As a writer, I think your journey starts right back at the very beginning when you first string letters together and realise they make words. In other words, when you begin to read. Throughout my life I’ve loved reading and rereading and I’ve been influenced to different degrees by the various authors that I’ve read. It’s not that I try to emulate their work (although I sometimes do) or that I want to write in that genre (although I sometimes do!) but that I learn something from each of them. That could be how they write dialogue, the kind of characters they create, the settings and atmospheres they evoke or just a lightness of touch that says so much in so few words and makes me think “Wow, that was good. How do I do that?”

Here’s my personal top eight influences, in no particular order. What are yours?

  • Jane Austen – Whatever you think about romantic novels, and hers are among the very best, there’s no denying that Jane Austen was a master at writing about concerns both peculiar to her time and universal. She’s also the queen of quick, witty prose and sharp observations; and her characters are memorable and human, with weaknesses and frailties that we can relate to. I bow in awe.
  • Georgette Heyer – Fabulous, evocative and detailed portrayals of Regency life, and by gum she can write a funny scene that has me laughing my socks off every time I read it. This is the kind of historical I want to write – a good story, a happy ending and funny, sympathetic characters that are both hindered and helped by the Society in which they live.
  • Eva Ibbotson – I love every one of her books that I’ve read. They appeal to adults and young adults and the language is really beautiful.
  • Edith Nesbit – One of my completely favourite childhood authors. I loved her storylines, the mix of magic and everyday life. I think the Psammead is one of the best magical creatures ever, I would love to come up with something like that. She taught me that magic and fantasy interweave with our world to produce the most wonderful stories. And who doesn’t cry at the end of The Railway Children?
  • Dr Seuss – the wacky and wonderful words he comes up with and the brilliant, often convoluted rhyming. A staple of my childhood, who I’m introducing to my kids. He teaches you to play with language and though I’m not as brave as he is in just making words up, I’d love to be. There are no rules with Dr Seuss but through him you learn about rhyme and rhythm and poetry. It’s wonderful.
  • Lord Tennyson – If only for The Lady of Shalott. My mum read this to me when I was tiny and apparently I loved it and would listen to it over and over. Up until a couple of years ago this disappeared completely from my life then I started re-reading it. I’m fairly convinced it’s responsible in some subliminal way for my love of historical romantic heroines, or as I used to call them, “Ladies in long dresses’.
  • C S Lewis – The Chronicles of Narnia are among my favourite books of all time, never mind childhood. Again, it’s the mix of fantasy and real life – throwing ordinary children into magical situations that I would love to try and do really well. Until then, I can totally lose myself in his land. Apparently Tolkien disliked the Narnia stories because Lewis had a real hodge-podge of fantasy elements, throwing in creatures and stories from a huge variety of mythic traditions instead of painstakingly creating a world with its own rules and creatures. I, on the other hand, really like this about Lewis’ work. If ever there was a clear example of how allowing yourself to be influence by your reading can produce amazing results, Lewis is it. He’s also a brilliant Christian writer – Mere Christianity, The Screwtape Letters, The Four Loves, The Problem of Pain and The Great Divorce are wonderful books.
  • Terry Pratchett – So prolific! I love a book that makes me laugh out loud and his do, time and again. I also have to say, although I prefer his earlier work, I am hugely inspired by how he has dealt with his illness and found a way to work around it to keep writing.

There are so many more. I take a little away from every book I read – for better or worse! And one day, maybe someone will have me on a similar list of their own.

Good Reads on Goodreads

I’ve recently been digging a little deeper into Goodreads. I’ve been signed up for ages but, like when I first joined Twitter, I’m not making anywhere best use of it. Superficially, you add which books you’re reading or have read and do a little review of them. All well and good, and handy for dipping in and out of if you want an opinion on a specific book. This might be all you ever want, and that’s fair enough. Plenty of people use it, making it a pretty good resource for that kind of thing.

What I am discovering though is that, again like Twitter, the more you use it the more you get out of it. This works both as a reader and a writer. As a reader, if you start making connections and seeing what people are reading, you get introduced to some cracking reads. Authors and genres you might not have tried before but are much more likely to do so on a recommendation from a friend. Most books, especially the Big Deals, have reviews up and you can comment on these. The comment streams often turn into debates which are actually fascinating and make you really want to read the book. In my opinion, if a book gets so many people worked up in completely opposite ways, it’s worth a second look. I found that recently with Rob Bell’s new book, Love Wins. If a book you love doesn’t have a discussion going, start one.

