Jane Austen on Editing

It is a truth universally (if somewhat despairingly) acknowledged that a manuscript once written is no more fit for the eyes of a publisher or agent than a manuscript half written. One does not get to hit the send button simply because one has slogged it out until typing The End. The simple (and occasionally depressing) fact is that just because it is written, does not mean that it is finished. There are the edits.


What are these edits that everyone talks about with hushed voices and glazed stares? What makes them so daunting and universally loathed? Well, there is of course the structural edit, there might be something more after that, and then there is the line edit, see?

No? I didn’t either.

Since finishing my second draft (an almost complete re-write of the first) I’ve been trawling the internet and doing a bit of poking about in my various writing books to try and discover what is involved in this horrible task of editing that lies ahead of me.

I decided to start with the purpose of the edits. What exactly am I trying to achieve by reading my manuscript over and over and over until I’m heartily sick of the thing? In the introduction to the Wordsworth Classics edition of Jane Austen’s Lady Susan and Other Works Nicholas Seager describes Austen’s revision process as ‘the art of controlling readers’ responses to characters and situations’. He gives some examples of Austen’s edits to show the power of choosing the right words for a given situation. In an excerpt from The Watsons (an unfinished manuscript by Austen) there is a line in which a woman is shown ‘stifling her own angry feelings [mortification]’. There is a wealth of differing information in the two choices of phrasing. A woman who is mortified suggests and entirely different social situation than a woman who is angry. Nicholas Seager makes the point that you can be angered by your inferiors, but not your superiors. Which goes on to change our opinion, not only of the victim, but of the perpetrator as well. To anger someone is different, and perhaps more forgivable than to mortify them.


So, I had an aim: to control responses to the characters and situations I had created, but how to go about it exactly? I had lots of little scraps of information about things that needed to be cut from first (or second first) drafts, but the whole thing was still a terribly confusing mass of formless information that was as overwhelming as the edits I was supposed – somehow — to be doing.


That was when I stumbled upon a gem of a blog post by Zachery Petit on writersdigest.com called What to Look for When Editing Your Manuscript. In it he details a list of edits (and I mean details) that need to be considered before sending your work off to an agent or publisher. The list is not his own, he got it from the Crime Writer Patricia Gussin, and I am in turn stealing it from him. I won’t give the full details of the list here, for that you should check out the blog post, but I’ll give a brief overview of what is involved. The editing method is called the 5 Reread Program, in which you re-read your manuscript five separate times looking for specific flaws and doing specific edits each time.

Read 1: The content (I think this is what is also known as structural edit. Does your manuscript make sense? What can you cut out of it?)

Read 2: The enhancement (this will be the part where I’ll be cracking out the Thesaurus of Emotions so that my characters can show surprise by more than a lift of their eyebrows every second page)

Read 3: The sentence level (also known as a line edit. Do you really mean that sentence? Do you? Can it be said any better? Agonise over it… and repeat. For Every Sentence. Just like Jane did.)

Read 4: The little things (I have a Margaret who somehow became a Moira by the end of the book — stuff like that)

Read 5: Read out loud (my husband can’t wait for this one, although I suspect it will be my new little baby who will be the privileged recipient of most of this edit.)


The original list is much more extensive, there is a beautiful structure to it and I love having a game plan once more, rather the vague aim of ‘making this manuscript better’. I highly recommend checking it out if you’d like to demystify the editing process.


Today I started Read 1 in earnest. I have already completed bits and pieces of this one along the way, so I’m hoping it won’t be too painful. My aim is to cut a whole lot of words and iron out some time-line issues that have cropped up along the way. There are also quite a few notes peppered throughout my manuscript to the tune of ‘insert vital-yet-to-be-determined piece of information here’, so hopefully I work those out while I’m at it. I would like to get Read 1 finished by the end of January. Any fingers crossed on my behalf would be very much appreciated!


Next week on the blog is my very first Author Interview! I’ll be interviewing Carolyn Denman, the super talented author of Songlines, a YA novel, the first in the Sentinels of Eden series, and a cracking great read. To make sure you don’t miss it, or any of my posts, be sure to subscribe to my blog using the box at the bottom of the home page. If you’d like to get in touch between posts, or take a peek into the world of my writing, reading and mothering, then you can find me most days on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. Happy New Year everyone, I’ll see you next week!


Literary Survival List

It can be hard to find the balance between keeping on top of your writing and giving your family the attention they need. I had a very real struggle with this at the end of November this year.


