Marie Kondo and Writing

I have begun my ruthless war on the stuff and clutter in both my tiny studio flat and my writing life.I am hoping that with a decluttered living space and a decluttered mind I will regain the joy of writing.

The theory behind the extreme decluttering is that you should only keep things you actually use and things which bring you joy. When I do handwriting these days I tend to use fountain pens and have five of them each with a different colour ink cartridge. I have a small collection of biros which fit nicely in my hand and with which I can write neatly. These I have kept. All the biros which have sneaked in from work are being returned there. I do not use them and they cluttered up my repurposed enamel teapot. Likewise all the small pairs of scissors which somehow got back here and ended up in my dry goods measuring cup. They are being returned to work too.

I have put all the ink cartridges in a small glass pot where they are tidy, secure and make a nice decoration on the corner of the desk.

All the rest of the tut which found its way onto my desk during the month has either been put in it’s proper place or binned. The result is a nice clear and clutter free desk where I am surrounded only by the items I need to write. Already I am feeling good here and inspired to write.


Using questions to …

Using questions to incorporate your research into the storyline

This is a technique beloved of crime writers everywhere. The “rookie” asks the “expert” a question which allows the writer to explain background information, character analysis, the howdunnit and the expert analysis. It is a technique which you can use to incorporate the technical information into your story.

One way to do this, is to create a scene where one person is an “expert” and has to explain something to a newbie. It could be a sailor explaining how to tie knots to a trainee or a coroner explaining how to carry out a procedure on a dead body.

This technique is also a good way of getting your research into your story , as long as it is not overused. In my novel Weaver of Words, I wanted to explain to the reader how the process of creating and distributing underground works happened in 1970s Czechoslovakia. I created the character of a printer whose job it was to distribute the retyped manuscripts. The group leader explained to a new convert how the process happened and her role in it. In this way, I incorporated the material I had gathered from a printing museum. The new recruit asked enough questions to keep that section of the story moving and set up the next part of the story.

Used sparingly, this is, I think, a good technique to use.



The books which have inspired me as a writer and helped me learn my trade


Years ago, when I was thinking of becoming a writer, I consulted a few how-to-books by well-known writers and then went on to read their novels to see how their ideas worked in practice.

One of my favourites back in the 1990s was Rita Mae Brown. I read her book Starting from Scratch: A Different Kind of Writer’s Manual (1988), which contained lots of ideas for a beginner writer. And, of course, I read lots of Rita Mae’s own books. Back in those days it was harder to get information about publishers and so on, so this was a really useful manual.

I also owned Patricia Highsmith’s Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction (1989) as well as several of her books.

Many years later, when the idea of fiction writing re-entered my head, I looked at other manuals for budding writers. A key text was The Weekend Novelist Writes a Mystery written by Robert J. Ray and Jack Remick (1998). The large number of post-it notes inside the book shows how I used it to plot various novels. It is an excellent guide for anyone starting out as a mystery writer. The ideas for character development and plotting are extremely useful.

I have owned several different editions of Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction: A Guide to the Narrative Craft (7th ed. 2006). This is a book which never fails to help and guide. The short stories and extracts demonstrate how the techniques work in practice. Her insights into the writing process are both profound and encouraging. She notes that “most of the time spent writing is not spent putting words on the page.” (2000: 13) So true. I recently spent an entire week flicking through the internet and reading articles about my topic before setting down to type.

Finally, in the list of writing manuals I must mention Derek Neale’s A Creative Writing Handbook (2009), which I have just pulled out of my backpack. What a wealth of information and ideas there are in this book! Like Burroway’s book, there are lots of extracts from successful writing to show you how it can be done.

The fiction books I have read are far too numerous to mention. I am sure that, in some way, practically everyone has had some influence of my writing. The novels which are currently finding their way into my hands time and time again are small classics. Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop is a masterpiece of condensed writing. I love the way she can convey information and atmosphere in such a controlled fashion. The short, sharp sentences say all that needs to be said. Stephen Isherwood’s writing in A Single Man is sparse but powerful. It is a masterpiece of writing. The film, I have to say, is a wonderful companion to the book.

I have been learning how to create characters from Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge. This is a marvellous book set in a small town and dominated by one character. From Olive herself, and the people who have been affected by her, we learn about her as an individual. She may not be the nicest character you have read about but Strout presents all sides of her story so in the end you understand her. I read this book straight through so as not to miss any of the nuances. It is a lovely lovely thing.

