#Authors – An Infinite Writer’s Resource

Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

Writers are always looking for resources, whether it’s for technique, style, how to get published, or ideas for a story. The single best resource is using other authors as a reference for better ways of working.

During my Creative Writing Certificate course at Sussex University, we spent one semester on  ‘Special Author’.  We each chose an author, and a particular novel, whose work we thought would most benefit our own. I chose The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood. We looked at all aspects from first encounter, tracing sub-plots and the climax of the story to name a few.

At the end of the semester we each gave a verbal presentation to the class, which forced us to study the work, and think about it in a critical way we’d never have done otherwise. We were lucky to have Susannah Waters as our tutor – a stickler for precision in technique and critique skills,  with an incredible passion for the process. (FYI Susannah does independent mentoring and manuscript assessment, as well as  teaching at Arvon. See *below for contact details)

The purpose of the course was not to necessarily emulate the author, but to look at how they might deal with different aspects of writing from dialogue to creating suspense, character and setting and thereby learn from them. A simple example is in my novel Radio Echo– the first scene in Bologna is set in a graveyard. I’d had no thought of using that location until our tutor asked us to create a scene in a setting used by our Special Author.

As an example of how to learn from another writer’s work, I’ve chosen two pieces of text from The Blind Assassin to look at dialogue and description, and see what Atwood does with them. The sparingly used dialogue in Atwood’s novel, functions as an insight into character relationships, rather than moving the plot forward.  The immediacy is emphasized by the use of present tense. The dialogue is tight, short phrases back and forth, rarely interrupted by gesture. This accentuates the intimacy and envelopes two individuals in their own world during the scene. It’s the lover’s first sexual encounter; this is never stated, but just enough information is given to spark the reader’s own imagination.


Don’t worry so much, he says. Lie Down.

Don’t you’ll tear it. Wait a minute.

She hears her own voice. It isn’t her voice, its too breathless.

 ….Smoke  taste on his mouth, salt in her own; all around, the smell of crushed weeds and cat, of disregarded corners. Dampness and growth, dirt on the knees, grimy and lush; leggy dandelion stretching towards the light.

Below where they’re lying the ripple of a stream. Above, leafy branches …the blue sky in splinters. Hard dirt under her back.¹

 The text shows Atwood’s excellent use of metaphor and simile. Her descriptions are not elaborate: they simply use evocative words to show what’s in the scene. Once that is established, she then places the character, in a physical sense, into the scene, which highlights the physical nature of the encounter, but also grounds the reader.

The second text shows description of setting that also conveys the mood of the scene. It’s the last time the lovers meet and the scene depicts resignation, a bleak encounter in a rundown motel.

A carpet once dark blue and red. A pathway strewn with flowers, worn down now to the roots.

I’m sorry, he says. It could be better. ²


Painters are renowned for learning from other painters – “learn from the masters”. So why should it be any different for writers? We’re not talking plagiarism, but simple learning by example.

At the end of the course I realized as a writer I’d always have an infinite resource if I was stuck and wanted to know how to deal with a scene. Looking for a spare style?  – go Raymond Carver, or Cormac McCarthy. Want to portray a character who’s fraught to the point of despair? – go to the scene in ‘Anna Karenina’ leading up to the suicide. Write text that will push emotional buttons? – Jodi Picoult.

Etc. ad infinitum.

We first learn to love books by reading them. Learn to love writing from the same source.

Who or where do you go to when you’re stuck? What authors would you recommend for particular styles?

Let me know. For me, learning is an ongoing process.



Excerpts from The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

Paperback 2001 Virago press

¹Pg 32 -33 Chapter – The Lipstick Heart

²Pg 563 Chapter – The B Rage Room


*Susannah Waters:-


Literary Mentoring and Manuscript Assessment.


