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April Thoughts

With apologies to Browning who probably wouldn’t recognise our current weather patterns. I wrote this last week and thought I’d better post it before the forecast weather improvements make nonsense of it!

Cherry trees made an altogether glorious parade
And a magnolia cast a huge upside-down-umbrella shade.
Forsythia was golden.
The violets were out
But the taller trees determined
That Spring was not about.

There were daffodils in the breeze, dancing
While the glossy bluebell leaves were thrusting.
A lilac sprouted leaf buds.
A willow wept yellow-green.
Still the taller trees determined
That Spring had not been seen.

The sycamore was one that made a start
Wearing tight furled leaves to look the part
Though the other woodland giants
Were resolutely bare.
For the taller trees determined
That Spring truly wasn’t there.

The elm-tree boles that might have wished to please
Were all just memories through Dutch disease.
The chaffinches were nesting
(Though not on any orchard bow)
And the taller trees determined
It was too cold for Spring right now.

Magpies chased off last year’s offspring.
Aconites were this month’s bling.
Some ducks were building nests
And the geese honked, full of cheer,
While the taller trees determined
That Spring might just be near.

The branches raised to greet the driving rain
Were uniformly black without a stain
Of green. Beneath them flowers
And birds (and lambs) told all of England how
Despite the taller trees’ determination
It was April now.

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Posted by on April 15, 2018 in poetry

 

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Female characters

There was a meme going round that asked for your favourite female characters in books and films and perhaps in your own work. I thought I’d expand that to talk about female characters in general.

I always loved the Shakespeare female characters who stepped out of the ‘normal’ roles for their time, either by their work (Portia as a lawyer) or by cross-dressing (Viola in Twelfth Night). I was less invested in the ones like Miranda in The Tempest who seemed to conform to all the stereotypes of daughter, girlfriend, etc. As a child, I wallowed in Tales from Shakespeare and was taken to the theatre well before I could really get to grips with the scripts of the plays. I think Viola, in particular, had quite a strong effect on me.

I was presented, at the same time, with the opportunity to read my way through all the Anne of Avonlea books by LM Montgomery, and loved Anne, with her fiery temper and ambitions. I never really put myself in her place; my best friend was a redhead and I think I envisaged Anne as her, with myself in some kind of supporting role. Again, a strong influence. The same people who lent me the Anne books introduced me to Little Women but that was never one of my favourites.

Later, at boarding school, the Brontë sisters were rather shoved down our throats, since Charlotte attended the same school. I disliked Jane Eyre, and thought the heroine allowed herself to be manipulated by events and by other people. I did not find a man who kept his mad wife in the attic a particularly romantic proposition, either. As for the characters in Wuthering Heights, I simply found them tiresome.

I really love Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels and my favourite characters are Granny Weatherwax and the werewolf Angua. Both seem to epitomise independent women with sensible attitudes to almost everything. The Discworld novels are ‘comfort’ reading for me (along with other series that don’t have especially memorable female protagonists). I also love Georgette Heyer’s Regency romances and like best the ones where the heroine is compelled to use cross-dressing to survive. This harks back to my feelings for Viola, I suppose, and is odd, because I have never felt even vaguely inclined to masquerade as the opposite gender in my real life.

I have always enjoyed cop buddy TV series and particularly liked the female detectives in NYPD Blue and in Cagney and Lacey. Recently, I enjoyed Kono’s role in Hawaii 5.O. My favourite shows at the moment are Spiral (French cop show Engrenages) with the lead detective Laure, and The Bridge, with the Swedish detective Saga, who appeals to me on another level because of my interest in autism.

I adored The West Wing and liked CJ, Alison Janney’s role, best of all the characters. I was also fascinated by Donna.

My own female characters are a mixed bunch.

The heroine of my elf detective series, Genef, is quite dear to my heart. She sprang to life when I wanted a story that combined some of my favourite themes and tropes: fantasy, crime, strong female lead, mm romance, and dragons (which are a sub-genre of fantasy, yes). Genef’s mother and sister play little part in the stories but the twins Jinna and Janna, with their own secret language, and Loriela, a young girl, confined to a wheelchair, who is Genef’s brother’s pupil, are all prominent in some sections, as is Princess Briana, a friend to Genef and a licensed pirate.

