Thursday, 27 November 2014

In Memory of PD James - 3 August 1920 to 27 November 2014.

PD James at a recent event in Cologne
It is with a heavy heart we heard today of the sad death of author, PD James, aged 94. Her agent said she died "peacefully at her home in Oxford" this morning.

In a statement, James's publishers Faber and Faber said: "This is a very sad day for us at Faber. It is difficult to express our profound sadness at losing PD James, one of the world's great writers and a Faber author since her first publication in 1962.

"She was so very remarkable in every aspect of her life, an inspiration and great friend to us all. It is a privilege to publish her extraordinary books. Working with her was always the best of times, full of joy. We will miss her hugely."

Wonderful obits have been made throughout the day to the timeless author, who has been an inspiration to crime writers for generations.

Close friend, Ruth Rendell, told Radio 4's Front Row: "She was wonderfully accurate in her police work; she really took great pains about it. She took great care and she got it right. She did not make mistakes, she saw to it that she didn't. She knew very well what she thought a perfect universe would be and she wanted her books to come close to that, to show what it should be. She held up people who were bad - who acted wrongly - as examples of the kind of people she didn't like and didn't want others to be affected by."

Ian Rankin tweeted: "So sad about PD James. Every event I did with her was a joy. Sharp intellect, ready wit."

US crime writer Patricia Cornwell said: "RIP PD James and thanks for encouraging me when I was getting started."

Val McDermid said: "I salute the great PD James for so many reasons. Today, I've lost a friend as well as a teacher. There was nothing cosy about Phyllis."

As our own WWJ tribute, we are repeating below the interview Gillian Hamer had with PD James last October just after the publication of her Pride and Prejudice based novel, Death Comes to Pemberley.

PD James needs no introduction. But for those of you who aren’t avid crime readers, a writer first published in 1962, introducing investigator and poet, Adam Dalgliesh of New Scotland Yard. She has gone on win a plethora of awards and accolades and published over twenty novels featuring Dalgliesh, and her other protagonist, Cordelia Gray. Many of her works have also been developed for television and film. The most famous being the Hollywood blockbuster, Children of Men, in 2006.

We asked Baroness James about her experience in seeing her writing developed into other formats and her thoughts on the future of publishing.

You have been lucky to see your books adapted not only for television (The Inspector Dalgliesh Mysteries) but also into box-office successes as films (Children of Men). What was your involvement with the adaptations, and as a writer, which format – film or television – gave you the most enjoyment?

It is always an advantage for a writer to have her work filmed or televised as it brings people to the book, but few of us are really satisfied with the result.  However, I have been more fortunate than many writers and now look forward to the TV adaptation of Death Comes to Pemberley.  Television gives me the most involvement as I am often invited to visit the set during filming, and was indeed at Chatsworth recently with my PA to watch a scene being filmed.  This has not so far happened with a feature film and I have to wait until it is released to see the final result.

You’ve been quoted as saying you enjoyed the film version of Children of Men but that the actor, Roy Marsden was not ‘your idea’ of Inspector Dalgliesh. What are the hardest things, as a writer, about relinquishing your rights and letting someone else take control of your work?

I accept that, with a film or TV adaptation I have to relinquish certain of my rights and let people regarded as experts in a different medium take control of my work to a large extent.  The hardest thing is when the dialogue, which I have taken considerable trouble over writing, is expunged and the adaptor’s dialogue substituted.

Location seems to play a strong central role in your books, something that means a lot to me also as a crime writer. This has helped bring the books alive on screen. Thinking of The Lighthouse and The Private Patient, you seem to favour strong, remote locales. What do you look for in a perfect location for your novels, and what do you think location to brings to the narrative?

My novels nearly always begin with my response to a place and this was certainly true of The Lighthouse and The Private Patient.  I do favour strong remote localities where it is possible rationally to limit the number of suspects.  In looking for a perfect location I tend to choose a place which I find beautiful, mysterious or unusual, and I think the location is important to the narrative as it increases credibility, influences character and plot, and adds to realism.

You must have learnt a great deal about writing and publishing over your career. What words of wisdom would you impart to the next generation of writers?

If asked for advice I generally give the following:  A prospective writer should read widely, not in order to slavishly copy, but to see how established writers exercise their craft.  It is also important to increase one’s vocabulary since words are the building blocks of a writer’s talent.

You’ve obviously won so many awards, honours and accolades throughout your career. What, as a writer, have been your proudest moments and achievements?

I have been very fortunate in the public acknowledgement of my success, but I think the proudest moment was when I received a telephone call from my agent to say that Faber & Faber had accepted my first novel.
I’ve read many of your novels over the years, and Death Comes to Pemberley was a change of style and direction for you. What caused that change – and do you have plans for more historical crime adaptations to come?

After the publication of The Private Patient I was wondering whether I had the energy to write a long novel, as detective stories tend to be.  It seemed the right time to return to an idea which had been long in my mind: to combine my two enthusiasms – the novels of Jane Austen and detective story writing – to write a crime novel set in Pemberley some six years after the marriage of Darcy and Elizabeth.  It was a joy to write and has been a world-wide bestseller.   I have no plan for more historical crime adaptations in the future.

And finally, can I ask how you see the future of publishing? In such a rapidly changing market and technological world, do you believe ‘real books’ will survive or that e-books are the future?

I think it is difficult for anyone, including publishers, to see with any clarity the future of publishing, but I acknowledge that e-books are immensely convenient for long journeys, stays in hospital or holidays when so many books can be transported so easily.  And e-books also have a use for reading in bed and for people with poor eyesight.  However I believe, and greatly hope, that what you rightly describe as ‘real books’ will survive.

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

60 Seconds with Lynne Barrett-Lee

By Gillian Hamer

A multi-talented, multi-tasking author, Lynne Barrett-Lee writes fiction, non-fiction, ghostwriting ... oh, and throw in the odd creative writing tutorial too. A passionate reader first and foremost, who became a passionate writer.

Her latest non-fiction release promises to help write the killer short story - and I personally think her top tips below are fabulous words of wisdom.
So, let's attempt to dig a little deeper in our 60 Second feature.

You have many talents - fiction, non-fiction, teaching, ghost-writing - what gives you most pleasure?

Different things at different times. I just love writing narrative. But Ghosting has been particularly thrilling as it's been such an unexpected departure for me. I thought I was far too much the egotistical 'creative' type but I find I love taking a real story, about a real (hopefully humbling and inspiring) person, and shaping it to read as compellingly as a novel would, and creating dialogue/developing character to bring someone real to life. It's a singular job - not one bit like journalism.

Why do you enjoy teaching creative writing?

