Fiction: EVERY character counts.

An exhibition of Breugel is showing at the Holburne, Bath, the first UK exhibition devoted to the dynasty. Not huge or cheap, but well displayed. The family tree shows the connections between the different artists. Breugel the elder, his two sons, one of Jan’s sons, two of his grandsons.

According to Johnson’s recent article in the Guardian, only Pieter, the elder is worthy of acclaim. The younger, he finds derivative, although his copies of Pieter snr’s work have served us well for centuries.

Things might have been different if the sons had received tuition from their father but sadly he died when they were infants. They were apparently taught by their grandmother. That’s a tale in itself.

Johnson doesn’t rate this, that the Holburne displays proudly:  

For the writer, however, the fascination lies in the characterisation shown in every tiny face appearing in the lively paintings. The Breugels studied and reproduced their local people and events rather than imagined religious ones. Avarice, shame, embarrassment, lust, enjoyment are only some of the emotions portrayed in the works. The faces, movement and expressions take us to a time we couldn’t have summoned up with that accuracy.

Writing a novel, have you made every character notable, memorable, as those in a Breugel painting? Even a walk-on part can illuminate the scene, his character impinging on the plot even if minimally.  It’s a wonderful recommendation if readers comment on the particular characters you have created, superb if they’re recalled some months later.

Breugel characters  are alive in the moment of seeing the paintings. This gives the writer a goal to strive for.

 

REVIEW of IMPACT from Discovering Diamonds

It was good to receive this review of IMPACT, which is Book 3 of my trilogy, A Relative Invasion. The review comes from the Discovering Diamonds website. This site reviews historical fiction exclusively and awards a ‘Diamond’ to successful books.

The reviewer said,

“Impact is the third book in a trilogy about a family torn apart by World War II.

The obvious first question is: should the reader have read the first two books in the trilogy (Intrusion and Infiltration) in order to fully appreciate Impact? My answer would have to be that it is not necessary, but advisable. My enjoyment of Impact was not significantly impaired by not having read the earlier volumes, but I did feel it would have helped to have had a better understanding of what lies behind the hostility between Bill and his cousin Kenneth which is the source of the central conflict in the novel, particularly as this is a good story.

At the start of Impact, Bill and his mother arrive back at their London home as Victory in Europe has been declared. The war in the Far East is still continuing. The women and children have been evacuated to the countryside in order to escape the bombing of England’s capital city (the period covered in the earlier books). The men are serving in the forces.

The book follows Bill’s adolescence in post-war London with its bomb sites and shortages of food and clothing, as he matures from a twelve-year-old boy helping his mother and grandparents, into a teenager about to embark on National Service. But it is his relationship with his older but weaker cousin, Kenneth, that gives unwanted shape to his life, a constant source of simmering resentment.

The style of writing changes subtly as the boys age, the early chapters using language appropriate for a twelve-year-old, such as might be found in one of Enid Blyton’s juvenile mysteries featuring the Famous Five or the Secret Seven. By the time we reach part two, with both boys now in their mid-teens, the language is more mature, though still using expressions in dialogue which, whilst commonplace in that time and place, seem archaic today.

In some ways the relationship between Bill and Kenneth is reminiscent of that between Tom Brown and Flashman in Thomas Hughes’s nineteenth century classic, Tom Brown’s Schooldays. Bill is the quiet, hard-working, kind and athletic, rather than intellectual, character, whilst Kenneth is the academically gifted bully. The characters are so well drawn that, as with Hughes’s novel, it is not impossible to feel some sympathy for both.

There are other parallels: Hughes’s novel is deeply revealing of Victorian attitudes to society and class; Ms Minett’s, similarly, exposes the snobbery and contempt for the labouring classes that existed among the suburban middle classes in 1940s Britain. The well drawn period details provide a believably realistic context for the development of both plot and character. Although I did spot one error regarding the radio show Round the Horn, which was in fact, first broadcast later than this novel depicts.

The story progresses steadily towards the shocking climax of Part One which drives the reader to  continue reading into Part Two in order to discover the consequence for both boys.

(It would have provided spoilers if the reviewer had said more about Part Two and I appreciate that he avoided this).

He concludes: “Impact provides a reminder for my generation (I was born in 1941) of how different life was in those distant, mid-twentieth century, days. For younger readers it offers valuable insights into the hardships and sacrifices their grandparents made in order to create the many social and educational advantages they enjoy.”