My fae saga, Living Fae, has two males as the major characters but Harlequin’s sister Moth was actually the trigger for the whole series. She came into being in answer to a child’s letters to the fairies at the bottom of the garden, letters I was asked to answer. Moth generated an entire series about her family (as well as giving her name to my friends-locked social media) and whilst she is not one of the main ‘players’ I feel a great deal of affection for her. Her sisters, Columbine and Peasblossom, have larger roles and are both, I hope, interesting characters. The same goes for their mother, Flame; although I dislike her intensely, I love writing her.

There. That’s over twenty female characters introduced as having affected me in one way or another. Obviously there are others, in the books and shows mentioned above and in my own writing. None of my own are, I hope, any kind of Mary Sue. I have never wanted to be a detective. (If anything, I identify with Fel, Genef’s teacher brother.) Nor are any of them without flaws. Even Genef doesn’t find a solution to everything and has to rely on her brother, her mentor and her dragon in most cases.

I do enjoy reading, viewing and writing strong female characters, and it is interesting to look back at those that have perhaps influenced me over the course of my life.

 
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Posted by on April 13, 2018 in personal, writing

 

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March Reviews

    Films etc.

Given that Game of Thrones is seven episodes, I watched ten things this month apart from my normal diet of politics and nature documentaries.

I, Daniel Blake*****
Excellent story that shows how people are affected by benefit cuts and the ways Social Services are obliged to deal with them. Sad, horribly true (despite being fiction) and hopefully influential in much the same way as Cathy Come Home was for earlier generations of politicians.

Game of Thrones Season 7 *****
What can I say? Apparently Season 8, which will be the last, will not be aired until 2019 and may have fewer episodes (though some might be feature length). And presumably the final book will not be available till after that. Whilst I deplore the marketing and production decisions, I love the story so much that I will just have to find a way to cope until 2019.

12 Dogs of Christmas 2****
I expected to be bored but it was a pleasant film with some good underlying messages. The dogs, of course, helped. A young woman who returns to her home town for a funeral is caught up in an effort to save the dog rescue centre owned by the person who died.

Mama Mia***
The Abba Music was nice. Other than that, I thought it was rubbish. Poor plot and dialogue. The actors did a valiant job with the material they were given.

    Books

I seem to have been reading non-stop this month (blame the weather?) and a lot of what I read was excellent. Remember five stars means highly recommended!

So let’s start with the excellent:

Jingo by Terry Pratchett *****
I thought I’d read this and it turned out I hadn’t. I really enjoyed it, but I can say that about all Pratchett’s books. This is the one that looks at war, particularly the beginnings.

Out! by JL Merrow*****
This is the third in the Shamwell series. A workaholic accountant gets custody of his rebellious teenage daughter and ‘retires’ to the country where he meets a charity worker who doesn’t approve of his work in high finance. Lovely writing, the teenagers are brilliantly drawn, and the main protagonists are well developed. I am beginning to wonder if this and one or two other series are realistic – I’m not sure how many successful gay romances one location can sustain. However, it makes good escapist fiction and it’s nice spotting characters from the previous books.

Forest Dancer by Susan Roebuck*****
Probably my favourite book of the month. Reviewed separately at https://jaymountney.wordpress.com/2018/03/17/forest-dancer-a-review/

Heart Trouble by DJ Jamison*****
Vol 1 of Hearts and Health series
A nurse who is still recovering from a broken relationship meets a patient who he mistakenly thinks is a biker, an adrenaline junkie. The guy is in fact a teacher, trying out some extreme sports for a work assignment. The story has Ben and Gage at cross purposes for most of the time but eventually all is explained.

The Dinosaur Hunters by Deborah Cadbury*****
An account of the work of nineteenth century geologists to establish the concept of dinosaurs. I intend to review this (and other books on the same topic) in a separate post so won’t go into too much detail, but can say that this one comes highly recommended.

Crossfire by Jackie Keswick*****
A new boyfriend (this is an mm romance) turns out to be threatened by his (female) ex from a mafia family. The plot is gripping and the action is all the more interesting because of the central theme of the relationship between the boyfriend and his sister who helps save the day.

