Tuesday, 29 December 2009

The Medieval Rooms & Happy New Year!

This was a first visit to the new Medieval & Renaissance galleries at the V & A in London.   The picture above is an twelfth century illumination of St Mark writing his gospel.   It is done with watercolour on parchment with burnished gold, and if you look closely, you can see St Mark has a bookstand with what looks like barleytwist carving.   He has laid out his writing things on his desk, the pen, ink, scraper etc

There was so much to see in the new rooms, it is on three floors.  I couldn't take it all in in one visit, which gives me the perfect excuse to go back again.    And again.  Here is an angel who caught my husband's eye.

And here is a fragment of silk from Byzantium, with a griffin on it.

And here is wishing everyone a Happy New Year!

Sunday, 20 December 2009

Romantic Novel of the Year 2010 - Longlist!

The longlist has been published on the RNA blog.   This is it:

The Very Thought of You by Rosie Alison - Alma Books
Passion by Louise Bagshawe - Headline Review
Beachcombing by Maggie Dana - Pan Macmillan
Fairytale of New York by Miranda Dickinson - Avon (Harper Collins)
Lost Dogs and Lonely Hearts by Lucy Dillon - Hodder & Stoughton
A Single to Rome by Sarah Duncan - Headline Review
A Mother’s Hope by Katie Flynn - Arrow (Random Hse)
A Glimpse at Happiness by Jean Fullerton - Orion
10 Reasons Not to Fall in Love by Linda Green - Headline Review
Marriage and Other Games by Veronica Henry - Orion
The Glass Painter’s Daughter by Rachel Hore - Simon & Schuster
It’s the Little Things by Erica James - Orion
I Heart New York by Lindsey Kelk - Harper
The Heart of the Night by Judith Lennox - Headline Review
The Italian Matchmaker by Santa Montefiore - Hodder & Stoughton
The Summer House by Mary Nichols - Allison & Busby
One Thing Led to Another by Katy Regan - Harper
The Last Song by Nicholas Sparks - Little Brown (Sphere)
Last Christmas by Julia Williams - Avon (Harper Collins)
The Hidden Dance by Susan Wooldridge - Allison & Busby

It is quite a line up, I can see there's a lot of reading to get on with!  The Award will be presented at the lunch to be held on March 16th.   Full details can be seen on the RNA blog.  The link is here:  http://romanticnovelistsassociationblog.blogspot.com/2009/12/christmas-longlistthe-rna-romantic.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+RomanticNovelistsAssociationBlog+%28Romantic+Novelists%27+Association+Blog%29

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Friday, 11 December 2009

Christmas at Cotehele and the Poor House

Two blog posts have gone up today, and the topics could hardly contrast more!

The first is on the RNA blog. It shows some Christmassy pictures of the hall at Cotehele in Cornwall. We took them on a recent visit. http://romanticnovelistsassociationblog.blogspot.com/2009/12/carol-townend-brings-us-glimpse-of.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+RomanticNovelistsAssociationBlog+%28Romantic+Novelists%27+Association+Blog%29

The fabulous Cotehele Christmas garland can be seen on the RNA blog...

The second post is published on the Historical Romance UK blog. Here's the link: http://historicalromanceuk.blogspot.com/2009/12/guest-blogger-carol-townend-echoes.html
This one concerns a letter found in a box of family papers. It give a tantalising glimpe of a family crisis, when a relation ended up in the Barton Poor House.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Medieval and Renaissance Galleries Reopen at the V & A!

Today is the day the medieval and renaissance galleries re-open at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. The V & A is an amazing resource. Whenever I get stuck with my writing, I like to go there and wander down the corridors in a dream, half thinking about the probem with the novel. There are so many images there that the museum usually comes up with an answer in visual form. I find myself standing in front of a mosaic, or some Italian plates, and if I think very hard, I can usually work out what the museum is trying to tell me!

I can't wait to see the new galleries. The details are here: http://www.vam.ac.uk/index.html

If it wasn't for the fact that we are just back after a few days in Cornwall (I have a fair bit of writing to catch up with) I would be down there in a trice!

Here is more about the Medieval and Renaissance Galleries: http://www.vam.ac.uk/futureplan/projects/med_ren/index.html

Monday, 16 November 2009

Chilli Harvest!

Usually we grow tomatoes up against a south facing wall. This year Michelle Styles very kindly gave us some chilli plants, so we have been growing those instead. Since they are not under glass (and were planted out a bit late) I left them out as long as possible, hoping we wouldn't get a sharp frost. Cue wind, lots of it. Rain, ditto. It is November. They were blown over, and had to be picked. My husband did this arrangement on the kitchen table with them before they were bundled up in groups and hung on the Irish dresser. Already they are beginning to ripen. Now I need some chilli recipes. Lots of chilli recipes! I was wondering if you could put a chillis in a bottle of olive oil to make chilli oil? Anyone know?

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Runaway Lady, Conquering Lord - Review!

Jayne of Dear Author has written a review of Runaway Lady, Conquering Lord. Jayne gives it a B-. She says she has enjoyed a number of the other Wessex Weddings, and the fallen woman theme appealed. Like me, Jayne feels uneasy about lots of false medieval dialogue.
It is one of my ambitions to write a book which Dear Author rate as a B+! And after that, one day maybe a venture into A territory!
The link for the full review is below:

Sunday, 1 November 2009

Runaway Lady, Conquering Lord - Wessex Weddings Book 4

For UK cover is above and the US cover is below. The Cover Blurb is the same for both editions:


Raised a lady, Emma of Fulford is a fallen woman
with a young son as proof. He is all she has in the
world, and now the boy’s brutal father has returned.
Desperate and afraid, she needs to escape, and fast,
so she approaches Sir Richard of Asculf. She begs
this honorable Norman knight for help—and offers
the only thing she has left...herself.

Honorable he may be, but Sir Richard is only
human and Lady Emma tempts his resolve. Can this
conquering knight tame his runaway lady and stop
her running for good?

Wessex Weddings
Normans and Saxons, conflict and desire

For an excerpt please click on the link below:

Shorter excerpt:

The sheer physical strength of the man was impressive - the wide shoulders, the muscled thighs - she had felt this for herself as he had carried her up those stairs.
    But there was more than mere strength here.  Yes, it was most odd.  It was there in his eyes... This evening Emma would swear she could put her life in his hands and rest easy.
   But this man is a Norman!
   Pointedly she made a show of looking about his bedchamber.  It was furnished with royal extravagance.  There were two braziers - comforting glimmers of heat.  Adding more coals to one of them, Sir Richard waved her towards it.   'Warm yourself, my lady.'
    My lady.   Tears pricked at the back of her eyes.  How long had it been since anyone had done her the courtesy of addressing her by her title?   But he would soon stop doing so once he learned about her son...

Text copyright © 2009 by Carol Townend
Cover Art Copyright  © 2009 by Harlequin Enterprises Limited
Permission to reproduce text granted by Harlequin Books S.A. Cover art used by arrangement with Harlequin Enterprises Limited. All rights reserved.