Not for the money, for sure! I teach once a week, for two hours, at Cardiff Uni, and do it because it gets me out of the house and into the warm embrace of other aspiring writers (sometimes the embodiment of the 'me' I recognise from 20 years back, as I attended such classes myself). I trained as a primary school teacher in my 30s - my first published piece was for the TES - and I love inspiring and motivating writers, so perhaps its in my blood. Cheesy but true. We also go out a-razzling sometimes, which also makes me happy.

How did you move into ghost-writing?

By accident, in 2007. One of my husband's former patients, who had read both a couple of my romantic comedy novels and my weekly Western Mail column, wrote and asked me if I'd help her tell the story of her amazing life. She came off a motorbike and was paralysed from the chest down at the age of 14 and, via an extraordinary journey, ended up marrying the consultant who told her she'd never walk again, 25 years later. You really couldn't have made it up. After that, my agent asked me if I'd like to ghost another; it's kind of gone - indeed, snowballed - from there...

I love your ghost-writing quote - 'you never quite know where saying yes might lead you ...' - what has been your biggest adventure?

I have been on several. Geographically, when I was asked to go to Arizona to ghost the story of Giant George, then the world's biggest dog; professionally, when a book I ghosted (The Girl With No Name, which had been the project of no less than 5 ghosts before me and was languishing unsold) was sold in 19 countries and became a global best seller; emotionally, when I agreed to ghost Bye Mam, I Love You, Sonia Oatley's memoir about the murder of her15 year old daughter, Rebecca Oatley, and in terms of personal joy, it's a tie between the bestselling series I've co-authored for 4 years now - about which I can't tell you without killing you! - and the trilogy I've just co-authored with an amazing lady called Julie Shaw, about the Notorious Hudson Family (hers), which is published imminently. The first, OUR VINNIE, was so full of grit it made my fillings rattle. I could not be more excited about it and have such high, fizzy hopes.

Writing is such a solitary process, how do you adjust to writing alongside someone?

They don't tend to sit in my kitchen with me, happily, which means I can still write in a nightie, nibbling cheese. We tend to have three or four meetings, then communicate by either phone or (mostly) email. Most of my collaborators are happy to let me take care of structure, storytelling and syntax, and regular bombardments of drafts peppered with comment boxes full of questions... Most also love bashing out their innermost thoughts and letting me pull everything together into something both readable and, hopefully, that elusive 'unputdownable'.

'The Girl with No Name' looks a fabulous book to have worked on, can you tell us a bit about the experience?

As I mentioned above, it was a long one, and with such fascinating subject matter, quite an adventure. The main problem Marina had was that no-one accepted the veracity of her story, so I had to find a way of telling it that would help the readers warm to her. I believed her completely the moment I met her, which helped. I honestly believe anyone would. I then had to strip back the huge ms her adult daughter had created over years, and pull together something that both captured her child's voice convincingly and gave the reader something of an old fashioned adventure story. I'm very proud of what we made.

You've recently published 'Telling Tales: How to Write Sensational Short Stories' - tell us your top three tips for writing an award winning short?

I've yet to win an actual award; I've been placed, highly commended and had one of my novels make a short shortlist (Hurrah! A trophy!) but I have had over 100 sort stories published, so I figure I'm qualified, and my three tips - oh, this is hard - would be to...
A) remember the two Cs; Conflict and Change. Every story needs both, and the change must come about as the result of the conflict.
B) write with a plan. You need to know what point you want to make in order to know where and how to start. I know some would argue you should just start writing and see where it takes you, but I am a planner; it makes you so much more focused and prolific.
C) Be emotionally intelligent. Which kind of chimes with what's above. No, you can't buy a packet of emotional intelligence in Tesco, but what makes fiction sing is that sense of connection between author and reader. Make yourself an enthusiastic student of the human condition and borrow ruthlessly from real people.

So many strings to your bow, anything else you'd like to try?

I love writing dialogue, so to create a script or screenplay from one of my novels or ghosted memoirs would be a fun thing to do, but nothing beats book-writing for me, so it would always win out, I think. That said, as I now work on a laptop in my kitchen, I am considering turning my old office into a studio to draw, paint and create huge, mad mosaics out of reclaimed glass and ceramics. Lol - in some lifetime, anyway... I have no plans to ever retire.

Tell us which book would win your 'Book of 2014' award.

Currently a tie between David Nicholl's stunningly well-observed 'US' and Donna Tartt's 'THE GOLDFINCH', which I am about 150 pages away from finishing. If it ends the way I want it to, I think it will win by a short nose. Theo will stay with me always. God, I wish I'd written it.

Tell us your writing plans for 2015.

I have two further titles to write incognito (see above) and am just waiting - everything crossed - for confirmation that the next three Julie Shaw titles will be published late next year. That will all keep me pretty busy, but I'm also working on a proposal about a man, a dog and a tornado, writing the amazing story of a boy with 90% burns, penning my weekly column, keeping up with my ironing (helps with the thinking), and droning happily at creative writing students once a week. Mostly, you'll find me in my kitchen, being effortlessly glamorous. #not

The Inaugural Indie Author Fair - Chorleywood Lit Fest

By Gillian Hamer (Triskele Books)

The place to be between 2-5pm on Sunday 16th November was Chorleywood for Triskele Books' inaugural Indie Author Fair - or #IAF14 as it shall henceforth be known.

The idea. A pop-up bookshop for indie authors to show off their abundance of talent to the general public and allow a mix of writers and author services to meet up. 

The reality. Forty authors, spread across two halls; support from the Alliance of Independent Authors; sponsors that included Ingram Spark, Reedsy, Matador and the presence of Kobo's Diego Marano, there wasn't a spare inch of space in sight.

As well as opening up a pop-up bookshop for members of the public, contributors also managed to cram in author readings, children's story time, professional photo shoots, Huffington Post interviews, Ingram Spark video-blogs - not to mention afternoon tea and cake.

#IAF14 was a wonderful event. An eclectic mix of authors from across genres, getting together not only to socialise but to sell their wares.

The odd hiccup - microphone batteries, copious amounts of steps, water supply running dry mid tea-time - meant a steep learning curve. We can see room for improvement, but the feedback was overwhelmingly positive and everyone seemed thrilled with the concept and eager to take part again.

Triskele table at IAF

But don't take our word for it ... let's speak to some of the authors who took part in the event.

