Category Archives: books I love

Snow day!

Mr S and I have been writers-in-residence at a rather lovely school in Kent this week. There was a blizzard on Wednesday night and we woke to Narnia. And, last lesson was cancelled – after leaving school I never thought that I would once again experience the joy of a snow day.

We’ve been running workshops on writing fiction and screenplays. Lots of the the girls had questions about how to get started on your first screenplay and Mr S wrote them a how-to list. I think it’s really useful so am posting it here.

There are far too many screenwriting manuals out there. Anyone who has ever brushed up against the film business seems to think it qualifies him to tell the rest of us how to write for the movies.

So, first, a warning. Reading too many How-To books will almost certainly paralyse your writing aspirations. Unless you want to be deluged by off-putting jargon and prescriptive advice, I suggest that before you pick up a single manual you start at the source and read a bunch of screenplays.

You can get hold of many of your favourite films here:

All of these sites are run by fans so there’s one thing you should watch out for. Make sure that you read the actual screenplay (i.e. the draft written by the screenwriter(s)) and not a transcript that a fan has put together after watching the film three hundred and eighty-seven times. The sites usually tell you which is which.

Nothing will teach you more about how to write a screenplay than reading one.

And if, after that, you still want to write one, I suggest this book. It sounds cheesy (it is) but I used it at the start of my career and, hey, look at me now.

‘How To Write a Movie in 21 Days’ by Viki King

It’s strangely compelling and inspiring and utterly practical. You feel as if she’s holding your hand throughout the process, and who doesn’t like to have their hand gripped by a complete stranger? But don’t expect to turn out a great screenplay. This is about practice.

If you prefer something a bit more serious to get you started, then Syd Field’s ‘The Foundation of Screenwriting’ might be your thing.

Many people will suggest that you pick up Robert McKee’s comprehensive tome, ‘Story’. It is fascinating, it is dense, it is a cohesive philosophy, it makes many, many insightful points. And it will probably kill you. Stay away from it for a few years, that is my advice. Early in my career I glimpsed thirty seconds of a McKee lecture on a DVD, and was unable to write for the next six months. Seriously.

I suspect that the book which inspired me won’t have the same effect on you. Mostly, because the films he references are ones you probably won’t have seen. The book is ‘Adventures in the Screen Trade’ by William Goldman. He is one of the true greats. ‘All The President’s Men,’ ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,’ ‘Marathon Man,’ ‘Princess Bride’ (I’m going to guess that you do know this last one). He writes about the process of writing and making several of his movies, with excoriating anecdotes about the business mixed in with practical advice, especially on what to expect when your screenplay is turned into a movie.

So now you’ve read a couple of books and many more screenplays. You know how to format your work, you’ve got a sense of story and structure. My advice would be to stop reading and start writing.

And remember…

In the film business, you will be met by unceasing hordes of people telling you what works, what doesn’t work, how to do it, how not to do it, but, as the great William Goldman so succinctly put it, the truth is that Nobody Knows Anything.

Good luck!

snow day in Kent



Filed under books I love, the movie business, writer pontification

the saturday morning gift

I have had the most brilliant weekend. Last week I was chatting to my friend Kate about Fred, and she squealed and told me that I must read Eva Ibbotson. Then, on Saturday morning a parcel arrived yesterday morning, and I have done very little but read ever since. I took ‘The Morning Gift’ (very apt) and disappeared into the newly heated winterhouse and read and sobbed and laughed. It’s odd, but I’ve been reading for Fred all last week. I’ve consumed social history, guides for the auxiliaries, James Lees-Milne, vintage copies of  The Times and so on but I’ve felt rather disappointed and a bit scratchy. I know what I need for Fred, but all the history seemed to give me was useful information about painting cows in the blackout and imaginative cooking ideas for dried egg.

I usually avoid reading fiction when I’m writing and even during the strange in-between writing stage. I don’t want to have another writer’s voice in my head. And yet, some sixth sense (or else Kate was very persuasive) told me that this would be different. And it was. Eva Ibbotson has given me my eureka moment, or really moments. It is the emotionality of her writing – so real and so rooted. She herself emigrated from Vienna and lived in Belsize Park when she arrived in London in the 1930s, and because of this there is an honesty to her portrait of the refugee experience.

Soon after they arrived from Berlin, my grandparents also lived for a while in Belsize Park, back in the days when it was tumbledown and filled with mewing tom-cats and flats stuffed with refugees cooking vats of sauerkraut. When more recently Big Mike and lovely Rachel moved to Belsize Park after they married, my grandfather commiserated – ‘don’t worry,’ he said, ‘we all start out in Belsize Park. One day you will afford some place nice.’ For him, it was still a paint-peeling suburb filled with immigrants longing for something better.