Kimberly has published a review on the Coffee Time Romance web site.
She says: 'This is such a wonderful story. Filled with history, it holds adventure and romance. Emma is a strong female character who is willing to do whatever is necessary to keep her child safe from an abusive man. Sir Richard is certainly noble and generous, yet once he sees that needing someone is not a weakness, he grows into a much deeper character. While these two clash over their Saxon/Norman heritages, it only feeds the fire of desire between them. Ms. Townend has done a terrific job of bringing the eleventh century to life.'

You can read the full review here Coffee Time Romance.


Another review of Runaway Lady, Conquering Lord has been posted on The Romanorum. Here is a taster of what Karyn Gerrard has to say:
I was completely caught up in the story...How refreshing to read a medieval story without all the 'Knight speak', with the 'mayhaps' and 'ye's' thrown out. And the characterizations are strong, we are given generous access to Richard's inner most thoughts, his torturous nightmares of war, his growing affection for Emma.
He really is a wonderful hero. His sensitive handling of Emma's son, the affection he shows the boy, is endearing. He treats his servants with kindness, and the people living in the village and near his lands with respect.
And Emma, even though she is running from her former lover Judhael, she is no simpering, cowering miss. She has a real inner strength that Sir Richard cannot help but admire. She would do anything to protect her son.
I loved following them on their journey back to Sir Richard's Norman lands, sort of a medieval road trip. And the love story between them is rich, lush and passionate. Both very strong, believable, likable characters, which made this a keeper for me.

The full review is here: The Romanorum.   The reviewer gives Runaway Lady, Conquering Lord 3 and a half stars out of 4.

Julie Bonello of CataRomance has this to say:
Full of colour, passion, intrigue, danger, adventure and atmosphere, Carol Townend’s Runaway Lady, Conquering Lord is another winner by this fabulous writer of historical romance who always writes with such confidence, verve, skill and panache. Whenever readers pick up a novel by Carol Townend, they are assured that they are going to be swept back in time and propelled into an exciting, compelling and wonderful evocative tale set in the Middle Ages and Runaway Lady, Conquering Lord continues Carol Townend’s tradition for writing densely written, high quality and wholly absorbing historical romance!
Wonderfully written, fabulously gripping and highly captivating, Runaway Lady, Conquering Lord is not to be missed!
Read the full review on CataRomance


At the time of Runaway Lady, Conquering Lord there was a watermill by the bridge near Winchester city wall.    (It was known as East Gate mill.)   There has been a mill on the site ever since, though it is not the same mill!  In the novel, my heroine, Emma, has fallen on hard times, she takes lodgings at the mill. This is the view of the river Itchen from the bridge by today's mill:

And this is the mill race.  This shot was taken from inside today's mill, which was built in 1743 on the site of the derelict mill.

The mill was grinding when we visited and what with the rush of the water and the clanking of the workings, there was a terrific noise.

Finally the grain flowed down through the hopper and into a grain sack.   We bought some flour to use in my bread machine.

For another example of an early mill see this one at the Weald and Downland Museum.

During the course of Runaway Lady, Conquering Lord, the action shifts to France.   Below are photographs of Honfleur in Normandy, where some scenes were visualised.   The houses have a medieval look to them, but in Emma and Richard's time they would have been more primitive, and mostly wooden.   However, today's buildings still help you imagine the port as it might have been...

Monday, 26 October 2009

Autumn, Sissinghurst & Chestnuts!

Autumn seems to bring out the hunter gatherer in me. Yesterday, my husband and I drove to Sissinghurst and had a walk in the woods. There are lots of sweet chestnut trees, and when we weren't slipping and sliding on the muddy clay paths (it had rained earlier) we noticed there were hundreds of chestnuts on the ground. They seem to be a couple of weeks behind the chestnuts in Kew, and those all got eaten by the bar-headed geese. So I went a bit mad and picked a bowlful. They are all for me, because my husband doesn't like them. After our walk we visited Vita Sackville-West's gardens which were stunning, even in October.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Mary Renault

Breathing Life into Mythical Greece
Article first published in Writing Magazine in May 1995
Copyright Carol Townend

