I’ve been asked to write a guest post about my research process! I’ve written three books since late 2017 (two not being out yet), and all three of them have had their own individual research approach, so this will be fun.
It’s rare you see books from the German perspective when it comes to the Second World War and Nazi Germany. I’ve only read one. So when I got an email about Fifteen Words blog tour, and a guest post by the author about her choice to write from a German perspective? Count me in! Hopefully my readers will find this as fascinating as I do. So, without further ado, Monika Jephcott Thomas…
Fifteen Words is being released tomorrow and you can get it here!
Christmas means different things to different people. Some loath it, finding all the fuss and expenditure infinitely stressful. I can appreciate that line of thinking, but I’m afraid I’m one of those annoying people who gets excited from October onwards!
So no Rolls Royces for me. But then I’m not really a Rolls kind of a girl. My life’s a bit more back together now and so I expect if I go to Istanbul again soon I’ll bung a whole load of cash on my Istanbul Kart and eat some protein. But maybe not. Maybe that would be too much like tempting fate…
Thank you to Barbara for this post! It sounds like it was a very interesting trip. Land of the Blind is available now here!
Today I have another author post for you! And I’m pretty excited to get a sneaky look at what is on Anne Pilchota’s bookcase, as she is half of the duo that is writing the Oksa Pollock series. A series about a eleven year old girl with strange magical powers who discovers that there is a lot she is yet to learn, and it’s not all maths from her horrible teacher. I’m currently reading the first book and I’m finding it quite fun so far!
So I now pass you over to Anne Plichota!
On my bedside table are the books I am currently reading and those waiting to be read, my favourites at the moment being Rachel Cusk (for the razor-sharp wit and language), Sue Townsend (for her eccentricity) and Gillian Flynn (for her sense of suspense).
On my shelves are my literary heroes, models, examples, teachers… Goolrick, Cheever, Larry Brown, Sharpe, Hiaasan, Palahniuk, Iain Levison… Some make me die laughing, others move me to tears, but all are part of my universe. I love photo books as well, especially the work of Martin Parr for its stupefying normality, and photos of industrial, urban ruins with their sense of pride, decadence and volatility.
My reading habits? I don’t go a day without reading a few pages, and if I do, I feel like something’s missing. My favourite times to read: at lunchtime, at the end of the afternoon, sometimes in the bath, and especially before going to sleep. And never forget: a book in the handbag is indispensable when waiting at the doctor’s or for a late bus, even if it means being disappointed when it arrives or your turn comes…
Thank you Anne for writing this and adding to my ever growing Amazon wish list of books. It’s been a long time since I read a Sue Townsend novel but they just got bumped up my TBR!
I am very lucky to have Katherine Clements, author of The Crimson Ribbon* and creator of the A-level in Creative Writing here on my blog today as part of The Crimson Ribbon Blog Tour, talking about why she developed the first A-level in Creative Writing. Personally I took A-levels in every English subject I could get my hands on (English Literature, English Language, Theatre Studies) and the two months of English Language where we wrote our own pieces was my favourite. This led me on to start a BA in Creative Writing so I’m massively jealous of everyone who gets to do the Creative Writing A-level and was fascinated about how it came about. So without further ado! Katherine Clements.
I’m in an English lesson. Miss Taylor announces that she’s going to read a short story to the class. She waits for the class to settle and then begins. In one wonderful, terrible moment, I realise – the story is mine.
I feel a hot flush of pride as Miss Taylor reads on. Then, utter terror, as I understand that my story is about to be judged. It’s the first time I’ve had an audience, outside my immediate family, and I’m not prepared. I’m nine years old.
Many writers recount similar emotive memories: the book that kept them reading beneath the covers, the dutiful parent typing out manuscripts on duplicate paper, the passionate English teacher who first encouraged them to put pen to paper or, these days, fingers to keyboard. These early experiences help make writers. They are important.
A few years ago, I had the opportunity to lead the development of the UK’s first A-level qualification in Creative Writing. By then, I was a writer of short stories, with a few publications under my belt and a novel in progress. I felt passionately about this project. It mattered to me. Not only did I believe it was valuable, exciting and long overdue but it mattered personally too.