I had given myself a deadline. Novel finished by the end of November. Which seemed so easy at the beginning of November because we were away staying with family, and it was easy to ignore the girls for a couple of hours a day because they were quite happy to ignore me back and hang out with their more entertaining (and much more permissive) grandparents. But then we came home and my husband was away a lot, and everyone decided that sleeping during the day or night was overrated and suddenly it was Advent and there was a lot of Christmas baking to do, and still so many words to write.


There were some dark days at the end as November was disappearing but my word count remained unchanged. I was feeling frustrated and slightly desperate, and very, very tired. And guilty. I don’t want my writing to be something that happens at the expense of my family, and yet I do want it. I think I may be able to make a go of it, and even if I can’t, I want the chance to try. My writing might be terrible, but then again, what if I’m actually quite good at it? It’s a question I need to find the answer to.


So, as the days were slipping by and the computer stayed off and the girls stayed awake, I busied myself keeping in touch with my writerly self in other ways. I call it the Literary Survival Guide and here it is; a quick list of survival techniques for the literarily deprived.



A great way to keep in touch with the literary world whilst doing the dishes, driving to work, walking to the park, or tackling the mountain of ironing. Writing and history podcasts are my favourites. Anything with and Author interview is always good, sometimes it’s nice to hear the ones who made it had no idea what they were doing to begin with either. I also get a lot of joy out of listening to shows about random topics or shows that express very different opinions or beliefs to the ones I hold; it’s interesting to learn how people come to their conclusions, and it’s great for potential character development. It’s also good for research if you need information on a particular topic and the hallowed halls of the library don’t encourage you and your menagerie to visit that often.

My favourites:   So you want to be a writer by the Australian Writers’ Centre (my number one go-`to pick-me-up, get in the zone, light the fire podcast)

History Extra by the BBC History Magazine (for when I’m in the mood for some light entertainment and easy learning)

The History of English by Kevin Stroud (basically a history of Europe- incredibly well researched)

Reith Lectures by BBC Radio 4 (I spent hours listening to V.S. Ramachandran talk about   Neurology. Not only is his topic fascinating, but he has the most wonderful thick, Liam Neeson-esque accent that is just heavenly to listen to. Highly recommend.)

LSE Public Lectures and Events by the London School of Economics (because I like to keep abreast of random topics and different thought patterns)


 Short stories

A well written short story can be just the thing you need to get you through the afternoon haze. I started reading a collection by Georgette Heyer during NaNoWriMo to keep me sane and it was wonderful. Everything I love about Georgette Heyer delivered in twenty minutes or so. A delicious way to end the day.


Read quality children’s books

If you’re reading them, chances are you are reading them a lot. And with little variety. We have a lot of children’s books, but usually only two or three on rotation at a time. If the kids like a book, they will listen to it to death. I’ve always heard that kids’ books are hard to write, and now I know why. If you are writing for children, you are also writing for parents, and your words must stand the test of being read upwards of five times a day. Which is why Alison Lester and Mem Fox and Janet and Allan Ahlberg are so treasured in our house, because my husband and I are so happy to oblige when sticky little fingers present their works to us. The less enjoyable works are very quickly phased out of circulation. 

As a writer, there is a lot to be learnt from the well-written children’s book. It’s a little like poetry in that it must say a lot with very little, and that is an art-form well worth studying. Australian author and illustrator Kate Knapp from Twigseeds studio does this in the most divine way with her Ruby Red Shoes books, and yes, we’ve been reading them a lot lately!


Take your kids to the book shop

I must admit, when my children started to walk, I thought my bookshop browsing days were about to take a serious hiatus (which would have possibly devastated the national economy), but our local bookshop is magnificent. They are so welcoming to me and my girls. They have a toy basket set up in the middle of the kids’ book section, little chairs to entice them into with their captured books or toys and are very encouraging when the girls want to be read to. If none of the staff are available to read to her, and I am taking too long browsing, my eldest is quite happy to prowl the aisles and unleash her big, green eyes and messy curls on unsuspecting patrons until someone is secured to her service. But it means I get a break. Five minutes to cast my eye over new works on the shelves, or to touch base with old favourites. A dip into a work of literary advice or a peek behind an unfamiliar cover. And is there anything better than carrying away a paper bag containing a new book promising information and adventures untold? The anticipation of settling down to that story is almost as good as reading the first page and feeling that sense of delighted immersion as you retreat into another world.


