On Writing

  • Bugs and Pubs


    The stories behind words are fascinating. Why do we call a computer glitch a bug? What’s the origin of the expression ‘mad as a hatter?’ Why are so many pubs called ‘Ye olde’ something or other? And if you think news is called news because it’s new, you’re wrong. Oh so wrong.


    And now, here is the news.

    We’ll start backwards, so to speak, with the word news. It seems obvious that we call it news because it’s new i.e. the latest information. But that’s not the meaning of the word at all. Nor is it the plural of new, in case you were thinking along those lines. No, the word comes from the first letters of the words North, East, West and South. Never in a million years would I have guessed that one. Though, once you know it, it seems obvious because the information is gathered from – you got it – North, South, East and West. In other words, from all directions, from everywhere.


    On the other hand the origin of bug for a technical glitch has a simple and logical, even endearing, explanation. And it’s so patently obvious that, should you even guess it, you’d dismiss it as being far too fanciful. But there was in fact a real bug, a real living bug, in a computer at Harvard. The machine wasn’t functioning properly. Grace Hopper, who was working on it at the time, investigated and found a moth in one of the circuits. And from then on computer glitches became known as bugs. One could maybe challenge the definition of ‘bug’ but this was America. They say things differently there.

    Mad hatters.

    As to those mad hatters. Many people think the expression comes from the Mad Hatter’s tea party in Alice in Wonderland but the expression precedes the book. In days gone by, people wore hats far more than we do now; there was a thriving industry in hat making. Felt was widely used in the manufacturing process, which involved the use of a toxic solution of mercury. This caused chronic mercury poisoning, a condition that attacks the central nervous system, leading to symptoms such a trembling and incoherence. Hatters were also noticeably excitable and irrational, another result of inhaling mercury. Hence the expression ‘mad hatters’.

    A thorn in their side

    I don’t think there’s pub called ‘Ye Olde Mad Hatter’ though nothing would surprise me. Be that as it may, throughout the length and breadth of Britain there are many pubs with names prefaced by the words ‘Ye Olde.’ Such as ‘Ye Olde Black Horse’ or ‘Ye Olde King’s Head’. I used to ponder whether these were genuinely old names or just created for poncy, marketing purposes, to pull in the punters. Neither guess is accurate. When the Romans occupied England they used the rune ‘thorn’ to represent the sound ‘th’ as no such sound existed in Latin. When Caxton came along with his printing press, they had to represent the ‘thorn’ in some way and the letter ‘y’ was the closest. So to be absolutely correct these inn signs should really read ‘The Old Black Horse’ and ‘The Old King’s Head.’

    You will discover more weird and wonderful word origins and fascinating facts, in the Categorical Trivia Collection, the source I used for the facts in this post.

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  • Famous Misquotes – No. 4

    “Money is the root of all evil.”

    No, it’s not.

    The original phrase is found in the New Testament in Paul’s first epistle to Timothy*.

    It actually says: “For the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil.”

    So that’s all right then. You can be both good and rich.


    *Timothy:  6.10

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  • Famous Misquotes No. 3


    The ends justify the means.”

    If you think this is a quote from Machiavelli, you’re mistaken. Along with most of the people on the planet.

    Because he never said it.

    What he did say was: “One must consider the final result.”

    Which means something altogether different.

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  • Tea and technology


    Writing is mostly a solitary occupation. Even if you are writing with a cat on your lap, it’s still down to you to get the words onto the paper or the screen. The cat’s not going to do it. But it sure as hell will provide a distraction, whether it’s actually sitting on the keyboard or not. There are plenty of ways you can happily waste time with a cat – whether it’s a real cat or a virtual cat. And it’s not just cats …

    Who’s boss?

    Before you even start, tackle the technology. While we curse it and say how much time it wastes, it’s not it. It’s us. Your computer hasn’t got teeth. It’s not going to bite if you don’t look at your emails (though of course it can get back to you in other sneaky ways). So first, turn of the bling or ping or whatever noise your computer makes when an email comes in. If, like me, you also have a distracting little box that appears top right, see if you can kill it. You may not be able to do so, but you can try.

    Step away from the phone

    And then there’s the phone. Once you’ve set a writing time – I write best in the mornings – don’t answer the phone. There are such things as answering machines. And don’t fret; if it’s urgent they’ll ring back. Even better, tell all your friends, your mother, the cat, the dog, your neighbour that you never answer the phone between, for instance, eight and twelve a.m. Be specific. If you are someone who just has to answer, then unplug the wretched thing, if it’s a landline. With mobiles, turn off the sound but shove it away somewhere. Like in a drawer, on top of the fridge. Anywhere where you can’t see it. (Only don’t forget where you put it!)