In Eva’s book, I fell in love with all the Viennese ladies and gentlemen frequenting the Willow Tea Rooms. They are painted with such humour and pathos. I recognised them all from the figures of my childhood. Every other page is bookmarked and my fingers are tingling.

I’m filled with an urge to visit Louis in Hampstead, which is as close as one can possibly get to the ‘Willow Tea Rooms’. There, they always serve something sticky to be eaten with a spoon, and people are forever talking across the tables. I think Miss Maud is still there, coughing at customers who stay too long over a single cup of coffee.

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Filed under Book 2 - Tyneford Project, books I love, writer pontification

itchy fingers

I’m not enjoying not writing. I am pining for Fred. Mr S is revising a screenplay where a writer’s fictional characters start to plague her in real life  – they’re bored living in the novel when she’s not writing – and I’m haunted by visions of Mr Rivers and Kit and Elise stalking me. In fact they are stalking me. I might not be writing, but I can think of nothing but Fred.

Reading is good – I am munching my way through the towering stack of books on my desk and scribbling voracious notes as the route to the end becomes clear. I can feel Elise et al, hovering beside my elbow, or sitting on my shoulder, eager to return to Tyneford. While I am desperate to write, I also know that I’m not ready to carry on. I needed to take breaks in between drafts of ‘Mr R’ in order to put myself in the way of serendipity. I discovered the small blue pamphlet which Jack turns into his list on a research trip in the British Library somewhere between drafts three and four. There was an eureka moment with a coronation chicken sandwich (it’ll make sense when you read Mr R, I promise) and another when my mum found a picture of my grandmother’s famous golf swing.

So for now, I must try to ignore Fred calling me and the grumblings of Alice and Poppy, and turn back to James Lees-Milne and the The Countryman’s Diary 1939. But, if you see a girl tramping across the Dorset fields with a string of odd looking characters traipsing after her, feel free to wave.

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Filed under Book 2 - Tyneford Project, books I love, inspirations behind Mr Rosenblum, writer pontification

Marinating Stories

I’m tired. I’ve been eating, breathing and dreaming Fred. I’ve bored my family, friends and Mr S with her. I feel like I should get one of those tea-towels that say ‘I’d rather be reading Jane Austen’ only with ‘I’d rather be writing Fred’. But right now, I need to pause.

This morning I had a chat with Jocasta my lovely and gorgeous editor, and admitted that I need to stop for a week, even two. I mean, when I say stop, I don’t mean actually stop, just not write for a bit. I have pile of books on my desk from Molly Panter-Downes Wartime Stories, to Adrian Bell’s Men and Fields, Joseph Roth’s Zipper and his Father and Eva Mennasse’s Vienna. I also want to re-visit Jane Eyre, Mansfield Park, Emma, The Country House At War, Death of a Naturalist, Field Work and…

I now need to let some ideas marinate. Reading Jane Austen and Jane Eyre will help me focus on the living portrait of the English country house, while Remains of the Day and James Lees-Milne will provide post-war context. Like making a marinade, I sprinkle layer after layer into the mix of my stories: a piece of folklore here, the detail of a room or the way a character enters it, the blend of tobacco that Kit smokes, precisely how Mr Wrexham shaves the gentlemen…the workings of the farm and manor, the style of a letter to The Times. These things matter and must be woven into the story, so that the details strengthen the feel of period and place, layer upon layer, without clogging the flow of the narrative. The only way to discover what is delicious detail rooting the story, and what is tinsel, is time.

Besides, I love the excitement of the unwritten page. First drafts are magical things. For now, Fred is mine and no one else’s. I can play my giant game of make-believe and for the moment, anything goes. This is one of life’s great pleasures – why hurry to the end?


Filed under Book 2 - Tyneford Project, books I love, from summerhouse to summer read, writer pontification

Serendipitous Doors

Yesterday I went to Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge for the annual Jane Austen Society meeting. And no, disappointingly, there were no bonnets. There were, however, four excellent papers on Austen. I’ve had to put my PhD on pause for the moment, as I focus on Fred, but I love being able to delve into the academic world. There is always serendipitous inspiration.