Lily Forbes at IAF
author of 'Growing up under The Mango Tree.'
We pulled up outside the impressive War Memorial Hall in Chorleywood for the 2014 Lit Fest. I located the well-worn steps on the right that I would soon be treading with my boxful of books. A visit to the heaving Red Lion Pub for a quick thirst quencher whiled away the twenty minutes of pent up excitement before I joined a gathering of a ‘family of independently published authors’. Every 61cm square table tantalisingly displayed an array of beautifully designed and intriguingly titled books. Each one of them could have been purchased for a bedside read or a Christmas present for a fellow book lover. Twelve readers chosen to represent a variety of Genres gave a indication of the calibre of the books on offer. The camaraderie throughout the afternoon from the stalwart organisers, the eager participants and the inquisitive crowd of buyers was palpable.

I loved the Indie Author Fair at Chorleywood and the opportunity it gave me to engage with readers and to read from my novel. There’s no doubt in my mind that the vast majority of book lovers are only interested in the end product and not in the publishing process. It’s not about who you’re published with or how big your back catalogue is, it’s purely about entertainment. As awareness of the professional independent sector increases, readers will find that it is as rich, diverse and entertaining as mainstream publishing – if not more so – because there are no boundaries, no self-interested parties taking control. Events like the Indie Author Fair will thrive because they put writers back at the heart of publishing and, ultimately, it is the relationship between the reader and the writer that really counts – everything else is peripheral.

Carol Cooper at IAF
author of One Night at the Jacaranda
The Indie Author Fair was a great experience for getting to know other authors. Perhaps less so as a platform for indie books, but only because a small basement room in Metroland might not be the optimal arena for showcasing our varied work. But from small acorns... So here's to the next opportunity, wherever it may be, and many thanks to the organisers.

My thoughts on the IAF are I didn’t sell many books but I gained a lot in other ways - talking to like minded writers, sharing doubts and problems, all helped me come away feeling revitalised. It helped me to clarify what I am really trying to do - ie write good books. So, yes, a worthwhile trip from Spain.

author of Ghost Town / member of Triskele Books / chief organiser of IAF14.
After six months' planning, the whole day seemed to go by in a blur. So much could have gone wrong, yet somehow the whole Heath Robinson contraption stayed on its wheels. We even survived the home-made PA system failing to work on first try. Everywhere around me, I felt so much energy and good will - the creativity and generosity of indie authors made manifest.


It was inspiring to be in the same hall as so much indie author talent, and I really enjoyed meeting some that I had previously met online but never in real life, as well as meeting old friends and making new ones. There was a lot of interest in ALLi, and with so many members present, the atmosphere was very conducive to joining our influential and ever-growing organisation. The event was also yet another example of the power of the authors' collective, showing incredible synergy among the members of the renowned Triskele group.
Debbie Young at IAF
One highlight for me personally was being asked to read a couple of my short stories aloud in the hall. It could have been daunting and difficult to be heard above the buzzing throng, but it turned out to be a really attentive audience, who went quiet and stood still for every author reading. It was a privilege to be a part of the readings programme, and my confidence has been boosted by the kind comments I received after my readings.
I was also really glad I said "yes" to all the other benefits offered - namely an interview with Ingram Spark, which will run on their blog after editing, and a professional photo shoot at a very reasonable price with a terrific photographer who had been brought in for the day. Like most people, I hate having my photos taken, but in a very short space of time she produced some shots I was really happy with, and all the pictures I saw of other authors that she'd photographed were super.
I hope this will be the first of an annual programme of events. I've been recommending attending to other author friends who weren't there, and to those who provide services to the indie author community too (ALLi partner members), so I think next time we're going to need a bigger venue!
Huge congratulations to the Triskele team for making it such a success.

Cornerstones Mini Masterclass December 2014

with Ayisha Malik, Managing Editor at Cornerstones Literary Consultancy.

Each issue, Cornerstones Literary Consultancy explore and critique a reader's opening page. If you would like to participate in their Opening Page Mini Masterclass, send your opening page (400 approx words) as a Word Document attachment to with the subject ‘Cornerstones Masterclass’. Pieces for critique are chosen at random from those submitted to Words with JAM.

In the Middle of Nowhere by Stephanie Holliday

Jo stared out of the window.

‘There they are again. I wonder who decides what they’re going to wear each day’ she mused half to herself.

Jonnie looked up from the television. ‘You’ve talked about them everyday since we moved in.’ He said crossly

‘I know you’re not interested but doesn’t it make you wonder even a little bit?’

‘Why would I be interested in two mad old biddies? Anyway I want you to come over here – I’ve got something much more interesting for you to see.’ Jonnie replied with a rather crude gesture.

‘I know what you’ve got – seen it all before’ she giggled tauntingly but nevertheless she moved away from the window and then, almost reluctantly towards him.

‘Yeah but I never get bored with you looking, and I do with you looking at them all the time.’

Not for the first time since they’d moved here together two months ago did she wonder how suited they were. Perhaps the novelty of sex on demand was wearing off. She worried that there was nothing else between them.

Besides, living in this drab house on this boring road was getting to her now. She’d always wanted to live in the country but it wasn’t what she’d thought it would be, especially when the only neighbours were the two old ladies that she saw everyday from the window.

No wonder I’ve got obsessed by them.

It was intriguing though: why did they always wear the same clothes as each other, even down to the choice of dowdy hats or plastic rain hoods? Why was one of them always in the lead? She was pretty sure it was always the same one but couldn’t swear on it.

I know, she turned towards the window again, I’ll find an excuse to knock on their door

Turning round she saw Jonnie advancing towards her with a determined expression ‘I’ve told you to come away from there’ he said roughly pulling on her arm.

‘My my’ she laughed ‘aren’t you the powerful one’.

This time though he didn’t laugh but just scowled at her, ‘Just you remember I’m the one that needs attention and comes first’

He faltered then, as though he’d just realised how bad it could make him look, he tried to turn it in to a joke. ‘You’re making me frustrated, that’s what you’re doing – you know I can’t get enough of you’.

‘OK’ she said teasingly ‘what can I do, nice cup of tea perhaps? Bacon butty?.... or something else’ the last provocatively and with a ludicrous leer.

They both laughed and moved towards each other.

Critique by Ayisha Malik

There are aspects of this first page that have the potential for Tension and Conflict: the relationship between Jo and Jonnie, Jo’s emerging discontent and Jonnie’s increasingly abrasive behaviour. However, these are somewhat dissipated largely due to issues relating to Point of View, Show Don’t Tell, and Characterisation. Stylistically some of these are interlinked and so the discussion will overlap, but read further to understand how these issues can be addressed, and how this opening can be developed.

The first page should ground the reader in the world the writer has created, helping them to get a sense of what the story is going to be about. There are hints of mystery here but at the moment it’s difficult to know what aspect we’re meant to be engaging with: the two women who Jo seems to find so intriguing? (Incidentally, is the fact that they wear the same outfit every day interesting or simply just a little eccentric?) Or Jo and Jonnie’s relationship? Jo seems unsure of her relationship with Jonnie and this is good – emotional conflict is one of the main drivers when it comes to pushing narrative forward.