    The devil incarnate – a.k.a. the Internet

    Looking for inspiration – always a good excuse – I decided to do some ‘research’ for this post. So I Googled and found much more than even I had bargained for. Just one of the suggestions offered had no less than thirty five new ways to waste time or to find inspiration, if you prefer to think of it that way. That’s the delight and the curse of the web. A true double-edged sword. But I wouldn’t be without it. Nevertheless, it is madly distracting so, if possible, restrict your ‘research’ to evenings.

    How many cups of tea does it take to write a novel?

    We’ve all been there. You’re a bit stuck. A bit bored maybe. “I’ll just go and make a cup of tea.” Or maybe it’s coffee. Whatever. It’s still a distraction. It can bugger up your chain of thought, even if you weren’t aware of having a train of thought at that particular moment. When you are writing it’s essential that you keep your bum on the seat. Even if that means spending hours staring at the screen. It sounds weird, but by some sort of strange alchemy if you just stay there, something happens. Eventually. (You don’t have to remain immobile all the time, some pacing and stretching is allowed. And the occasional cup of tea.)

    Rules are meant to be broken

    The thing people often forget to say is that you need to know the rules before you can break them. There’s not a lot of fun in breaking a rule if you don’t know you are breaking it. And there are of course exceptions to any rule, provided you know it in the first place. And as I’ve said before, it’s probably better to make a cup tea or get a coffee than put something in the Google search bar. A cup of tea might take ten minutes. Make that fatal click and you’ll be there for hours. Trust me. I’m a writer.

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  • Another Russian


    My parents were both pure Irish. Indeed our family roots are Irish way back to the coming of the Norsemen and subsequently the Armada. Except for one recalcitrant ancestor, reputed to be related somewhat tentatively to some English landed gentry. It’s quite possibly a myth, given that it originated with my Granny Bugger, who was renowned for her snobby aspirations. But that’s another story entirely.

    As I’ve mentioned in an earlier post, I grew up listening to and using Irish expressions, without being aware that our vocabulary was any different to regular English. Indeed even now, researching the subject, I am often startled to find that words and phrases I’ve been using for years have their roots in ‘the awld sod,’ to add another to the pile. So here’s a sort of mini-glossary, though it’s by no means exhaustive.

    A whale of a time – one day I must look up the etimology of that one.

    Was it any use? – Was it any good.

    Donkey’s years – A very long time.

    Quare – Very. As in it’s quare cold today.

    A press – A cupboard. The biscuits are in the press.

    Wrecked – Very tired. Or very drunk.

    Wet the tea – Make the tea.

    Hen’s teeth – As in ‘rare as hen’s teeth’.

    Chips – Crisps.

    French fries – Chips.

    I will yea – I won’t.

    Fierce – All weather is fierce. Fierce wet, fierce cold, fierce warm, fierce damp.

    Jumper – Not a suicide but a sweater or pullover.

    Do the washing – Do the laundry.

    Messages – Groceries, shopping. I have to do the messages.

    As to the expression, ‘another Russian’. I have no idea of its origins. I don’t know if it was peculiar to my family or a common expression among Irish people of my parent’s generation. They used it to describe any Irish person who came to their attention. So, for example, if they read a newspaper report about a drunken Irishman, or woman, they’d exclaim ‘Oh no, another Russian.’ Or if, for instance, they heard of the appointment of a US Senator, or an official or indeed anyone with an Irish name, you’d hear them say ‘Another Russian.’ If anyone does know the origins, I’d be ‘delighted and excited’ to hear it, as they say in Dublin.

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  • Famous Misquotes – No. 2


    “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

    This quote is usually attributed to Voltaire.

    But did he say it?

    No he didn’t.

    It was written by Eveyln Beatrice Hall, who wrote a biography of Voltaire under the pseudonym of Stephen G. Tallentyre.

    Fancy that!

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  • Get thee behind me, cat!

    Untitled 2 I love the Internet, and I love wasting time on the Internet – even though it sometimes ends up not being a waste of time. Claire Cameron

    Many writers have habits and rituals. Some are sensible – like having set hours for working, always starting the day with a walk or never answering the phone during writing hours. Others are mildly eccentric such as only ever writing on yellow paper or always wearing a green cardigan. Then there are those that sound as mad as cheese. Truman Capote had to write lying down, Dan Brown hangs upside down at regular intervals (I’m saying nothing!) and Victor Hugo wrote bollock naked. Though there was a very sensible reason behind this last eccentricity.

    There’s no should about it

    We are all different. What suits one writer won’t work for another, so don’t listen to anyone who says you should do it a certain way. (On this subject I highly recommend Jon Winokur’s fabulous book – Writers on Writing.) There is no ’proper’ way to write. You need only do what works for you. That said, there’s a great deal of really helpful advice out there. Much of it on the Internet.

