Why does it all take so long!

It’s been a while since my blog was actually about writing, and I thought it was time to put that right. As it happens, this week, when I am coming to the end of the writing and editing process of the second of my “Meonbridge Chronicles”, seems a suitable moment for me to tell you a little about this new book, and to attempt to justify, or at least comment on, why it is taking me so long to get it to publication!

The current title of book 2 of “The Meonbridge Chronicles” is A Woman’s Lot. That title might change, but I’m pretty happy with it, because the story is indeed about the diverse fates – happy or otherwise – of women. It is set two years after the end of Fortune’s Wheel, picking up the lives of four Meonbridge women, all of whom – if you have read it – you will have met before in Fortune’s Wheel.

Fortune's Wheel and Meon Valley

I showed in Fortune’s Wheel, and have discussed in one or two of my blogs that, after what we call the Black Death, the huge loss of population countrywide meant greater opportunities for those who had survived, for them to earn more money, take on land they couldn’t have had before, enter new occupations. The rigid feudal structure of society was already breaking down and the devastation caused by the plague accelerated it. Working people were no longer willing to accept the constraints imposed by their feudal lords, of giving unpaid service, having no control on wages and not being permitted to leave their manor.

All this did change. People began to move about in a way they’d not really done before, seeking higher pay, better work, greater opportunities. And this applied to women too.

medwomenatwork3But I mustn’t overstate the case. Some historians have said that the later fourteenth and fifteenth centuries were some sort of “golden age” for women, in terms of their opportunities, although others dispute this. Perhaps the opportunities for women were greater in the towns, and especially in London. Maybe, if there was a golden age, it did apply mostly to those living in the city. In the countryside, change probably took longer, and, anyway, opportunities for women to become, say, artisans or businesswomen would not have been so commonplace in rural communities.

However, I have combined what I have read about the lives of medieval working women, with what I imagine might have been their situation. With half the population dead from the plague, it seems almost inevitable that everyone – men and women alike – would, initially at any rate, have had to step into the “manpower breach” and work at whatever was needed to return the life of the community to some sort of normality. Which is why, in my novels, and particularly in A Woman’s Lot, I have women trying to – or at least wanting to – contribute in ways in which they might not have done before.

However, once the immediate crisis was over, even if the feudal system had fallen away, society was still society, and that meant men in charge, men with all the rights and privileges, and women still essentially subject to their rule, and to the rule of their husbands. And that too is reflected in A Woman’s Lot.

But this is a novel and not social history, so my female characters do of course struggle with themselves and with the constraints that others – men! – impose upon them. They remain – I hope – essentially mediaeval women in the reality of the lives I give them, but I see no reason why they should not also have desires and ambitions, which may or may not be fulfilled. It is the lot of all fictional protagonists, to want something and to struggle to achieve it. Whether or not they do so is what gives a story its tension and motivation…

I won’t say any more, but I do hope that sounds potentially intriguing. And makes you eager to  know when you will be able to get your hands on it…

But I’m sorry to have to say ‘not yet’.

I had hoped to be publishing it this summer – round about now, I suppose. And when those lovely readers of Fortune’s Wheel told me how much they were looking forward to my next book, I probably said, ‘Oh, definitely, 2017!’

But in fact I’m not sure now that it will be available even this side of Christmas. The editing phase is by no means finished. I’m close to the end of my own editing, but I’m then sending it out to a couple of beta readers and a critique partner for what I hope will be some critical feedback (in the sense, I hope, of “involving or requiring skilful judgement as to truth, merit, etc.”, rather than “inclined to find fault or judge severely”), and my editing process will then continue. After that, it will go to a professional editor, followed of course by yet more editing…

Then, because I’m not directly self-publishing but will, as with Fortune’s Wheel, use a professional publisher to produce my book, the publication process will take another three months or so. So you can see that time will pass, and it may well be 2018 before I hold my new book in my hands…

Which is disappointing, of course, but – as other writers tell me endlessly – it cannot, must not, be rushed. I have to ensure that the book is as good as I can make it.

But why does it take so long?

