Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Christmas Markets

Image result for holly wreath

I'm just back from a short trip to Frankfurt to see my daughter and grandchildren. I only decided on the spur of the moment and now I'm glad I did. One thing I really miss, living in Ireland, is the atmosphere around Advent, that feeling of anticipation of Christmas being on its way.

The Christmas market in Frankfurt is not perhaps the most famous one in Germany but it has it own atmosphere. I love the smell of aniseed, gingerbread, the spicy tang of mulled wine and the fragrance of pine from the Advent wreaths.

The main part of the market is held in the old part of the city, the Roemer as it is called, with its cobblestone square and town hall and the Nikolai Kirche. Nothing compares to sipping eggnog in the chill of early evening surrounded by lights and general good cheer. Of course I sampled my favourite  goodies:  Kartoffelpuffer (potato cakes) with apple sauce, warm waffles with Nutella. Yummy.
Yes, celebrating Advent is a wonderful idea, it makes the Christmas holiday much longer. I recall the excitement in our house when the children saw the first candle being lit on the Advent wreath. We usually baked biscuits in the shape of Christmas trees and half-moons, generously sprinkled them with icing sugar and piled them on a colourful plate with red apples and nectarines.

Image result for weihnachtsteller
 So this was a trip down memory lane. Last year I spent Christmas in Frankfurt but arrived too late for the market. This year I can say I truly savoured it all. 
 Happy Advent to all my readers. Image result for holly wreath

Saturday, 5 November 2016

Writing the Plot

One of the hardest parts of writing in my experience is plotting the novel. Of course I have the kernel of the story - what it's all about, so to speak.  But how to take the reader there, how to incorporate interesting byways that my reader will like to follow, that is the main problem.

I am currently mulling over the third novel in my Sergeant Alan Murray Mystery series which I write under my pen name P.B. Barry.  Murray was originally in a once-off story, Death in a Lonely Place. Everyone who read the book liked him so much that I got a lot of calls to write a sequel. 'I feel so safe with him', said one of my readers, which is surely one of the nicest compliments I have ever received because it demonstrated that she was totally immersed in the story. Another reader wanted to know if Murray would ever find out what happened to his wife Sheila who disappeared on Ardnabrone mountain many years before.

So I started mulling over what else could happen among the lonely Kerry mountains and came up with Ending in Death. The riddle of what happened to Sheila is not solved in this story but it has been buzzing around in my head like a bee trapped inside a window. So I am now working on the plot of what will most likely be the final in the Sergeant Alan Murray Mystery series. It is hard work, let me tell you. I love the actual writing, it is the discipline of getting the plot right that I find so difficult.
So I'm spending my time noting down names, places, back stories and sub-plots. Which reminds me, I must get back to work!

Thursday, 27 October 2016

Listen Up!

I am currently reading Maeve's Times, selected writings from Maeve Binchy's five decades of contributing to The Irish Times newspaper, published by hachette.ie.
I have to admit that I am not a fan of Maeve Binchy's novels but I always enjoyed her articles in The Irish Times. This is a wonderful collection of her wit and wisdom over the years. She had a sharp eye for detail and an uncanny ability to listen to conversations going on around her and present them in a fascinating way to the reader. Some of the blurb on the cover of the book shows her talent very clearly: 'At the shop in London Airport, there was a young man studying the display of postcards......he bought twelve of one that said "sorry".'  and most tellingly 'I suppose I am obsessively interested in what some might consider the trivia of other people's lives'.
Except it was never trivia to Maeve who picked up on nuances, moods, joy, sadness. It was simply that she liked her fellow human beings.
In an article in The Sunday Times magazine yesterday, there was an extract from Richard Reed's If I Could Tell You Just One Thing: Encounters With Remarkable People and Their Most Valuable Advice, to be published on November 3rd by Canongate, Bill Clinton is quoted as saying "I've come to believe that the most important thing is to see people".  Incidentally, I have already earmarked this book as an ideal Christmas present to various people and I will definitely be buying it myself.

Bill Clinton and Maeve Binchy, two very different people, both had the same interest in seeing and hearing other people. Maeve Binchy translated her observations about people she saw and listened to into entertaining novels which gave pleasure to millions of readers.  Bill Clinton demonstrates how important it is to pay the other person the courtesy of seeing them as an individual.
All things we as writers can learn and use to enrich our work.

Here is the latest version of the cover of Love at Close Range. I have a feeling this is an ongoing project!
 Product Details

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

I've updated two book covers - what do you think?

Sometimes when you have finished a novel you choose a book cover which appeals to you at the time. At some stage you take another look at it, out there with all those other fancy covers on Amazon, and you think:  I don't really think I like that....  So it's back to the drawing board.

I have been working hard with my cover designer, John O' Mahony for the past number of weeks trying to get the kind of book cover which I think is appropriate for two of my novels in two very different genres.

Here is what we came up with for Ending in Death. 

What do you think?  It's the second book in the Sergeant Alan Murray mystery series and is set in a lonely village in Co. Kerry, Ireland. 
You can view on Amazon here:

I also updated one of my romance novels, Love at Close Range, the second one in the Sunshine Cafe series.
I thought this cover better suited the story.

