulfill this ambition--an ambition she believed to be a part of his destiny.

And what about Harry Buckingham? Disgruntled member of the old nobility,forced into an arranged marriage with a dreaded Wydeville princess, old friend of Richard III, why did he suddenly turn rebel?

There are so many possibilities when it comes to choosing villains!

But perhaps it was just sheer exhaustion which made the people of England turn their backs on the princes? We all love a change. The new order beckoned. If only the country could forget about fighting and get back on its feet again... A change is as good as a rest?

Sadly, for the boys in the Tower, they were soon forgotten - but not quite. Throughout the turbulent years that followed still people sought for answers. Finding bones under an old staircase sparked yet more curiosity... But DNA testing was still necessary to identify these bones.

Now, with all this knowledge at their fingertips, and the bones of King Richard III in their capable hands, all the scientists need is the Queen's permssion to re-examine those mysterious finds. Why then, is she so reluctant to allow this???!     

Buy 'The Assssin's Wife' on 

The Book Depository

 B & N

My review

A gripping new take on the princes in the tower

Impeccable research and really takes you into the period

The central, fictional character, Nan, is our narrator, and a very likeable young girl. Gifted - or cursed - with second sight, she is caught up in the conflict between York and Lancaster, kings and their womenfolk, as a servant in various important households. I was impressed by the way Blakey ensured that Nan moved to wherever the story was best served, while making Nan's motives for such a move seem entirely believable. I knew little about this period of history apart from the controversy over the princes' fate but I was completely drawn into the 15th century world and its people, real and imagined. Empathy with Nan made me desperate to prevent the scene recurring in her nightmares and there was plenty of suspense to keep those pages turning. It was even possible to understand Nan's love and compassion for the assassin of the title, so well were the tragic dilemmas of the period conveyed.

Maybe there is a little too much ominous melodrama and obscure prophesy for my taste but this is just the sort of book to read curled up by the fire, on a winter's evening, shivering as the ghost blows out a candle, or the nightmare raven promises blood.

Monday, February 10, 2014

A Diamond for Valentine's Day

satin, lace and rose

A Diamond for Valentine’s Day

For Lauren

‘Bring me a present,’ said the princess in reply to his proposal of marriage, ‘and I will know what to answer you.’ Then she was gone in a swirl of ambiguous rainbows.

His love was deep as caves and high as clouds so the dream-master searched his night world for the right gift. He saw a multi-faceted diamond that would sparkle like her beauty; a sensuous, full-bodied wine that tasted of her lands from grape to oak-aged maturity; a poppy seed containing all life’s potential and fragility. Nothing said it all.

The possibilities grew beyond remembering and he knew he would lose her. He doubted himself. He doubted their relationship. If she was unsure, was it not already decided otherwise? What did she want?

And so he broke the laws of magic to spy on her where she lay and to raid her dreams. He was not in them, nor any man. She dreamed of what she could be, of what she could do, of where she could go to be her best self. He felt her fears and he understood.

On the due date, he stood before her, swathed in nebulae. ‘This is the present,’ he told her, opening empty hands to free the invisible bird and let her fly. ‘Always free,’ he promised her, a diamond glistening on his cheek.

‘Yes,’ she replied and kissed the diamond, another kind of promise.

1940s love letter

Friday, January 31, 2014

The dogs who walk beside us

Lou 2006-2014
This wasn't how the story was meant to go. It has been a tough month and Lou died peacefully in my arms on Monday at the vet's after an auto-immune disease had progressively weakened him. I know some of you have grown fond of P'tit Lou from meeting him in my blog and will miss him. You know the French high speed train, the TGV? Well, Lou was a CGV, a Chien a Grande Vitesse. He lived at 100kph, his tail and his heart beating at top speed as he made up for time lost in the animal shelter.