Some writers, after all, put out two or three books a year of similar length to mine. So am I just a slow writer? Yet some others take much longer. Famously, Donna Tartt has published just three novels in twenty years: The Secret History in 1992, The Little Friend in 2002, and The Goldfinch in 2013. She certainly didn’t rush! Not that I am comparing myself with Donna Tartt. But I suppose a novel simply takes as long as it needs to take…

Having said that, I am pretty keen to get this one out, and then the next one. So what is holding me back? A few thoughts…

A particular writer I know writes very fast. She is currently writing books in series, which of course I’m doing too. She has also many published books – she’s a very experienced writer.

law courtAn advantage of writing a series is one’s growing familiarity with the world in which the novels are set and at least some of the characters, so you do not have to create those aspects of the novel from scratch each time. Although there are still likely to be some aspects that are new – in my own case, for example, for A Woman’s Lot, I had to learn about coroners and courts, and the work of carpenters.

An advantage of being an experienced writer is that the techniques of writing – while never, ever, easy – undoubtedly do become a little easier. If you’ve successfully published a dozen books, then you probably have a fair idea of how to structure a book, how to plan and pace, how to write coherent, flowing sentences and choose the “right” words, how to make your characters come alive on the page. As with any skill, the more you practise writing, the more proficient you become. Whereas, with just one published novel (although I have completed, or half written, four others) I am simply much less practised at my craft. But I am learning, and hopefully improving all the time, so the “nuts and bolts” of writing will eventually become almost second nature.

So, that is one reason for me taking so long to write my novel. I am still practising my craft and it simply does take time.

But it is not the only reason. For I am also quite pernickety.

I read a fair number of books, many of which I enjoy simply because of their wonderful story. Sometimes the writing itself is wonderful too, and I notice how very good it is. But more often, and I think this is important, the writing is so good – well-structured, well-paced, good characterisation, proficient grammar, mellifluous, or at least coherent, easily-read sentences, good word choice – that the reading experience is such an easy pleasure that I can simply let myself be drawn into the story. And I think that this is what you want and expect from a good novel, whether it’s historical fiction, a romance, a thriller or whatever: to get entirely lost in the world that the author has created.

Conversely, what you don’t want as a reader is to be constantly thrown out of the illusion of the story, to have your pleasure interrupted, by being pulled up short by, for example, hard-to-fathom sentences, poor or plain wrong choice of words, what Jane Austen called “infelicities and repetitions”, sloppy grammar or punctuation, or frequent typos. Yet this pulling up short happens to me really quite often and, I have to say with much regret, more so with self-published novels than with those traditionally published. The latter are not immune from errors, but they do seem much less frequent.

I find this very disappointing. Yet, sometimes, if I go to Amazon to see if other readers have had the same unhappy experience of a particular book, I find that the answer quite often is, they haven’t! Or, if they have, they haven’t mentioned it in their review. So did they not notice? Or didn’t they care? How I would love to know the answer…

We new indie writers are urged often to ensure our work is properly edited – professionally edited, if possible. But surely those books with so many “infelicities” cannot have been? Yet, if the readers of those books don’t seem to mind, the obvious question is, how much does it really matter?

silverwoodWell, I think it matters to agents and publishers. They definitely notice. It matters also to professional, if non-traditional, publishers like SilverWood, who won’t take on a book that has clearly not been very carefully edited.

And, anyway, it matters to me! Partly, perhaps, because I spent more than thirty years in a career – technical writing – where good, clear, grammatical, well-spelled writing was expected, both of me and by me. After all, good writing aids reading and understanding and, in the context of a novel in particular, enjoyment. Bad writing can make a book difficult to read, possibly confusing, and may result in it being thrown across the room!

I don’t think it’s necessary to get too heavy about all this. I’d be mortified if anyone thought I was setting myself up as the “grammar police”. This is not about being critical of others for the sake of it, it’s about writers producing the very best books for their readers to enjoy.

