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Monday 30 June 2014

The Archers: Missed!

Oil Seed Rape, bees for the use of...
This blog is a strictly personal rant about something that used to be close to my heart. Something's going on in the countryside - and it isn't country living. Listening to The Archers has been a six-times-a week habit for three generations of my family (Non-listeners catch up here). I never thought I'd be the one to kick it but sadly, I think the programme's jumped the shark. 

Critic Alison Graham sums up what's gone wrong here. The Archers used to be a mixture of the funny and factual, the infuriating and the engaging. It's now no different from any other soap opera. There's virtually nothing left of the rural aspects which made it unique. When country matters are mentioned on The Archers now, it's clear the research is only half-hearted. Tom's cheating on organic principles, and putting down the deposit on a new house when any stockman would live on-site for the good of his animals was parachuted in, then forgotten about just as quickly.
From Our Village Flower Festival
 There are so few decent workmen left in the countryside (they've all moved into town), rich couple Jennifer & Brian would have been vetted their kitchen fitters carefully, and had their contract hedged around with penalty clauses. Ambridge Organics, the shop run by passive-aggressive narcissist Helen Archer, has (astonishingly) bucked the trend that's seen similar shops close in every other real country towns. In fact it's so successful, they're going to employ an agency to find an assistant manager to replace part-time help, rather than sticking a card in the shop window! 

The oddest thing, though, is the total lack of gossip about the type of things people living in a village really would talk about. When Helen Archer despaired of ever meeting a man and having a family, she decided to have Artificial Insemination by Donor. 

She was granted it within days, and became pregnant first time. Just like that-and nobody ever asked why, or how she came by little Henry. Similarly, nobody in Ambridge has ever been remotely curious in any way about baby Bethany (who has Down's Syndrome).  Bethany's been quietly forgotten, now she's served her purpose as a soapy plot-device. When you live in a village, you all have to rub along together- that means talking about things like Bethany's milestones and health, or wondering about who little Henry's father was, not ignoring them. Out in the wilds there are so few of you about, everyone's curious about their neighbours!
wild boar damage: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/27/Schweinerei-einer-schwarzkittelrotte-001.jpg
Wild Boar Damage: By Dontworry

Yes, it's all fiction, but there's got to be a grain of truth inside the pearl of entertainment. The Archers is now nothing more than Eastenders-on-Am. Why doesn't the programme  cover real rural issues such as the lack of affordable rural housing, the number of teenagers killed on country roads (tragically, we've lost three from this village alone over the past 5 years), wild boar left to roam unchecked, the struggle to keep village churches going (what DOES Alan the Ambridge vicar give away each week, to guarantee almost 100% attendance?), and more cheerfully, the increasing numbers of community initiatives.

Do you listen to The Archers? What do you think about recent developments?

Friday 27 June 2014

Food, Men and the Weekend...

By Bhaskaranaidu
There's quite a crafty link between the food and men in my blog today.
My sister told me of a new way she'd tried of cooking cauliflower. It sounded so easy I didn't bother writing it down, so you can tailor the ingredients and method to suit yourself.

You'll need:
A large head of cauliflower
Olive oil
Juice of a lemon
Freshly-ground salt & black pepper
Plus any or all of the following: Smoked paprika, nutmeg,
chilli powder, and ground ginger.

Oven temperature 200c, 180 Fan, Gas Mark
Wash the cauliflower well, pat it dry and break the florets into bite-sized pieces.  Put them in a bowl, pour over the oil and lemon juice, then sprinkle over all the seasonings and spices.  Mix everything together really well. Put the cauliflower into a roasting tin, then tip any liquid remaining in the bowl over the top of it. Roast for about 20 minutes, or until tender.

We had this as a side dish, and it was delicious. I included some calabrese along with the cauliflower, and the contrast of green and white florets gave it extra interest. And now, get ready for the laboured link between this post's food and men, because...
...Calabrese features in one of the favourite dishes of Antonio Camilleri's fictional detective Commissario Montalbano. I'm working my way very slowly through the novels, and the TV films of the same name are a great favourite in Tottering Towers. We've just finished watching the final, final episode on DVD and at the end there's this fascinating look behind the scenes: br />
 I love insights like this into the creative process. It's good to know the cast get on so well together, too!