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#Editing Forward

How many times have you groaned about having to go ‘back’ and edit a piece of work? And yet all writing is rewriting. I’m fortunate that for the most part I enjoy editing. In fact I often view it as a way of ‘keeping in touch’ with my work when there’s not a lot of time. Edit a short passage – even a sentence – rather than wait for the 2 hr stretch that won’t come along so easily – and it keeps your mind from losing the plot so to speak. Makes it easier to get started the next time you come back to the work. In short I’m a big advocate of little and often. But hey, no one’s perfect, and I can get ground down and see editing as something that’s dragging me back, stopping me moving forward. But no more. This afternoon I had an epiphany!

Today is the start of British Summertime. The clocks went forward – which is what prompted my train of thought. It’s been a lovely weekend in Brighton, on the south coast of England, and yesterday I went down to the seafront. It could have been the start of summer. The stripy deckchairs were out, seaside kitsch was back on sale – bags of shells, flip-flops, small containers of shrimps and half shells of freshly caught crab. Men had taken off their shirts, women wore bikinis – generally a lot of pale skin that hadn’t seen a stroke of sun for many months.  There were even some people with a couple of toes in the water. And not the hardy 365 days a year swimmers.

The Wurlitzer carousel, built in 1888 has been reassembled into its circle, though when I was there at 10.30 the horses were still wrapped in a giant tent of tarpaulin. There was a sense of emergence in the air, a new season, a new beginning.

It was only today when I sat down to do a bit of editing, secretly wanting to press on with where I’d left off, that I realised the problem was that I was looking at editing from the wrong perspective. Editing is not going back but going forward. As you may have seen in my last post I’ve changed the title of my first novel to ‘Radio Echo’. I’ve also recently re-edited the first three chapters (rewrite 28?). Both things have been very positive in my approach to the work. When you edit a section, it’s done to make it better. You might be approaching it with some feedback from other people, or with merely a keener eye from yourself. But the chances are very good that you’re going to make the work better. So in what way is that ‘going back’? The answer is it’s not. It’s moving forward.

I’m not being Pollyannaish about this, it’s simply a fact. You are moving your work forward every time you edit. There is no going back about it. So if we keep this in mind, then maybe it will help to take the groan out of having to edit. When you’re sitting down to edit a 60-100,000w bit of work, it’s going to be more than a quick ten-minute task. Inevitably there’ll come a point – or several points, where you feel jaded, bored – whatever you want to call it. But more often than not, we’re editing smaller chunks – a line, a paragraph, or a couple of chapters. All of this is moving the work forward, which is a good thing. To be a writer you have to enjoy rewriting. That’s the fact of the matter. If you don’t, then you’ll rarely get past one edit without it being an unpleasant gut-wrenching task. It’s impossible to edit everything as you go along. The work needs distance. Then you move forward. You edit.

I hope that looking at it as editing forward, rather than going back to edit is of some help to those of you who dislike the task. We all have different writing habits, methods, rituals that work for each one of us. How do you approach your editing? Are there ways you make it go faster or are more economical with your time?

Let me know what you’re approach is, bad habits you’d like to get out of or any good habits you want to share.

I’d love to hear from you!



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Radio Echo – What’s in a Name?

I’ve changed the name of my first novel to Radio Echo.

What’s in a name? Depending on what it is  – everything.  For a person, it’s either a moniker they’re stuck with and hate their entire life, or probably for most of us it’s one we’re ok with, maybe we play around with abbreviations, nicknames, but settle for what we’re given. But names are important. Rightly or wrongly, they can give an impression of what that person is like, or let us foolishly go along with our preconceptions.

Would we think of a strong, manly figure being called Pinkie? Well, I would have said no But take the main character in Brighton Rock, by Graham Greene. He’s called Pinkie and he’s a mean spirited thug. But did that make him strong and manly?  You make the call.

For writers, and particularly novelists, as we need to live with the characters for so long – as do our readers – names are incredibly important. I spent hours deliberating names for my characters for my first novel. The fact they are Italian names did not make the job easier. We each have personal associations that interfere with potential choices – people we know, or someone we don’t care for; perhaps a teacher who was particularly mean. Our own history colours our decision as well as the characters we’re trying to portray.

