Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Calling all short story writers

Stop Press

The Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Award is worth £30,000 to the winner and is open to English language stories of up to 6,000 words. The closing date for entries is 10.00am on Friday September 21st.

Enrty forms and full terms and conditions can be found at and at

Good Luck!

Maeve Binchy 1940 - 2012

I first became aware of Maeve Binchy in the mid 1980s.  She had published her first novel Light a Penny Candle in 1983 and it was a huge best-seller.  In libraries too demand was high for this and for every one of her succeeding novels. Her books still remain immensely popular, greatly loved and heavily borrowed.  I remember in early 2000 it was rumoured that she wouldn’t be writing any more novels and I had many conversations with borrowers who were truly saddened to think that they might not be able to enjoy further stories by their favourite author.  (In fact she relented and from 2002 published several further novels). 

What readers like most about her books are her characters – they are people like themselves with similar hopes and ambitions; the same disappointments and failures.  They endure and enjoy life, and just get on with it.  Her novels have had a universal appeal and have been translated into 37 languages selling over 40 million books worldwide.

Her books are easy to read – almost like listening to neighbours gossiping – with absorbing story-lines and are always great page turners – often with an unexpected twist or two in the plot.  Her stories are about human nature and relationships; about families and communities; about love and support.  Maeve Binchy writes about what she knows and it shows in her stories – they are funny and warm and always compelling. 

I read her last novel – Minding Frankie – with a mixed reading group when it was first published in 2010.  The group consisted of 2 men and 4 women aged between 40 and 80 and I was surprised at the positive reaction from all of them.  Although both men stated that this was a “woman’s book” they had both enjoyed it and discussed in some detail the main character Noel who takes on the difficult job of bringing up his baby daughter.  They all enjoyed the story immensely even if it was “a little sweet” to quote one of them. 

What Maeve gives to her readers is an uplifting tale of ordinary folk living in ordinary towns and she writes with real sympathy and compassion for all of her characters, many of whom have reappeared in later books and have become almost like friends to her readers.  Her books are heart-warming and life-affirming and will continue to delight readers for many years to come.


Sunday, 15 July 2012

The best friend we have in the world ...

Susan Hill is a professional writer and the author of 38 books of both fiction and non-fiction. Early one summer afternoon, in pursuit of an elusive book on her shelves, she encountered dozens of others that she had never read, or forgotten she owned, or wanted to read for a second time. The discovery inspired her to embark on a year-long voyage through her own personal library – forsaking all new purchases – in order to get to know her collection again.

Wandering through her home that day, Susan Hill’s eyes were opened to the potential delights of retrospective reading. Considering everything from Macbeth to Virginia Woolf, Dickens to Roald Dahl, Susan Hill’s Howards End is on the Landing charts the journey of one of Britain’s most accomplished authors as she revisits the conversations, libraries and bookshelves of the past that have informed a lifetime of reading and writing.

In similar vein, the Room To Write and Read Reading Group exists to introduce the delights of retrospective reading and to celebrate the work of writers who may not currently be held in the esteem they deserve.

Books are everywhere; and always the same sense of adventure fills us
Second-hand books are wild books, homeless books; they have come together in vast flocks of variegated feather and have a charm which the domesticated volumes of the library lack. Besides, in this random, miscellaneous company we may rub against some complete stranger who will, with luck, turn into the best friend we have in the world.
                                                                                                                   Virginia Woolf

Why not join us? I guarantee you won’t be disappointed.  


Thursday, 5 July 2012

The Old Peculiar Crime Writing Festival

Takes place from July 19th - 22nd at The Old Swan Hotel, Harrogate.  
(The hotel where Agatha Christie was discovered, having run away from her husband).

Haran Coben, John Connolly, Peter James, Kate Mosse, Jo Nesbo and Ian Rankin are among those crime writers attending. 
For tickets call 01423 52116 and online

Thursday, 28 June 2012

Elizabeth Taylor centenary year

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor

The novelist Elizabeth Taylor has been described as the unsung heroine of British twentieth century fiction and the thinking person’s dangerous housewife. In her novels – 11 in all – and in her short stories, there is a tenderness and compassion as she dissects the minutiae of people’s lives, always with a psychological insight and more than a dash of comedy.

How deeply I envy any reader coming to her for the first time wrote novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard.

Elizabeth Taylor was born in Reading in 1912 and worked both as a governess and a librarian before her marriage to a sweet manufacturer in 1936. Her first novel At Mrs. Lippincote’s was published in 1945 – the same year as actress Elizabeth Taylor appeared in the film ‘National Velvet’.