So, I am – yes – quite pernickety. That is not to claim that I achieve perfection – but I do aim for it. What I do is read and reread my work, many times, stripping out or rewriting “infelicities” of every kind. As part of my editing process, I work my way through one or more of the writing advice guides that I have. Two, very different, but useful, books spring to mind. First is Self-editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King. The chapters include basic advice on show and tell, dialogue, interior monologue, point of view, each with a checklist to help you in your editing. The Word-Loss Diet, by Rayne Hall, is quite a small book and formulaic in style, but its simple premise is to help you cut unnecessary words from your draft and, my goodness, it works. Even if you think your book is well-written, you may still find that it’s full of words you really can do without. The result of the ”diet” is simply a more tightly-written book. That’s all it does. But I do recommend it.

self editing book         word loss diet

All this reading and rereading does of course take time. A lot of it. But, for me, it’s most definitely worth it. It has always been important to me that, when I publish, my books would be the best that I could make them. That’s all.

So I’ll keep at it and hope that A Woman’s Lot will be up on Amazon’s virtual shelves before too long.

The “industrious” Meon Valley

This is a piece that I first posted in May on The History Girls blogspot but which I thought I would like to share again here.

 

At this time of year, my daily walk takes in three of the “industrial” features of this lovely part of Hampshire, the Meon Valley: the River Meon itself, the long defunct Meon Valley Railway and the remnants of a royal hunting ground, the Forest of Bere.

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The River Meon at St Clair’s, Soberton
Photo © Carolyn Hughes

The peace and beauty of the Meon’s landscape – with its gently flowing stream, the occasional heron or egret fishing for trout at the river’s edge; the lush water meadows, sometimes occupied by grazing cattle; the odd rushing weir; and the few surviving stone and brick arch bridges that span it at various points along its length – somewhat belie its powerful past. The railway once played its part in bearing passengers and goods from leafy Hampshire to noisy London (and had an important role in World War Two). And the forest – particularly lovely at this time of year, when the bright green foliage is just beginning to clothe the branches of the beech trees, yet is still sparse enough to allow the sun to light up the glades of bluebells – is but a small part of a much greater forest that has a long and important history.

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Map by William J Blaeu,
Amsterdam, 1645

The River Meon is not a grand river, only twenty-one miles in length, and, for much of that length, a somewhat shallow chalk stream – in summer months, at any rate. The river rises in the South Downs, near the village of East Meon, and winds and meanders through the other villages of the Meon Valley, until it rushes, broader and deeper, out into the sea, the Solent, to the south of Titchfield.

The early form of the name, Mēon, is Celtic or pre-Celtic. The meaning and etymology seem unclear, but it may be associated with a word that means ‘damp’ or ‘to wash’.1 Yet that seems unromantically mundane, and I prefer to think of the lovely Meon simply as the river that meanders…

But despite the apparently gentle, meandering nature of the Meon, it nonetheless has power.

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The River Meon in flood in the 1950s

 

Within the past few years, villages at either end of the Meon’s length – East Meon and Titchfield – have experienced severe flooding when the river burst its banks and overwhelmed their roads and houses. In 1953, the flooding in East Meon was the worst seen for forty years.

More helpfully, for centuries, the steep gradient of the terrain over which the upper reaches of the river flow has enabled the water to be exploited for a surprising variety of manufacturing processes – iron working, cloth processing, paper making, tanning, and flour milling.2

Until the seventeenth century, the Meon was navigable as far as Titchfield, which at that time was a significant port, and the area was heavily involved in the woollen industry and also produced iron, tanned goods and cloth. Eventually, silting restricted the passage of ships and, in 1611, to ensure that Titchfield could remain a port, the Earl of Southampton, Thomas Wriothesley, had a canal built directly from the sea to the town, and the Meon estuary was blocked off. Some say that, at one time, boats could come up the river as far as Soberton, where smuggled goods were unladen and hidden in the church vault, though one does wonder at the veracity of this romantic tale.3

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Soberton Mill 
Photo © Carolyn Hughes

There were mills all along the River Meon, from one end to the other, including ones at Titchfield, Funtley, Wickham, Soberton, Droxford, Meonstoke, and East Meon. Many buildings survive, although they are not necessarily original. The mills were mainly used for grinding grain, although at Warnford was one of the very earliest paper mills in Hampshire, and at Funtley there was an iron mill in the 17th century. The water mill below Bere Farm in Soberton Heath – Soberton Mill – was probably, in the 16th century, a fulling mill, where cloth was scoured (cleaned and whitened) and milled (felted and then rinsed), before being stretched. Later, into the 20th century, Soberton was used as a flour mill.