If you haven't met Montalbano and co. before, The Snack Thief is being broadcast on BBC4 at 9pm on Saturday, 28th June. It's the first episode in a re-run of the initial series shown here (although The Snack Thief  isn't the first book in Camillieri's series). Try it!

Monday 23 June 2014

Three Top Tips For Using Language

By Antonio Litterio
1. Early years teachers spend ages teaching us to think in terms of describing things when we write.  They're mad keen on adjectives and adverbs (don't switch off, bluffers' guide follows). The more flowery your work, the more they like it. That's called "imaginative writing" when you're young. When you're an adult, it's called "purple prose". That's frowned on. The occasional artistic flourish enriches your work, but going overboard too often makes it sickly.

2. Adjectives identify, define or describe something. They tell your reader how something looks, sounds, tastes, acts or feels. When you say "a biting wind" or "an exhausted teacher", you're using adjectives. They're great for setting a scene, but  don't overdo them. Try and keep description to a minimum  so you don't slow your story down.

3. Adverbs are usually adjectives with an –ly ending. They describe how something is being done.  If the way a performance turned out is vital to your plot, then "She drove the car insanely" is fine. What you mustn't do with adverbs is tell your reader something they can work out for themselves. That's why you should remove the adverbs from sentences such as "she shouted loudly" or "he murmured softly", because you can't shout or murmur in any other way.

Friday 13 June 2014

Work In Progress - Creative Writing Workshop Update...

View from The Barrow Wake, By Brian Marshall

This week I went to a meeting of the Romantic Novelists' Association Marcher Chapter, where we discussed the workshop we held in the spring. Everyone thought it was so useful, we've agreed to hold another one as soon as possible. You can read about our previous workshop hereThis is the extract from The Survivors' Club I submitted to the workshop, now it's been revised according to the advice I got on that day...