The writer, Elizabeth Taylor, has been likened to novelists of the calibre of Jane Austen and Barbara Pym and one can also detect similarities with the work of Anita Brookner whose novels are often also about anguish, loneliness and despair – yet in Elizabeth Taylor we also find elements of  farce and gentle comedy, both lacking in Brookner’s work.

My personal favourite, Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, which was published in 1971, tells of the eponymous heroine who, recently widowed, decides to move into a London hotel and end her days there. As the book opens Mrs Palfrey is in a taxi, apprehensive about what the Claremont – reduced winter rates, excellent cuisine – will be like. Once inside, she realises that The Claremont is less a gentlewomen’s hotel and more like a residential home.

Mrs Palfrey is about to join the ranks of the rejected;  Mrs Arbuthnot, crippled with arthritis; Mr Osmond - forever dashing off outraged letters to The Daily Telegraph; Mrs Post - constantly knitting; the bloated Mrs Burton - reeking of whisky by lunchtime. All have just enough money and pride to live out their days in a residential hotel and all are drawn by Elizabeth Taylor with sympathy, ironically strengthened by the novelist’s objectivity.

Soon after her arrival, Laura Palfrey hears herself praising a considerate grandson who doesn’t actually exist. She does have a grandson but in her anxiety to appear part of a loving and caring family she transforms the dull, pedantic Desmond into the grandson of her imagining – charming, considerate and interesting.

Following on from embroidering the truth, she encounters Ludo, a penniless writer, who comes to her aid. In an inspired moment, she persuades him to pose as Desmond and invites him to dinner at the Claremont so that the others will believe she has family willing to visit her. Despite disposing of the ghastly three courses with rapidity, ‘Desmond’ meets with the approval of the other residents and Laura begins to enjoy her wickedness and to delight in the deception. To discover how events unfold I recommend you read the book for yourself. You won’t be disappointed.

If you’ve not read Elizabeth Taylor before, it is particularly apt that you do so this year for, in 2012, we celebrate the centenary of her birth.  Radio 4’s Bookclub  programme this coming Sunday, 1st July at 4.00pm, pays tribute to her with novelist and comedian David Baddiel in conversation with broadcaster Jim Naughtie about this signature work, Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont.

I especially enjoyed this quote from the novel and wanted to share it with you - No one that he (Ludo) knew stood in awe of writers. The Major had told him one day that in 5 year’s time no one would read any more. Later, archaeologists would ponder on, argue about, what books had been for. ‘It’ll all be telly, visual aids,’ the Major insisted. I am certain that reading Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont will inspire you to go on reading and prove the Major wrong.


Saturday, 9 June 2012

Fiction and Truth Reading as a Reader, Reading as a Writer

 I would point out that in the Iconic reading group teased me that I read these books as a writer, not purely as a reader.  This is evident here in this post, I think... I did protest to them that this was true. I am indeed a writer! 

Suite Francaise  - really a suite of two novels which might have grown been three -  was famously written by Irene Nemirovsky was what I was: a writer!during the German occupation of France  before her removal in 1942 to Auschwitz and ultimate death. The rediscovery and  publication  of the work sixty five years later is a story in itself.

Irene - already a well known writer - embarked on the novel in the rural  village of Issy-l'Eveque where she and her husband and two small daughters lived, having fled occupied Paris.

I have just finished writing my latest novel - to be called The Art of Retreating - partly set in Occupied France and partly in the present day, so had read dozens of scholarly histories,  factual anecdotal memoirs and factual personal stories to get inside the particular experience of one of the six  main characters -  the aged writer Francine Costington.

I  kept Suite Francaise - at the far side of my table -  to read after I had finished writing my own novel.  This was because,  being fiction, this novel is essentially a secondary source; secondary sources are normally weak and can lead to thin storytelling and unconscious imitation..

It turns out though that t Suite Francaise relates intensely ... Read on. 

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Summer Book Tove Johannson: Reading for Myself

Reading for  Myself
When I read a new novel I make a habit of not reading any commentaries, reviews or introductions as I don't like to be told what Ishould think or feel about  a new book. I like to come to it afresh.  I may read such commentaries afterwards but my own first close reading is my reference for what the book means to me.

But you can't close your ears and Tove Jannson 's Summer Book came to the Iconic reading group laden with insightful praise from my reading guru Gillian. She certainly made me want to read it.

As I read it  I admired its beautifully written spare, poetic tone. I found it  hard to sort out whether this was down to the elegant translation or the original writing by a writer, whose reputation is built on writing for children. Of course the best children's writers know in their hearts about diamond bright use of language  to convey precise, often deep meaning,. Tove Jannson certainly does this in this story about a small girl who spends the summer on an island on the gulf of Finland with her Grandmother, who is a marginally eccentric artist and has no problems rowing in the water around the island.   (MORE...)