Mary Renault only visited Greece twice, yet eight of the novels she is best remembered for are set in Ancient Greece. They are the foundation of her reputation as a historical novelist. Renault breathed life into a mythic period of history, and her starting point was always a huge amount of research. Renault read Plato and Aristotle. She pondered on the philosophy of Socrates. She studied Greek myths and legends, drawing on Frazer’s Golden Bough and Robert Graves’ Greek Myths for inspiration concerning the ‘mother goddess’ that was at the root of her two Theseus books.
Yet detailed research alone is not enough to explain Renault’s brilliant portrayal of a lost world. Her portrayal is so convincing that some of her fans have claimed that Renault must have been a reincarnation of someone who had lived in those far off days. Setting this claim aside, it has to be admitted that Renault’s reconstruction of a vanished way of life does seem uncannily realistic. Her writing is clear and cool. Her style is spare and at times archaic (‘three and twenty’ for example). Many of her sentences are short and strong, purged of adjectives. Here, at the beginning of The King Must Die, the first of her Theseus books, Renault does some scene setting, drawing her readers into the Citadel of Troizen, so they can come to understand as well as she does the cast of mind and attitudes of her main character, Theseus.
Theseus narrates the story in the first person, and the book opens when he is still a child. Theseus’ mother, Chief Priestess of the Mother Dia and a king’s daughter, is dressing for a feast day, and we watch through her son’s eyes. Theseus does not mention his mother’s nakedness coyly, but so matter of factly that one realises that in Troizen there is nothing unusual in a young woman going about bare-breasted: She was just out ofher bath, and they were dropping a petticoat over her head. The seven-tiered flounces, sewn with gold drops and pendants, clinked and glittered as she shook them out. . . Her breasts were as smooth as milk, and the tips so rosy that she never painted them, though she was still wearing them bare, not being, at that time, much above three and twenty. They took her hair out of the crimping plates (it was darker than mine, about the colour of polished bronze) and began to comb it.
Meanwhile the House Barons assemble in the Great Hall: exchanging news and chaff and striking poses for the women. And Eurytos the charioteer was up already, standing still as an image in his short white tunic and leather greaves, his long hair bound in a club...
The word image in still as an image is particularly effective, as the reader is expecting the phrase to be finished with the clichéd still as a statue. ‘Image’ sets us firmly in the ancient world, as does the fact that the charioteer’s hair is bound in a ‘club’.
Renault goes on to demonstrate that the world Theseus has been brought up in is a male dominated one; a world where a woman can be cherished as his Royal priestess mother is cherished, but a world where a woman can also be booty, whose fate it is to be snatched up by the strongest warriors or won as a prize by the best athlete: Diokles. . . had on his gold snake arm-ring with crystal eyes, and his hair was bound with a purple ribbon. My grandfather had won his mother at Pylos, second prize in the chariot race, and had always valued her highly; she was the best embroideress in the Palace.
It is the apparently simple touch of making Diokles’ mother the second prize that drives home to the reader the position of most women in Troizen, that and the fact that Diokles’ mother was also prized for her embroidery. She is a commodity.
Theseus inhabits a world where the forces of nature are seen as characters, the Gods. The Gods never sleep, and they watch humankind from their home on Mount Olympus. In Troizen the ‘ever-living Zeus’ blasts tall oaks by hurling thunder-bolts at them. By the time one has read a couple of dozen pages of the novel, and come to the sacred oak grove, one knows what it feels like to think: the dryads who live there stare harder into one’s back than anywhere else. One can feel dryad eyes boring into one, just as Theseus can.
Mary Renault has been accused of not allowing her female characters the independence and freedom that she achieved in her own life. This was not because Renault did not support the feminist movement; it had far more to do with her desire to depict the ancient world as accurately as possible. This was more important to her than banging a drum for a feminist, or any other, cause.
In The King Must Die Theseus leaves his homeland and is crowned king in the city of Eleusis. Eleusis is a matriarchal society whose tradition is that their king is killed after one year’s reign in order to ensure the continuing fertility of the land. When Theseus first arrives in Eleusis, he finds to his horror that here it is the men who are second class citizens. The reader, having seen the male oriented way of life at Troizen where Theseus was brought up, can understand his shock and confusion, they share something of his revulsion. The reader wonders when and how Theseus will act to change traditions in Eleusis.
If Renault had not devoted the first section of the book to explaining Troizen and its mores carefully, the impact of the second, woman-dominated section of the book, and the reader’s understanding of Theseus and his plans to overthrow the regime, would have been severely limited.
Renault immersed herself in her period, making no attempt to dress her characters with modern views and attitudes to make them acceptable to twentieth century readers. It was a cruel, bloodthirsty world and she does not flinch from depicting it. In Eleusis, Theseus has to fight the outgoing king, who has reigned for a year and must die. Theseus feels no hatred towards the doomed king, and does not ‘want to be his executioner, but this is mortal combat — kill or be killed. Theseus carries out his unwanted task efficiently and without emotion, but as humanely as he can, given the circumstances: One could not save him. I put my knee in his backbone. Keeping him pinned, for he was not a man to give an inch to, I hooked my arms round his head, and pulled it back till I felt the neckbone straining. . . I jerked his head back hard and fast, and heard the snap of the neckbone.
Renault has been hailed as a cham pio of homosexual love. It is a thread which runs through many of her books, and is one which Renault tackled as openly and honestly as she tackled the position of women in ancient Greece. She is simply concerned to write the truth as she sees it. In The Persian Boy, Renault’s tender description of the way Alexander and Bagoas become lovers is very moving. Bagoas is teaching Alexander Persian, he aches for Alexander, but is terrified of making the first move. Bagoas is narrating, again in the first person: Presently he said, ‘You must tell me when I say the Persian wrongly. Don't be afraid to correct me, or I shall never learn.' I took a step towards him. My hair had fallen forwards over my shoulder He put up his hand and touched it. . I said softly, ‘My lord knows well that he only has to ask.’ Eros had gathered his net in the strong grip of a god, and pulled in his catch no longer to be defied. The hand that touched my hair slid under it; he said, ‘You are here under my protection. ‘ At this, without respect for the sacred person ofa king, I put both arms round his neck. That was the end of his pretences.
Such a short extract cannot hope to convey all the emotion that Renault built up in the preceding pages, but it does give a hint of her skill as a writer, and of her understanding of human nature. How did Renault achieve such a high level of realism in these novels? The biography of Mary Renault by David Sweetman (Pimlico) gives some clues.
Sweetman quotes Renault as saying ‘that the chief pleasure of writing historical novels lies in the continuing tension between the particular — what is individual to the person, the society, the time — and what is universal, and the constant interplay of one through the other.’ Renault thinks herself into the skins of her characters. She is able to do this because she knows her period inside out, and is not afraid to write realistically about customs and religious rites which seem alien and brutal by twentieth century standards.
As a final example, here is an extract from Fire From Heaven. Renault is describing the famous Athenian orator, Demosthenes, and sums his personal life up in a couple of sentences: There was no one at whose side he had locked shields in battle. And when he wanted love, it cost two drachmas. Renault could have said, Demosthenes was lonely and friendless, but the specific mention of the locked shields and love costing two drachmas gives the reader local colour and insight into Demosthenes’ character. It is also telling about the nature of Greek society at the time — a warrior society where loyalties and friendships were forged on the battlefield — where for all his fame as an orator, the puny Demosthenes was an outsider.
Renault has combined the wealth of knowledge gleaned from her research into historical detail, with her knowledge of universal human nature. Her deft blending of the two gives her work its uncanny, intuitive realism.
Writing Magazine May 1995
By Mary Renault
The Last of the Wine
The Praise Singer
The Theseus Legend:
The King Must Die
The Bull from the Sea
The Mask of Apollo
The Alexander Trilogy
Fire from Heaven
The Persian Boy
Funeral Games

Article first published in Writing Magazine, May 1995
Copyright Carol Townend

Monday, 28 September 2009

Adam and Eve in an Oxford Garden

One of my husband's college friends, Rodney Munday, is a sculptor. This week-end we went to his show at their college, St Edmund Hall in Oxford. Adam and Eve were in the garden behind the library, which as you can see used to be a church (St Peter's in the Fields). It has gargoyles, Norman windows and blind arcading.
Here are Adam and Eve, note the apple...

Europa and the bull were in the garden in front of the library.
We managed to go up the old Saxon tower of St Michael's which is nearby - one of the oldest in the country (around 1040). The college gave us a fabulous dinner and then we went punting on the river on the Sunday morning. And, most miraculously, the weather behaved itself. Perfect.

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Mills and Boon Reading Nights...

Guilty pleasures book club has launched evenings for Mills & Boon readers in Soho. There will be monthly talks and discussions etc. Has anyone been to the first one? And does anyone know when the next one is taking place?


Tuesday, 1 September 2009

More about 'The Novice Bride'...

Interview on Unusual Historicals, 2 March 2008:

The heroine of this novel is a novice at the time of the Norman Conquest. How did you find her character?

Since I spent my schooldays in a convent in the wilds of Yorkshire, I suspect that some of the inspiration may have come from there. One of the main themes of the novel is innocence. This story needed a heroine who had very little experience of men and Cecily, having been sent to St Anne’s convent when very young, is a total innocent. That is her weakness, but also it is the source of her strength, and it is one of the things that attracts the hero to her. Cecily is no cipher. In the convent she finds it a struggle to follow the nuns’ Rule to the letter and she is often doing penance for her sins. Convent life was harsh, but then life was harsh for almost everyone in the eleventh century. What makes St Anne’s particularly hard for Cecily as a novice is that she does not have a true vocation. A life ordered by bells is not for her, and when the chance comes for her to leave the convent she seizes it, even though it means alienating the mother superior. I feel I should add that none of the sisters at my school resembled either Cecily or Mother Aethelflaeda – the characters sprang into my head fully formed when I was developing the novel!

The hero of this novel is Breton, not Norman. Did many Bretons come over with Duke William at the time of the conquest?

Yes, footsoldiers and knights came from all over France to offer Duke William their service before he left for England. (Brittany is the neighbouring duchy to Normandy.) The Breton cavalry was feared throughout Europe, it was famous for its wild charges and startling battle tactics – which sometimes included faking a retreat and then swirling round to bear down on the enemy when they were in disarray. The horsemanship of the Breton knights was second to none, and the hero’s name, Wymark – means ‘worthy of a horse’. Sir Adam was not born to his title, he earned it the hard way, by working his way up through the ranks.