However, this needs to be heightened. At the moment, while Jo can seem charmingly playful, she also comes across as a little glib. POV here is crucial for a few reasons: to know whose story this is going to be – it may very well be both Jo and Jonnie’s, but that will also need to be indicated – to help heighten Tension, and to remove the distance between the reader and character. Ideally, you want to stay in one character’s perspective per scene, but if you’re not able to do that then in the very least it should be one POV per paragraph, avoiding any head-hopping which can jar for the reader.

Because we open with Jo’s observations and speech I assume we’ll be reading the story from her perspective, (though right now I’m not sure she is coming across as engaging enough. This is related to Characterisation, which I’ll discuss later). Is her interest in the two old ladies relevant to the narrative or character arc, or is it simply to show her growing boredom with living in the countryside? It seems to be the latter: ‘No wonder I’ve got obsessed by them.’ (Note that thoughts should always be italicised.) If the old ladies are simply there to show Jo’s boredom then there could be less focus on them, and instead the author could concentrate on the dynamic between Jo and Jonnie, which to me seems to be the most pertinent strand.

In order to access more of Jo’s POV we need to know what she’s thinking and how she’s feeling. We get an idea of this:
‘Not for the first time since they’d moved here together two months ago did she wonder how suited they were. Perhaps the novelty of sex on demand was wearing off. She worried that there was nothing else between them.’
If the novelty of sex is wearing off then we only know because we’re told, but it isn’t shown or suggested in anything Jo says or does, nor does she come across as particularly worried. More action and skilful dialogue should help with this.
For example, Jonnie can seem menacing but Jo’s indifferent reaction takes away the Tension that might otherwise be generated. We already know she’s having doubts about her move to the country and Jonnie. How can we Show this sense of discontent? For example, Jonnie says:
“‘Just you remember I’m the one that needs attention and comes first.’”

Does Jo flinch? Does the mood change? If so, how? Her reaction doesn’t have to be that strong, but we need a greater indication of how she’s feeling so she doesn’t come across passive. Remember, Tension is created by how characters act and react. Consider where the tension peaks are in each scene and don’t be scared to slow down so we’re immersed in these. For me the above quote indicates a key moment, one that is pivotal to the way in which the dynamic changes.

At first Jonnie was a little unpleasant, but now he is actually rather threatening. Jo’s response is simply playful. Is there a way of interplaying what she says with how she feels? She might be teasing him but does she feel uncomfortable at all? Again, closer POV and use of SDT here is important. Does her heart beat a little faster? Do her palms gets sweaty. Does she try to release Jonnie’s grip as she speaks? If there is no discomfort then it’s important to consider how dynamics are constantly shifting between characters, scene-by-scene. For example, the last line of the page also reduces Tension because Jo and Jonnie seem to be conciliatory.

We should get a stronger sense of Characterisation with a closer POV and SDT. Right now neither Jo nor Jonnie come across as very likeable characters, but this isn’t a prerequisite for an engaging read. Jonnie seems to be the more interesting of the two at present. He is rather crude and we see a glimmer of something threatening about him, which makes him nuanced – and this nuance, in essence, is what you need in any character. It could be developed further in two ways: firstly, by closer access of his POV (watch out for any head-hopping) and secondly – if the author decides to stick to Jo’s POV – by showing us more of Jonnie through her perspective. One of the most interesting parts of his character is that he seems self-aware:
‘He faltered then, as though he’d just realised how bad it could make him look, he tried to turn it in to a joke.’

The author could do more here to set-up a sense of potential duplicity. Is Jonnie genuinely embarrassed about what he says, or is he intentionally masking his true self by turning it into a joke? It could be one or the other, but either way it needs to be clearer. As mentioned, Jo’s emotional conflict is touched upon and this could be developed by Showing us what’s going on beneath the surface of her words. To what extent is she disappointed by the move? How are her feelings about Jonnie shifting? Is she a woman who goes along with what happens in life, rarely taking action? Right now she comes across as a little passive – and that can be fine, as long as that changes as the story continues – but I think the author could seed in more clues about her emotional conflict in order to create a stronger character arc.

In conclusion, I think this could be an engaging opening with plenty of potential for development. Writing and re-writing involves honing stylistic skills, and this is part of the fun. Remember, you are the writer and ultimately any decision as to who your character is, whose story it’ll be and the dynamics you’re wishing to portray/explore is yours. However, key concepts like POV, SDT, Characterisation and Tension are tools to be used in order to realise the vision you have for your story.

I hope my comments have been helpful, and I wish the author the best of luck with developing this piece of writing.

60 Seconds with Ann Swinfen

Ann Swinfen spent her childhood partly in England and partly on the east coast of America. She read Classics and Mathematics at Oxford. Her first three novels, The Anniversary, The Travellers, and A Running Tide, all with a contemporary setting but also historical resonance, were published by Random House, with translations into Dutch and German. Her fourth novel, The Testament of Mariam, marked something of a departure. Set in the first century, it recounts, from an unusual perspective, one of the most famous and yet ambiguous stories in human history. At the same time it explores life under a foreign occupying force, in lands still torn by conflict to this day. Her second historical novel, Flood, is set in the fenlands of East Anglia during the seventeenth century, where the local people fought desperately to save their land from greedy and unscrupulous speculators.

Currently she is working on a series set in late sixteenth century London, featuring a young Marrano physician who is recruited as a code-breaker and spy in Walsingham’s secret service. The first book in the series is The Secret World of Christoval Alvarez.

She now lives on the northeast coast of Scotland, with her husband (formerly vice-principal of the University of Dundee), a cocker spaniel and two Maine Coon cats.

Twitter name: @annswinfen
Facebook page:
Link to Mariam podcast:

Tell us what genre you write in and why?

In the past I’ve written contemporary literary fiction, but I’m now writing historical fiction. History fascinates me, and the sense that all our roots are in the past. We are what we are because of everything that has gone before.
Where do you write?

In an armchair, with an extra large lap tray holding my laptop, notebook, pen, cup of tea… Piled up on either side, reference books and notes.

What location most inspires your writing?

I love the sea, but also any wild open spaces – mountains, moorlands.

Which of your books are you most proud of - and why?

Aren’t all of our books like our children? It’s unkind to single one out. But I suppose The Testament of Mariam is the most searching. Though I always try to confront serious issues as well as tell a good story.

Tell us why you chose to write 'The Testament of Mariam'?