Sunday, 3 June 2012

The Loss of the Amazing Mary Davies

Mary and her Polish Friend Halina

I have just heard from Jan Atkins of the death (aged 93) on the Isle of  Arran of my old  friend Mary Davies, a gifted painter, writer and healer.  My novel The Woman Who Drew Buildings was inspired by tales told to me by this wonderful  and somewhat  mystical writer and artist who  lived  in retirement on the Isle of Arran and who  also, in her time, drew buildings for a living. She was - remarkably -  a note taker and reporter for architectural historian Niklaus Pevsner and in her time helped to save important buildings from demolition.

Drawing from Mary's stories, experience and documentation the novel takes place in Poland in 1981 and Britain in 2006 . What’s it about? It’s 
about  the consuming nature of art, the shadowy place between now and the hereafter; it’s about passionate encounters arising from a confluence of cultures and the long journey of a mother and son to mutual understanding.   (more...)

Friday, 1 June 2012

STOP PRESS for readers, writers and listeners

Don’t forget to join me this Sunday at Noon on the 3rd June to The Writing Game  on Bishop FM where Gillian, Avril and I dig into the inspiration of the garden.
This month on The Writing Game we are making the connection between the creative processes of gardening and writing. Many gardeners are writers and many writers are gardeners. Both activities require a combination of inspiration, hard work, creativity and patience. The only way to become accomplished at both writing and gardening is  actually to do it – not think about it or theorise about it but to actually practice the art. Some people would say that in both cases you have to be willing to get your hands dirty!
On this month’s programme we visit the garden in Low Etherley of Mary Smith who is both a great gardener and a member of Wear Valley Writers. ..  – read more  at

Sunday, 20 May 2012

Dorthy M Reviews THE ROAD by Cormac McCarthy

Dorothy, a valued and very informed member of our Iconic Book Group  lives in Littletown near Durham City.  Now retired she worked for Durham County Library Service for over 40 years and lists books and reading as one of her great passions.  She reviews books for the website - do give this a try if you don’t know it – it is a very original way of suggesting books for readers.  

Here's Dorothy: 

 'The Road is a brilliant novel and a great work of literature – but first and foremost it is an amazing experience.  I was totally immersed in this grim world and in the story of a man (who is dying slowly and painfully) and a boy journeying through a country destroyed by some cataclysmic event.  The book portrays a bleak, cold, grey world which is without hope but where to despair is to die.  Yet even in it’s darkest moments this is a book lit up by a story of incandescent love – the love between a father and son.

As father and son plod slowly south on their way to a hopefully slightly better climate we learn that the father has promised to kill his son at the time of his own death for he cannot bear to leave him alone in such a hostile world.
From the very first words of the book -  When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him.  Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before.-  
you are plunged into a harrowing tale of survival  - a story which is both sad and uplifting.  The story is told in language which is beautiful in its starkness and poetic in its rhythms and every word packs an emotional punch.  The use of repetition is particularly effective.  The dialogue between father and son is heartbreaking and never has the word ‘okay’ been used to such devastating effect.

Magnificent descriptions of the desolation of the blasted countryside and the ruined cities they pass through are contrasted with the unspeakable horrors of human degradation as the few survivors abandon all morality and fight for their lives.

This seems to me to be one of the best novels of our generation.  In fact the book reminds me more and more of “Pilgrim’s Progress” every time I read it – partly because of the journey and partly because of the language.  If you haven’t read it yet – drop everything and read it now!'

Dorothy M.

I like the look of - Good for readers who want to spread their wings. Wendy


Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Iconic reading Group

Our Reading Group will meet  on Saturday 19th May 

Join us at 3.30pm in the conservatory at Whitworth Hall. 

The books we are reading are:-

The Summer Book by Tove Jansson 


Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky 

Come and Join us to talk books. All welcome!

Monday, 14 May 2012

Full day workshop at Middlesbrough

STOP PRESS: On 16th June I will be leading a full fay  workshop at Middlesbrough Reference library about creative  writing inspired by local history. Last week  I went by train with Gillian  to the exquisite Carnegie reference library in Middlebrough, which on May 2nd celebrated the centenary of its original building in 1912.  There is a good deal to celebrate: this building is the epitome of respect for the world of books and learning... click for more information   Come and join me if you can. Wendy

Kurt Vonnegut's Eight Rules for Writing Fiction

 Recommended by Avril

1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.