Do you spend much time choosing your characters’ names?

It is a vital part of the research and character development. I love choosing names for my characters, both first and last names. People did not have surnames in the eleventh century as we do today, but they were often given second names to help distinguish them one from another. These last names might be earned as Adam’s was earned, thanks to his skills as a knight. Lady Cecily’s second name Fulford, simply refers to the name of her village, so place names were used too. I guess my own name of Townend must mean that at some time my ancestors must have lived in a house at the end of the town! Sometimes a person’s character might give them a name, such as Eadric the Wild or Alfred the Great. At other times names of occupation might be used, like Eustace the Monk, or Rosamund Miller. Over the centuries, some of our surnames have developed from these names. Proudfoot, Steward, Falco…names are intriguing. Of course the first name is equally important, it must have the right resonance for the character to ‘take’ on the page. As a writer, the novel just doesn’t start to come together properly until the names are right.

On the Cover Blurb it says Wessex Weddings - is this novel one of a series?

The Novice Bride is a stand-alone novel, but it is the first in a mini-series which looks at the effect of the Norman Conquest on various characters in both England and France. In Anglo-Saxon times Wessex, with the city of Winchester at its centre, was at the heart of England. The action in this novel mainly takes place in and around Winchester. The layout of the centre of Winchester - around the Cathedral - is much the same today as it was in the eleventh century. Of course there have been changes, but a visit to the museum just off the Cathedral Close points up the similarities. There is a scale model of Winchester in 1066 and you can see the street layout, exactly as it would have been in Cecily and Adam’s time. My husband took a picture of the model, which came in most useful when Cecily was running up and down the town, trying to hide from Adam. Here is a picture of another model at the Museum, of later in the eleventh century. You can see the Cathedral in the centre. Again the street layout is much the same, but this second model is useful because it shows the Norman castle that was built soon after the Conquest. (The brownish area at the bottom left.) You won’t be surprised if characters in other Wessex Weddings stories – such as An Honourable Rogue and His Captive Lady - find themselves passing through these streets…

Here is the cover for the Australian three book edition of The Novice Bride, An Honorable Rogue and His Captive Lady. The editors have chosen the cover that was used for the UK edition of His Captive Lady.

Saturday, 8 August 2009

Wrapt Writer...

Here to prove dedication to duty is a photo taken while I was doing revisions of the last ms. The outside of the house was being painted and so much dust was coming into the room that the computer had to be covered in plastic sheeting to protect it. The only way to get the job done was to crawl under the sheeting. Unfortunately it was very hot outside, and what with the heat generated by the computer under the sheeting, it wasn't a method that worked for long. Never mind worrying about the computer exploding or whatever computers do when they are overheating. I say nothing of overheated writers.

Monday, 3 August 2009


The Novice Bride (& friends) are going to Australia!
It was a lovely surprise. On the Mills & Boon Australian site http://www.millsandboon.com.au/
the 'next months titles' link takes you to a page which show that the first three books in the Wessex Weddings mini series are coming out in one volume! Haven't seen the cover yet, but An Honourable Rogue and His Captive Lady will be accompanying Novice Cecily on her travels.

And you may have guessed by the fact that I was trawling the Harlequin sites, I have sent off my revised ms (not for the first time, this one was tricky to get right) and was immediately gripped by a bout of Displacement Activity. Which only shows that it is time I Got On With the Next One!

Thursday, 23 July 2009

Mervyn Peake, Writer and Artist

The Writer as Artist
(Article first published in Writing Magazine, August-September 1996. Copyright Carol Townend)

The first book in Mervyn Peake’s gothic trilogy — Titus Groan was published in 1946, shortly after the close of the second world war. It was a time of penny-pinching and austerity and Peake’s highly detailed and complex fantasy succeeded because it provided readers with a much wanted escape into another world. Mervyn Peake was not only a novelist, he was an artist and poet too. As an official war artist he was one of the first to enter and record for posterity the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps. He held exhibitions. He illustrated several books including Alice in Wonderland and Treasure Island. He wrote poetry and plays. Both Titus Groan and Mr Pye were adapted for radio plays by the BBC.

The Gormenghast trilogy, according to the Penguin History of English Literature, is a ‘story of mythic intent, focusing on the artist and the curse that is also the creative power of imagination’. While writing it, Peake brought all his artistic talents to bear, and
a glance at the text proves that the draughtsman in him was never very far below the surface. His artist’s eye records everything in minute, obsessive detail. Peake’s highly artificial romance might not be to everyone’s taste, but a writer today can still learn from his work.

Here is a brief description of some pine cones the Earl of Groan has put on the floor of the library for his baby son, Titus, to play with: On the carpet in the lamplight lay scattered a score of fir cones, each one with its wooden petals undercut with the cast shadow of the petal above it. The picture in our minds is in sharp focus. Peake has clearly made studies of pine cones, and his observation of the dark shadows cast by the wooden petals conjures up the cones at a stroke. His description is written with the concentration of an artist drawing a still
life, and the emphasis on light and shade makes the detail on the library carpet leap into life.

Here is another extract from near the end of Titus Groan when the feud between Flay, the Earl’s manservant. and Swelter, the castle cook, has come to a bloody conclusion. The library has been destroyed by fire and is now occupied only by owls. The Earl has been driven mad. One of the Earl’s last orders to his servant Flay is that he should drag Swelter’s mountain of a
body to the library. Peake is using light and dark again, writing like a painter balancing tones to highlight and define his setting: The white silence was terrible. The moonlight like a hoar frost on the Tower of Flints. The shell of the library glimmered in the distance far down the long line of halls and pavilions, and of domed, forsaken structures. To their right the lit pine-woods were split with lines of midnight. Above their feet a few cones, like ivory carvings were scattered, anchored to the pale earth by their shadows.

This play on contrasts, this accentuating of light and dark, black and white, as for example in ‘the lit pine-woods were split with lines of midnight’, is evident throughout the trilogy.

Peake the narrator works in bold black ink, an ink particularly suited to the gothic nature of his epic. Peake’s use of contrast — or counterpoint — is not confined to the pages of Titus Groan. The world of Gormenghast is so complete, so eccentric a world, that readers cannot but be aware of the contrast between the fantasy world of the book, and the real world outside.

Peake’s trilogy can also be used to examine several methods of character presentation. First, narrator’s statement. This can be bald and simple, directing the way the reader sees a character. For example: Mrs Slagg was never very tactful.

Or the narrator’s statement can be longer and more detailed and complex, as in these caricatures: Who else is there of the direct blood-line? Only the vacant Aunts, Cora and Clarice, the identical twins and sisters of Sepulchrave. So limp of brain that for them to conceive an idea is to risk a haemorrhage. So limp of body that their purple dresses appear no more indicative of housing nerves and sinews than when they hang suspended from their hooks.