(I do think that adolescents would be shocked by what ‘austerity’ felt like in the 1940s, particularly the restricted diet!)

Obsessive women: satirical short stories

Obsessive women? In this 2nd edition of Me-Time Tales: tea breaks for mature women and curious men, there are stories short and long about women of all ages, at all stages.

Katie Fforde called the stories “Quirky and Intriguing”. No, they are not erotica. Hardly a glimpse of bare flesh. There is a subtly dark edge to the stories, most of which seem, at first, light-hearted. My intention was for readers to have second thoughts, just after they’ve finished a story.  

The Kindle and ebook versions are at promotion price of 0.99 this week. The paper-back — neat enough to slip into a handbag or breast pocket — is available in bookshops and on Amazon. It makes a good present for someone you know, or better still, their husband. A top-100 Amazon reviewer states “. .  . their hallmark of wry humour reminds me of a female, modern-day Saki”

During the writing, I imagined being each of these women: aged sixteen, covered with tattoos and lusting for good legs in a man; a shocked and frustrated shopper experiencing a moral dilemma; someone infertile, another overly fertile, a women with a dreadful aversion, someone adored and someone certainly not. I wrote them at different times and in different places, and subsequently forgot them.

The collection began when I came across one, describing the most neurotic of the group. I realized I had several stories about women unused in my files. Looking them all out, I discovered their obsessions. I added more stories, coveringimages various kinds of angst. Reviewers converge on the descriptor ‘quirky’.

My other fiction is more serious, but, look, my avatar has two sides. These stories represent my irreverent one. I did enjoy writing them!

 You’ll encounter an array of fish, a pile of hot money, a loving mattress, a mangy dog, a range of bras and a prosthesis. I hope each story will perk up your commute or dispel your night-time preoccupations, and send you to work or to sleep with an uneasy smile of recognition on your face. Do enjoy, do write a review.

Strong characters capture readers

The US presidential election campaign! How rich a source of strong characters and plot for any writer to capture!

Simon Schama didn’t predict it in his 2010 article where he discussed passionately what historical events all school children should learn.  Otherwise he might have included it.

The study of Machiavelli can raise the temperature of university seminars and one day, no doubt the phenomenon of Trump will do so.

One way of involving readers with your characters is to make them bold, multi-faceted, unconventional and unpredictable. But creating one or two strong characters shouldn’t mean falling short on remaining characters.

I was captivated by The Girl on a Train because the main character’s complex personality and back story were gradually revealed. The plot had me gripped because of her difficulties and situation.  She had strengths as well as weaknesses, and could be unpredictable so that the book was a good page-turner. I stayed involved until late in the plot when another character’s behaviour wasn’t credible. As a psychologist, I know that is not how such a person in that situation would behave. The book lost a fan at that point. Hawkins had not so carefully researched and designed that (male) character, and having lost my belief, I didn’t enjoy the novel from then on.

However, should Paula Hawkins write a novel with the same main character, I would want to read it. This is the power a writer has: strong or complex characters attract readers. Inadequately researched ones, lose readers. If you’re a new writer, there’s a useful article here from Writers’ Digest on character building.

It’s taken me a long time to complete my trilogy about a boyhood rivalry that begins in 1937.  I’ve worked hard to ensure that any actions make full sense in the light of the character’s personality. Readers love my protagonist and hate my antagonist – a psychological bully – but there are aspects of the plot that invite sympathy for him, and by the third novel, the hero is examining his own short-comings. The rivalry culminates in an act extraordinary enough to make an unpredictable but satisfying ending (I trust).

Endings have to satisfy readers by being believable in the context of the characters. It can surprise but I like to leave the reader feeling “Yes, that would happen” or “he would do that”.  It’s easier for a trilogy or series to achieve this than a single novel. The writer can lay the necessary stones on a path within each book.  Development of plot and personality is being built up over time. Less prominent characters affect the main ones. Wittingly or not, they are change agents. It’s best if the reader realises their effect on the main character’s behaviour  – rather than the writer pointing it out.

What a student remembers of his/her history lessons is often due to the character: king, rebel, victim, adventurer, cardinal, causing the historical event.

Whether it’s on TV or in a book, it’s the strength of characterization that makes for my involvement and enjoyment. I wonder if it’s the same for you?

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A RELATIVE INVASION 

 

WWII, two boys, a fateful rivalry

                       INTRUSION    INFILTRATION    IMPACT