Word on your phone

I have Valerie Khoo from the Australian Writers’ Centre to thank for this tip. I am not very good with technology, and I didn’t even know it was possible to have Word on your phone. And while not overly useful for anything that takes a considerable amount of time, it is perfect for those stolen moments of creativity that Elizabeth Gilbert talks about. The moments when you are at the park, and no-one is requiring your attention or adoration right now, for the waiting room when the children are occupied with the toys and the receptionist. Instead of checking Facebook, I can re-read the writing I wrote the day before to get me in the zone for later in the day. I can add a few lines to a chapter or a blog post, I can do a spot of editing. I can be writing, and that is always a good thing.



With this handy arsenal of sanity-savers, we struggled on through to the end of November. My book was not finished by November thirty, but it was finished two days later on December second, and you can bet you that I had one heck of an iced orange juice to celebrate. What does it mean to have finished the book? Well, I’ve spent the last two weeks working that out, and I’ll tell you all about it in the next blog post. Until then, if you’d like a peek into the world of my writing, reading and mothering, you can find me most days on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. Merry Christmas everyone, I’ll see you next week!

Ancient Secrets of the Written Word

Writing in code is an old art. Apparently human beings have had secrets and intrigue right from the start. There is a large scale fascination with cryptography and cryptanalysis, and the root of this fascination lies in the fact that codes are secrets and secrets were made to be discovered. The breaking of codes, without the help of a computer or a savant has always seemed impossible to me. Like Columbus and his egg, I just can’t comprehend how it can be done until someone shows me the way.

I have always loved codes. In my box of mementos I still have the collections of fabulous substitution ciphers my friends and I devised to send each other our classroom secrets. There is one cipher that is made up of a particularly elaborate system of symbols, and another that looks like the love-child of shorthand and hieroglyphics. The hours we put into devising our codes and encrypting our (not overly exciting) messages!

When we were feeling less artistic or inventive, my friends and I often reverted to the simple alphabet shift ciphers (or Caesar Shifts as I have since learnt they are called). Though these codes still appeared difficult, I could see how, with a bit of perseverance, they could be broken. We just trusted to the fact that, if found, none of our teachers or classmates would invest the required time to crack them. The substitution codes though, with their captivatingly confusing array of dots and lines and squiggles were, we thought, much more sophisticated and impossible to break.

However, in the course of writing my current novel, I’ve done a bit of research on codes, and it would appear that these substitution ciphers are amongst the easiest to crack. The undoing of these codes is down to the Muslim scholars of the Islamic culture golden age (which lasted from about 750CE to the thirteenth century). They realised that letters in any language appear with regular and reliable frequency and so they developed a technique to crack substitution ciphers called Frequency Analysis. This process was explained beautifully in my go-to code resource; Codebreaker: The History of Secret Communication by Stephen Pincock and Mark Frary. I’ve used it as a reference for an earlier blogpost, Chapel of Secrets and as a guide for the secret writings in my novel. Below I’ve summarised the method of breaking a substitution cipher.

Basically, as explained above, there is a certain frequency followed by the English alphabet as to how often each letter will appear in a body of text. E makes the most regular appearance, coming in at 12 percent of all the letters in any given piece of writing, followed by T at 9 percent and A at 8 percent. The expected relative frequencies of the whole English alphabet are shown in the table below.


Now, if you have an encrypted piece of text, one which has been encrypted using a substitution cypher, you can make your own record of how often each letter or symbol appears by using a similar chart to the one above. Say for example we have the text (encrypted using www.braingle.com) :

Znoy oy znk vuckx, otjkkj znk cnurk vuotz ul zngz zoxkj urj (haz tkbkxznkrkyy zxak) sgtzxg ‘ynuc jut’z zkrr’. Ol eua igt ynuc payz ktuamn yu zngz euax gajoktik corr lorr ot znk mgvy znksykrbky, znke corr zgqk ut g qotj ul uctkxynov ul euax yzuxe. Euax gajoktik hkiusky otbkyzkj ot g cge zngz qkkvy znks iruyk zu znk yzuxe, grsuyz g vgxz ul oz.

Then the corresponding graph would look like this:


A similar shape to our original expected frequencies graph, only shifted. So, comparing our two graphs, it would seem that the letter K has been substituted for the letter E. Which means that G has been substituted for A, and H for B and so on. And following this through, you get the decrypted cipher (from last week’s blog post) reading:

This is the power, indeed the whole point of that tired old (but nevertheless true) mantra ‘show don’t tell’. If you can show just enough so that your audience will fill in the gaps themselves, they will take on a kind of ownership of your story. Your audience becomes invested in a way that keeps them close to the story, almost a part of it.