    The devil incarnate

    Ah! The Internet. The devil incarnate, were you to believe its critics. And there is no denying that it can be the most colossal, even destructive, time waster. If you let it. And it’s so easy to let it. There they are, just a click away, all those fascinating sites. Bringing you hours of entertainment involving cute cats, clever cats, grumpy cats, dogs rescued from burning buildings, dogs saving kittens from burning buildings, burning buildings… There’s no end to the fun you can have. And I haven’t even mentioned Social Media. Or email.

    Cats and teacups

    But you’re supposed to be working, right? And the Internet is a distraction, right? But remember what I said, it is if you let it. And I must admit, it does take a great deal of discipline not to click on a favourite site when you get stuck, or a bit bored. However, it would be much better and waste less time to go and make a cup of tea, do a quick set of exercises or go for a short walk. And before you say ‘but that would take too long’ consider this.

    Making a cup of tea might take five minutes, the exercises five to ten, the walk, perhaps twenty. But once you click on that URL – you could be about to lose not just five, ten or twenty minutes but an entire hour, or more. All that said, the Internet can be a rich source of inspiration and ideas. Apart from the fun stuff, there are plenty of splendid blogs out there – on every subject under the sun. They not only inspire but can educate as well as entertain. The trick is to capitalise on this wonderful asset while not allowing it to distract you too much (it’s almost impossible not to be distracted at all.)

    Tricks and treats

    It’s easy enough to say ‘be disciplined’ but actually doing it is a different matter. It’s not impossible though. While, ultimately, it’s up to you, nevertheless there are quite a few tricks you can use like turning off the sound so you don’t hear the email notifications. Or getting into the habit of only doing your research at certain times of the day. Or allowing yourself fifteen minutes ‘fun’ browsing while having a coffee or tea break. The trick here is to set a time limit and stick to it. You could even set a timer. Or give yourself certain tasks and reward yourself with time on the net when you’ve completed them.

    Overall, it’s question of habit and of not giving up. You’re going to fail. Accept it. The lure of those cats will overcome your good intentions. But if you keep trying, eventually you will form new habits. Good ones. And, regarding this blog post, don’t they say you teach what you need to learn!

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  • Famous Misquotes – No 1.

    “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the fairest of them all?”

    Did the Wicked Queen say this in Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves?

    No she did not.

    What she did say was …

    “Magic mirror on the wall, who is the fairest of them all.”


    But still a misquote.


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  • Craft or Calling?


    When I first started writing, I simply wrote. I wrote in every form except the novel. Too long. Too difficult. Not for me. Or so I thought. Until I tried it and found it was a perfect fit. Typical! I discovered how to write by writing and by copying what my favourite authors did. Later, when I began to write novels, I also read some wise, practical ‘how-to’ books on the craft.



    For it is a craft. Yes, there is such a thing as inspiration and inherent talent. Yes, some things can’t be taught but there’s a great deal that can be learned. You just keep on writing, keep your bum on the seat and don’t give up. I’m not ashamed to admit that I used to write with pen in one hand and how-to book, or a novel, in the other.

    I read anything and everything. And this too was, I believe, critical to my formation as a writer. I had read most of Agatha Christie’s work by the time I was twelve. My school made us read the classics so Dickens, Tolstoy, Thackeray and other great writers were my companions. I owe my very survival, in no small part, to reading.

    Then came the MA at Sheffield Hallam and another steep learning curve. Luckily the skills I lacked were the skills that could be taught. Skills like understanding narrative drive, the difference between a first draft and a finished novel. As a copywriter I knew how to cut and edit. But throwing out great chunks because they are not working. That’s hard. But necessary.

    Here are just a very few of the many books I learned from along the way. Only a small sample, but an important sample nonetheless.


    Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular – Rust Hills   Beginning, middle end. Character and plot. Setting and motivation. It’s all there. Whether you are writing short stories or novels, this is a practical, down to earth book that no writer should be without.


    WritingLifeThe Writing Life  Annie Dillard This book has been called ‘a kind of spiritual Strunk & White. It’s full of little stories about what it’s like to be a writer. It’s an inspiration. It’s the sort of book that makes you feel you are not alone and gives you the courage to carry on.


     The   ForestTreesForest for the Trees – Betsy Lerner Subtitled An Editor’s Advice to Writers, this common sense and indispensible book gives valuable insights into an editor’s mind. It’s not a ‘how to’ book, it’s a ‘must have’ book. Fascinating, authoritative and comforting at the same time.



    Revision Kit Reed I doubt I could ever have managed to edit and revise my books without the help of this splendid volume. Part of a series, it takes you step by step through the process of revision. And shows how rewriting is a natural, essential part of writing fiction.