But surely this is telling, not showing, and writers are usually urged to show, not to tell? That is certainly true. Showing conveys information by allowing the reader to watch events unfold and to judge for themselves what they think about a character, while telling, where the author summarises past events or characters’ natures for the reader, is less direct. But telling does have its uses, as the last quote (from Gormenghast, the second book in Peake’s trilogy) proves. Peake is running through the main cast list to refresh the memories of those readers who have read the first book, and to give those readers who may not have read it the necessary background to enjoy Gormenghast.

Narrator’s statement therefore, despite being telling and not showing is useful if a fiction writer needs to fill in background information quickly and succinctly.

Description is another method of presenting characters, and Peake often sketches his character in with a line or two. Note how the artist in him never sleeps. We have: Sourdust was shocked. His mouth worked at the corners. His old, fissured face became a fantastic area of cross-hatching and his weak eyes grew desperate. Peake’s use of the phrase cross-hatching — the tone-creating technique used by artists — vividly conveys the wrinkles on the old man’s face.

And look at this: Barquentine raised his hot-looking, irritable eyes and dropped the cross-hatched corners of his mouth. Here the phrase cross-hatched corners shows readers a grouchy old man with a drooping mouth. Describing a part — face, hands, way of walking — can, of course, tell readers a lot about the whole.

Clothes are another example. They say a lot about a person and can be used very effectively to symbolise a character’s status or aspirations in the fictional world. Early in Titus Groan Peake gives us this description of Flay, the Earl’s manservant, coming to attend Titus’s christening: He was wearing his long black moth-eaten suit, but there had been some attempt on his part at getting rid of the major stains and clipping the more ragged edges of cuff and trouser into straight raw lines. Over and above these improvements he wore around his neck a heavy chain of brass... The negative dignity of the room threw him out in relief as a positive scarecrow.

Continually focusing on opposites, positive and negative, black and white, Peake’s writing conveys the starkness of his vision, undiluted. But he has not entirely banned colour from his palette: One of these narrow beams lit Fuchsia's forehead and shoulder, and another plucked a note of crimson from her dress.

A character’s actions can also be revealing. And with action it is important to distinguish between meaningful actions, like putting into effect a plan to commit arson, and actions which are mere movement, like the way Flay’s knees crack when he walks. An action must be significant, an event that carries the plot forward. Flay’s cracking knees are relevant, but they are part of the description that helps readers visualise him. Since they do not reveal anything about his purpose, his private goals and ambitions, or his hidden nature they are not seen as character-revealing action. Steerpike is a young kitchen boy at Gormenghast castle who has ambitions above his station, and seeks eagerly for an opportunity to better himself. As soon as the chance presents itself, Steerpike flees the kitchen: glancing around and finding that he was alone he had made for the door through which Mr Flay had passed and was soon racing down the passages turning left and right as he ran in a mad effort to reach the fresh air.
This is significant action. In this case, Steerpike’s determined dash from the kitchen is more than mere movement, it carries the plot along, and marks the beginning of Steerpike’s efforts to climb the social ladder.

Dialogue or speech is another way of presenting characters. Much later in Titus Groan, Steerpike has risen to a position of some trust in the Castle. Here, he engages Fuchsia the Earl’s daughter, in conversation. By now the reader knows that Steerpike is ruthlessly, dangerously intelligent, but they do not know how far he is prepared to go. Does Steerpike have feelings? Is he capable of kindness?

Steerpike paused to remove a stag-beetle from where it clung to the soft bark of a pine. Fuchsia went on slowly, wishing she were alone.
‘There should be no rich, no strong, no weak,’ said Steerpike methodically pulling the legs off the stag-beetle, one by one, as he spoke. ‘Equality is the great thing, equality is everything. He flung the mutilated insect away. ‘Do you agree, Lady Fuchsia?’ he said.
‘I don’t know anything about it, and I don’t care much.’
‘But don’t you think...’
And Steerpike continues talking, apparently oblivious of Fuchsia’s lack of interest. Nor is he conscious of the contradiction between the impression he is trying to convey — that of an intelligent liberal — and what he is doing to the stag-beetle. There is in Steerpike a terrible void, and by showing his callous destruction of the beetle while fine words are pouring out of his mouth, Peake builds up a picture of a man who might be capable of anything.

Another way to reveal character is to show their thoughts, and a second glance at the above extract shows how simply this can be done. Peake gives us Fuchsia’s reaction to Steerpike in a line: Fuchsia went on slowly, wishing she were alone.

A dedicated painter and draughtsman as well as a writer, Peake used the knowledge gleaned from his art to enrich his writing. What are your other interests or passions or areas of special knowledge? Do they give you a particular view of the world? Can you use your insight to enliven and colour your own writing?

Mervyn Peake Mervyn Peake’s well known gothic trilogy:
Titus Groan — 1946
Gormenghast — 1950
Titus Alone — 1959

Sadly the works that follow might be out of print, but they can be found in libraries and second-hand book- shops:
Mr Pye—1953
Poetry: The Glassblowers — 1950
The Rhyme of the Flying Bomb — 1962
A Book of Nonsense (published posthumously) — 1972
Selected Poems of Mervyn Peake — 1975

Writing Magazine Article, August-September 1995, copyright Carol Townend

Monday, 20 July 2009

Ignore the writer...

Look at the scenery - Near Aira Force, July 2009. Picture taken before the RNA Conference.

Thursday, 16 July 2009

RNA Conference - Penrith 2009

RNA Conference
The Conference was amazing, it was good to see everyone, and I don't think the choice of talks could be bettered. There is always so much to learn - my head is still spinning! Here is a brief 500 word summary of just one of the talks...

Jessica Hart: Nobody Mention the F-word!

Jessica Hart has written 53 novels for Mills & Boon. In her talk she explored how to develop narrative drive in a romance.

A romance story is about unresolved emotional tension. It’s about ‘why two people who are powerfully attracted to each other not only won’t acknowledge the fact that they love each other, but feel that they can’t.’

Emotional tension comes from the reader:
a) understanding why the H & H believe their relationship won’t work
b) understanding they are perfect for each other
c) wondering how they will resolve their problems.

Jessica knows that many romance writers ‘loathe the notion of a formula’. While agreeing that romance is not written to formula, she believes it is vital a writer understands how a romance is structured. It is the structure that carries the emotional tension. Jessica has devised a formula for this:
Situation (External) X Plot = Emotional Tension
Character (Internal)

To take these elements in turn:
Situation: This is the external set of circumstances driving the H & H together. A child has to be looked after, a debt has to be paid etc. Give your characters balanced motivations for staying together, eg the baby belongs to the hero’s brother and she is desperate for money etc.

Character: What makes your H & H the kind of people they are? Why do they behave the way they do? Character is about the internal issues which drive them. ‘Specifically, both your protagonists need a goal and ideally those goals are in direct conflict with each other’.
The goals are emotional ones, ‘wanting to be rich doesn’t work, but wanting – needing – security does… Give your characters goals that reflect the kind of hopes, joys and fears that women can relate to’.
Show the reader why these goals are important. If someone is driven to succeed, for example, perhaps his father was distant, and the character felt that nothing he ever did was good enough for him. ‘The reader needs to understand why the characters are the way they are.’ If the main characters’ goals oppose each other, eg she has a deep need for security, but he has a fear of commitment, this will create conflict within the novel.
The characters’ internal goals push them apart, while the external situation forces them to stay together. This makes them aware of their attraction for each other. Falling in love is what will ensure a final resolution of the conflict.