My early journey as a writer is fairly typical. I made up stories when I was a kid, devoured the contents of the library, and attempted my first novel when I was twelve. But then, sometime in my early teenage years, I just stopped writing. Life happened. Other things took over.
It took me another 15 years to pick up my pen.
It’s often said that you need life experience to be a decent writer, and perhaps I needed that time, but I sometimes wonder what would have happened had I continued writing. Think of all the stories that went un-written, all that practice, all that learning. Would I be a better writer now? I expect so.
The first time I read my work aloud, much later, to a small, friendly local writers group, I panicked. I couldn’t get the words out. In the end another member read on my behalf.
I couldn’t understand what had happened. In my professional life I regularly spoke in public and ran events for hundreds of people, so why couldn’t I do this one simple thing? Because, this time, it was personal. It was Miss Taylor’s classroom all over again.
I never had the chance to explore writing at secondary school, much less work towards a useful qualification in the subject. I could have made art, learned to dance, specialised in drama performance or music composition, but creative writing wasn’t an option. Now, here was an opportunity to change that for thousands of students.
Anyone who does something creative, and puts part of themselves into their work, becomes vulnerable. Any creative pursuit has value beyond the output itself. The drive to explore and make something new, the desire for self-expression, is a good human thing. There’s learning, growth and sometimes joy, to be found in the process. And sometimes there’s fear and self-doubt and an overwhelming conviction that the thing you’ve made is the worst thing in the history of the world, ever.
When I did eventually begin writing again, I joined an evening class. Since then I’ve been to writers groups, conferences, residential courses and writing retreats, of varying quality and usefulness. I’ve met and been taught by amazing teachers, read books on writing, seen some of my favourite writers speak and been lucky to find supportive and inspirational mentors. All these things have contributed in some essential way to my experience of learning how to be a writer, and that means taking the bad stuff along with the good. It means doing it when you think you can’t. It means facing that self-critical voice head-on, learning when to listen and when to ignore it. My teachers – and among them I count all the fellow writers I’ve met and talked with, in all kinds of situations – have helped me to do that.
There’s been a lot in the press over the years about whether or not creative writing can be taught. I’ve never been taught creative writing at a university, but I do know how much it’s possible to learn about the craft of writing from others. I’ve learned the value of intelligent, sensitive and well-judged feedback. I’ve learned by reading things that have been suggested to me, or by taking apart a well-loved piece and seeing it in a new way. I’ve had teachers who were perceptive enough to say the things I didn’t want to hear, who pushed and encouraged and allowed me to get things wrong, so that I could, eventually, get things right. Writing involves a set of skills, tools and techniques that can be taught. Regardless of innate talent, everyone can improve.
We need teachers, editors, mentors and other writers to facilitate this. Writing is so often considered a solitary pursuit but it can and should be a collaborative process. I don’t underestimate how challenging this can be, but it is so valuable. That doesn’t mean you can’t go it alone, but learning from others certainly speeds up the process.
So, convinced of the value of teaching creative writing, I still had many questions to answer: Could we get teachers and students working together, as writers, in the classroom? Could we create a meaningful, rigorous course that promoted genuinely useful real-world skills? Could we give students the time and space to take themselves seriously, as writers?
The first intake of students sat their first exams this summer and the signs are good. I’ve heard from teachers, examiners and students and they all report good things. Teachers are enjoying the freedom, flexibility and democracy in a course necessarily led by students’ individual interests. And students are embracing the ideology of the subject, reading, writing, sharing, improving their work and growing in confidence. I’m delighted, and just a little bit jealous.
Miss Taylor never knew it but she gave me something that day in the English classroom: a little seed of hope that maybe, one day, I might be good at this. Doubt is an intrinsic part of any creative endeavor and it took me a long time to find the guts and determination to put my own writing out into the world. I’m pretty sure that without the teachers who’ve helped along the way, I wouldn’t have got this far. And, perhaps, if I’d been given the chance at school, it wouldn’t have taken me quite so long.