So there you have it, quite simple once you know how, isn’t it? Of course, this technique only works for monoalphabetic cyphers, which are cyphers that use a single substitution for each letter of the alphabet. Polyalphabetic cyphers, in which each letter of the alphabet can be represented by a number of different letters, numerals or symbols, are a different story. I’ll tell you more about them some other day.

In case you’re itching to have a go at this, I’ll leave you with this coded piece of text from one of my favourite authors. Let me know the name of the author in the comments below if you manage to break it (but leave the text a secret so that everyone can enjoy the fun). NB: I’ve taken out all the punctuation for this piece to make it more realistic.

ro cdyzzon k zkccsxq qekbn led nsnxd nkbo woxdsyx zvkdpybw xsxo kxn drboo aekbdobc dro qekbn rkn xofob rokbn yp ryqgkbdc kxn grox rkbbi myevnxd ofox dovv rsw grsmr zkbd yp dro myexdbi sd gkc sx ro cdkbdon dy qod kxxyion kc dryeqr rkbbi gkc losxq cdezsn yx zebzyco

If you’d like a peek into the world of my writing, reading and mothering, you can find me most days on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. Until then, I’ll see you next week, happy cryptanalysis!

Secrets of the Silverscreen

What is it about the silver screen classics that make them so re-watchable? What is the secret to writing something that gives a little more of itself every time you watch it?
I’ve been watching a few old movies lately, Casablanca is one of my two year old’s favourite movies, so we’ve had that on fairly high rotation. Every time I watch it there is something I didn’t see or hear before, and a new depth is added to my understanding an appreciation of the movie. Watching it for the first time in the context of writing a novel, I’ve been paying particular attention to the dramatic devices used to create all that wonderful tension that Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart portray so well.
Now; a disclaimer. I have no training in media analysis or movie reviews, and I’ve never tried to write a script, I am just a girl, trying to write a book, wanting some of that Casablanca magic for myself.
Part of that magic is that it’s hard to define. It’s subtle and pervasive and very convincing. I love that the classics don’t feel the need to explain everything to the audience. There is an expectation that the audience has a certain level of wit and intelligence that will enable them to figure out the unspoken word for themselves, enabling a more powerful, intimate experience of the film. I think Jane Austen put it rather well when she said:
‘I do not write for such dull elves as have not a great deal of ingenuity themselves.’
This is the power, indeed the whole point of that tired old (but nevertheless true) mantra ‘show don’t tell’. If you can show just enough so that your audience will fill in the gaps themselves, they will take on a kind of ownership of your story. Your audience becomes invested in a way that keeps them close to the story, almost a part of it.
In Casablanca there is a scene where Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) comes to see Rick (Humphrey Bogart) after his Café Américain has closed for the night. She tries to explain herself to him, but he is drunk, bitter, and won’t listen to her. Eventually he brushes her off with a snide, angry remark.
Tell me, who was it you left me for. Was it Laszlo- or were there others in between- or aren’t you the kind that tells?’
We see the pain Rick’s words cause Ilsa, we hear the insult and we see the wound, but she says nothing. She leaves. She does not explain her hurt with trite dialogue or impassioned speeches, she simply looks devastated. The script directions are as follows:
Ilsa, shuddering, gets up. Tears in her eyes she stops in the doorway, looks back at him, then she turns and walks out.
And we are left wondering and making our own surmises.
There is another famous line from Casablanca. When Rick and Ilsa first meet unexpectedly in Rick’s Café, Ilsa tries breezily to pass of their acquaintance as simply that, nothing more. She wonders when they can have last met and Rick tells her exactly. It was the day the Germans marched into Paris. She is pleased he remembers and he replies;
‘I remember every detail, the Germans wore grey, you wore blue.’
What a wealth of imagery in a single line.
I can’t remember who it was who suggested reading movie scripts as a way to learn about dialogue, some wonderful writer I was listening to on a podcast (and that podcast was most likely So You Want to be a Writer), but I’ve found it incredibly helpful. Not only is it an interesting way to look at dialogue, but it’s a great way to learn about the written emotional response as well. After all, the movies are all about showing, and some do it so very well. I recommend giving it a go. You can find the scripts to most movies just by googling them.
To finish I’m going to leave you with my favourite example of ‘show don’t tell’.
“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
-Anton Chekhov
Tell me what’s your favourite classic movie? What are your secrets to achieving the perfect balance of ‘show and tell’? How hard do you work to achieve it in your writing?
For everyone doing NaNoWriMo, congratulations on getting the first week down. I hope you’re all getting enough sleep and good luck with the next week. If you’d like a peek into the world of my writing, reading and mothering, you can find me on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. Until then, I’ll see you next week!