2018 State of Hate by Hope not Hate*****
I hesitated to class this as a book as it has a semi-magazine format but it’s long, with in-depth articles about the rise of, and current state of, right wing groups in UK and Europe. I knew most of the general information but there were details that were fascinating (especially about Eastern Europe) and it will make a good reference work on the subject.

A Gathering Storm by Joanna Chambers ***** Porthkennack series
This is an interesting historical story in the series where various authors set their stories in the same fictional Cornish town. A physicist has become fascinated by the occult and is researching the idea of contacting spirits using electricity. He is laughed out of Oxford and London and retreats to Porthkennack where he meets a land agent who has Romany ancestry but is nevertheless not a believer in any kind of spiritualism. The pair get off to a bad start and the slow growth of trust and an appreciation of each other’s beliefs and work form a fascinating tale.

English Place Names by AD Mills*****
(an Oxford dictionary spin-off)
Well, obviously I haven’t read it cover to cover. The introduction is fascinating and shows just how much of what we think we know about place names can often be wrong. Once I’d read that, I turned to various places known to me, and found I could get lost for hours, just as I can in an atlas or a dictionary. If you’ve ever wondered how various strange names turned up on UK signposts, you will enjoy this book!

The Dragon’s Tale by Harper Fox *****
Book 2 of the Arthur trilogy.
This follows When First I Met My King. Lance is summoned to a northern castle where Arthur lies injured. The book deals with the royal negotiations with the local tribes, old (British) and new (Anglo-Saxon) and in the course of this various legends are tweaked and brilliantly retold to bring about the arrival of Guinevere. Exquisite writing (as always) and wonderful world-building. The story of Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot is given a totally new twist in this series and I am really looking forward to the last in the trilogy.

Then the good:

10X10 Digital rights in the next decade by openrightsgroup.org ****
I think they sent me this because I signed up and subscribed to them. It was a really interesting read with articles by a variety of people covering disparate aspects of online rights, privacy, etc. As with most multi-author works, there were some sections better than others. Overall, recommended.

Pretty in Pink and Helping Hand by Jay Northcote ****
The Housemates series.
These are pleasant and well written mm romances set among students and recent graduates in Plymouth. They’re predictable and not really memorable but the quality of the writing plus the UK location means they are a cut above the usual offerings in the college romance genre.

The mediocre.

Discern by Andrea Pearson***
Vol 1 of Mosaic Chronicles.
This story was simply not to my taste. It’s reasonably well written but there is too much horror (and stupidity on the part of the students who experience it), too little magic for what purports to be a magic university, and a lack of real archaeology on a field trip. If you like that kind of thing, it’s the start of a series. I wouldn’t personally recommend it.

I was lucky this month – there was nothing poor or dire!

    Fanfiction

I read a lot of excellent fanfic this month but most of it required a knowledge of the ‘canon’ (the original book or show) for true enjoyment. However, I’m going to recommend one story with not just one but two canons.

Who Wakes As The World Sleeps by nagi_schwarz*****
The story is what is known as a crossover. The protagonists of Stargate Atlantis meet the concept of Westworld. So, two sci-fi stories collide. It’s an interesting story on various levels. It’s a perfect example of a crossover which is about as transformative as fanfic can be. It addresses questions about reality, what it means to be human, and how people express their feelings. It’s an mm romance but is not explicit. I think most of it is accessible to the reader who is not in either fandom though I suspect you might need to know the basic idea of Westworld before reading. Altogether highly recommended. It’s just over 31k words long so think in terms of a long novella.
https://archiveofourown.org/works/13037208

 
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Posted by on April 5, 2018 in reviews

 

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Autism Awareness Week: a personal reflection

Autism is something I am aware of on a daily basis so I thought I would share our experiences.

On Sunday, my grandson was 10 years old. He was diagnosed as autistic when he was 5 after exhibiting ‘challenging behaviour’ in mainstream school. Later, at 8, he was also diagnosed with ADHD and is now on medication to control the extreme anxiety he feels as a result of that. The medication dampens down his behaviour to some extent and he is more than happy to take it. Fortunately, he is not showing any signs of the physical side effects that can lead to stopping the medication.