Some people say having names that begin with the same letters make it confusing for the reader. Two brothers called Harry and Henry, I can imagine being easy to mix up, unless their characters are either extremely well defined and/or very different from each other. Take the Kray brothers – Ronnie and Reggie Kray.  Can anyone remember which was which despite the publicity at the time, or the filmic portrayals etc.? I can’t.

The younger sister in my novel is called Alma. But initially the older sister, the main protagonist of the novel, was Essie (an Italian abbreviation of Esther). For me I knew who they were, but other people found their names too similar. They had the same number of syllables and they found them confusing. I eventually changed Essie’s name to Raffaella, which instantly made her a different character both in my mind and on the page. I also had to admit, part of the problem was her character hadn’t been clearly enough defined. So changing her name helped me shape her character. I talked about character in my blog a few weeks ago (see Real Characters Feb 18th).

So where does that leave us with the title of the work, in this case a novel? That too has to fit, has to mean something to someone who picks up the book and has only the blurb on the back cover and the title to help them decide whether or not to buy it. For the past 3 yrs the novel has been called Tracing Paper. And it fit the novel when I began. But the novel has changed so much, that the meaning behind it has become diluted.

So after a professional critique of the beginning chapters and other writers who thought it no longer fit, I have changed the title to Radio Echo. Even if you only know that the novel is set during WWII, the connotation of shortwave radios is there straight away. But the main protagonist, Raffaella does become involved with Radio Echo, the key transmission point for the local Resistance.

Letting go of the original name has been hard – almost like letting go of a friend. But as with any rewrites, you have to be prepared to be brutal, even if it was a favourite piece of the work. Publishers often change titles, so I may have to let go of it again. But to me, writing is all about change and rewrites. How else can the work grow and improve? My hope is that long term it will help me deal with change in real life, which is usually just a tad bit harder than a quick tap of a key or stroke of a pen.

How do you go about choosing names, or the title for your latest work? Was it a difficult process? Is it one that’s ongoing?

I’d love to hear from you.



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Savouring Taste Treats: Using the Senses in Writing

Senses evoke such different responses in everyone, so it was fantastic to get feedback from people about their experiences, from last week’s blog, ‘Music Evoking Memories’. Thank you.

When we try to describe a situation we might have encountered to someone else,  we often simply talk about what we saw, or maybe what was said. But for an author, all the senses need to be engaged, to really capture the moment. Much as I love photography, I’m always frustrated that only the visual is captured. Who was on the street? What did it sound like?  What did the air smell of, or taste like?

The sense of taste, like any other sense can evoke memory. But much as we might enjoy certain foods over another, at a basic level we also associate it with being hungry, or once we’ve eaten, being full.These are things most people reading this blog will take for granted. We get hungry we eat, we ‘re full. A few hours later the ritual is repeated. Sometimes we eat alone. Sometime times with others. Each time has a different connotation, a different emphasis, and through these experiences we build memory and associations.

Radio Echo is set during World War II and food rationing was a major part of life for all the countries involved. Ration books were issued in the UK at the beginning of 1940 and continued until 1953. It was not limited to food but included petrol, clothing, bicycles and most hard goods. The US brought in similar rationing in 1943.

Much of the effort to encourage people to participate fully and get behind the idea in the UK came from the Ministry of Food.

Here is a short flash film:


Many people had ‘Dig for Victory Gardens’ and grew their own food. And of course the lack of protein was made up for in creative ways – two of which were using whale meat and eating horses!


In the novel, as in the reality of wartime, the black market is used for those who had both the money and the contacts.

Italy, where Radio Echo is set,  is known for its fabulous food and  wonderfully simple, but flavorful ingredients.  But during the war, Italy was badly hit by poverty and food shortages, especially in cities like Bologna that had been heavily bombed.