Hidden Moments of Humanity

Every now and then I come across something in my research that stops me in my tracks. A moment raw and human lying forgotten amongst the enormity of history that somehow still manages to speak for itself with quiet unassuming dignity.
I found a moment like this recently. A few lines in a diary from 1943 that made me pause and assess everything I knew, or thought I knew about the morality of World War Two.
By December 1943, Rome had been under German occupation for three months and the religious houses all over the city were full of refugees. In the early hours of December 22, the sheltered peace of the men hiding in three of these houses was shattered when, in flagrant disregard of the Lateran treaty that protected all pontifical property, a group of armed fascists forced their way in to search for patriots and Jews. Many got away, some were caught.
One of the properties raided was the Russicum, the college for Russian Church students. Three men were arrested, and as the fascists were leaving the leader turned to the Rector and asked him: ‘Why did you hide these men?’
He answered: ‘For the same reason for which I shall probably be hiding you before long.’
The humanity of this response has stayed with me. Such a simple response, such powerful compassion behind it. In that one sentence the politics, the bloodshed and the importance of everything the government argued about and the soldiers enforced slipped away. For this Rector nationalism, religion, political creed, guilt or innocence didn’t matter. For him all that mattered was the fact that there were fellow human beings in need, men that he was in a position to help.
At first, I must admit, I found the Rector’s response a bit counter-intuitive. The fascists, the Germans, they were the enemy. Why would you hide them? Why would you shelter them from the consequences of their own evil deeds? But as I thought on it, and I did think on it because that simple response stuck with me throughout the day, I realised it was not the Rector’s intention to save a man from answering for his crimes. He was not talking about hiding a man from justice. He was talking about protecting a human life, and maybe even giving a second chance to a damaged soul. No matter what. Perhaps, in a spiritual sense, the fascists and the Nazis needed his help more than anyone else, and he was clear-sighted enough to realise that.

I wonder if the Fascist commander realised that too?

Have you come across any hidden moments of humanity in your reading or research? Tell me about them in the comments below, and if you’d like a peek into the world of my writing, reading and mothering, you can find me on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram.
On another note, tomorrow is the start of NaNoWriMo, a challenge that writers all over the world participate in to try to write 50,000 words in the month of November. I’ll be trying to get my historical novel finished during NaNoWriMo this year, and probably not sleeping a whole lot in the mean time. So, if you’re also NaNo-ing, good luck! I’ll be burying my head in 1943, trying to keep my heroine out of trouble (while at the same time pitching her into it) and getting my head around just what could and couldn’t be purchased in a city that was cut off from the southern end of their country. If you’d like to know more about the novel I’m working on, you can check it out here. Until then, I’ll see you next week!

Submitting your manuscript: tips from the team at Hachette Australia

How exactly does one submit a manuscript to a publisher?

It’s a step that, for me, has been on the far distant horizon for so long that until recently, I’ve given it very little thought. Increasingly though, over the past year as I’ve inched my way towards completing my manuscript, I’ve come across many scraps of advice here and there, some confusing, some contradictory, and some seeming to require a level of expertise that I simply don’t have.

Perhaps it’s all part of the mirage of the imposter syndrome I’ve been reading about, but increasingly it’s been feeling like the process of submitting a manuscript, let alone writing the thing in the first place, is a minefield of ritual and know-how known only to the initiated and enlightened few. (I don’t know who these people are, but I’m pretty sure they all have English Lit majors and wear black, mostly, and write in elegantly boho-chic garrets at the top of Victorian London houses).

Even though this isn’t true, and these literary masterminds (probably) don’t exist, it doesn’t stop the task of dipping my toe into the glittering world of publishing from seeming incredibly overwhelming.

Last month however, I took a step that showed me just how false this feeling is. I attended an event called ‘Inside the Publishing House’ at Hachette Australia headquarters in Sydney. This event was organised by the incredible Emerging Writers’ Festival and it is easily the best writing event I have ever been to.

Here is what I learnt.

Publishers are not fierce, snobby literati gate keepers (and not all of them wear black), they are simply really passionate readers, lovely people who are so very keen to help emerging writers. The enthusiasm shown by the whole Hachette team (publishers, editors, authors, publicists, marketing and sales teams) was not only surprising, but incredibly inspiring. Everyone who spoke to us during the day was incredibly generous with their time and knowledge, answering all of our eager questions, helping to wipe the mist of uncertainty away from the submission and publishing process, and making the possibility of publication seem just that little more real.hachette-australia-transparent-logo_grey-pantone-431

And speaking of the submission process; how exactly does one give their manuscript the best chance of standing out and being read amongst the flurry of submissions that hit publishers’ inboxes every week?