2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.

3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.

4. Every sentence must do one of two things -- reveal character or advance the action.

5. Start as close to the end as possible.

6. Be a sadist. Now matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them -- in order that the reader may see what they are made of.

7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.

8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

Friday, 4 May 2012


At Noon THIS SUNDAY 6TH MAY   Sylvia Hurst. nee Fleischer, now 90, talks about her autobiography Laugh or Cry, which starts in pre-war Germany and ends up, via the 1939 Kindertransport and life in London and Manchester, in the small village of Tantobie in County Durham. A unique voice from the past and the present reflecting major events in the twentieth century.   Try to listen on Bishop FM 105.9

Friday, 20 April 2012

Crime as Fiction Wendy’s Workshop Notes

Crime as Fiction  Wendy’s Workshop Notes


Crime is committed by people on the edge – a great field for writing.
It involves a reversal of a basic survival instinct
It involves extreme situations, extreme acts, extreme solutions – stepping outside the norms and values of society.
Not just the simple breaking of written laws, there are moral laws, cultural taboos

What is Crime?
Something against the law?  Crime is not an absolute. It is relative to the society and the time in which one finds oneself. (Significant for  historical crime fiction)
What about moral laws?
List your own crimes ….
List the times you might have done a criminal act if you had gone a little
( I used a true story of boys destroying a cobbler’s workshop in my novel A Woman Scorned. Boy's play 'going a bit further' is the basis of my novel Cruelty Games )

Is murder not about ‘the other’ but ourselves??

Do we have that instinct to stray, which we mostly resist? What would happen if we didn’t?     

Universality of temptation

Very high percentage of murders inside families – by a ‘person known’ to the victim.

Consider ‘Stalking people harassing, even harming their victim by imagining they are ‘known’ to them. Eg Madonna’s stalker.

Is this why people like to read crime? – very popular -    

Peeping at the monster within from a place of safety?
The fearful thrill of the strong (murderous) fairy tales?
Is the Silence of The Lambs a murderous fairy tale?
By contemplating it through story -  and surviving - we are
relieved, even exhilarated. We are more alive.

This involves temptation, which is always psychologically interesting.

Is it like a vicarious experience of war?

But easier?  Less ambiguous. Clear-cut goodies and baddies?
Commun use of warrior  language– ‘War in Crime’  ‘Front-Line’ ‘No-Go areas’ etc?
 Politicians insisting on calling terrorists criminals


WORKSHOP - Possibilities for you:

You are a witness to a crime.
LIST what you see, hear, smell, taste – crucial to the feeling of threat…

You commit the crime

LIST what you see, hear, smell, taste – frucial to the feeling of fear, of power …

WRITE  20-30 lines of a story which contains this crime. Does not have to be the beginning of the novel. Let yourself go!


 © Wendy Robertson 2012

Avril: Finding Your Story

All writers know about the search for story and for what it is we want to say. Sometimes this means digging deep, like Stephen King says to uncover the fossil – the story which is buried beneath the soil. Sometimes this digging is just that: the sheer hard work of writing itself, the pen in place of the spade. Write on, we say, and the story will emerge. But it doesn’t always work. We begin and then we get stuck. Some stories are just more stubborn than others. In my Spring Novel Group we seem to have done a fair bit of searching for our stories. Talking has helped, as has research and reading – but sometimes I think what works best is to take a fork and prod and shake the soil – mix things up a bit, change things round and see what emerges.

Here are seven ways to do that  –

7 Ways To Find Your Story
  • ·      Change the names of your characters – this can dramatically change how you think of them and what they might do  
  •     Change the location – make it entirely different – move them in time or place
  • ·      Take a trip out – go look at something, go for a walk – let your story sit there quietly      at the back of your mind.
  •     Read, watch films, talk to friends, talk to writing buddies – let your story breathe in the real world
  •     Write a first person piece for your main characters – hear their voices, know who they are and what they want.
  •     Ask what if? Pose lots of possibilities, the crazier the better.
  •      Listen to the radio – I find so much inspiration here – use listen again on i player  -  listen to The Writing Game podcasts

Sometimes its just one thing, one small idea, event that will give you the key to finding your story -Oh and one more idea which sometimes works for me with half written short stories, try combining existing stories in some way and see where that takes you – GOOD LUCK!

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Stop Press: Orange Prize for Fiction

The Shortlist for this year's Orange Prize has just been announced.

Click on  Author Profiles tab above for lists, judges. commentary and invitation to read and review....

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Wendy: Reading for Deeper Enjoyment and Reading to Write

Some aspiring writers I meet say they are so busy making time to write that they don’t have time to read. 

