Does anyone remember being given this essay topic when you went back to school? It gave the teacher some peace to get on with things while we all laboured to describe what we had got up to in the last two months. Well, this year, I went to Paris, and had a fabulous time. I’d visited Versailles many years ago, but just (just!) the palace, so the gardens were a revelation to me. I thought they were all beautiful, but I much preferred the simplicity of Marie Antoinette’s hamlet to the gilded interiors of the great palace. The Petit Trianon was delightful, and actually seemed a possible residence – no-one could possibly have endured life at the court without an escape like this.
The Louvre, also, was a revisit, but in the intervening 30 years a lot of excavations have been carried out on the site, which revealed the 12th century moat and some fragments (see picture) of the original castle. This was thrilling for me, as I had studied early French architecture many years ago. The queues to see the Mona Lisa were ridiculous but I was fascinated to learn more about the Louvre building itself, and to find out that many artists were given quarters there after the French Revolution, as part of the Academies the French set up. The most famous one is that set up to guard the French language from words like ‘le weekend’.
I didn’t forget to keep up with charity knitting, despite the heat, and have made a couple of squares for a South African charity called ‘Knit a Square’. It may sound silly but I didn’t know how to knit a square diagonally and was very proud of myself when I worked it out!
I just completed a MOOC – a Massive Open Online Course. I first heard about them last year but couldn’t find one I wanted to try. Then the University of Edinburgh announced they were offering one through FutureLearn on ‘How to Read a Novel’. I know how to read a novel (open cover, start at page 1!) but I thought it might give me a new way to look at writing a novel, so I signed up.
The course lasted for four weeks, with an expected two hours of work per week. It course was an interesting mix of videos, articles, discussion and, at the end, a piece of written work. I had wondered how, with many thousands undertaking a course, the instructors could possibly assess written work, but now I know – that task is assigned to participants, and after submitting my own I was given others’ work to comment on. One of the strands of the course was an assessment of examples from the short-listed finalists for the James Tait Black prize for fiction, to be awarded at the International Edinburgh Book Festival. This was awarded near to the end of the four weeks and it was interesting to see how the course participants championed the different titles. Most left me cold but I was intrigued by Jo Baker’s ‘A Country Road, a Tree’, a fictionalised account of Samuel Beckett’s wartime experiences; her ‘Longbourn’, a servants’ eye view of ‘Pride and Prejudice’, created quite a stir a few years ago.
In case it isn’t clear from the name, MOOCs are free. Successful participants on my course are invited to upgrade their qualification by getting a certificate and permanent access to the course materials for £49, but I don’t think I could justify that cost. It was an interesting experience though and I’m already looking over the options to select my second MOOC.
My charity knit in August was a hat for ‘Knit for Peace’, to be sent to a Syrian refuge camp. The pattern is ‘Two by Two Basic Beanie’ from Ravelry, knitted in some oddments of pure new wool I was given by a friend. None of the scraps looked very much in the ball, but they were enough to make sure someone is warm this winter.
A quick post to show what I knitted in July for charity. This baby hat and jacket were knitted in 4ply cotton bought from Flying Tiger. The jacket is a lovely little one that knits up very quickly; I’ve made lots from the pattern, which you can find at http://www.viridianyarn.com/product/viridian-patterns/. The hat is a Ravelry pattern http://www.ravelry.com/patterns/library/easy-peasy-newborn-sock-hat which I adapted by knitting a shorter stem at the top; I thought tying a knot would make it harder to post.
These have been sent off to an organisation which provides clothing for new babies in Guatemala. Maya Midwifery helps mothers who have very little to dress their new arrivals, and also supports indigenous midwives with training and equipment. The website has some pictures of the babies in their new outfits and explains more about what the charity does and why.
Last weekend I attended the Romantic Novelists’ Association Annual Conferenced at Harper Adams University in Shropshire. This time I was there for the full two days, so I was able to hear from lots of well-informed and interesting speakers. But first of all, a word about the food! Harper Adams is a former agricultural college, and to help in training the students they raise crops and animals in the surrounding area. Much of the produce is then used in the university catering; the bacon at breakfast was made from their own pigs and cured locally, for example. The Gala Dinner on Saturday night was amazing; normally at an event like that, catering for over 200 people, the main course is something like chicken or stew, which is easier to keep warm and serve at the right temperature. But we were given individual Beef Wellingtons! – and the vegetables were hot, another thing almost impossible to achieve. I highly recommend a visit.