To further complicate my life, while Lou became worse, our Pyrenean Mountain Dog, Blanche, told me there was something seriously wrong so I rushed her to the vet's, jumped the queue and saw the twisted stomach on the X-ray. From the moment I read about this condition in the dog book I translated, I've dreaded it, but the emergency operation was a success and the patient recovered well.

Patient is not the right word for Blanche and she recovered too well for the vet's liking; she trashed everything in her cage and ripped out her stitches during the night after the operation. He called me the next morning asking me to come in and give her tablets, food and a short walk. So I rushed to the vet's again, armed with cooked chicken breast. It was hard to leave her there another day, for me as well as for the vet, who would have loved me to take her away, but that's when complications can kick in so she did her time. I was told, with professional pride, that the vet managed to give the next dose of tablets and she ate the chicken I left.

She's home now. It was a miracle that all of us reacted so quickly; Blanche, me, the vet. The operation took place before the pain had begun and the prognosis for a full recovery is excellent. The stomach has been attached to the abdominal lining so there shouldn't be any recurrence. Dilation is possible but a comparatively simple problem. I know many people in the dog world who've lost their dogs to a twisted stomach; it's how Blanche's father died. I'm the only person I know with a survivor. Usually a twisted stomach comes on fast and kills quickly.

So here I am with my 8 year old, being lucky, and crying over Lou. Blanche needs to be watched as she treats her Elizabethan collar with total disdain. It's up to the collar to adapt to her ways not vice versa, so if it gets smashed to pieces on the porch door (one collar down and two spares to go) that's hardly her fault. But we've reached Day 6 so we should make it now. And I have time to think about the friend we've lost.

If Lou had known there were only 8 months left for him I am sure that he would have chosen to spend those months exactly as he did. But he never looked where he was going; he ran full tilt at life and looked back to see we were keeping up. Several times I had to warn him and he'd swerve last minute to avoid smacking into a door or a post, like a cartoon character. I still have no idea  how he put a hole in his face but I was there when the emergency vet picked up a stapler and gunned Lou under the eye. Lou hardly flinched, unmuzzled, but when the vet said, 'That didn't go in straight. Hold him while I do it again,' I thought I'd pass out. The vet did it again. Straight. And Lou took it. Straight.

A friend's favourite Lou story is what she calls 'the curious incident of the hose in the daytime'. Two rubber snake-monsters attacked Lou in the outer garden and I witnessed Superdog defending himself single-pawed, biting their heads off and refusing to let go, despite the torrents of water drenching him. Unfortunately, I found out about a second such attack at the moment a mudbath with paws arrived in our living room and shook itself. John reckons Lou was a reincarnation of Riki-Tiki-Tavi.

Lou was a lesson in living well. He knew how to have fun. He won his Princess from polite beginnings to no-holds-barred play. He found it entertaining to take all the dog blankets off the veranda onto the lawn and he trained us to retrieve them. He thought he'd won if he had Blanche's blanket, even if his head was in her mouth at the time. And even when he was ill, especially when he was ill, she'd come in from guard duty and lie near him, facing him, so they could look at each other.

Lou, the Matador, with little white bull

That tickles


Time Out

When someone dies, our reaction is based so much on the human perception of time. A life is often perceived as 'cut short', a death is 'untimely' and 'unfair', all based on life 'expectancy', which is of course an average. Yet we all expect to reach average, even though we know this is statistically stupid. When we lose our dog, there is a clash between two different time-scales that worsens this sense of unfairness. With Lou, eight months as a proportion of my life is so small. 'Unfair' seems even more unfair with a rescue dog who 'deserves' compensation for the bad times. And if, like me, you go through this heartache with several dogs, you find it hard to accept that it is impersonal. The laws of probability mean a penny can come up heads 99 times and the odds of heads for the 100th time are still 50:50.