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Chesapeake Mill, Wickham
Photo © Richard Thomas

Chesapeake Mill in Wickham replaced an earlier watermill on the site. The present mill was built in 1820 using timbers from HMS Chesapeake, the former United States Navy frigate USS Chesapeake, captured by the Royal Navy in 1812. The outside of the mill is of brick, but the beams, joists, and floors are built from the ship’s deck timbers, still, apparently, blood-stained from the ship’s fighting days. The mill, used for producing flour, remained in operation until 1976.4   

Both Chesapeake and Soberton mills sit not only on the river but also alongside the defunct Meon Valley railway line, now just a woodland track, on which you can walk (or trot or cycle) all the way from Wickham through Soberton to West Meon.

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Bridge at Mislingford
Photo © Carolyn Hughes

The Meon Valley Railway opened in 1903 and ran for 2212 miles (36.2 km) between Alton and Fareham, closely  following the course of the River Meon. It was intended to be part of a through route from London to Portsmouth, but it never fulfilled its purpose. The line passed through the Forest of Bere before heading across the water-meadows at Wickham on an embankment. The meandering course of the River Meon, the constraints of the landscape and the railway’s ruling gradient meant that the railway needed five under-bridges within half a mile (1 kilometre), three to cross the Meon and two to cross roads in Wickham.

In the early days of the railway, it was used for shipping local agricultural and horticultural produce, including watercress (from the still active watercress beds at Warnford), fruit (especially strawberries and apples), milk and cattle. Local residents and businesses apparently had high hopes for the railway, and an inn was built next to Droxford station in the hope of accommodating tourists and travellers.

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The Meon Valley Railway trail
Photo © Carolyn Hughes

People were impressed by the line’s speed, the scale of its engineering works, the high quality of the stations and the beauty of the scenery it passed through. Unfortunately, the expected London through-traffic never materialised, and after only fifty years passenger traffic was cut in 1955. The line was closed altogether in 1968, and subsequently, 17.5 km (11 mi) of the route was made into the trail for walkers, cyclists and horse-riders.

However, the Meon Valley Railway did have an important role to play during World War Two. During the build-up to D-Day, men and equipment had to be moved to the south of England, and large numbers of tanks were moved by rail to Mislingford goods yard, from where they were then dispersed to local lanes and fields for temporary storage.

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Old loading gauge at Mislingford

(As an aside, I’ve a small tale to tell… I’m not really a particularly mystical individual, but I’ve often sensed “something” at this spot… Ghosts perhaps of those D-Day soldiers disembarking from the trains? In fact, there’s a timber yard quite close by, so maybe it has only ever been the noises from there, the clanking of machinery, and the sound of workmen’s voices that I’ve heard…? Or maybe not…)

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Droxford station in July 1975
Photo by Nick Catford

The railway’s most famous wartime role came on 2nd June 1944, when Winston Churchill and the War Cabinet met General Eisenhower, General de Gaulle and other Allied leaders in a special train parked at a heavily guarded Droxford station. Their mission was the final preparation for the D-Day landings. The station was only a short car journey from Eisenhower’s invasion headquarters at Southwick, and, being mostly hidden, was considered a safe location for the crucial meeting.

If the river and the railway run alongside each other, so the railway line also runs alongside the remains of the Forest of Bere where it lies within the parish of Soberton.

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Forest of Bere, near Soberton Heath
Photo © Carolyn Hughes

Bere Forest was once very extensive, stretching from Romsey, south towards Southampton, east to beyond the Sussex border, and as far north as Winchester. It is presumed that the Norman kings used Bere Forest for hunting, as well as the New Forest over in Dorset, and it is reputed that Henry VIII, Elizabeth I and Charles I also hunted here.