Here, according to publisher Sophie Hamley, is the best possible form of a submission:

  • • A well-structured submission email. This needs to be professional; remember, you’re looking to enter a professional relationship with this publisher. Be polite. (For more on the submission email, Sophie Hamley has an article in the current Queensland Writers’ Centre magazine)• Include a brief discussion of what your work is about. This needs to give the publisher a reason to first want to read, and then sell your book.
    • Author bio. Include what else you are looking to write. It takes a lot of effort to break out a debut author, so the publisher wants to know that they can continue working with you.

    • FOLLOW THE GUIDELINES. This point was really stressed, so there must be a lot of dodgy submissions going into the slush pile. This has to be the easiest part of the submission to get right, so I don’t understand why anyone wouldn’t follow the guidelines. Best to triple check, just to make sure you’ve got this one covered.

    • Know where your manuscript fits in the Australian marketplace. Show that you have done your research and that you support other Australian authors. Mention you favourites. (Which means more time in the bookshop buying your favourite books, all in the name of furthering your writing career- yay!)

    • And lastly, if you’re not sure, ask! Give the publishing house a call and ask the desk your questions, or, if it’s a really basic question, tweet the publishing house. They love to help, after all, at the end of the day it makes their job easier if more submissions come through correctly formatted than not.

So my advice, after my wonderful day at Hachette, is to sign up to any and every event you possibly can where you can get a little inside glimpse into the world of publishing, it’s amazingly re-assuring. Talk to the publishers, editors, and marketing team. Learn what your manuscript is up against and what you need to do to get it over all the hurdles that come before publication. It can’t be more daunting than not knowing.

I would love to hear any anecdotes about other people’s publishing experiences, or any advice of your own you have to share. This submission business is so thrilling and daunting and breathtakingly exciting all at once. Post in the comments if you have any stories or advice to share, and if you’d like a peek into the world of my writing, reading and mothering, you can find me on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. Until then, I’ll see you next week!

Book Review: The Shifting Fog

What is the etiquette around ignoring your new husband on your honeymoon? This was the dilemma I faced as I browsed the books at the airport before we set off for our honeymoon in New Zealand. You see, I had just discovered Kate Morton and there, in the airport newsagent sat one of her beautifully written, thick and intriguing novels.
The Shifting Fog is Kate Morton’s first Novel. Set in two eras, it tells the story of the beautiful and tragic Hartford sisters, told through the eyes of their maid Grace.
Grace is fourteen when she starts in service at the grand Riverton Manor, home to Lord Ashbury and the Hartford family. It is June, 1914 and the grandchildren are all home for the summer holidays, and Grace, taking us along with her, quickly falls under the spell of the beauty, glamour and camaraderie of the Hartford children.
The First World War erupts and leaves the family shattered, and as they try to pull themselves back together in the aftermath, and the decade slips away quietly, we watch the tangled lives of the Hartford sisters change direction with the new, post war headiness of the twenties.
We are told about the tragedy at the heart of the story from the start. Grace thinks on it constantly as she reminisces and pulls us through time with her, thinks on it guiltily. She is involved somehow, it is her secret, and at age 98, with time running out, she finally decides to tell someone. Even though we have been forewarned, from the very first pages, such is the power of Morton’s storytelling that when the time comes for the tragedy to occur, so swept up are we in the lives of the sisters, we are almost certain it won’t.
It does. Of course it does, we knew it would and we are left shocked and saddened and a little bit impressed by the way it all unfolds.
Kate Morton is my favourite contemporary author. She has an incredible skill in taking the reader to an era as though she has lived it. She creates characters you desperately care about and situations that are as romantic as they are hopeless. The Shifting Fog is the story of the Hartfords, but it is also the story of Grace, and of a time and a place and a world that no longer exist. It is beautifully done.
Back at the airport, all set for my honeymoon, I looked longingly at the sultry 1920s beauty on the cover of the The Shifting Fog, the faded lakeside mansion in the background promising all the opulence and mystery I’d come to love from Morton’s work. I temporised, and then I compromised. I bought the book, and a different book for my new husband, handing it to him with a generous, guilty smile. That was when I discovered that my darling husband was a voracious reader. He had been studying the whole time we had been together and never allowed himself the indulgence of a novel. I was so thrilled, I would have married him on the spot had I not already done so twenty four hours earlier. We boarded our flight, arrived in the beautiful Bay of Islands, checked into our Bed and Breakfast, hit the pool side with our books and proceeded to ignore each other for the next few days in in companionable, connubial bliss.
Let me know what you think- are you are Kate Morton fan? Do you love the glamour and tragedy of the pre-war/post war period? Drop me a line in the comments below or if you’d like a peek into the world of my writing, reading and mothering, you can find me on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. Until then, I’ll see you next week!