One of the papers was about doors in Austen. Before you scoff and roll your eyes, let me tell you that it was incredibly useful. When I’m writing, I can really struggle getting my characters through doorways. Often in an early draft, they hesitate on the wrong side of the door, apparently uncertain of how to enter the scene. Then, once I know how they are going to stride/ slip/ march inside banging/ closing/ sealing the door – there is always the problem that ‘door’ has very few synonyms. In a novel, everything has to work hard. If we see the character enter the room, then there ought be something about the way they enter that tells the reader something about the story. But, of course, this must be done economically – the last thing your reader wants is a paragraph telling them about how Lady S walks through the doorway. Austen complains to her niece Anna that she is overly descriptive with ‘too much of the left and right’.

Austen is a virtuoso at getting her characters through doorways with brevity and brilliance. Take this scene from Mansfield Park, where poor Fanny, the cuckoo-in-the-nest and cousin, is once again, left on fretting on the wrong side of the door:

“Too soon did she find herself at the drawing–room door; and after pausing a moment for what she knew would not come, for a courage which the outside of no door had ever supplied to her, she turned the lock in desperation, and the lights of the drawing–room, and all the collected family, were before her. As she entered, her own name caught her ear.”

In a sentence, Austen shows us that this is a scene which Fanny has experienced many times at Mansfield; she has stared at closed doors wanting confidence, again and again. The family always forget her, and never send for her. Then, once she enters, ‘the lights’ and ‘the collected family’ overwhelm her.

The answer to my difficulty with doorways, would seem to lie in Jane Austen. Now, all I have to do is place my hand on the door-handle and run/ skip/ creep inside.


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Filed under Book 2 - Tyneford Project, books I love, writer pontification

exposed to weather

We woke up to sunshine this morning so, after boiled eggs, headed to the coast. Worth Matravers is one of the most ridiculously picturesque villages in Dorset, a series of higgledy-piggedly stone cottages with limestone roofs. The cottages huddle around a duckpond, like so many gossips. Three ducks decided to waddle across the road, in no particular hurry, all quite content to make the traffic wait while they quacked – doubtless debating whether to go for an afternoon swim. I felt I had taken a left turn into a Beatrix Potter.


duck at worth matravers

Writing Fred, I’ve been yearning for the sea. I need to fill my lungs and mind with salt-air, and then, imagination brimming with the rush and roar, I’m ready to return home and write again. Today, it was wild up on the cliffs, the wind and sea battling against one another. I found myself staring at the water, trying to preserve the image in words for later, while the wind crashed into me and I lurched along the path like a drunkard.

And yet, perhaps unsurprisingly, when I returned home, I craved both a cup of tea and a dash of Seamus Heaney. Like Thomas Hardy, Wordsworth and the other great poets, he often writes about the impossibility of preserving nature in words. We writers are jam makers and picklers at heart; we want to find the perfect word to hold the scent of a freshly picked strawberry, that cry of the wild duck, or the way the light looks as it fall upon the cliff. But, we never can. It is merely a question of how beautifully we fail.


looking down at Chapman's Pool

Worth is an ancient village and quarrying and its sister skill, stone carving, is part of the village’s history. This sign was certainly true today…



Filed under Book 2 - Tyneford Project, books I love, dorset life, from summerhouse to summer read, writer pontification

The postman waves at us

I’ve been busy with research the last few days, trawling through old newspaper archives from 1940. The Times always amazes me with its old fashioned layout. Births, death and classifieds appear on the front page, local news on the following two pages, so that anything to do with the war only appears on page 4 or 5. So, one comes across the scintillating fact on p1 that ‘Mr Cuthbert’s Weekly Gardening Talk (Carnations and Chrysanthemums)’ is being held today, as is a Stamp Collection sale (all items in excellent condition), while news of BEF finally fighting the German army only appears half way through the paper. There is something terribly British about all that – we may be at war, but no blighter is going to knock carnations and stamp collecting off the front page.

Also very British – Mr S and I took our afternoon ramble round the village, and on seeing us the postman waved. He didn’t speed up and try to mow us down on the zebra crossing ala London postie-fun, but waved. I like village life.

In other news: I signed my first proof this week. Mr S and I went to Sherborne Book Shop (to collect The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie – so far so awesome) and we got chatting, and then the lovely owner of the book shop produced a proof of Mr R from the back and insisted that I sign it. It was quite a moment. Though Mr S did point out that I need to change my signature. Currently, I sign books like I do credit card slips – with a rabid scrawl. I love the Sherborne book shop – I’ve been spending my Christmas money there since I was 5 and I still can’t quite believe I’m going to have a book in the store.

Here is a bonus picture of Mr S’s favourite cow jug, filled with flowers from a garden. Not my garden. My garden isn’t full of blooms,  only bloomin’ squirrels.

Also note the jam with a hat on

Also note the jam with a hat on

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Filed under Book 2 - Tyneford Project, books I love, dorset life, from summerhouse to summer read