We are also fairly sure he ‘ticks all the boxes’ for PDA (pathological demand avoidance) which is a subset of autism. Our local child psychiatric unit is one of those that does not believe in extra labels and will not apply PDA as a label within their diagnosis. I understand their reluctance, and indeed everyone’s reluctance to label children at all, but an ‘official’ diagnosis of PDA would be helpful for schools in providing some direction for their management of the child. Because our grandson is extremely clever, all the management techniques have been those normally used for what used to be called Asperger’s syndrome (also a subset that the clinic do not use). PDA plus ADHD is not a combination that responds well to this approach.

A year ago the school and local authority managed to get J into a special school. This is a school run by a private trust, taking children from a number of local authorities. It is not specifically a school for autistic children but rather for children with challenging behaviour. There are a few absolute criteria a potential pupil must meet. They must be deemed capable of following a normal curriculum, and they must not be an ‘escape’ risk as the school has no desire to resemble a prison. They should not be adamant about refusing to attend school. The classes are tiny, the teachers and support staff are highly trained and motivated, and so far, things are going well.

The school effectively treats the PDA in its normal approach to dealing with challenging behaviour. The rules and sanctions (and rewards) are consistent and fair, and the children respond well. There tends to be some disruption whenever a new child joins the class, but things settle down once their needs are being met. We are thrilled with the progress, both academic and social, that J is making.

The school is 5 – 16 so we are hoping to avoid what could be a nightmare of transition to high school at 11. We also know that the school readies the pupils for a normal GCSE range of subjects, although the options are slightly limited purely because of staffing constraints. This is not the case in any of the special schools that the local authority provide (they claim to prepare students for exams but these tend not to be in ‘academic’ subjects) so they fund J’s attendance at the private institution. We just have to hope the funding remains in place until he is 16.

We know we are lucky. We have a child who is academic and who is finally beginning to shine as he should in the classroom. He reads at an adult level and helps the support staff with their spelling… His handwriting, after years of struggle in a mainstream school, is now (one year on) exquisite, though he still prefers typing. His comprehension is excellent though his autism means that while he will immediately understand who, what, when, where and how, the extra question of why something happened will often mean very little to him. Maths is still his favourite subject and he has expressed a desire to be a maths teacher, though I don’t think he would ever have the patience, or be able to deal with children who were struggling with the subject. However, we have high hopes that he will find a career in maths or IT. He also loves art but his main artistic interest is in creating cartoons for online use. He is learning French, enjoying music, and excelling at science.

An ideal 10-year-old to be proud of? Yes, of course, but he is still only at the level of perhaps a 5-year-old in his social interactions and can be difficult to manage in social situations. However, he has friends, both at school and outside it, and seems to be making progress, at last, in this sphere too. If he had to attend a mainstream high school I think he (and we) would sink under the stress. As he will, by then, be at perhaps a 6-year-old’s level of social interaction, you can no doubt imagine how a large high school would impact on him – and how he might impact on them.

We know a number of children who have faced school exclusion as a result of behaviour that in retrospect was probably due to being on the autistic spectrum. Autistic children (and adults) react badly to change, to extreme noise and movement, to any kind of sarcasm or attempt to explain anything with figures of speech. They tend to respond to questions very literally: ‘would you like to open the window, J?’ is likely to get the answer ‘no’ with absolutely no intent to be unpleasant or impertinent.

I think probably autism awareness week is a good time to reflect on the changes we, as a family, have experienced during the year. It also, as I said, coincides with J’s birthday. If we look back at the last twelve months, J is much happier, sleeping better, more self-aware, and increasing his self-esteem on an almost daily basis. He is consciously trying to modify his behaviour and reactions to fit in with the expectations of both adults and children. As a result, although he is not always successful, the entire family is under less strain and we have high hopes for the future.

 
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Posted by on March 29, 2018 in personal

 

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Portugal: the October fires and an update on my life.