Back to the conference itself. All attendants received a goody bag with books (donated by various publishers) and promotional items from authors. People were queuing up to but raffle tickets for the most beautiful quilted wall-hanging, made in memory of agent Carole Blake by Anne Styles. It was so colourful and flamboyant kept going back to look at it – but alas I didn’t win the draw. I had been looking forward to a talk on ‘Plotter vs Pantser’ by Alison May and Bella Osborne, as plotting is something I really struggle with. After some exercises with them, I discovered that although I am in general really very well-organised, like some others in the audience I could not translate that across to plotting. The suggestion was that plotting was an area where my creativity needed to be able to play. Kate Johnson interviewed Jill Mansell on her writing methods, and Jill produced from her handbag a huge concertina of paper covered in different shades of sticky notes; now there’s a woman who knows how to plot. Jill writes in longhand, with the television on, and manages about a thousand words a day. She said writers have to like their characters, so that they want to find out what happens to them. Fiona Harper gave a brilliant talk on how to develop your characters from the outside in, asking and answering questions about what they want, fear and believe. Once you know their motivations thoroughly, you can see how and why they behave the way they do.
All in all, it was a great conference and I have lots to think over. I have lots of notes to reread, business cards to file and things to send to people, as well as wait for copies of handouts etc to arrive. Busy times ahead!
Hard to believe we’re halfway through the year, isn’t it? Next Christmas is nearer to us than last Christmas, and the longest day is in the past… but I still plan to enjoy my summer. The garden is requiring more and more work, and the weeds are sprouting; but so are the roses. I’ve even spotted a couple of white butterflies flitting around in the garden.
A quick knit for this month’s charity, after the squares I made last month. June’s knit is a mouse to keep a lonely cat amused, for Cats Protection. The pattern came from their website and only takes about half an hour to knit, so I ended up making two, in very vivid colours. It might be fun to make a whole range of them as children’s toys, with a princess and witch and king decorated in scraps of felt – something else to add to my list!
I started revising the first novel I wrote, and it’s amazing and somewhat comforting to see that I have improved in my craft slightly; I can now look at a phrase or sentence or piece of description and see ways to improve it. I still struggle terribly with plotting, though, so I’m looking forward to one of the sessions at the RNA conference which covers plotting and pantsing (going by the seat of one’s pants!). I hope I can learn lots, and put it into practise – we’ll see what happens when July rolls round. In the meantime, if you do know of a good book on the subject, please recommend it to me.
May begins the summer season here, but I’m still trying to process that June is next week, and after that we’ll be nearer to next Christmas than the last one. How did that happen? Time just seems to be whizzing past, but I do have one item of good news: I’ve been selected as a finalist in the Beau Monde Royal Ascot contest for the second time. It’s such a surprise, but I am pleased and feel a sense of encouragement that has perhaps eluded me for a little while.
In other news I’ve attended an RNA lunch in Edinburgh and booked for the RNA Conference at Harper Adams University in July. I’ve also booked my train ticket, which was about half the cost of the Conference! I do enjoy train journeys, though; the only civilised way to travel. I can get my books and papers out and be distracted by the passing scenery. Harper Adams is a lovely venue – I was there before in 2014 and enjoyed it very much. It’s an agricultural college so there were surreal moments such as walking to a lecture on romance writing and passing a sign saying ‘Pig Unit’.
This month’s charity knitting is some 8 inch squares for Knit for Peace. The Big Woolly Weekend is being organised by Bergere de France, a French yarn company, and they’re asking for knitted squares. The idea is that these will make bunting for the Jo Cox Foundation, which is organising street parties in June, and then be turned into blankets by Knit for Peace. I don’t imagine I’ll be able to make a very long length of bunting, but anything I – or anyone – can do, will be a help. And it’s good to feel I’m doing something positive.
These were sent off earlier this month; two 12 inch knitted squares. A charity called Woolly Hugs makes them into blankets for children from Chernobyl, who come to the UK for a holiday over the summer months. Besides enjoying some fun by the beach, a stay here can improve their immunity against childhood cancers, which run at around 75% in the area surrounding Chernobyl. Woolly Hugs also collects small gifts, of the sorts teenagers teenagers would like, and a little money for ice-cream, which I sent along with the squares.