Plot: in a Mills & Boon romance in particular, ‘the change, the movement in the story is emotional, not physical.’ It is not that the characters move from A to B, but rather into ‘a series of situations that test their fears, and push them out of their comfort zones.’

Thinking about Jessica’s formula can add emotional tension to a story. Then readers will keep turning the pages to learn how the hero and heroine reach their happy ending.
Here is a link to Jessica's website:http://www.jessicahart.co.uk/Home/tabid/76/Default.aspx

Tuesday, 30 June 2009


The revised manuscript has been sent in, so it's dreaded nail-biting time. I hate that! Have just had the realisation that writers are writers because they (like to?!) worry in detail. About everything. And worrying about Getting It Right is there at the top of the list. Still, it's far too hot to worry this afternoon. I shall languish a little with the latest copy of the Romance Writers' Report and see if I can summon up the energy for a walk. There are other things that I ought to catch up on but I can feel dream mode coming on... This is Andolu Kavagi in Turkey. This shot is a nice reminder of the lovely cool breezes coming in off the Bosphoros.

Monday, 15 June 2009

The Madwoman in the Attic

People who have been hemmed in by society (aka kill your inner angel if you are a writer...)

(Article first published by Writers' News in September 1998. Copyright Carol Townend.)

As with the other articles, this has been scanned in and lightly revised.

The madwoman in the attic has become a powerful motif in literature, particularly in women’s fiction. It has been used to express the frustration women have felt at the limitations imposed on them by their societies. For a respectable woman in 19th century England, for example, the choices were stark: marry or be a governess. Fenced in by society, raging against such constriction yet helpless to do much about it, women writers have expressed their anger through the image of the madwoman in the attic. Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (1847) offers perhaps the best known early use of the madwoman motif.
In Jane Eyre Mr Rochester’s mad first wife Bertha Mason rampages about in the attic at Thornfield Hall, guarded by that most sinister of wardens, Grace Poole. As the novel has been analysed and psycho-analysed several critics have posited that the mad Bertha Mason is Jane Eyre’s ‘double’ or alter ego. The double that Charlotte Bronte created in Jane Eyre was the ‘bad’ side of a woman’s nature (Bertha) contrasted with the ‘good’ side (Jane). In a dramatic scene in Jane Eyre the two women come face to face. Jane’s wedding to Rochester has been interrupted with the words Mr Rochester has a wife now living.
Up until this moment in the narrative, the mad, bad, mutinous Bertha’s presence has only been hinted at. First in a mild form when the child Jane was so overcome with rage and fear she fainted in the red room, and later more explicitly with unexplained noises in the night at Thornfield, and mysterious outbreaks of fire. But finally the dreadful words Mr Rochester has a wife now living are uttered, and readers are forced to confront the duality in woman’s nature as Bertha comes centre-stage.
Rochester leads Jane and the wedding party up to the attic and the comparison between the two women, the civilised and the uncivilised, takes place. The animal side of Bertha’s nature is stressed. She lurks in the dark, and at first Jane cannot tell whether she is human or animal: What it was, whether beast or human being, one could not at first sight tell: it grovelled, seemingly on all fours; it snatched and growled like some strange wild animal: but it was covered with clothing and a quantity of dark, grizzled hair, wild as a mane, hid its head and face. Jane on the other hand is described by Rochester as being: ...this young girl who stands so grave and quiet at the mouth of hell, looking collectedly at the gambols of a demon.
In creating Bertha Mason, Charlotte Brontë was well aware of the taboos she was breaking by showing that a woman’s rage could be so primitive. In order to be acceptable in society, Brontë seems to be saying, women have to deny their angry, mad, demon natures exist — they have to lock them in the attic. Doubtful as to the reception her novel would receive, she published Jane Eyre under a pseudonym, that of Currer Bell. This seminal novel continues to inspire writers well into the 21st century, writers as diverse as the novelist Jean Rhys with her much-praised Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), and scholars such as Sandra M Gilbert and Susan Gubar with their wide-ranging interpretation of 19th century novels by women, The Madwoman in the Attic (1979).
In Wide Sargasso Sea Jean Rhys tells the story of Bertha Mason, Rochester’s first wife, and charts her decline into insanity. The novel opens with Bertha (whose name in Wide Sargasso Sea is Antoinette Cosway) as a child. Antoinette is a Creole heiress in Jamaica. Rhys shows us that the marriage, set in an authoritarian, patriarchal society and founded on the money gained from slavery, was doomed from the beginning.
In the 18th and 19th centuries women writers like Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters had learned to articulate the concerns of women but, by the mid 20th century, Rhys was able to demonstrate that women were not the only ones to suffer as a result of the restrictions imposed by society. Men too had problems. In Wide Sargasso Sea Rochester says: A short youth mine was. And a couple of pages later Rochester is still focusing on the fact that innocence and youth slip away all too easily. This is his description of the garden of the house in Jamaica where he is honeymooning: One morning soon after we arrived, the row of tall trees outside my window was covered with small pale flowers too fragile to resist the wind. They fell in a day, and looked like snow on the rough grass — snow with a faint, sweet scent. Then they were blown away. The fragility of the flowers combined with the impossible image of snow on a tropical island add to the feeling of impending, inevitable doom.
Coming from two such widely different backgrounds, neither Antoinette nor Rochester has any chance of understanding the other. Antoinette tells Rochester that she hears London is like a dream. His response is testy: ‘Well,’ I answered, annoyed, ‘that is precisely how your beautiful island seems to me, quite unreal and like a dream.’
'But how can rivers and mountains and the sea be unreal?’ ‘And how can millions of people, their houses and their streets be unreal?'
‘More easily,’ she said, ‘much more easily. Yes, a big city must be like a dream.’
‘No, this is unreal and like a dream,’ I thought.
Towards the end of Wide Sargasso Sea the action moves to Thornfield Hall where Antoinette, whom Rochester now insists on calling Bertha, is imprisoned. In a scene which stresses her ‘double’ nature, Antoinette, who can no longer distinguish between dream and reality, escapes from her warder and comes face to face with herself in the mirror. It is a passage heavy with irony for in her madness Antoinette both knows herself, and does not know herself. She has heard rumours of a ghost that haunts Thornfield, she recognises that ghost in the mirror, but she does not recognise that the ghost is herself. I went into the hall again with the tall candle in my hand. It was then that I saw her — the ghost. The woman with streaming hair. She was surrounded by a gilt frame but I knew her. I dropped the candle I was carrying and it caught the end of a tablecloth and I saw flames shoot up.
Antoinette escapes the restrictions imposed upon her, first by retreating into madness, and finally by leaping to her death from the roof of Thornfield Hall.
It is the classic no-win situation; only angel women are acceptable, but women are human beings and the demon in them refuses to be chained.
Several other writers have explored similar no-win dilemmas. The Yellow Wallpaper (1892) by the American writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman is based on fact and concerns a woman suffering from post-natal psychosis. It gives a chilling account of ‘the rest cure’ many women endured when they were put into what was virtually solitary confinement and anything that might ‘upset’ — or rather, stimulate — them, such as books or pen or paper, would be removed ‘for their own good’. Before she loses her mind, the first- person narrator of The Yellow Wallpaper is locked in a yellow-papered bedroom and ordered to stay there and rest until she recovers. Desperate for understanding, she tries to discuss her condition with her husband. He is a physician, and she finds: It is so hard to talk to John about my case, because he is so wise, and because he loves me so.
John the physician is certain he knows what is best for his wife and, as everyone who has ever been patronised knows, there is no telling some people.
Again the novella The Awakening (1899) by Kate Chopin takes as its theme the angel/demon dilemma when it describes the sexual awakening of a woman, Edna Pontellier. Edna is torn between loyalty to her family and her need for personal freedom. Mrs Pontellier was not a mother-woman.
Like Bertha, like Antoinette, and like the first-person narrator of The Yellow Wallpaper, it is not easy for Edna to reconcile the two halves of her nature.
But retreating into insanity or killing off the demon are not the only solutions. In a lecture entitled Professions for Women, Virginia Woolf confesses that the angel in the house used to interfere with her writing. This angel, Woolf says, was: intensely sympathetic. She was utterly unselfish. She was immensely charming. She excelled in the difficult arts of family life. She sacrificed herself daily. If there was chicken, she took the leg; if there was a draught, she sat in it...
Woolf’s solution was radical: I turned upon her and took her by the throat. Woolf killed the angel in her house, and in so doing she used both sides of her nature and freed herself to write.