    How to Write a Million Dibell, Scott Card & Turco Don’t be fooled by the title, which was probably thought up by the marketing department. This is no ‘get rich quick’ manual. This is a solid, common sense set of guides. The three topics – Plot, Characters and Viewpoint and Dialogue – are each broken up into short sections, which are easy to read and absorb.


    Thirteen ways of Looking at the Novel – Jane Smiley ‘What to read and how to write.’ That’s it in essence.an analysis of each book, it covers a vast range of topics from the psychology of the novel to its origins and history.


    StephenKingOn WritingStephen King Part autobiography. Part level headed advice for aspiring writers. This is an absorbing and compelling book, from one of America’s most prolific and successful writers. And a book that hammers home the need for writers to read. And read. And read some more.


    ShippingNewsThe Shipping News – E. Annie Proulx Go for the original. Forget the film. It has nothing to do with the book. Another novel that was always open on my desk. Her prose is poetic, her style distinct. The regular omission of active verbs validated my own style. (Am I allowed to do this?) I found it spellbindingand instructive.


    The House of Stairs Barbara Vine Published in 1988, this is the third novel Ruth Rendell wrote under the name Barbara Vine.  This, above all the others, was my bible. It was one of the books nearly always open on my desk as I wrote. To see how it was done. I believe that, along with King Solomon’s Carpet, it influenced me to set my books in London, in real time.

    SolomanKing Soloman’s Carpet Barbara Vine Three years after The House of Stairs came King Soloman’s Carpet. Once more the action takes place in London, noteably in West Hampstead and in the London underground. This too was a big influence. I’ve just pulled out my old copy to find that twenty-three post-it notes still adorn its pages.

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  • Weird folks and writing rituals


    Lipstick and green powder

    We writers are a strange lot. Or at least we like to think so though there cannot be anything much more weird than the things some other folks get up to. Like having yourself buried in a coffin for 150 days, knitting covers for trees and phone boxes or creating a museum of burnt food. Compared to all that Truman Capote’s habit of only writing when he was lying down or T.S. Eliot’s  need to wear green powder and lipstick may not seem so odd.

    A strange use for a fridge

    Be that as it may, we all have our own writing rituals. Nabokov loved index cards – but he was very specific as to the type. They had to be lined 3 x 5 inch cards, which he paper clipped together and stored in slim boxes. He used medium pencils, the sort with erasers at the end. Thomas Wolfe wrote Look Homeward Angel leaning on a fridge. As he finished each page he would toss it in a box and the whole lot would be brought to his editor, Maxwell Perkins, to sort out.

    What would Maxwell have to say?

    I don’t use index cards. Nor do I lean on a fridge to write. As to throwing everything in a box for an editor to sort out – these days many publishing houses don’t even have in-house editors. If they do exist said editors now have to take on so many other roles they don’t have the luxury of nurturing an author as before. The days of Maxwell Perkins and Charles Monteith are long gone.

    Cheerful colours

    So what are my particular rituals? I begin with notebooks where I try out ideas and then work out the plot details. The notebooks have to be Ryman’s Europa spiral bound, ruled A4 Notemakers. The covers come in cheerful colours – deep pink, egg yolk yellow, soft green and also in darker bright shades of blue, green, purple and red.

    Write on the left side of the paper only

    I write only on the left page initially, leaving the right hand page for jotting down new thoughts or ideas that come to me while I’m working things out. That way I don’t lose anything, though I have to say that the pages end up with lines and arrows crisscrossing from one side to the other, like a web created by a demented spider. When I have a fairly solid idea of the plot, I start to write.

    Screen or paper or both?

    But then the story takes over and often leads me in a totally different direction to the one I envisaged. However, the outline in the notebooks gives me a framework I can go back to. Like many writers these days I write directly onto the screen – it makes it so easy to move lines and paragraphs around. I also find it helpful to copy and paste a paragraph that I want to work on. That way I have two versions on the page in front of me; if I screw up I still have the original. (If a passage is particularly tricky I will print it out and edit it in pencil. I find I have more control with a pencil – and you can rub it out. And, somehow, the physical connection of my hand with the paper via the pencil seems to create some sort of alchemy.)

    Keeping track

    Just as I have more than one paragraph on the page I also have more than one document in the folder. If I’m about to do something drastic I save the document with a new name and work on that, keeping the earlier version – or versions as there are often several. That way I can always go back to it if I need to. It works in theory. In practice I end up with a whole load of similar documents carefully labelled, but still confusing when you come back to them months or even years later. In general I don’t need to but I still find them essential – like a sort of security blanket.

    P1000697What are your processes and rituals? Please do share them. Do you have a special pen, prefer a particular coloured paper or have strange writing habits – like only being able to write with a cat or dog in the room? (Not so strange in my book. Animals are total timewasters but immensely comforting to have around. Even if they do insist on lying on the keyboard or batting your pencil behind the radiator.)


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