This is paradoxical to me. All writers should read and enjoy book as readers do. This is important,  when you are first building your writer’s skills, to read in a way which develops your sensitivity to the way in which words and prose are used by particular writers: they use all aspects of their writing craft to share their vision of life in this particular story, with their readers.

You can apply this more directly to your own writing:
It is possible and often desirable to go try this process with any writer from Dostoyevsky to Dickens, Brontë to Woolf. However, if you wish your work to strike a chord with a modern audience it’s most useful to apply this quality of attention to  well regarded contemporary work – say something written in the last five years.

  • Choose a book.
  • Avoid reading any further on-line or newsprint reviews of the book you have chosen. Discard any commentary you have already scanned. These will warp your unique perception.
  • Read the novel or story very quickly. Don’t think! Just enjoy.
  • (NB  If you find you don’t like it, find another story that you do enjoy  – you can’t develop your own writing  by analysing what you don’t like about a writer!  You will drown your own talent in negativities. Don’t waste your time.)
  • Put the story to one side and, without referring to it, make a list in your notebook  of the five things you most enjoyed about it.   These things may be anything at all. There are no right or wrong answers here,
  • Beside each item on the list write a single sentence about why this element makes the story work for you.
  • Find a direct quotation from the books which illustrates this.
  • Consider structure: How many chapters does it have? How long is each chapter?  Does the writer use chapters at all?  How do chapters begin? How do they end? How does the arc of the story work? Where do the high points or dramas occur in the story? If there are chapters what is the relationship between the end of one chapter and the beginning of another?  Look at a single chapter or section very closely. How does the writer use the length of the paragraphs? Can you spot deliberate use of long or short sentences?
  • Consider language in these pages: In a single sentence describe the kind of language this writer uses. Is it plain and forceful?  Is it soft and subtle? What is the writer’s take on simile and metaphor?  How would you define their style? What is the proportion of text here of narrative and character, between description and dialogue?
  • Take a page of this chapter and re-draft a page of your own story, sentence by sentence, in the style and form of this writer. It may seem surreal. It may seem like a parody. But what have you learnt in doing this?
  • Characterisation: Does the writer use the evolution of character to drive the story in this book? Give a quotation to illustrate this.
  • Consider themes: What is this book about? Be very broad here – don’t retell the story! Think hard and dig out the underlying themes. These could be as broad as ‘redemption through pain’,  or ‘vindication of past action through present dramas’, or as small asone woman’s successful search for happiness’ or ‘the impact of a stranger on a family’  - just make it up in your own words.
NOW!  - make a list of anything you've learned, in completing this process, that could have a direct impact on the way you tackle your own writing.  The list may be short or long, but there will be something significant here.

NOW! - apply this whole process directly to the reading of three stories. After that you will begin to notice these important elements automatically as you read. You will also begin automatically to apply elements that suit your style to your own work, as you write.

IMPORTANT TO NOTE that I am not advocating that you copy any other writer’s approach of techniques.   NOR am  I saying you should directly focus on any of these things as you write your story. Not at all.    BUT this process will expand your skills and options when you come to tackling your own writing.  It will also especially help you when you edit your own completed long work.  It can also help readers to appreciate the thought and creativity that goes into the work of a writer they admire.    WR

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

All Change At Room To Write

There are changes here at Room To Write.

 For one thing, we've changed our name to Room To Write and Read because we have found consistently that those who write are great readers and that those who read share the values of most writers. After all where would a writer be without a reader? And where would a reader be without a good book to read?

So, we've decided that the website needed to reflect both aspects of this literary experience.

In the last two years Room To Write (and now Read) has become an open-ended, combined group of both writers and readers who return again and again to enjoy the experience and especially the sheer pleasure of the exciting world of words and books.

So our new intention is to build on all this on the new website, with books which our writers have published; reviews of books by our readers. Our rather grand ambition is to feature everything that celebrates the importance of writing and reading.

Our recent conference on Kindling highlighted the significance of the eBook revolution for both new and experienced writers. It introduced them to skills which would showcase their work and make it available out there in the literary world. Writers at the conference also learned how to prepare their work to create hard copy books using the print on demand process.

We hope you will join us here on our new website and be inspired - like our current writing and reading circle - in this creative empowering enterprise.

We'd love you to join in this adventure.

Happy Writing, Happy Reading!

Wendy, Avril and Gillian

Note: The painting heading this blog is a section from a painting of the Nineteenth Century Whitworth Hall by Spennymoor artist  Fiona Naughton who has also designed some book covers for us.