Always behind the scenes are the novels of Carol Shields. I find myself referring back to her characterisation and storytelling time and time again. Her final novel, Unless, has been one of my favourites since it was published. The storyline is not an easy one to read but it is told so beautifully that I have to keep going back to it.

A thread on a web-forum has just alerted my to The Writing Life by Annie Dillard (1990). The extract I have read looks promising. I can see this book in my hands with a day or two. Why have I never heard of her before? I note that according to Wikipedia she has been influenced by Thoreau, Emerson and de Chardin. It seems to me that I have much to learn from this writer.

The search for inspiration and advice never ends. I read practically every newspaper or article I get my hands on about the writing process. I read books regularly. Some of the books I read are old favourites. Some are books new to me. Once discovered all books have enlightened me in some way whether they were, in my opinion, good or bad books. Not all the books I have read have held my interest to the end but I have admired the craft behind them. And I shall carry on reading and writing.


Writer’s dilemma: laptop or notepad


Samsung Galaxy Note 10 challenge – taking notes on the road

When I was planning my recent research trip to the Czech Republic and Poland, I thought long and hard about how I was going to take notes on the trip, how I was going to store up any ideas and information and how I might actually revise the manuscript on the move. Having keyed in about 20,000 words, I thought a print out would be too heavy and bulky to take on the trip, especially since I was travelling by budget airline.I considered a proper notebook but that hadn’t worked well for me the previous year because I keep scratching things out and altering them. The result was a proper mess I could barely make head or tail of. I had not wanted to cart around the huge laptop because of the luggage requirements which is why I decided to invest in a tablet.

I equipped myself with a reconditioned Samsung Galaxy Note 10, set it up and downloaded a third party App to enable me to use my Apple keyboard. I did a dummy run with the pen and managed, with some difficulty, to get the machine to recognize my handwriting. I have long been aware that my handwriting is an issue for people being a mix of Central European 7s and Ts with old school penmanship. People not familiar with how things are written to the east of France appear to have some issues with it. Nevertheless, I thought the Samsung seemed to be coping.

With priority booking on Wizz Air passengers are allowed an extra small bag for camera or laptop and so on. I purchased a small carry bag just bigger that the Galaxy Note and packed it up.

As a back up, and because I like to read books on the Kindle App, I also packed my iPad Mini. This was fortuitous as once abroad the Galaxy Note decided it would no longer recognize either my writing or keypad. It also took issue with downloading my MS Word manuscript from my Cloud Drive. This was frustrating. After a wasted evening I put the Galaxy Note back in it’s carry bag where it remained until we returned home.

The solution? I received quite a few odd looks as I stood in the middle of Český Těšín bus station dictating the scene and notes into my LG Sprite phone. This method I supplemented with taking notes in a small notebook I had packed. It seemed to work.

The idea had been to have one tablet PC to do everything: take notes on the move using the pen, type up notes in cafes or on trains, make adjustments to the manuscript whilst in situ, use the on-board camera to take photos and videos to combine with the words and generally to reduce baggage and confusion. The Galaxy Note did not do it for me :(.

What have I learnt from this challenge? What can others learn from this challenge?

In the absence of any other solution (I think the Note was the third tablet I tried), I measured up my ASUS 15.5 inch laptop and discovered fits into a nice backpack along with its charger, mouse and IKEA riser. Therefore, it will go on future trips. The “smartish” phone came into it’s own as I was able to make recordings on it as I walked along the streets and even interrupt the recordings to add a snapshot of the scene. How good is that? Now, I have the updated Kindle App with white pages and everything on my iPad mini I don’t really need the old Kindle. I still bought another new notebook in Prague in the hope that I will one day fill it with thoughts. All the other stuff, I stuck into a small exercise book using glue tape I found in a small shop en route.

The Galaxy Note failed me and I am gutted. I had such high hopes for it. I hope it’s new owner has a better experience :).



Deep Writing


Prepared text for a modern printing press

I recently read an article on the topic of “Deep Writing,” in which the author advises that writers need to park their worries and concerns before they start writing. I think that is an excellent point – it is difficult to write when stressed or worried. It is only natural that these stresses get in the way of the though process.

The writer recommends several techniques to create that special kind of “writing world” that “real” writers seem to inhabit. These involve setting timers, parking worries in a box outside the door, not checking emails or websites until the day’s writing is done, writing a set amount each day and so on.