When we live with animals we must live with different time scales and it is hard to deal with all the deaths that must come our way when dogs walk beside us throughout our averagely long lives. There is not just a clash of scale but of world view. In his powerful and intelligent book 'The Philosopher and the Wolf', Mark Rowlands explores the experience of time for a wolf, as opposed to conventions of time for us humans, and shows what we can learn. I think he is right. My grief remains but I am already losing the sense of unfairness. If 'quality of life'  (lack of) is the touchstone for choosing euthanasia, then surely quality of life is equally the touchstone for living. Not some construct we call time. Not some linear notion. Lou was not chasing the future. He was running because it was wonderful to run. And for a while, we ran together. And it was so good.

Lou - how it began
Lou - Part 2
Lou - Part 3
Lou- part 4

It is in our lives and not, fundamentally, in our conscious experiences that we find the memories of those who are gone. Our consciousness is fickle and not worthy of the task of remembering. The most important way of remembering someone is by being the person they made us – at least in part – and living the life they have helped shape. Sometimes they are not worth remembering. In that case, our most important existential task is to expunge them from the narrative of our lives. But when they are worth remembering, then being someone they have helped fashion and living a life they have helped forge are not only how we remember them; they are how we honour them.

I will always remember my wolf brother.

Rowlands, Mark (2010-04-01). The Philosopher and the Wolf (p. 46). Granta. Kindle Edition.

Monday, January 6, 2014

What's in a name?

If it's a book title, the name is crucial! 

Choosing a book
What if Fifty Shades of Grey had been called Disempowered two-dimensional woman gets sexually abused by equally two-dimensional rich, sadistic man ? ** Disclaimer ** I haven't read Fifty Shades.. and am creating a phony title, based on random negative reviews of a bestseller, to make my point. Please don't sue. My point being that I think Fifty Shades of Grey is a great title. It is short, memorable, thought-provoking, rich in double meanings, metaphorical, indicates genre and is original (as far as I know).

A book title has two jobs; to attract readers and to accurately represent the content. It is married to the book jacket and if they're heading for a divorce, the reader will be put off spending time in their company. If Fifty Shades of Grey had a cover image of a happy two-parent family, with a cute dog, on the jacket, the potential reader would be confused, especially after reading the blurb (the small print in the implicit contract between writer and reader). If title and jacket do a brilliant job of attracting the reader but the book is then nothing like expected, the reaction will be disappointment and negative comments about the writer. You can't please everyone, or cater for all subjective reactions, but you can at least try to find the right readers for the book you've written, by using current 'first impression' conventions.

If you don't care whether readers enjoy your book, or come back to read another one by you, as long as they buy this one, none of these principles apply to you. Most of us writers, however, get our kicks from the readers who love our books - and that means finding readers, yes, but also finding a good match between readers and books.

Finding a title you're happy with is difficult and whether it's a 'good' title is for other people to judge. When I'm planning a book, I have a working title that might change many times before publication. I always look up my title on amazon to see whether it's been used already. If so, I think again, unless the title is out of print or in a niche that doesn't clash with my book. If there are similar titles, I consider their genres - if they are all in a very different genre to my book, I am on the wrong track for reader expectations.

I do test the title (and jacket) out on other people, and consider their feedback, but once the book is written, I work on gut instinct to recognize the title that fits. That's how it feels to me; not like creating a title but like finding it. I feel the same about naming dogs; you can come up with beautiful names in advance but when you actually see the living creature, you know he's called Spud, and that's just how it is.

Working as I do is terrible for advance marketing - how can you work up reader enthusiasm for a book with no title? As with many aspects of writing, there is a clash between what suits me as a writer and what is best marketing practice. If I'm not sure about the title, I would rather wait till I know it for sure than regret the choice forever. If I'd gone with the first working title,

Snake on Saturdays would have been Twisted Yarn. The heroine runs a hand-knit business and I liked the double meaning. One of my failings is to laugh at my own jokes but I now think Twisted Yarn is a truly awful title for a novel.

Someone to look up to would have been Sirius, after the main character, a dog. Not so bad as a title but 'someone to look up to' is such an important concept in the book, that I didn't understand until I was writing, and that was a revelation for me as well as for Sirius. I love this title.