The Loneliest Bride in Paris

There is a black and white photograph of a tired Parisian street in 1963. The day looks to be just beginning, empty chairs are clustered outside a café where the curtains are still drawn, mobile kerbside market stalls have their wares under cover and shutters are still closed on the apartments above the stores.

In the centre of the photo is a bride striding across the street, the sole person in the frame. Her head bent, a bouquet grasped tightly in one gloved hand, she is wearing a lace gown with three quarter length sleeves, the ballerina style skirt ending at the knee, showing off her thin calves and white pointed stilettos. She wears a communion length veil that has a fine detail picked out along the edge and her dark hair is piled on top of her head. She is completely alone.

Her lack of attendants and family and fuss is exacerbated by the slightly shabby feel of the street. Uneven awnings hang limply over one of the street stalls, another has someone’s forgotten coat and a page from a newspaper littering the top of it. One of the stalls is a hand cart, another appears to be on the back of a small truck and the third is simply a few boards sat atop some upturned crates.

The bride walks with great determination, the photographer (xx) has caught her mid stride, the moment that both her feet clear the ground. She has about her the air of someone very much set on where she is going, a woman with a job to do.

This is not your typical romantic bridal shot, no bridesmaids, no glossy car, no softly lit church, and no adoring groom. But then perhaps the solitary bride, making her way unattended through the unkempt streets of Paris in the early morning to her wedding is the most romantic figure of all. Perhaps she is marrying despite the lack of support of her friends and family because she truly loves this man, and she can’t afford to wait any more on the convenience of others.

What I love about this photo is the absolute certainty of the bride. The early sixties were still a relatively conservative period, Woodstock was still six years away from the time of this photo, and women bucking social trends was not the norm. This woman is in charge of her destiny, and she is off to meet her groom, with or without anyone’s blessing.


There is a certain romance to this shot too. My favourite movie wedding scene is the one from Braveheart where William Wallace and his bride meet in a forest clearing in the middle of the night with only a priest to witness their marriage. It is a beautifully poignant and romantic moment. That these two people have decided to marry, despite the danger that doing so will put them in, means that for those few hours in the forest all that matters is the promises they make to each other. The decision they have made that what they build together in love will be more than what they could do apart. I love those stolen, tender moments.

What do you think about this bride? Is she off to a happy marriage, a prosperous future, a life of love? Or is her decision to go her wedding alone a portent of a lonely life? Let me know in the comments below, and if you’d like a peek into the world of my writing, reading and mothering, you can find me on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. Until then, I’ll see you in a week!

Chapel of Secrets

In a small Scottish village, not far south of Edinburgh, is an ancient stone chapel steeped in a history of legend and myth.

The village of Roslin, Scotland is nothing very special in itself. It consists of a narrow stone-fronted main street, a small patch of village green and surrounding sweeps of beautiful, wild Scottish countryside. But the Rosslyn Chapel is another story entirely. Construction on the chapel began in 1446, and through a long association with the Freemasons (and an alleged association with the Knights Templar) the Rosslyn Chapel has grown about itself an aura of mystery and legend. There are rumours of a hidden underground vault, secret medieval chests, and whispers of the Holy Grail. Throughout the interior of the chapel are ornate and elaborate carvings rich in symbolism and hidden meaning. There is an especially famous and beautiful pillar in the chapel called the Apprentice Pillar. Legend has it that the master mason didn’t believe that his apprentice could carve the beautiful column without seeing the original. The master mason went by himself to view the original pillar and found on his return that the apprentice had already completed the column, and so killed him in a fit of rage by striking him on the head with his mallet. They say, as punishment, the Master mason’s face was carved into the opposite corner so that, as punishment, he would forever have to gaze on his apprentice’s work.

Perhaps most intriguing of all the secrets and symbols of the Rosslyn chapel, is the code hidden in the 213 symbols carved into the cubes on the ceiling. This code was broken in 2005 by Scottish composer Stuart Mitchell. He decided, after 20 years of pondering, that the cubes formed a piece of music. The key to unlocking the mystery, said Mr Mitchell in an interview in The Scotsman , ‘lay in the discovery that the stones at the bottom of each of the twelve pillars inside the chapel formed a cadence of which there were only three types known or used in the fifteenth century’. After deciding that the cubes, or rather the pictures on the cubes, were the basis of a musical score, Mr Mitchell found further clues in the chapel about the nature of the piece of music. Carved into the pillars are musicians all playing different instruments used in the playing of the piece. He put the music into triple time and named it The Rosslyn Cannon of Proportions.