I am NOT one of those writers who can write everyday. In fact, I sometimes don’t write for a whole week. I might think about writing but I don’t do it. As a writer of historical fiction, I spend a lot of time fact-checking and in the process get carried away looking at interesting things which are not necessarily relevant. I think I am a more rounded person because I learn all kinds of random things from the internet. I am not sure I am going to find much use for today’s nugget that the Duchess of Wessex has a computer database of all her clothes, but you never know.

However, I can enter a kind of writing zone when I want to. The whole of this week I have been doing my research with the backdrop of builders working overhead. I got a surprising amount done, considering the noise they made, and happily immersed myself in Wikipedia and various YouTube films. When they disappeared on Thursday evening, I was wound up enough to sit at my laptop and make major revisions to chapter one. Then, I went back to doing other things. I plan to work on chapter two tomorrow but there’s no hurry. The story will come when it is ready.

I sometimes wonder if I would write more if I didn’t have to go out and earn a living. I don’t think I would. I do “deep writing” when my brain tells me it is ready to write. When my brain is distracted then I do other things. Somehow or other, I seem to get to the end of the novels and produce, I think, something worth reading. That, I think, is the aim.

BTW the writer of the original article has had hundreds of articles etc published. That is impressive.

I include the original article for your perusal:




Where does the inspiration come from?

Someone asked me a while ago where I got all my ideas for stories from? The answer: whatever interests me.

One evening I was sitting having dinner in a small diner near Lille Station and noticed that the street, which had been empty for most of the day, was suddenly full of people carrying suitcases and bags having just arrived off a train. I had an idea then to write about this experience of how a city can suddenly change character. This has gone in my “future reference” file.

The idea for my newly released novel, Freedom Street #61, was a tour of the KGB headquarters in Riga. I had decided to return to Riga in the summer of 2014 after some friends had raved about the city enough to convince me that my previous impression was not a sound one. While there, I saw an advert for the KGB musuem and went along for a look. Unfortunately, I was not able to get a ticket for the whole museum so I decided to make another trip in October, which I did. I took the English language tour and whenb we had just finished the tour when the guide mentioned that no one had yet written the story of the building and the effect it had on the people of Riga. I was at home a couple of days later thinking about what I could write for my writing group meeting when I remembered that parting comment. A couple of hours later and I had the first few pages and over the next few months turned those pages into a story which ended with a visit to the KGB museum in Riga. That comment and the things I saw were my inpiration.

The story I am currently working on was triggered by a diary I was reading a few weeks ago from an emigre teacher working in Latvia at the beginning of WW2. I found reference to another diary kept by another English woman written around the same time and charting the same events. In the two diaries the women mention meeting each other. I found the first diary mentioned at the back of an old travel guide and then second diary while searching for more information on Lucy Addison.  Thus was born my story.

Where does the inspiration come from? Where does the story come from? I think the answer is, from whatever gets inside your mind and makes you curious enough to want to explore it. Once an idea has been seeded then the task is to make it grow into a story someone will want to read.

Commiting to the process

I have decided to title this submission “commiting to the process” because that is what I am doing right now. I am commiting myself to the process of editing the second part of my novel based on the KGB Headquarters in Riga and also to the process of preparing the book for publication. In the way that I work, the writing and the preparation for publication happen at pretty much the same time. While I write I think about the blog, the website and the Facebook page. I also think about future readers.

I published the first part of the novel as a stand alone book called Living with the Enemy. At 90 printed pages it was a novella more than a book. I formatted the book, set it up in CreateSpace, Photoshopped a cover and then uploaded the whole thing. After a few weeks, I decided that while I like the title Stura maja for both parts, I do not really like for the first part only. So, I created a new cover with a modified title and uploaded it.

The problem was that there was no title on the spine and no blurb at the back. So, I went back to the drawing board and downloaded the file from CreateSpace to create an integrated cover. Now it looks more like a professional book.

I also went through my epub version on the book and found some typos. I corrected them in the manuscript. This allowed me to reconnect with the book properly for the first time in two months. Now, I am ready to edit the second half of the story and am commited to the process of producing the best book I can with the writing tools (myself and my knowledge) I have at my disposal right now. It may not be the best book I write but it will have been written with due dilligence.

Now that summer is here and my winter job over, I can commit myself once again to the process of being a writer. I can permit myself to take time away from earning a living to writing and completing at least one writing project. I feel, already, as though a weight has been lifted off my shoulders and my fingers can fly over the keyboard once again.