Bedtime story

Gentle Dog Training, my translation of Dressage Tendresse was not just a book title but a method of dog training and I had to fight my corner to avoid Tenderness Training (a great alternative to Fifty Shades of Grey), or Train Me Tender and all kinds of ambiguity.

On the Other Hand would have been Sinister because the word 'sinister' originally just meant 'left-handed' and left-handedness is a theme in this YA book, which mixes fact and fiction. The Romans thought left-handed people were untrustworthy because they could shake hands with their right hand while stabbing you with the left, hence the more sinister meaning of ... sinister.

Here are the more recent ebook jacket and the original print jacket for On the other hand My publisher told me that we'd made one mistake - On the other hand starts with three words that get ignored in searches so the title doesn't show up unless you add my author name. You live and learn! Avoid using more than two high frequency words at the start of a title.
amazon link

Sometimes, the title just works, right from the start. My bestseller How Blue is my Valley took its title from the Welsh classic How Green was my Valley  and the 'blue' from the lavender of my current home in Provence. It just seems right for a book about someone moving from Wales to Provence and comparing the two. Alluding to a phrase or title with which readers are already familiar can work but it can also backfire as readers sometimes react against what they see as an attempt to cash in on fifty shades of copying.

I wish it was always so easy to find a title that suits! I have about twenty potential titles for the third novel in my 12th century series about Estela and Dragonetz but am not sure yet. The working title is Eaglesong but that's probably too suggestive of fantasy rather than historical novel and I don't know what eagles have to do with anything, apart from the castle and (probably) main setting being on high rocks. As it follows Song at Dawn and Bladesong, I thought Song somewhere in the title would link the series. I'm hoping all will become clear to me as I write.

Thanks to advice from fellow authors, I am also a big fan of the subtitle or tag as this can clearly indicate genre and add extra keywords to show up in online searches. I am sure that adding the real Provence in small print below How Blue is my Valley has helped find readers. For the Troubadours series, I've used date and place so I now have another headache as 1150 in Provence was used on Song at Dawn and now my characters are back there,  I don't really want 1152 in Provence... decisions, decisions, which I will have to make before the book jacket goes live.

Perhaps I should work the other way round; take a great title and write the book that it deserves. Helpful friends often suggest, 'You should write a book on..' and occasionally I'm even given titles. Drug Mule to Merthyr really ought to be written by someone but Going Home to Dai is more my style.

aggressive marketing

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Photograph, a short story

Last night was the Christmas party for our writers' workshop and as well as mulled wine, chocolate goodies and nougat (this is a small French village near Montelimar after all) we had our only competition of the year. The theme for this one was any piece on the title 'The Photograph' and I decided to join in for once. Not to compete of course - think of the humiliation if I didn't win! But seriously, I've always thought that it's good for the teacher to try at least some of the tasks set for the students - you learn a lot that way.

