Diaries: a Treasure Trove

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I recently gave a workshop during Canterbury Festival on diaries and how they can help writers as sources of both inspiration and research.

If you are thinking of writing fiction in the first person, a diary could provide a convenient framework for your story.

Reading other people’s diaries will also enable you to get a feel for a particular period or personality.

This is the first of a series of blogs on diaries which resulted from my research on that subject.

What is a diary?

Where does the word ‘diary’ come from? The Online Etymology Dictionary gives a useful definition which it links to the 1580s. This is as follows:

Diary: “An account of daily events, a journal kept by one person of  his or her experiences and observations”, from Latin ‘diarium’ ‘daily allowance’, later ‘a journal’, neuter of ‘diarius’ ‘daily’, from ‘dies’ ‘day’.”

The entry states that a diary, in the “sense of a book with blank leaves or dated pages meant for keeping a daily record of events” dates to c. 1600.

A brief history of diaries

There is some dispute as to who wrote the earliest diary. Some writers claim that it was Marcus Aurelius who wrote his Meditations in the 2nd century AD.

However, others contend that diaries emerged from the Middle East and East Asia in the form of traveller’s accounts of their experiences and observations.

The earliest recorded example of one of these diaries is that of the Chinese scholar Li Ao who kept a nine-month record of a journey made with his pregnant wife through southern China in 809.

However, it is the Arabic traveller Ibn Banna in the 11th century who is generally credited with writing the first recognisably modern diary arranged in date order.

The first English diary

The first recorded diary written in English comes some time later. We do not have the name of its author. He is known only as ‘One of the Suite of Thomas Beckton’. However, it is clear that he was a diplomat engaged in a trip to France and tasked with arranging the marriage of King Henry VI to the Count of Armagnac’s daughter.  His record runs from June 1442 to January 1443.

So far, apart from Marcus Aurelius, we can see that diaries often related to people’s observations of the world and events around them.

But there were other antecedents of diaries and these reflected the purely personal element of this kind of writing. For instance, medieval mystics recorded their spiritual experiences. These are intimate account of an individual’s thoughts, beliefs and philosophy. They record an inward journey rather than an outward one; spiritual rather than physical.

Although she did not write a diary as such, one famous English example is the 14th century mystic Marjery Kempe. Marjery came from a prosperous, middle-class background. After had difficulties when giving birth, Marjery went to confession which turned out to be a very traumatic event. After this she saw visions of Jesus. She visited mystics and made long pilgrimages to Jerusalem, Santiago di Compostela and Gdansk. Being illiterate did not stop her from dictating her experiences to scribes and these writings were compiled into a book. While not a diary, this gives an intimate insight into Marjery’s life, beliefs and travels. It is a forerunner of the kind of personal reflections later recorded in diaries. Marjery combines both the inward and the outward journeys.

To summarise: diaries consist of two main threads:

  1. a) looking inwards – the intimate thoughts and reflections of the writer;
  2. b) looking outwards – observations made by the writer relating to what they see and experience in the world around them.

My next blog will take a closer look at the 17th century which saw the true flowering of the diarist’s art.

In the meantime, consider how a diary might work for you. For instance, I keep an editing diary to help me keep track of the welter of material that I am organising for my next book.

A gardening diary can also prove useful for tracking progress and recording ideas. For instance, can you remember where it was that you meant to plant next year’s bulbs? Or what was it that worked really well – or not – in your garden this year?

A travel diary can also be a valuable aide memoire for remembering experiences and recording places that you would like to re-visit. For writers, such diaries are a valuable source of information for scenes and settings.

Whatever you decide to do, enjoy it and keep writing!

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10 Tips for Survival in the Swimming Pool

Learning to swim 1939

Anyone who has considered taking up swimming for purposes of relaxation should forget it. In my opinion, swimming in a communal pool carries a level of stress equivalent to that of a fighter-pilot in battle mode. Forget those banal signs about ‘not diving off the side’ etc. These are the real rules of pool etiquette:

When someone politely suggests that your five-year old should not be launching himself off the side into – or rather on top of – oncoming swimmers, do not spring to his defence by leaping into the water and attacking that individual. Yup! Happened to me.