I do wonder though, if Mr Mitchell had been a geologist instead of a musician, would the code have read differently for him?


In the same interview, Mr Mitchell stated that in his search to crack the code ‘he found a lot of symbolism and decoys to throw people off.’ What if what was decoy to Stuart Mitchell, held great significance to someone else? What if the code, steeped in mathematics, as is music, plays a gentle medieval chant quite incidentally? After all, people can play beautiful pieces of music just by playing the notes formed by a picture of birds sitting on telephone wires (see here).

So if you are travelling to Scotland any time soon, stop by the village of Roslin, check out the mythical chapel and have a look at the ceiling. Perhaps, if you’re a bit of a savant, you won’t need twenty years to interpret the message coded in the cubes. Maybe you’ve already been there and have your own theories? I’d love to hear them if you do! Let me know your theories about this or any other piece of puzzling architecture in the comments below, and if you’d like a peek into the world of my writing, reading and mothering, you can find me on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. Until then, I’ll see you next week!

Capturing the Muse

Have you ever woken in a cold sweat at three o’clock in the morning, clutching desperately at the wisps of a brilliant story idea as it slips from your consciousness? Or perhaps you’ve been in a very serious and important meeting, and the way the client’s moustache quivers and twitches when he talks puts you in mind of one of your characters. You think that you ought to give your character just such an expressive moustache, and then you realised that by doing so you could tie in A and B which have been irritating you for three chapters now, and suddenly you don’t care about whatever client Twitchy is saying because all you can think about is getting back to the notebook stashed secretly in the top drawer of your desk to get your Great Idea down.

Authors are frequently asked ‘how do you keep track of your ideas?’ and the answers vary from the tech-savvy app-specific on-the-go solution, to the good old tried and true post-it note and scrap paper method. Myself, I used to opt for getting a neurotic mental strangle-hold on an idea, a sort of obsess-constantly-over-it-until-I-can-write-it-down type approach. Of course, once having written it out in all its finicky, glorified potential, I would file it away carefully in my folder of similar (and often contradictory) notes and forget all about it. Occasionally, when the plot of my story was waning somewhat, I’d take a look in this folder and re-acquaint myself with all my brilliant ideas that had been left behind by the growth of my story. Sometimes I’d try to fit them in, because, after all, they were brilliant ideas. I can assure you now, that this method of recording and collating ideas is not an overly productive one, but I have found one that is. It’s simple and brilliant, and I’ve had incredible results using it (and not just from a mental health point of view).

I stumbled across this excellent device listening to the Midday Interview on ABC Classic FM. Margaret Throsby was interviewing Anthony Horowitz, a bestselling author and screenwriter (he wrote the Alex Rider novels and created the hugely popular television program Foyle’s War among many other things). Horowitz’s response to the ‘how do you keep track of your ideas?’ question was: I don’t. If an idea is any good, he went on to say, it will stick around of its own accord, if it doesn’t, then it wasn’t good enough to begin with.

I was staggered. This was ground breaking, revolutionary stuff. Could it be possible that my meticulously, obsessively compiled folder was nothing but a record of sub-standard ideas? I decided to trial this dangerous new method, and so I set about waiting for an idea. When I eventually got an idea I did- nothing. I thought about it, a little, but mostly I just let it waft around the edges of my consciousness as I went about my week. I found that by not writing my idea down, it stayed alive longer in my mind, shifting and stretching itself until it fit beautifully into my story, ironing crinkles and untangling threads as it went. This was wonderful! And so completely effortless.

I’ve been using this approach for a year now, and it has saved me much time and mental agony. I’ve found that by doing nothing my story, and that loveliest of ladies Ms Muse, enjoy a freedom and an elasticity that has hugely benefitted the structure and pace of my writing. So you can either obsess, note-take, hoard and struggle to capture your ideas, or you can do nothing. Give your ideas the chance to either die a natural death or mature elegantly until they form an integral part of your story. So far I’ve found the second option the much better and healthier method.

What’s your preferred muse-capturing technique? Does the idea of doing nothing and letting your story write itself appeal to you? Are you willing to try it?  Let me know in the comments below, and if you’d like a peek into the world of my writing, reading and mothering, you can find me on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. Until then, I’ll see you in a fortnight!

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