Those who haven’t read The Testament of Mariam should understand that it is not a religious book. I’m not a church-going Christian. However, I do believe there was a remarkable man called Yeshûa ben Yosef (his Aramaic name), living in the Roman-occupied province of Palestine in the first century. I was intrigued by the fact that a man from a peasant village in the northern, rebellious part of the country managed to change the world with his message. Yet he was flesh and blood, had a normal family. What would it have been like to be the sister of such a man? That was my starting point. I wanted to dig away to find what it would have been like. At the beginning.

How did you handle the research?

Research is a joy! It feeds my appetite for history and I gobble it up. I probably buy far too many research books (the house is groaning under their weight), but I like to own them. The internet can be useful as a starting point, but I prefer to use the professionals. For Mariam I was astonished to find what a lot of detailed information was available, including the massive transcription of the Dead Sea Scrolls. When I needed to write a psalm of my own to use in the Essene portion, I even found a book on the structure and imagery of the psalms!

How did you so effortlessly transport the reader to the period/location?

I suppose it’s because when I am writing about a particular period and location, I am simultaneously living there myself, inside my head. All my senses are alive to the situation, so I suppose that comes across in the writing.

What book has most impressed you this year?

I seem to have been rereading a lot this year – the whole of Dorothy Dunnett’s work, the whole Cadfael series. I’ve also read, for the third or fourth time, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. I’ve long admired Hilary Mantel’s work and I think these are her best yet, so they take the prize.

You have moved from trad to indie publishing - why?

I became very frustrated with traditional publishing, with all its restrictions and long, long delays. When my agent said she wasn’t interested in handling historical fiction any more, it was time to move on. Indie publishing hands back control to the author, so we are reverting to the publishing practices which existed right up to the end of the nineteenth century. Indie authors form a warm and supportive community. I’m in control and have a wonderful group of friends – no wonder I’m happy!

What are your future writing plans?

I’ll be continuing with the Elizabethan Christoval Alvarez series, featuring a young physician working as a code-breaker and spy, which will eventually carry on into the reign of James I. A lot of readers have been urging me to write a sequel to my seventeenth-century fenland novel, Flood, so that is on the cards. A mediaeval series is a gleam in the corner of my eye.
Thank you so much, Gill, for inviting me to do this interview – excellent questions!

Anne has kindly offered one lucky reader the chance to listen to the audiobook version of The Testament of Mariam for FREE via Audible. Simply email whether you are US or UK based to to enter the prize draw.
You can read Gillian's review of The Testament of Mariam .... HERE

The Gate Clock, a short story by Rae Gellel

The Gate Clock
The town is mostly dead; the drizzle-splashed pavements beaten upon only by the faint orange light of street lamps, the occasional unsteady, slapping steps of a bare-footed girl carrying her stiletto shoes in one hand. The blunt faces of shuttered shop fronts shun the night - vintage clothes and retro records and gimmicky coffee bars want no part in its proceedings, and the only life exists in garish, bustling pockets.

The Gate Clock is one such pocket.

Although establishments that thrive on darkness and drink often have little regard for the affluence of an area, the pub, with its hastily scrawled chalk signs boasting '4 shots for £5', is still a shining beacon of coarseness amongst its more genteel neighbours; for, hanging like an after-thought beneath the rarely-lit neon title, is a sub-heading synonymous with cheap drink and late opening hours, with vomit-splattered toilets and over-dressed women, with easy sex and impending regrets - 'J.D. Wetherspoon'.

Its roomy decor of stained carpets and maple panels is unremarkable. But such widely appreciated attributes attract a loud, mismatching rabble of visitors; ghetto boys in obscenely white trainers, trendy students in Che-Guevara adorned T shirts, groups of old men with alcohol-pickled skin who grope and snicker at scantily-clad girls and groups of young men with acne-mottled skin who fumble them instead with awkward, stilted conversation.

The heavy glass doors are in permanent motion, exhaling icy breath on the bare backs of legs and opening onto a large courtyard of wooden tables and an overspill of nicotine gulping pub-goers, small rings of shivering, chattering people that protrude, mirage-like, from clouds of smoke. In a world punctuated only by the occasional whoosh of a passing car, the gathering is a sudden explosion of noise that seems to perforate the night itself, the purposefully exaggerated laughter of drunk young things a chorused obnoxiousness as they stagger to the bus stop a convenient few feet away.

Tonight a woman of indeterminable age is perched beneath its cracked glass, sobbing into her trembling palms with an arena of sagging Waitrose bags at her feet. She does not raise her head for the occasional half-hearted, off-kilter concern of a passing drunk.

Two doors up is a perennially lit McDonald's, the lurid yellow 'M' illuminating a seemingly unconscious homeless man with an eerily celestial glow. Beside his damp bed of blankets is a chipped dog's bowl, but no dog.

It was in this world of half-light and half-life that Silena found the still smoking butt of relapse, smoldering away enticingly on an empty table. She was on her way inside when it caught her eye - inexplicable really, so tiny a thing, emitting the most miniscule light from its fag-sized inferno - but she saw it nonetheless, and plucked it from the green Heineken ashtray. She huddled her treasure under her oversized leather jacket, avoiding the curious gaze of a solitary smoker as she shoved through the heavy doors. She didn't smoke herself.

Paul was a smoker, the very same one who watched the skinny Blonde snatch up the tail end of a Marlboro Light like it was a precious jewel. He felt he was three quarters of the way to pissed, though in reality he had surpassed that particular signpost hours ago, and in the drink-addled treacle of his brain the girl's strange act was so intensely perplexing that it distressed him. If he had been feeling sharper he might have drawn it to his friends' attention and quickly extinguished its curiosity with laughter and jokes gently crested with misogyny, but that night, interchangeable from multitudinous nights in the past few years, he was particularly drunk and particularly deadened, his enjoyment an auto-piloted exercise that operated on an epidermis-level. It was as if the sheer inscrutability of the deed raised such flurried questions in his mind that it was momentarily aroused from its stupor, the sudden passing beam of a torch that illuminated his intelligence long enough to have him realise that he felt like utter shit. It wasn't dissimilar to being operated on under local anesthetic, a brief spike of pain awakening the brain to the full horror of its situation. But he returned to the idle talk of his friends regardless, his own cigarette turning to ash between his shaking fingers and his labored thoughts scrabbling for foothold.

Silena was skimming shoulders with a stream of short-skirted traffic as she two-stepped up the pub stairs and towards the ladies' lavatory. Once through the candy-pink door she dodged women deftly repairing the paint of their faces, posing in frozen-faced groups for mobile phone pictures, sisterly passing the last few treasured scraps of toilet paper under rickety doors, and slammed her way into an empty stall and onto a cracked, likely germ-ridden toilet seat. Inside, she withdrew the smoking cigarette butt in one fluttery, frantic hand, using her unoccupied fingers to peel back the black skin of her man’s jacket and expose a sparsely fleshed forearm that was checkered with a myriad of faint pink lines, a few raised and fat with collagen like some awful infestation of worms. For the briefest of seconds she merely teased her skin with the cigarette, choosing an unmarked spot between its many self-embellishments to stimulate the smallest surrendering of flesh and agitation of cells. And then she stubbed it violently, forcefully, in fear of losing her incentive, and it was done, or rather undone, since four years of recovery were rendered quite irrelevant in that instant.