But the Forest of Bere was not just a royal hunting ground.

Evidence of a Roman bloomery, a type of furnace once widely used for smelting iron, was found during excavations for one of the forest’s car parks in Soberton Heath. For centuries, the oak woods provided timber for building and acorns for pigs. Villagers of the southern part of the village (Soberton Heath) had rights to turn their cattle into the forest, including horses and pigs but not sheep. The deer that roamed the forest – which we often still see these days both in the forest and on the road – were not of course for the common people (except, one supposes, illicitly).

In the 13th century oaks were cut in quantity to repair warships and build bridges, and for building work in Winchester. At the beginning of the 14th century the size of the forest began to decline, presumably because of the amount of timber being taken. In Tudor times, the timber was reputedly used extensively for Henry VIII’s shipwrights, including perhaps the building of the Mary Rose, which in 1545 would sink in the Solent at the far end of the Meon Valley, and can now be seen in all its wonderful glory at the Historic Dockyard in Portsmouth. In the 17th century, Cromwell, Lord Protector, reputedly used a vast quantity of Bere Forest timber to repair his ships, then, in the later 18th, there was so much work for Portsmouth dockyard associated with the Napoleonic Wars that, by 1815, there was apparently no suitable oak left!! Replanting didn’t start until 1855.

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Crater pond in the Forest of Bere
Photo © Carolyn Hughes

Great quantities of timber were again felled during the First World War and then again over the period of WWII, this time for the building of aircraft, using beech wood. During WWII, two land mines were dropped on the forest – the enemy was probably looking for the railway – creating two large and very deep ponds. Alongside the involvement of the railway in the war effort, our lovely forest was also used, both to hide tanks within the trees, and to shelter people who, during the worst of the bombing, came out from Portsmouth to find a degree of safety.

It’s somehow wonderful, and somehow humbling, to remember, in these places where I take my walk, and where I sometimes stop to stand and stare, how very many men and women have been here in the centuries before me.

References 

1 From “Saxons in the Meon Valley: A Place-Name Survey” by Dr Kelly A. Kilpatrick, Institute for Name-Studies, University of Nottingham, Sept 2014. http://www.saxonsinthemeonvalley.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/MeonValleyPlaceNameResearch_Sep2014.pdf

2 The River Meon, National Rivers Authority, Southern Region, July 1993. http://www.environmentdata.org/fedora/repository/ealit:3872/OBJ/20003280.pdf

3 Stories of the river, railway and forest can be found in The Story of Soberton and Newtown by Ann Pendred (1999).

4 From The Warship and the Watermill https://web.archive.org/web/20081030083543/http://www.chesapeakemill.co.uk/historypdf001.pdf accessed 10th May 2017.

Picture captions

The River Meon at St Clair’s, Soberton Photo © Carolyn Hughes

Map of Hampshire by William J Blaeu, Amsterdam, Netherlands, 1645. From: http://www.geog.port.ac.uk/webmap/hantsmap/hantsmap/blaeu1/bla1smaf.htm

The River Meon in flood in the 1950s. From East Meon History Archive: http://www.eastmeonhistory.org.uk/content/catalogue_item/east-meon-floods-1953/severe-flooding-in-east-meon-in-the-1950s-picture-gallery

Chesapeake Mill, Wickham Photo © Richard Thomas [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Soberton Mill, Soberton Heath. Photo © Carolyn Hughes

The Meon Valley Railway trail. Photo © Carolyn Hughes

Bridge over the Meon Valley Railway at Mislingford. Photo © Carolyn Hughes

The old loading gauge at the former Mislingford goods yard. Photograph in Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Droxford station building in July 1975. Photo by Nick Catford. From: http://www.disused-stations.org.uk/d/droxford/

Forest of Bere (Upperford Copse), near Soberton Heath, Hampshire. Photo © Carolyn Hughes

Crater pond in the Forest of Bere (West Walk). Photo © Carolyn Hughes