I thought it was probably time I updated readers here and on Facebook about the October fires in Portugal and our personal disaster.
Anyone who follows me on Dreamwidth or LiveJournal need not read the LiveJournal material – skip to the text below the link.
Rather than writing everything all over again I’m giving a link to my posts on LiveJournal. I left those unlocked so that people who don’t use social media could visit them. I locked the similar ones on DW because that’s where I chat with most of my close online friends and I didn’t want them to feel suddenly in the ‘public’ eye. There are three long posts, all uploaded on the same date.

https://moth2fic.livejournal.com/2017/11/17/

Since then, we’ve had the full insurance pay-out plus some compensation for the fruit trees, though that’s on hold until they see which (if any) have survived, in the spring. We are still bringing things home, or at least my husband is. There’s a limit to how much weight he can get in the van on each trip. He is taking stuff out for people there and acting as a one way courier is helping to pay for the travel, which, of course, insurance doesn’t cover!
I don’t go with him because he stays in an apartment which belongs to a friend who is in America. The apartment has bottled gas and running water but no light, and no adequate heating. Certainly no hot water unless he boils a kettle. However, for him, it’s a cheap and convenient option.

It’s been five months now, and I have been in a state of shock, and was unable, at first, to write. All thoughts led back to the disaster, which skewed everything and made normal writing impossible. It also impacted on my social interactions with people both online and offline. I was unable to stop talking about it and felt I should retreat rather than impose my emotions on others. Recently, things have improved and I have been able to start writing again. I have fewer nightmares and my sleep patterns are settling. Someone pointed out that because everything is still in a state of flux I have no real closure, so the disaster has remained and remains very current for me.

Our UK house is in chaos with boxes everywhere – our own, and deliveries for my husband’s next trip. We had, of course, replaced our furniture and now have to decide what to keep, what to move around, and what to dispose of. The boxes, as well as containing books and china, tend to have a liberal sprinkling of rat dirt, wasps nests and ash. Not pleasant! And most of the time I’m on my own. Not easy!

Needless to say, it’s more difficult than that for many of our friends in Portugal (a mixture of Portuguese, English, Dutch and Belgian). Internet and phone contact is still erratic and I can only guarantee contacting my husband on the days he goes into town to see the council or the estate agent. Some of our friends are rebuilding. Some are looking elsewhere. Some are trying to keep their businesses going while the area gets back on its feet. So I’m living through all that vicariously as well as through our own problems.

There are ‘trivial’ problems, too. We have had to employ someone to remove trees that are still standing from our land, though we are not allowed to remove olives. The electricity was, of course, cut off, and we are not being charged, but the electricity board refuses to believe that there are still live wires which are in fact making part of the ruin live. We need electricity, to filter the pool which was undamaged but filled with ash. We are thinking of solar panels. The banks – in Portugal and UK – are making a fuss about moving our insurance money from one country to another and we have to prove we are not money laundering. With no phone service everything needs a trip into town. The road to town and the longer road to the border were badly damaged and repaired too quickly so are now miles and miles of potholes.

I have just read a novel set in Portugal (and have reviewed it here, separately from my monthly reviews) that made me feel a lot of emotion connected with the countryside there. But as well as triggering some distress it made me acknowledge that it is still a lovely country and its people are worthy of admiration, not least for the way they have coped with the tragedy of last October.

The photograph at the head of this is the view from what was our house. Now, we have a view and a ruin for sale.

 
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Posted by on March 25, 2018 in personal, travel

 

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Forest Dancer: a review

I’ve just read an amazing book and wanted to share it with everybody.
Forest Dancer by Susan Roebuck is very special.

The story is set in Portugal where Flora, a ballerina with career problems, has inherited a cottage. This turns out to be inhabited by a woman who may or may not have been Flora’s father’s mistress and a child, Raquel, who may or may not be Flora’s half-sister. Raquel has leukaemia and Flora is tested to see if her stem cells will be a good match for a transfusion.

Flora is drawn into helping stage a cultural event in the village, which is at risk from fracking. Marco, a forest warden, helps to stage the show. Gil, a Portuguese TV star, comes to open the festa. Both men are interested in Flora. Gil is also interested in the standing stones by the forest lake and the legends and mysticism that surround them.

Raquel has leukaemia and Flora is tested to see if her stem cells will be a good match for a transfusion.