Downstairs a thirty-something woman sat amongst her cackling work-mates, smiling thinly into her gin and tonic as men's names spilled messily around her from wet, smudged lips - a list of their dream mates, Danny from I.T., that bloke we met in Majorca, Brad Pitt and Vin Diesel and oh my god that guy at the bar, have you seen him? All the while a voice in her head murmured in increasing urgency and tempo the name of her own dream lover, unchanged but unuttered since childhood; it was, quite unequivocally, Judy Garland.

Behind the drink-splattered, bled and sobbed upon bar, a fresh faced, apron-wearing man dried glasses with a glazed, stupefied expression on his face. He was remembering the exact moment the life leeched from his mother’s eyes precisely two weeks before, turning them into two depthless marbles in the face of a human wax dummy, carefully arranged on a bed of sweat dampened sheets and useless, spiraling tubes.

At opposite ends of the bar, each equal in their irritable efforts to get the oblivious bartenders's attention, are a young girl and an old man. She is contemplating the nature of the drink she will order, for this solitary decision is a miniature pre-preemptive  to a much more momentous one she will have to make later in the week, regarding the small body secretly forming inside her stomach. The old man is remembering how the face of a German soldier caved in under the butt of his gun, stalling his blundering retreat home with yet another drink for fear that that 70-year-old mess of blood and brain matter may materialize on one of his grandchildren's faces.

Silena again took to the stairs, this time with a slow, deliberate place, oblivious to a girl attempting to contain her own vomit as she shoved past to the ladies' lavatory. She did not feel the worn carpet under her shoes for she was levitating, a changed woman lit with an inner relief, with the serenity of the recently exorcised. As she reached the last step her eyes locked with a man forcing his way through the pub doors in an burst of icy air and nicotine odor; Paul.

For a second his brain was wracked with recognition and he approached her with the intention of saying something quite pivotal; but by the time they had reached one another this thread had slipped from between his fingers and fallen away into the intoxicated recesses of his mind. Now she was just a pretty girl with a peaceful, alluring smile on her lips.

That night they would hastily assemble a paltry, rickety bridge across their existences, across the vacuous gulf that is the human condition, and embark on a white-knuckled crawl to one another. The chit-chat, the exchanged nuggets of meaningless information and points of mutual interest, the coy side long glances and brushes of skin, these were the boards, the hammer and nails used to forge their bridge, to advance them past last-orders and into the chill night, to drive them through front doors and onto the bed of whoever's home. And although in the morning they would both race to precede the others rejection, her gathering her things to leave, he pretending to be asleep, in their fleeting merging of flesh and sensation, in the frantic clash of bones and the uncontrolled mingling of voices, they each found a moment's relief. They were the lucky ones.

Rae Gellel is a 23 year old Londoner with a Creative Writing degree and no idea what to do with it. She works with animals by day and writes by night, wondering if it's really possible to create a great work of fiction in cow-print pyjamas. 

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Cashews, Chaos and an Ill Wind, a short story by Maureen Bowden

Last year, Laura next door’s mum ran off with the manager from Argos. Her dad lost the plot and it wasn’t much fun for Laura, so we invited her to our house for Christmas. It changed her life.

After dinner Nanna fell off her chair clutching her belly and howling. We called an ambulance, and Auntie Kathleen, Drunkle Sid and Drunkle Jack said they’d go with her. Drunkle Jack put his arms around Laura and me. “You wanna come, girls? It’ll be a laugh. You never know who’ll turn up in A&E on Christmas day.” So, we all piled into Auntie Kathleen’s car and followed the ambulance.

The paramedics wheeled Nanna, still howling, into a curtained cubicle. The rest of us sat on a bench in the waiting room. A small boy ran amok, yelling, “Yeeeooow,” with a vomit bowl on his head.

His mother, with a smaller girl on her knee, said, “Shut up, Kyle. People are sick in here.” She turned to Auntie Kathleen. “What’s up with the old lady?”

 “Taken poorly after dinner: too many sprouts.”

“And vodkas,” Drunkle Sid said.

Auntie Kathleen changed the subject. “What brings you here?”

“It’s Kylie. Stuck a cashew nut up her nose and we can’t get it out.” She cuddled the toddler on her lap, “Can we, Sweetie?” Kylie sucked her dummy and pulled clumps of stuffing out of a hole in the neck of a one-eyed Igglepiggle.

A draught of December air hit us as two bikers came in, dragging an unconscious third to the reception desk.

Laura gripped my arm. “Hannah, it’s ‘The Sons of Chaos.’”  One had a shaved head, forked-tongued reptile tattoo on his neck, and ‘Snake’ embroidered on the back of his jacket. “Snake’s the president,” she whispered. The other had a mass of curls and enough facial hair to stuff a cushion. His embroidery said ‘Jango’. The sleeper had a waist-length ponytail. We couldn’t see his name. He was lying on it.

The receptionist looked at the nameless one. “He’s drunk.”

“Very observant,” Snake said. “We guessed that when his legs stopped working.”

“What’s he been drinking? Spirits? Beer?”




“We reckon,” Jango said, “he took more than his body could process, and the excess settled in his legs.”

The receptionist’s expression left sarcasm a mile behind. “Undoubtedly.” She clicked her laptop. “Name?”

“Tails,” Snake said.

“Is that his first name or surname?”

“It’s just his name.”

“What’s on his passport?”

“Why don’t you ask him when he regains the power of speech?”

“Who’s his GP?”

“Don’t think he’s got one.”

“Yeah, he has,” Jango said. “The one opposite Argos stapled him up after the machete accident. Remember?”

Laura called to them. “That’s Doctor Gahooly. He gives my dad his Prozac.” Snake and Jango turned around, and Christmas started looking up.

Snake sauntered over to us. “Room for a little one?” He squeezed his six-foot frame next to me on the bench. Jango left Tails on the floor and began getting acquainted with Laura.

I heard Drunkle Jack whisper to Auntie Kathleen, “I don’t like the look of this, Kath.”

“Oh, they’re only bikers. They’re okay,” she said. “One of ‘The Hellfire Stalkers’ works in Argos.  He changes all my broken stuff, no bother.”

“Bloody ’ell, Kath,” Drunkle Sid said. He reached behind me and prodded Snake. “Hey, Worm.”