Communal kitchens were set up, and neighbors for the most part helped each other. But the Black market was thriving there as well as in the UK and US. There was no waiting at the Bologna Market Hall for hours for a loaf of bread for the Benedetti family who is central to the novel.

But whether it was bought from the Black Market or doled out in the small rationed portions, food was savored, appreciated in a way that is foreign to many of us today. An onion or an orange is not a rare commodity.  We take them for granted. And by doing so, we miss the uniqueness of their taste. Their specialness.


The sense of taste evoking memory is different for different people. Perhaps the first time you ate a particular food or something you might have been forced to eat as a child sticks in your mind and is remembered by the same taste. Or avoided.

At my junior school, after the boiled meat and cabbage variation on lunch, we often had pink blancmange for dessert – basically jelly (Jell-O) with milk. God knows what the pink was from  – some gross strawberry flavoring. It’s the kind of thick pudding that lodges in your throat, making you feel sick with every spoonful. I have a clear humiliating memory of being made to stay in the canteen for the second sitting with the ‘big kids’ until I finished my pink blancmange. Maybe that’s why I’ve never liked the color pink.

Let me know what your taste buds long for or where they take you. Your comments are always the most interesting part of writing this blog.

To end on the note of one of the the most popular tastes – if you’re looking for a great chocolate shop somewhere near you, check out this blog http://diversionswithdoreen.com/.

Doreen is writing a Chocolate Travel book.

Happy eating.







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#Music Evoking #Memory

Supposedly the sense of smell is the most evocative of the senses in terms of memory. Whenever I catch a whiff of flowers beginning to fade I am ten years old on my knees behind the blackboard, changing flowers from  one thick glass vase to another, the water green and smelly. There are worse memories.

But music  – ahh now for me that really strikes a chord – ok I couldn’t help myself. I listen to all kinds of music now, but as a teenager once I’d passed the pop phase, protest songs were about the only thing I’d listen too.  With a bit of Dave Brubeck,Miles Davis and Rolling Stones thrown in. Classical music was something I had to force myself to learn to like, which was a shame as there were wasted years of enjoyment. Same with opera. So my knowledge of both is sketchy at best .

In my novel Radio Echo, music is a constant theme. Raffaella grows up in an apartment above Cafe Musica, where local musicians come to play , either bringing their own instruments or borrowing ones, Raffaella’s father kept for that purpose. A musical impromptu get together is not unusual in Italy, especially in small towns. I’ve seen people show up of all ages, playing mandolin’s, accordions guitars or drums. The music would change from traditional Italian to jazz to 60’s folk depending on who was playing.

Here are some links from you tube that encapsulate the progressions of the music in Radio Echo. As a novelist it’s important to incorporate as many senses as appropriate in setting the scene. Music is often one that’s forgotten.


Trio Lescano’ were the Italian ‘Andrew Sisters‘, extremely popular in Italy in the 30’s and 40’s, with their close swing and jazz harmonies. They were actually Dutch, but in 1941 they became Italian citizens.Two years later their fame ended as their mother was Jewish. They were first cancelled from all radio programs, then arrested and imprisoned on allegations of espionage. The accusation was “their songs contained encoded messages for the enemy”. Once the war was over, after a two years’ silence, Trio Lescano wanted to bid farewell to their Italian audience with a final performance broadcast live by the radio on 1 September 1945. The three sisters then moved to South America, where their artistic career continued.

On a completely different note , Stefano, the son of the family in Bologna, played classical duets and Schubert’s Fantasia in F minor, the duet for four hands, was one of his favorites.


Later in the novel we move to Cole Porter’s Song “Night and Day” referencing Django Reinhardt and Stefan Grapelli. This is a 1938 rendition:


I couldn’t mention Reinhardt and Grapelli without including this fun little video of the members of the Hot Club of France playing “J’Attendrais”


Music is everlasting and a few bars can transport one back in time with such power it’s often overwhelming.

I’d love to hear your musical associations or if anyone else uses music in their writing.



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