Another feature for readers is the ‘explore’ menu which offers lists and suggestions for reading. There are thousands of books listed in the recommendations, sorted either into lists such as ‘Best Historical Fiction’ or even ‘The Worst Books of All Time’, so you can have a dig around and find what suits you. If you don’t like their suggestions, then take part and vote or put a book forward.

As a writer, it’s a whole other ball game. My little foray into self-e-publishing (I need to think of a better term for that. Independent feels far too grandiose) has gone right to my head and I’ve gone and updated my website, facebook page, and created a Goodreads author page. I think this could be a really useful feature, especially if I continue down the route of self-publishing more and more work. It keeps all my work together, it allows people to comment on my work and for me to see those comments as well as get notified when someone comments. I can get ‘fans’ who follow my activity on Goodreads (useful for when I’m  a literary megastar). I can list giveaways of the book, have my blog posts fed through onto the page and link through onto the book page on Amazon. I can even make ebooks available to preview and purchase direct from Goodreads. People feed their reviews onto Twitter and Facebook, so it doesn’t take much imagination to see how a little bit of good feedback here could go a very long way.

I genuinely think that as Goodreads takes off, and more and more join and interact with it, it will become immensely useful and a valuable part of every writer’s marketing kit.

English Rules. Ok?

I’m very proud that one of my natural talents is for languages. I flew through French and Spanish at school and although I’m as rusty as you might expect after having abandoned my language studies for eleven years, I’m still pretty competent at reading and writing both languages.

I also found at school that English was one of my best subjects, and that I was gifted at spelling. I understand how sounds translate into letters and combinations, and I think this also showed in my grades for languages. I can also understand music notation easily although I’m far too lazy to do anything with that particular skill.

Before you think this post is just an excuse to blow my own trumpet, let me reassure that I’m getting to the point now. All of those languages that I studied, French, Spanish and music (and I’ve toyed with Mandarin and Japanese although several years ago now), had rules, like any other language. Each letter has its sound and although it might vary slightly depending on what other letters are around it, those variations are consistent. It’s one of the ways I try to reassure my husband about learning a little French when we go on holiday – that once you know the basic sounds you can build them up quite easily and have a stab at pronouncing most words. Same with music: as Maria von Trapp says, “Do Re Mi and so on are only the tools you use; you can build a million different tunes by mixing them up.” (I have no idea if the real Maria said this but Julie Andrews did and that’s good enough for me). Spanish I found even easier; there were hardly any variations with those rules and for some reason most of the vowel sounds are very hard like Geordie vowels, such as the /a/. Our class may have struggled with the rolled r’s and grammar rules, but by gum we pronounced our Spanish vowels perfectly.

Now, I knew that English had its own little quirks. You know, the obvious examples like bough / cough / enough etc. I had a fair bit of sympathy for any foreigner trying to learn English pronunciation. But I had no idea until recently just how anarchic the English language really is.

Daniel has started to make huge progress on his reading skills. For months he’s had a good grasp of the first few letters (I mean first phonetically, the easiest letters like s, a, t, i, p, n) but recently he’s got to a stage where he recognises almost all 26 letters and realises that you can put them together to mean something. So I’m planning ahead to how we can help him make the jump over from learning phonics to actually reading. (By the way, if you’re in a similar position I highly recommend the I Can Learn series from Egmont by Nicola Morgan. Daniel has just about completed Get Ready for Reading and it’s not only given him a good foundation for reading, it’s been fun and given him confidence. Plus there’s a great colouring in page with shoes on…)

It’s a NIGHTMARE! Once you get past a few combinations, the rules change entirely! Yes, s-a-t makes sat and c-a-t makes cat and h-a-t makes hat. But what happens if you put the same letters a different way round? You get TH! What’s the deal with that?? He’s just learned a hard t and a hard h and now we put them together and play by a completely different rule! Ok, so we learn TH. And SH. Fine, a couple of variations we can deal with. Then Bam! We get hit with Magic E. He learns all of these lovely vowel sounds and then he has to unlearn them just because an E can’t keep its nose out and has to interfere. You can’t even say magic ‘eh’ like he’s learned, it’s magic ‘ee’. And it’s not just vowels. What about G? Gate, guess, go. Or genie and gin? (Oh, gin. I’ll be hitting that before long at this rate). Talk about shifting goalposts.