It’s midnight, I’m sat on a plane next to a middle-aged man who has fallen asleep on his wife and I’ve just finished Splintered Light by Cate Sampson*. I put it down and smile because it was a really good book and I loved Leah, the female character. I’m inspired, I loved her, I put her in the kickass female characters category with Katniss and Michonne.
A couple of days later this posts drops into my inbox and I’m grinning from ear to ear. Today on Imogen’s Typewriter I give you Cate Sampson, the author of Splintered Light, talking about Young Women who Fight.
I was worried about making my female protagonist a kickboxer. I didn’t want the ghost of Karate Kid hanging over her, and I didn’t want kickboxing to be the most important thing about her. Nor did I want the fact that she was a fighter to become shorthand for ‘feisty’ or ‘gutsy’, the kind of patronising adjectives which suggest girls in skirts and sensible shoes from the Famous Five. But after I’d visited Massimo Gaetani’s Carisma Kickboxing club in Cambridge, I knew I wanted to place her in a club just like that, with its mixture of explosive energy, ritualised aggression and camaraderie. It’s a place where there is danger, but it is also a place of self-control.
I keep talking about ‘her’ and ‘she’. ‘She’ is Leah, one of three teenagers at the heart of my new book, Splintered Light. Leah’s mother was murdered twelve years before the book begins, and Leah lives with her father, a police officer, who wants her to learn to fight to protect herself from the kind of danger that killed her mother. He is endlessly anxious about Leah’s security, urging her always to fear. And yet he spends swathes of time away from her, leaving her to look after herself while he vanishes on jobs Leah knows nothing of.
Leah pretty much brings herself up, and mostly she does the opposite of everything her father wants her to do. He says no social media, she’s on everything. He says don’t ask questions about the past, she asks questions. She loves kickboxing despite the fact it was her father’s idea. Not because she’s afraid, but because she’s good at it, because she likes the way it makes her feel in her skin, and because she’s found a loose-knit home there, among her fellow students. Most importantly, it’s a place where she’s in control, of her body, and her mind.
At the Carisma kickboxing club the day I went to watch the class there was a scattering of girls among the men, one or two young teenagers still early in their training and women in their twenties who were already kicking machines, focused and disciplined, their muscles performing exactly as they were told. There were powerful men and weaker, or less confident, men, just as there were powerful women and weaker, or less confident, women. There were men who didn’t mind getting hit, and men who did. So with the women. And make no mistake, this is a contact sport. When you get hit, it hurts. You could see it in the flinching, eye-closing moments when less advanced students let their guards down. But what was almost palpable was the focus and the discipline, and the mutual respect, the weaker for the more powerful, and the other way around. No one blindly hits out. If a strong boxer finds himself up against a weaker boxer, he holds back. It might be different in competition, but in the gym there is recognition that just because you can hurt someone doesn’t mean you should. Indeed, Massimo Gaetani always tells his students that the best defence is to run away – you never know when someone’s got a knife or a gun, and that trumps any clever move.
I found my inspiration for Leah in British women who have become champion fighters. Nicola Adams was the first female boxing champion at the Olympics, and then at the Commonwealth Games. In an interview with The Guardian newspaper she described how the boxing club had become a refuge for her in her teen years, ‘almost like another family,’ the coaches becoming father substitutes. Brought up by a single mother, who nearly died when she was thirteen, Nicola Adams faced similar hardships to those faced by my fictional Leah.
So too Ruqsana Begum, British women’s Muay Thai champion. As a Muslim teenager, she had to overcome the cultural expectations of her family to become involved in martial arts. Both Nicola Adams and Ruqsana Begum have been involved in the Fight For Peace organisation, which works worldwide to redirect the energy of young people who might become gang members. They teach young people control and discipline, and that fighting can be kept off the streets and inside the ring.
In Splintered Light, when Leah comes across a young man who is involved in crime and violence, it is a similar message that she passes on. There may be pain in boxing, but there is pleasure too, and much of that pleasure and the confidence that comes from the discovery of self control.