Eden’s determination died with the car’s engine. She knew she should jump straight out, and into her new life. Instead, she took a death-grip on the steering wheel and scowled at the Waterstones bag lying on her passenger seat.
What a waste of money.
Buying that book was supposed to change her life. It said so right there, on the cover. So why wasn’t it working?
You could at least make an effort.
Eden swore under her breath. Snatching up the bag, she wrestled her new book out and propped it up in front of her. This damned self-help manual was supposed to evict her mother’s nagging from her brain, not echo it. 
The glossy dust-jacket of Why Are People Mean To Me? summed up Eden’s life in primary colours. A tiny human form cowered beneath a mob of Henry Moore-style giants. Recognising herself in that image had drawn Eden straight across the precinct, and into the shop.  
She sighed, and slid her finger over the title.
I wish I knew.
The cover prompt on Why Are People Mean To Me? said it was because she hadn’t read the book yet.
Tom was always telling her it was paranoia.
Eden wondered who to believe. 
The only thing she knew for certain was that wandering round the shops on the third Tuesday in January had been a bad idea. Everywhere, from Twitter to the news headlines, said this was the most depressing day of the year. With ten people ahead of her in the queue for every job, Eden could believe it. That was why investing £14.99 in Arianne Forrester’s new self-help book had felt like such a brilliant idea. Right up until the moment she handed over her debit card. 
That was when she panicked. Paying for the book was the point of no return. Saying goodbye to fifteen pounds meant she’d have to act on its advice and instructions. If she didn’t, all that money would be wasted. She’d wanted to change her mind, drop the book and run. Pinned down by the shop assistant’s expression, she paid up. Feeling sick at the extravagance, she was pulled off course only once on the way home. She needed to stock up on one vital item. An overdose of chocolate always made things feel better... at least until the next time she got onto the scales.
She elbowed her way into the house, weighed down by bags. The front door slipped away from her, and slammed. The whole place shivered. She winced, waiting for Tom to start roaring.
Nothing happened.
With the central heating on full blast, the house was a tropical paradise. The effort of carrying the shopping while bundled up to face the arctic conditions outside made her breathless.
       ‘Tom! I’m home!’ 
She was already half-way to the kitchen. When he still didn’t answer, she stopped. 
‘There’s chocolate cake!’
Her heart thumped, and not only with the effort of carrying her bags. She put them down. If mention of food didn’t get him on the move, he must be ill. That might explain why he’d shoved a couple of ten pound notes at her earlier, and told her to make a day of it in town. 
Only the hum of the freezer disturbed the thick atmosphere. Tom was supposed to be working from home today. Whether he was sick or well, Eden knew the strain of checking his emails would have sent him back to bed with some snacks and the remote control. It would be her job to offer tea and sympathy. Gathering up her stuff again, she hauled it all through to the kitchen.
Then she stopped, staggered. The place was a complete mess. 
Every utensil in the place had been dirtied in the process of making breakfast. The frying pan was blackened and crusty. Discarded wrappers of bacon and sausage flapped in warm currents of air.  Blobs of ketchup and fruit sauce added splashes of colour to every horizontal surface. Trails of pancake batter linked everything together, like a work by Jackson Pollock.
Eden took a step, and felt the crunch of egg shell. Lifting her foot to prise off the debris, she found a bit of waffle lodged in the tread of her boots. Although that was grisly, the silence was wonderful. She let out a long, slow breath. Tom must have gone out. 
With the house to herself, she flung off her outdoor clothes and danced through to the lounge. While he was away she could use his printer and copy out some recipes.
What he doesn’t know won’t set him off, she thought. 
She was in for a shock. Tom’s computer and its associated junk usually took up half the dining table. Today, it wasn’t taking up any space at all. 
Eden clapped her hands over her mouth. They must have been burgled. A million horrors ran through her mind. She raced around the house, pushing open doors and calling his name. If he was injured or unconscious he would never forgive her for wasting so much time. 
On the other hand, if he was dead...
Her heart lurched, but she was unlucky. There was no sign of Tom’s body anywhere. The house was deserted.
Reaching their bedroom, she looked around. The wardrobe door was wide open and the place had been turned over, but it didn’t look like the work of vandals. Only Tom’s things had been targeted. All the drawers had been pulled out from his side of the dressing table.
Back downstairs, she checked the garage. His car was missing, too. 
This was mad. He’d done some frightening things in his time, but this vanishing act was out of character. Where was he? Maybe he’d had a brainstorm. It happened. The media was full of stories about people walking out and never coming back. 
If he’s done that, I might never see him again, she thought. Her pulse hammered.  I’ve got to be careful. No jumping to conclusions. I’ve been wrong about plenty of things in the past. 
Reaching the en-suite bathroom, she got another shock. There was an envelope stuck to the mirrored door of the medicine cabinet. She was all fingers and thumbs, and it was tricky to peel from the glass. Then it was difficult to tear open.  
Maybe it was a sign the message inside didn’t want to be read. That couldn’t be good news.
She was wrong again. She read his note twice. Then she read it a third time, and smiled. At last! This was her get-out-of-jail free card. All her life she’d been told she could run, but couldn’t hide. Tom’s message turned all that on its head. He was gone– but in fourteen days, he would be back.
Eden made a snap decision. By that time, she would have stripped out all her stuff and escaped to the only place she’d ever been happy. The only place Tom would never follow her. She picked up Why Are People Mean To Me? and hugged it like a lucky charm. 
Once she was back at Owl Farm, changing her life would be as easy as changing the locks.  

I'm currently polishing up the first few pages of my current work in progress for our next workshop session. Its working title is The Barrow Wake, which doesn't tell anyone anything about my damaged hero, or the dangerous woman he meets at the place you can see in the photo above. So that's no good! I'm considering the title Lone Wolf instead. What do you think?

Monday 9 June 2014

Three Top Tips To Focus Your Writing

By Antonio Litterio

  1. If you want to be published, never lose sight of your readership. Write in a way that’ll engage your audience. Know who you’re aiming for. A fourteen-year old boy won’t be reading the same thing as his middle-aged grandmother. Even if he was, the language would need to be different. But whatever you write, pour your heart and soul into it. Believe in your work, and so will your readers.
  2. Once you’ve decided who your audience will be, concentrate your literary firepower.  Direct it straight toward your reader, as though you were telling them a story, face-to-face. Make sure you put your own writing pleasure before profit. If you can sit back after finishing a piece and say “I really enjoyed doing that!” you’ll never need to sell a word - unless the bailiffs are hammering at your door. 
  3. Never pad out your writing with pointless description or backstory.  If you’ve written a trilogy but two-thirds of it is info-dump, distill your work into a single title instead.  It’s not lowering your sights, it’s improving your work and upping your game. Remember: make every word a wanted word - but never delete anything. Catalogue it, and save in a way you can easily find it again. You never know when that extract or nugget of research will come in handy.
If you've enjoyed these tips, visit my website at christinahollis.com to find out more.