So I’m considering emigrating. To Spain, where they don’t just make up the rules as they go along. English Rules? Pah.


A Birthday Tribute to Georgette Heyer

Well, I found out today (through reading this excellent post at Austenprose) that yesterday was Georgette Heyer’s birthday.

Georgette Heyer is probably my all-time favourite author, all things considered. She is the person whose books I can pick up at any time and enjoy, no matter how many times I’ve read them, the person whose books I would take to a desert island (probably Devil’s Cub, Venetia and Frederica, in case you’re interested), and the author I read most during my adolescence, and therefore had the greatest influence on me as both a reader and a writer. She is also the writer I would most like to emulate. Yes, even more than, say, Jane Austen. I can’t emulate her, any more than I can cook like Jamie Oliver, but boy would I love to.

Wouldn’t it be great if they adapted her books for tv? Not film, they’d have to cut out too much. But a nice, juicy adaptation of about four one hour episodes, with a lovely cast of BBC costume drama regulars (I’m thinking Richard Armitage as Sylvester or Lord Damerel for example) would see me in heaven, metaphorically speaking.

Why do I love her so much? Her language is spot on – witty (in fact downright laugh-out-loud at times), resonant, true to character. Her descriptions sing of the time and place without her ramming her research down your throat. Her plots are many and varied whilst retaining a common theme of love and marriage. Her characters spring to life on the page.

Anyway, that was my brief tribute to an inspiring author. Hopefully it will have whetted your appetite a little to try one of her books – although if you haven’t up until now, WHY ON EARTH NOT?

In other news, if you missed my little poem for Emily yesterday, here’s the link, and here’s one I tweeted for Daniel today. Again, based on life events…

Daniel Brown was feeling arty

So he thought he’d be a smarty

He took his crayons and with great flair

Drew rainbow castles everywhere…

Then proud as punch he shouted “Mummy!

Mummy, quick, come and see!”

Mum nearly fainted when she saw

He’d drawn his rainbows on the floor!

He didn’t know why mummy frowned

At the creative talent of Daniel Brown.

And a couple of questions to finish: What do you think of Heyer? And how, HOW is it possible to love a little boy so much yet spend an afternoon not-so-silently seething at him? 😉 Would love some opinions!

Book Review: Nighty Night

I’ve decided to start a new series of blog posts. On a regular basis I will review a book that my two and a half year old son has recently read. But don’t just take my word for it, check out The Daniel Pages for his point of view.
The first one we’ve chosen is Nighty Night by Colin McNaughton (click here to see on Amazon).

This has become part of Daniel’s nightly routine and he calls for it without fail. Technical stuff first: It has twelve double pages with bright pastel colours, big bold text (that becomes bigger or smaller to reflect tone of voice!) and appealing cartoons. The story builds up to a wonderful rant by Littlesaurus about why he doesn’t want to sleep then closes with a lovely, snuggly ending. I actually think one of the reasons we all love this book so much is because Littlesaurus reminds us so much of Daniel, and I suspect any parent will recognise their lively toddler in our hero.

The parents, Mummysaurus and Daddysaurus, are also brilliantly drawn – again, I recognise both myself and my husband in their reactions to bedtime. I love when Mummysaurus tells Daddysaurus that he’s supposed to be calming Littlesaurus down and he slinks away guiltily.

The only negative thing I can think of is if you are trying to encourage your child to stay in their bed all night, this might not help, as Littlesaurus ends up snuggling in between Mummy and Daddysaurus. But it’s such a sweet ending I love it anyway!

Reading the story is a lot of fun for both us and Daniel. The sentences are short and snappy, and Daniel loves to echo them back, sometimes finishing them before we do! I can see this being a favourite for years, and will be a good choice when he starts reading on his own as the text is so clear and the words are a good mix between challenging and manageable.

There is another book advertised on the back cover, featuring the same characters, dealing with potty training, and as soon as I finish this post I will be popping over to Amazon to buy it. If Potty Poo-poo Wee-wee is as much fun as Nighty Night I can’t wait to get started.

Thanks for reading our first book review. I’d love anyone to comment if they have read this book or can recommend similar, or if there’s anything I’ve missed off the review. If you have a book you read to your children and fancy putting up a review use the Contact Me page to send an email letting me know, it would be great to hear from you.

Don’t forget to pop over to The Daniel Pages to get Daniel’s verdict on Nighty Night!