Angel/demon dilemmas in women’s fiction:
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë, published 1847
The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilmore, published 1892
The Awakening by Kate Chopin, published 1899
Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys, published 1966

Related criticism/essays:
The Crowded Dance of Modern Life by Virginia Woolf (which includes the 1931 Professions for Women lecture about the Angel in the House)
The Madwoman in the Attic — The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth Century Imagination by Sandra M Gilbert & Susan Gubar, published 1979
Women Writing About Men by Jane Miller, published 1986

This article copyright Carol Townend, first published by Writers' News, September 1998

Thursday, 11 June 2009

Harlequin on Teach Me Tonight...

Harlequin's History: Marsha Zinberg, the Executive Editor is taking part in a blog tour as part of Harlequin's 60th Anniversary Celebrations. Here is the link to the Teach Me Tonight article:
All fascinating stuff with a potted history of the company; a discussion of 'famous firsts'; cover designs...

Friday, 5 June 2009

Amazon.com's Author Pages...

Author Central on Amazon.com There is a new Author Page facility open to writers who like to connect with readers. It seems to be easy to set up, although I have by accident set up pages for my non-fiction book when it can easily be mentioned on the main Carol Townend page. Here is the link if anyone is interested in setting up their own Author page: https://authorcentral.amazon.com/gp/home
There is a facility for linking to your blog, but so far, I haven't got that to work!

Friday, 29 May 2009

The Golden Horn

The Chain...
This is a picture of the Golden Horn showing the city walls of Constantinople (as it was in medieval times). The chain below the picture is part of the the actual chain that was drawn up to prevent enemy ships entering the Horn. If you look closely at the picture you can see that two chains were used, one is further up the channel. If the guards managing the chains got their timing right, they could break the backs of the unwanted ships. We found this picture in the Archeological Museum in Istanbul.

The quays alongside the Golden Horn were used by trading ships from all corners of the Empire and beyond, including Venice.  Silk, glassware, spices, silks and slaves were among the things traded.     Byzantine silk was much sought-after.  This fragment of Byzantine silk - seen at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London - gives a hint at the gorgeous fabrics Katerina, the heroine of Bound to the Barbarian might have worn when she undertook to impersonate Princess Theodora.  The weave and patterning are stunning.

Wednesday, 27 May 2009

Byzantine Sheep in Istanbul

Today's hero is my brother who has translated some of the Turkey pictures into something that can be shown on the blog. Here is a frieze of Byzantine sheep outside Haghia Sophia. (5th century). I love them. And their palm tree. Is it a date palm? Do sheep eat dates?

...must have dominated a large part of medieval Constantinople, it's still impressive today and it's hard to believe how old it is. (Emperor Valens built it in the late 4th century AD!) The Valens Aqueduct brought fresh water into the heart of the City and piped water into many of the palaces and fountains.

The Valens Aqueduct

This is how the Valens Aqueduct looked when we went on our research trip to Istanbul in the early spring of 2009.

According to my guide book, the Valens Aqueduct brought water from the Belgrade forest and mountains over 125 miles away. You can see how imposing it still is. In medieval times, it must have dominated a large part of the City, towering over the nearby houses and tenements. This wikipedia map of Medieval Constantinople (now Istanbul) shows the aqueduct as a blue line that runs across from the Fourth Hill to the Third Hill. (Like Rome, Constantinople/Istanbul has seven hills) I do love maps! They are enormously helpful when it comes to visualising the past.

But nothing beats actually seeing a place. I am not sure whether the cistern this aqueduct fed into would have resembled the Basilica Cistern, but seeing the Basilica Cistern and the Aqueduct inspired important scenes in  the Palace Brides trilogy.

Thursday, 21 May 2009

The Curse of the Mist

The Bosphoros as seen from the Genoese Castle
This picture was taken on April 1st 2009. As you can (or rather can't) see, this is not quite the view we were hoping for! The boat had stopped at Andolu Kavigi, and before lunch we thought it would be good to get the lie of the land from the 14th century castle at the top of the hill. Cue the mist. The irritating thing was that just before we stopped there had been no sign of mist. We had been watching porpoises playing around the boat.
The mist is an old foe. Exactly the same thing happened a couple of years ago when we were researching Cathar Castles in the south of France. At Peyrepertuse we slogged up to the top (a dizzying climb) and the mist came down. So here is a another picture starring The Mist. I don't like heights, so in retrospect the mist may have been a good thing. I probably wouldn't have made it to the top if I had actually been able to see the drop!!

Friday, 15 May 2009

Macbeth's Disciple

Shakespeare in Schools...

My daughter worked on this project, which looked to be great fun and just up my street period-wise! Below is a link to the trailer and website. It is a short film designed to promote interest in Shakespeare in schools.