I dug him in the ribs. “It’s Snake.”

“Oh, right,” he said. “Snake, lad, is it true there’s some of your lot up country called The Sheep Shaggers?”

“Sorry,” I said. “Drunkle Sid’s always like this.”

Snake grinned. “Hey, Acid. You gotta smart mouth.”

Drunkle Sid nudged Drunkle Jack, “Hear that, Jack? I gotta biker name.” Drunkle Jack looked scared.

“You wanna prospect for us, Acid?” Snake said.

“Does that mean I can fight the rozzers?”

“No, it means you can mop up the puke.” Right on cue, Tails started to heave. A passing nurse grabbed the vomit bowl off Kyle’s head and shoved it in Tails’ face.

Kyle howled, “Mum, that man’s being sick in my hat.”

“Never mind, baby,” his mum said. “The nice nurse’ll get you another one.” The nice nurse ignored her and told Snake and Jango to haul Tails into an empty cubicle.

“Is he okay?” I asked when they emerged.

“Yeah,” Snake said. “They’ll let him out when he can walk.”

A mega-fart from Nanna’s cubicle was followed by, “Ooh that’s better.” Fumes of flatulence, with a hint of sprouts, drifted under the curtain.

The doctor popped his head out. “Trapped wind,” he said, holding a hankie over his nose.  “Out you come, Nanna. You can go now. Happy Christmas.”

Nanna toddled out and the doctor ushered in Kylie and her entourage.

“Poo, it stinks in here,” Kyle said. Nobody argued.

Nanna said. “Take me home, Kath. I could murder a voddy.”

“Hang on,” Auntie Kath said. “We can’t all fit in the car and the taxi drivers are bound to be drunk on Christmas day.”

Snake turned to Laura and me. “Why don’t you girls come back with us? We gotta party going on.”

“Can we, Auntie Kath?” I said. “It would solve the problem.”

“I suppose so. As long as you don’t end up like their friend with the excess in his legs.”

Nanna glared at Snake. “You look after them, boyo, or you’ll have me to deal with.”

“Don’t worry, Nanna. We’re not getting on the wrong side of anyone who can fart like that.”

“I’ll pick them up at midnight,” Auntie Kath said, “and they’d better be sober.”
Snake winked. “Walk right in. Our clubhouse is opposite the Citizens’ Advice Bureau.”

“I know. Che Guevara poster in the window and life-size cardboard cut-out of Cher in the porch.”


It didn’t last with Snake and me. His wife found out. She put him in hospital for three weeks. I ran for cover, but Laura became a biker chick: tatts, tongue piercing, the whole kit and caboodle.  She rides on the back of Jango’s Harley but she’s saving up for her own bike, and her dad’s still taking the Prozac.

Maureen Bowden is an ex-patriate Liverpudlian living with her musician husband on the island of Anglesey, off the coast of North Wales, where they try in vain to evade the onslaught of their children and grandchildren. She writes for fun and she has had several poems and short stories published. She loves Rock ‘n’ Roll, Shakespeare and cats.

Bit by Bit, a short story by Pauline Brown

I hate pyjamas because they eat you. No really, they do. While you’re alive. Jake’s pyjamas started eating him last year. Tiny bit by teeny bite.

At first I didn’t know it was the pyjamas. I thought Jake was just pretending – even acting like he couldn’t play football anymore, just so’s he could get off going to school. That was till Dad sat me down one day and started going on about the bad things that sometimes happen, and about love and keeping brave and stuff.

I asked Aunty Helen to be straight with me.

“It’s as if something horrid is eating Jake up,” she said. And even though she never said it was his pyjamas, I began to see they must be what she meant. Underneath I knew they were gnawing away at him, sucking the juice out from under his skin, leaving it all tight and grubby-white like the tops of Dad’s drums. I thought if we all stayed very still, we might just hear them nibbling and slurping away, but I could never get anyone to stay quiet for long enough.

“Take your pyjamas off, Jake,” I told him. “They’re eating you up.”

“Don’t be stupid, Stupid,” Jake said, and went back to Minecraft world.

“I don’t want to wear pyjamas any more. Please tell Dad to get me a nightie like Cassie’s instead.”

“Silly Billy,” Aunty Helen said. “You’re a boy. Pyjamas are what all boys wear in bed.”

Boys like Jake, I thought.

It was when Jake got moved to the yellow house with rainbows on the ceilings that I knew for deffo I was right. The place was full of kids whose pyjamas were eating them too. Even the kids that wore plain ones with no monsters or insects on them. Even the ones that pushed trolleys around with plastic bottles and tubes to pump the goo back into their skin.


I think Dad is a bit sad that I’ve stopped wanting his bedtime stories, and that I always say I can turn my light out for myself. But, you see, he mustn’t know how I’ve cut my pyjamas into shreds, or how every night I eat another bit of them. Tiny bit, by teeny bite.

First prize in third quarter’s competition 2014

Cedric - A Cautionary Tale for Poets by Donald Nixon

He claimed to be the national bard
and leader of the avant garde.
He wore a wide poetic hat,
wrote obscure verse and kept a cat.
All rhyming verses made him sneer,
gave pain to his poetic rear.
He grimaced, his expression stoic,
when faced with couplets called heroic.
Only sonnets could be worse
for he despised all formal verse.
He boasts of knowing all the great;
claims Carol Ann to be a mate,
and when he’s high on half a shandy,
calls Sir Andrew Motion  - Andy.

One day in search of something new,
he sought a subject at the zoo.
He  mused and heard a lion’s roar,
he thought a potent metaphor.
‘Be careful, sir,’ the keeper said,
‘The lions have not yet been fed.’
But  Cedric paid no heed at all
and wandered through the lions’ hall.
His mind full of his opening lines,
he just ignored all warning signs.
A beast called Laurie shook his mane
when Cedric poked him with his cane.
The lion tried a practice munch,
then swallowed Cedric for his lunch.

The Zoo Board took a PR line
and by the lions put a sign.
It states in fancy copperplate,

First prize for the third quarter of the humour verse competition 2014

The Voices in Your Head by Anne Stormont

Don't ignore the voices in your head, write them down and let them speak...

The word voice is one of nuanced meaning. The term covers a broad range from the literal to the figurative, and it's often about more than what is uttered.

The voice is so much more than the ability to make meaningful sounds. It's a complex process and it's a complex concept. It begins as the inner voice, as thought coded into  language, which may then be given external expression.

At its most literal voice describes the facility to make purposeful and meaningful sound in order to communicate. It's fast, economical and dynamic and it requires the active engagement of the listener in order to be interpreted, understood and responded to. The human voice is a way of giving thought and language verbal expression, but it doesn't have to involve making sound.