 Product Details

Here's the link

On second thoughts, this might need a bit of re-working!  Watch this space.

Friday, 14 October 2016

What is your personality type?

Recently a scientist or scientists at Madrid's Carlos III University did some experiments, the result of which, they tell us, points to there being only four personality types in all the whole wide world.
Why did we ever think we were unique with minds of our own?
The four categories are (according to Carlos III de Madrid Universidad, I hasten to add):

30% can be classified as Envious
20% Optimist
20% Pessimist
20% Trusting

Yes, you are right, that still leaves 10%. The survey said that there is a fifth unidentified group of people which make up this 10%.  Aha!

A scientist explains the experiment thus: 
Problem:  you can hunt for deer together only or hunt alone for rabbits only.
The answers were the pointers to what classified Envious, Optimist, Pessimist or Trusting.

I have a problem with that: I am against hunting for sport.  Would that make me one of the 10% unidentified people?

What did I learn from reading about this study of humankind?  Only that a) scientists should have better things to do and b) the basis of the study sounds a bit flaky.
However, on thinking things over, this might be an absolute ice-breaker at that awkward dinner party/boring cocktail party you are attending.  How about turning to the nearest person and asking "if you had to hunt rabbits on your own or hunt deer with a partner, which would you do?" 
Whatever the answer, it would most likely be lost on me because I have nearly forgotten the rationale behind the survey. 
Everyone I have ever met is an individual with their own unique story. No scientist in any university anywhere in the world is going to change my opinion on that.

Friday, 7 October 2016

Why do we write?

All writers spend long lonely hours writing. And we don't like being disturbed. We read what we wrote yesterday, edit it a bit, then soldier on with the next 1,000 words or so. Sometimes it's easy, sometimes it's hard work. Why do we do it?
I am often faced with this question when introduced to someone as a "writer". To many people, being a writer means a) someone who has written a literary masterpiece and b) someone who has written a bestseller which is about to be made into a film and c) someone who has made a lot of money out of a) and b).
Why would you want to spend all that time writing if you don't make money on it? someone asked me the other day. I found it quite hard to explain that writing is a compulsion, that I get enormous fun out of creating characters and worlds and putting it all on paper. It is definitely not about making money. It is about having fun. The day I find it a chore is the day I stop.
I picked up a book at the library the other day entitled "Why We Write".  It has contributions from 20 acclaimed authors - Jane Smiley, Isabel Allende, Jodi Piccoult, Armistead Maupin to name but a few -  on how and why they do what they do. Not surprisingly, their motivation is more or less the same as mine. They love writing.
There is an extract from the first page of one of the authors' novels and this is where that old rule of writing is so clearly demonstrated: in every case the opening paragraph made me want to read the book. I had not heard of one or two of these writers but I will most definitely be looking for their works.
And here's a tip, hoary though it is, to all of us writing our stories: hook the reader from the first paragraph, don't wait to get into the swing of the story. The Germans have an expression mit der Tuer ins Haus fallen which means literally falling into the house with the door. You can imagine it: you simply want to turn the knob on the door and instead both you and the door crash into the hallway.  And that is how we should write our novels. The reader must want to know what happens next.
A word of warning here for us all: there are some novels out there which start with a great hook and can't sustain the story beyond the first chapter.  So the plot has to stand up to sustained suspense and no great beginning lets us off giving our best to the writing of the story.
So now it is time to leave off writing my blog and put some of that dynamism into practice.

Friday, 23 September 2016

Finding the Story Teller

There is a lot of advice out there on how to write: use simple words, short sentences, don't have two characters with the same name. I could go on - I have taken several classes in creative writing, have read loads of articles on the craft of writing. And I have profited from all of this, I have to admit. I have served a long apprenticeship on learning how to write and I am still learning.

So it never fails to irritate me a little bit when I start reading a novel which does not obey any of these rules, a novel by an author who has had several books published and, according to the cover is "acclaimed".  In the novel I am currently reading, a crime thriller, sentences are half a paragraph long, characters tell the story to keep the reader up to date, and everyone sounds more or less the same despite the author's attempts to give them different voices. Not one single character stands out or grabs my attention in any way. The story line itself is interesting, indeed it is very current in its theme, but to be honest, it wouldn't bother me if I never got round to finishing the book.

And here I perceive another lesson. No matter how good the plot, if the characters don't grab you, you are most likely going to give up before the story really gets started. There are natural born story tellers among us. I recall when I worked in London yonks ago in a typing pool, one girl told us the story of a film she had seen the previous night. She kept us totally spellbound. Years later when I saw that it would be shown on TV I settled down to watch it expecting an exciting film. It was boring in the extreme and I switched channels after around fifteen minutes. This girl kept us all enthralled with her own life story. She gave us the whole history or how she had moved to London, leaving her boyfriend of several years, and how she had met a new guy and was madly in love. We all hung on her every word!

Alas, there are far too few such story tellers in the world. Writers can learn how to create tension, how to plot, how to hook the reader, but once in a while there comes an author who really stands out by his or her way with words, a writer who can pull us into their world of fiction and make us never want to leave it. When you open a book like that, you have hit gold, believe me.