Friday, 8 May 2009

Hemingway Article Revisited

Article on Fiction Writing, first published in Writing Magazine in August, 1995 (Copyright Carol Townend)
This article has been scanned in and lightly revised, as the old floppy it was originally saved on has degraded. It's interesting to see how Hemingway's style affected the article, but I would probably write a very different version today. Anyhow, this is posted here for Ann, by which she will know my mss has at last been sent to my editor! Here's the article:

E.H. Hemingway - Clarity and Simplicity
Winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954, Ernest Hemingway was a man of many contradictions. He wrote about universal themes: love, war, death and the nature of courage and cowardice. It is a tragic and poignant irony that in July 1961, he loaded his double barrelled shotgun, put the barrels to his forehead, and fired. Although he had been ill for some time, his death rocked the literary world.
Hemingway was an insistently literal writer. He wrote from life, working hard to get to the truth behind experience: I am trying to make, before I get through, a picture of the whole world — or as much of it as I have seen. Boiling it down always, rather than spreading it out thin. (From Selected Letters, to Mrs P. Pfeiffer 1933).
Hemingway devoted his life to improving his craft. The book Ernest Hemingway on Writing, edited by Larry W. Phillips is a collection of Hemingway’s remarks and comments on writing, taken from his novels and private correspondence. It bears witness to his dedication, and is a goldmine of advice and inspiration for any writer. Hemingway slaved to achieve a spare writing style, paring everything down to the bone. His style has been labeled hard-boiled, masculine, tough, and a ‘flat, precise prose purged of any romanticism’.
He takes pains to tell a story straight, intending that the reader should experience the emotion evoked by a situation directly, not filtered through the perceptions of the author or one of his characters. In Death in the Afternoon he says: the greatest difficulty...was to put down what really happened in action; what the actual things were which produced the emotion that you experienced. His development of an exact, photographic style is his solution to this problem and using it he paints vivid and convincing pictures. The opening of For Whom the Bell Tolls is deceptively simple and illustrates the clarity of Hemingway’s economical narrative prose: He lay flat on the brown, pine-needled floor of the forest, his chin on his folded arms, and high overhead the wind blew in the tops of the pine trees. The mountainside sloped gently where he lay; but below it was steep and he could see the dark of the oiled road winding through the pass. There was a stream alongside the road and far down the pass he saw a mill beside the stream and the falling water of the dam, white in the summer sunlight. This is straight writing with no wasted words, and its lack of ornament empowers it.
The stark simplicity of Hemingway’s style can produce effects so strong it can be painful to read; and when used to describe a scene involving people in a flood of complicated and often paradoxical responses, it can be unbearable. Here is an excerpt from A Farewell to Arms, where the first person narrator of the book is in a dug-out that is struck by a mortar. It is dark, there is much confusion, and the narrator has been unable to help the man next to him, who has just died, screaming in agony. Then the narrator realises that he too is hurt: I sat up straight and as I did so something inside my head moved like the weights on a doll’s eyes and it hit me inside the back of my eyeballs. My legs felt warm and wet and my shoes were wet and warm inside. I knew that I was hit and leaned over and put my hand on my knee. My knee wasn’t there. My hand went in and my knee was down on my shin. I wiped my hand on my shirt and another floating light came very slowly down and I looked at my leg and was very afraid...
Drawing on his experiences on the Italian front in the First World War, Hemingway conveys the horror, not by giving a detailed account of the emotions of the narrator and how he felt in the aftermath of the explosion; but by writing exactly what happened in plain, simple English. By writing objectively Hemingway evokes in the reader the feelings that the wounded narrator of the scene would have felt. This ‘show, don’t tell’ technique pushed to its limits is what gives Hemingway’s writing its potency.
In Ernest Hemingway on Writing he sums up his writing philosophy: You see I’m trying in all my stories to get the feeling of the actual life across — not to just depict life — or criticise it — but to actually make it alive. So that when you have read something by me you actually experience the thing. You can’t do this without putting in the bad and the ugly as well as what is beautiful. Because if it is all beautiful you can’t believe in it. Things aren’t that way. It is only by showing both sides — three dimensions and if possible four that you can write the way I want to. As this excerpt demonstrates, it is the contrast between Hemingway’s flat, unemotional style, and the aftermath of the explosion that points up the blood and gore. Readers are made to experience something of the terror and helplessness that the narrator felt without the words blood and gore even being used. However, despite the apparent plainness of the language, this passage is not as simple as it looks. Repetition and rhyme help pile on the horror. Throughout the text in this and the preceding paragraph (which can be found in Chapter 9) the words knee and legs sound like a drum before the narrator realises how badly he is wounded. The repetitious use of these words, and also of dead and head, foreshadow what is to come. My legs felt warm and wet, and my shoes were wet and warm inside: here Hemingway uses repetition, rhythm and alliteration, to convey the fact that the narrator was bleeding profusely. Though Hemingway professed a dislike of simile and metaphor, he was not above using them. The simile like the weights on a doll’s eyes is simple but communicates in many ways at once — the feeling in his head, his wooden, unreal movements...
Here is another example of effective use of simile and metaphor taken from For Whom the Bell Tolls. Rafael, the gipsy is talking about Pilar: she has a tongue that scalds and bites like a bull whip. With this tongue she takes the hide from anyone. In strips.
It is interesting to consider whether Hemingway’s terse style would be as effective if he used it to depict a sedate tea party in his home town of Oak Park, Illinois. It needs the contrast between the plain words he employs and the drama of a life and death situation to be most effective. This is not to say that Hemingway cannot write with great subtlety and sensitivity about rare and bizarre happenings. For example in A Farewell to Arms, when the mortar explodes, he describes an out of body experience: then there was a flash, as a blast- furnace door is swung open, and a roar that started white and went red and on and on in a rushing wind. I tried to breathe but my breath would not come and I felt myself rush bodily out of myself and out and out and out and all the time bodily in the wind. I went out swiftly, all of myself and I knew that I was dead and that it had all been a mistake to think you just died. Then I floated and instead of going on I felt myself slide back. I breathed and I was back. Note how the insistent repetitious rhythm out and out and out somehow conveys the weird nature of the sensation.
Hemingway’s astute use of the dramatic contrast as a technique for making his writing live is apparent in his choice of themes as well as in his prose style. The love stories in both A Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls are rendered more poignant and tender by the fact that both take place with the spectre of death and sudden separation looming over them. Here is a section, again from A Farewell to Arms, when the wounded narrator is in hospital and Catherine Barkley comes to nurse him. They have not seen each other for some time: ‘Hello,' I said. When I saw her I was in love with her. Everything turned over inside of me. She looked towards the door, saw there was no one, then she sat on the side of the bed and leaned over and kissed me. I pulled her down and kissed her and felt her heart beating. ‘You’re sweet,’ I said. ‘Weren’t you wonderful to come here?’ ‘It wasn’t very hard. It may be hard to stay.’
And in For Whom the Bell Tolls lovers Robert and Maria are overshadowed always by the threat of Robert’s death. Pilar, who is clairvoyant and can read palms, has seen death in Robert’s hand. here, Pilar offers to leave Robert alone with Maria: Robert Jordan said nothing. Then he said, ‘That is not necessary.’ ‘Yes, man. It is necessary. There is not much time.’
‘Did you see that in the hand?’ he asked. ‘No. Do not remember that nonsense of the hand.’

Hemingway researched his backgrounds thoroughly, but his findings did not all work their way into the text. He developed a theory of omission, whereby what was known by the writer, but not stated, nevertheless added verisimilitude to the writing: If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writers is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one- eighth of it being above water. A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing. (Death in the Afternoon). Hemingway was a perfectionist. In order to refine his work — ‘to boil it down’ — he wrote and rewrote, cutting drastically. It is said he cut 100,000 words of To Have and Have Not. Hemingway himself can have the last word. In a Paris Review interview he was asked how much rewriting he did: Hemingway: It depends. I rewrote the ending of A Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, thirty-nine times before I was satisfied with it. Interviewer: Was there some technical problem there? What was it that had stumped you? Hemingway: Getting the words right.

Writing Magazine Article August 1995 (copyright Carol Townend)