Lots and lots of interesting themes, including a very small mm sub-plot, and I couldn’t stop reading. I had to know what happened to the major characters (including the escaped budgerigar), and I even put my own writing on hold while I finished the book.

It’s extremely well written and brings the Portuguese countryside vividly to life. The author clearly knows and loves it. As well as the brilliant world building and fascinating sub plots, the basic romance is beautifully handled, always very realistically and with the lightest of touches. There is anxiety, not only about relationships but about the fate of the village, and Raquel’s health. There are amusing moments, too, sometimes poignant as when most of the villagers have their heads shaved to support Raquel, and when the children are rehearsing their dance under Flora’s direction.

I personally know Portugal well and was transported to the village where Flora was staying. However, I think anyone could enjoy this glimpse of the Portuguese countryside which includes an introduction to the language which Flora is practising. There is plenty to interest anyone who loves dance, nature, and stories that explore both culture and relationships.

Altogether a delightful novel and one that I hope will do really well for the author.

 
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Posted by on March 17, 2018 in reviews

 

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Films in my head

I was recently doing one of those memes for my personal (friends-locked) blog – one of those lists of questions that attempts to explore aspects of your life that you weren’t keeping secret but had never thought to share with anyone.

In the course of it, I mentioned that my fictional characters arrive in my head and talk to me.

It would appear, from the reactions of my friends list (a lot of whom are writers) that there are two kinds of people. One sort give a relieved sigh and say something like ‘yes, me too’ or ‘thank goodness it’s not just me’ and the other sort are fascinated but bewildered.

I thought I’d go into more detail here to see what other have to say.
Whenever I write, my characters spring fully formed into my head, just as if they were people I’d met and talked to. But like those people, it takes time to get to know them and I have to question them to get details. I also ‘overhear’ them talking to each other and sometimes they are quite critical of the way their story is progressing. I usually let them take over. Obviously there are limits. If I’m writing a detective story I have to start with some idea of what the crime was, how it was committed and how the investigation proceeded. I don’t always know who the villain was.

The voices and images in my head are quite clear. I know, if I think about it, that they have to be aspects of my subconscious, but at the moment of hearing and seeing them, they seem quite real, like actual friends. I am never tempted to blur fiction and reality and know perfectly well that they are ‘just’ characters, but they are often loud, and very assertive. They tell me all kinds of things that don’t necessarily pertain to the current story, and often have strong political opinions. I remember reading advice from Diana Wynne Jones that a writer should interrogate their characters to find out all kinds of things about them, such as their favourite socks, to build up a mental picture that would make the character in the story more three dimensional. Well, there are all kinds of things I can and do ask them, but as for the socks, I just need to look.

I can see them in motion, too, and when they tell me how a specific scene plays out, I can watch it like a film rolling in my mind’s eye. I also retain detailed images of all kinds of places I have visited and can play with these mentally to provide settings for my stories.

I was very surprised as I grew up to learn that not everyone has that kind of visual imagination and that some people, including very imaginative creators in all spheres, think largely in words, not pictures.

I think I would get quite distressed if my internal films disappeared. This is, incidentally, also the way I think about everything, from a planned shopping trip or meal to a conversation I need to have with e.g. family or friends or, at one time, lesson plans for teaching.

All this results in something I have mentioned previously. My stories are planned in my head, and the ‘notes’ are in my head ready to be referred to so any writing is a kind of copy-typing though of course I edit too. For example, I won’t let my characters use too much repetition, or tell each other things they should already know. I also encourage my betas to tell me when things that are obvious to my characters (and to me) need clarification for my readers.
When I have finished a book, the characters take a back seat, but they don’t disappear (apart, of course, for the ones like the murder victims). They allow the characters for the next work I am embarking on to take centre stage. Usually. There are one or two who feel they should comment on everything I do which is interesting but can be distracting.

Getting to know my characters is part of the pleasure of writing. It can feel as though I have a lot of friends. Well, I do have a lot of friends, but most of them have their own schedules and can’t always be contacted at times of my choosing. My fictional friends can.

 
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Posted by on March 13, 2018 in personal, writing

 

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