Soundless use of voice is possible. The use of sign language by the deaf is testament to that. Watch, or take part in, a soundless, signed conversation and you'll see that 'voice' is still very much present. This fact helps to underline that voice is more than noise-making. Indeed even the spoken word is rarely used on its own and is often enhanced by the silent voices of sign and gesture. And, for both speakers and signers, there's the whole other voice of body language.

Just think of the difference between a voiced phone conversation and one that takes place face-to-face and you'll see how layered the human conversational voice is. And that's just the start.

From earliest history, humans have given voice to their inner thoughts and not simply by speaking. From cave paintings to modern art; from body painting for war and ceremonial purposes to the twenty-first century craze for multi-purpose tattooing; from the earliest signals of drum-beat, ram's horn and pipe, and to the symphony orchestra and pop, rock and rap; from tribal chant to opera and hip-hop; from classical and experimental theatre to blockbuster movie; And from stone tablets and camp-fire storytelling to e-books, the inner voice has many routes to outer expression.

But this is a magazine for writers. So whilst acknowledging all of the above let's turn now to words, to words written down and given voice by the writer, to words that are crafted to stick.

The narrative voice of the writer, when used well, can and should be as powerful and versatile as the musical or speaking voice. It will have its own tone, timbre, rhythm and range. In non-fiction, it will proclaim the purpose and content with clarity. In fiction, the voice will convey plot by building content, tension and resolution; setting by building atmosphere, mood and environment; and character by building personality, age and gender. Whatever the genre the voice should strive to be eloquent, erudite and entertaining.

And, as in music and the spoken word, the narrative voice will also use pause and silence. This allows the reader to reflect and thereby will convey much that is powerful and significant.

The process of creating and employing the narrative voice is mysterious and magical. It's a sort of inexplicable alchemy. Anyone who has undergone any kind of talking therapy will know that you often don't know what you think about something until you say it out loud. A thought may be subconscious, but voicing it brings it to the conscious mind. We all make sense of our lives by voicing our personal stories.

And the same can be true of voicing a written narrative. A character's actions or a plot development can sometimes surprise even the author. An unvoiced thought or idea can appear voiced and out there on paper, almost without the conscious engagement of the writer––now that's awesome.

What is also awesome about narrative voice is its potential effects on its readers. Of course, not everything that's written has life-enhancing and life-changing significance, but even relatively lightweight literature can enhance a life by simply entertaining the reader. The possibilities for a strong narrative voice to inspire, motivate and educate are endless. Just ask any political dictator who uses censorship as a means of control if you're not convinced of the power of the unfettered voice.

Words are affective and effective. Words stick. Writers use their narrative voices to give action to those words. And actions speak even louder. So get using those voices. You never know what they may achieve.

Anne Stormont is an author-publisher. She can be a subversive old bat but maintains a kind heart. As well as writing for this fine organ, she writes fiction for adults – mainly of the female-of-a-certain-age persuasion – and for children. She blogs at  – where you can find out lots more about her.  

Question Corner with Lorraine Mace

Lorraine Mace gives some punctuation and grammar tips in response to readers’ queries.

Niall from Luton gets confused about quote marks and asked for some advice: I see some people use quote marks like these ‘ ’ and others use the ones that look like this “ ”. How can I find out which ones to use and does it matter?

As you’ve shown in your email, there are two different types of quotation marks: single and double. Double quotation marks are now used less than they were in the past, but some magazines and publishers still favour them over the single marks.

The best way to decide which to use is to check the house style of your target market to see which they prefer. If you’re planning to approach a magazine, finding out which they use is as simple as opening a recent copy and looking at the content.

However, if you are planning to submit a manuscript to a publisher or agent, very often they will have their desired formatting style on the submissions pages of their websites. If the guidelines don’t stipulate one or the other, I would simply use the style with which you feel most comfortable.

Do bear in mind that whichever marks you use for direct speech, you would then use the opposite quotation marks to quote 'speech within speech'.

‘I’m praying Jack hasn’t started drinking again. When he left this morning he said, “I’m going to the supermarket.” That was hours ago and he should have returned by now.’

The double quotation marks show that someone is being quoted word for word. If you use double quotation marks for the main speech, use singles for the ‘speech within speech’.

Other uses for quotation marks:
Idiomatic expressions, for example: He was always referred to as a ‘pain in the neck’. Note that when quotation marks are used in this manner the full stop or comma comes outside the marks, but if quotation marks are used for dialogue the full stop or comma comes inside the marks.

When quoting the title of a magazine article: ‘The Generation Game’ in Spanish Magazine, March 2007.

(The above answer was partly taken from The Writer’s ABC Checklist)

Michaela from Huddersfield has sent in an interesting question about using natural sounding speech: I recently had a short story critiqued and the person who commented on my writing said I was making a mistake when I wrote my character was sat at the bar. I don’t see what’s wrong with that – it’s how the character speaks. In fact, he didn’t pick up on almost the same words in dialogue, so I’m now even more confused.

This is a case of narrative versus dialogue grammar usage. In dialogue, we can use all sorts of incorrect grammar, because it is, as you pointed out, how the characters speak. However, in narrative (where no one is speaking) using exactly the same construction would, in most cases, be incorrect.

I’ll use your query term in the following example.

Dan sighed. “I don’t know why Jane got so upset. I was sat at the bar minding my own business and her mate came on to me. I didn’t start it.”

In the above paragraph, it’s fine to say I was sat because it is in direct speech and is in keeping with Dan’s character.

However, if we change things around a bit, so that we only have narrative, we cannot use the same construction because it is grammatically incorrect. We can only use Dan was sitting or Dan sat.

Dan was sitting at the bar…
Dan sat at the bar…

To summarise: in dialogue you can use incorrect grammar, as long as it is in keeping with the way the character would speak, but in narrative you have to ensure the grammar is correct.

Lorraine Mace is the humour columnist for Writing Magazine and a competition judge for Writers’ Forum. She is a former tutor for the Writers Bureau, and is the author of the Writers Bureau course, Marketing Your Book. She is also co-author, with Maureen Vincent-Northam of The Writer’s ABC Checklist (Accent Press). Lorraine runs a private critique service for writers (link below). She is the founder of the Flash 500 competitions covering flash fiction, humour verse and novel openings.

Her debut novel for children, Vlad the Inhaler, was published in the USA on 2nd April 2014.

Writing as Frances di Plino, she is the author of the crime/thriller novels featuring Detective Inspector Paolo Storey: Bad Moon Rising, Someday Never Comes and Call It Pretending
The fourth in the series, Looking for a Reason, was released by Crooked Cat Publishing on 28th October.