locket on black satin

Dedicated to all the photographers in my life:-

The Photograph

I thought I’d seen every over-decorated room in the house but no, there was always one more.  ‘This way, Mr Taylor,’ I was told. Hiding a yawn, I followed the owner into the conservatory, which piled chintz on wicker in a maze of small tables.  A ray of sunlight had forced entry through the Venetian blinds, dancing on glass and a woman’s smile, a brown-eyed gaze that passed directly to my gut, or lower.  She’d hit that sweet spot at the back of the lens, reaching the photographer, reaching me. That’s the real professional secret but no-one believes me, even if I tell them. Beauty is indeed in the way you look.
‘That's my late wife.’  He took the photo back from me, his tapered fingers stroking a curlicue at the edge of the gilded frame. Frowning with what could have been concentration, he replaced the portrait on what a thin line of dust revealed to be the exact spot that it had previously occupied. ‘Looking as if she were alive,’ he murmured, his finger-tip, delicate, tracing the woman’s throat from the jut of her chin down into naked shadows.
                ‘The sittings took an age but that’s why you pay a top photographer, isn’t it.  Not to make her give that smile.’ He nodded at me, complicit. ‘I saw you notice. Everyone does. Everyone did. There was no need to ‘make’ her smile – she smiled at every puppy, every ‘Have a good day’ from strangers, every clichéd compliment. If Drandle – yes, I see you know the photographer  – if Drandle said the light on her hair was pretty, or green suited her eyes, that would do it. She smiled at me too, the same smile. No moderation, no distinguishing between what I gave her – a name nine centuries old! - and their daily trivia.
                It wouldn’t do, you know.’ His finger tapped the glass, hard, once. ‘ So I stopped her smiling.’ He shook himself out of the reverie. ‘Enough about the Drandle. You must see the garden and gazebo; designed by Harbisher himself, the perfect background, don’t you think?  I’m glad you like the house.  My fiancée told me you’d be the ideal wedding photographer.  I think you’ll do nicely. Just the job.’

Some of you will have recognized the inspiration for my very short story; 'My Last Duchess', a famous 19th century poem. I don't see anything wrong with reworking old stories but I do think it's polite to credit the authors, regardless of how long they've been dead. 

Please let me know if you would like to use any of my work. If you're looking for workshop material, this poem (and my version) can spark all kinds of activities; themes, viewpoints, sequels, modern versions... 

Thank you, Mr Browning, for a story that lingers in the mind, a story of arrogance, jealousy, possession and murder.

My Last Duchess – Robert Browning 1842

That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall, 
Looking as if she were alive. I call 
That piece a wonder, now: Fra Pandolf’s hands 
Worked busily a day, and there she stands. 
Will’t please you sit and look at her? I said 
“Fra Pandolf” by design, for never read 
Strangers like you that pictured countenance, 
The depth and passion of its earnest glance, 
But to myself they turned (since none puts by 
The curtain I have drawn for you, but I) 
And seemed as they would ask me, if they durst, 
How such a glance came there; so, not the first 
Are you to turn and ask thus. Sir, ’twas not 
Her husband’s presence only, called that spot 
Of joy into the Duchess’ cheek: perhaps 
Fra Pandolf chanced to say “Her mantle laps 
Over my lady’s wrist too much,” or “Paint 
Must never hope to reproduce the faint 
Half-flush that dies along her throat”: such stuff 
Was courtesy, she thought, and cause enough 
For calling up that spot of joy. She had 
A heart—how shall I say?—too soon made glad, 
Too easily impressed; she liked whate’er 
She looked on, and her looks went everywhere. 
Sir, ’twas all one! My favour at her breast, 
The dropping of the daylight in the West, 
The bough of cherries some officious fool 
Broke in the orchard for her, the white mule 
She rode with round the terrace—all and each 
Would draw from her alike the approving speech, 
Or blush, at least. She thanked men,—good! but thanked 
Somehow—I know not how—as if she ranked 
My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name 
With anybody’s gift. Who’d stoop to blame 
This sort of trifling? Even had you skill 
In speech—(which I have not)—to make your will 
Quite clear to such an one, and say, “Just this 
Or that in you disgusts me; here you miss, 
Or there exceed the mark”—and if she let 
Herself be lessoned so, nor plainly set 
Her wits to yours, forsooth, and made excuse, 
—E’en then would be some stooping; and I choose 
Never to stoop. Oh sir, she smiled, no doubt, 
Whene’er I passed her; but who passed without 
Much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands; 
Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands 
As if alive. Will’t please you rise? We’ll meet 
The company below, then. I repeat, 
The Count your master’s known munificence 
Is ample warrant that no just pretence 
Of mine for dowry will be disallowed; 
Though his fair daughter’s self, as I avowed 
At starting, is my object. Nay, we’ll go 
Together down, sir. Notice Neptune, though, 
Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity, 
Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me!