I just happened to look askance at said child who narrowly missed landing on my head and dad was in the water pronto to land a crippling kick on my shins. May the powers of darkness rot his budgie smugglers!

Do keep your nails long – preferably filed to a sharp point – for purposes of self-defence and meting out justice to any miscreants like those described above.

Watch out for anyone who casually drapes their bath-robe over the chair where you’ve left your towel/shampoo. Chances are your belongings won’t be there when you get back. (That’s happened to me, too!)

No-one objects to you clocking up your lengths, but don’t be a pool-hog. Swimming over any object that gets in your way – usually another, slower swimmer – is not acceptable behaviour.

Please, please don’t swim in pairs for a leisurely chat. It’s a huge obstacle to other swimmers who usually collide in their attempts to get round you.

Even worse, don’t hang around the end of the pool having a lengthy conference with your mates. It’s really irritating for anyone trying to complete their lengths and who, like me, has an irresistible desire to touch the end just to prove they’ve done it!

Don’t pick up your children by the ankles, swing them around your head and then let go to see how far they travel. This is a swimming-pool not the highland games!

If you’ve never done it before, don’t try to hoist yourself out of the pool. While Olympic athletes may exit with one effortless leap, you are more likely to get stuck mid-way; less Tom Daley, more wallowing hippo. Play it safe. Use the steps.

Beware of anyone who suggests installing ‘lanes’ in your favourite pool because “this is how it was done at my old swimming-club”. Note the word ‘old’. Chances are that person was ejected from their former swimming-club for possessing a high irritation factor. Most casual swimmers are sensible enough to manoeuvre around each other without the need for unnecessary nannying.

If aqua-aerobics begins at 8.30 – and you are not a participant – make sure you leave the pool at 8.20. Otherwise, you risk being swamped by an avalanche of foam objects being chucked into the water and a herd of exercise fanatics who always arrive early to stake their claim.

It may feel a bit unfair to be cheated of an extra 10 minutes but it’s worth it to avoid the shoal of floundering bodies and the assault on your ears from the instructor’s tinny CD player. If, against all reason, you find yourself jigging along to the rhythm, just repeat this mantra: “I came here to swim, not to be cheerful. I hate this pool and everyone in it!”

It always works for me!


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6 Top Tips: How to Stay Calm When Editing

Editing is a well-kept secret – or maybe the skeleton in the cupboard – depending on your view of it. Yet it plays a critical role in whether your book, article or thesis is outstanding or simply average.

Having been a journalist, a professional support lawyer and, latterly, an author, I’ve had plenty of experience of editing. I’ve pruned, re-arranged and developed both my own work and that of other people. By this stage, you’d think it would be easy.

But that’s the thing. Editing is never easy.

I’m now half-way through the first edit of my third book. Editing my first, The Devil Dancers, took me nearly two years. It looks as if my current project will prove equally long.

Perhaps it is my fault for choosing to write historical fiction. Editing in this case involves the additional burden of fact-checking to the ‘nth’ degree. Sometimes, you have to arrange the background material to fit your story, but you have to know your facts before you can do that.

My next book has World War II as its setting and, to make life easier, I’ve arranged the material by year.

This morning, I started reading the material that I have collated for 1940. This is a large section and the thought of tackling it was pretty daunting so I wrote a few notes to myself before I started.

I thought that these might be useful to others embroiled in what can sometimes feel like an overwhelming task so I’ve jotted them down here. Hopefully they will prove useful. Here goes!

Keep an editing diary. This can be a physical diary (mine is a beautiful notebook gifted by a friend) or it can be a digital version. It should include a daily entry of where you’ve got to, the name of the file (especially digital but physical ones count, too – I’ve got at least seven on the go), where it can be found (e.g. the name of the computer/physical folder), the name of the file’s predecessor (especially useful if you are keeping digital versions), a note about the history of the file if it has been re-vamped from an earlier version, and, most crucially, what action needs to be taken next. It is also useful to keep a note of where you store discarded copy as you may wish to re-use it later.

All this may sound so obvious that it seems unnecessary. However, if you leave editing for even a day it is very easy to forget where you were or what material you were working on. Keeping track of what you were doing is essential and saves a huge amount of time and energy.

Break up your editing into logical sections then write a table of contents for each. For instance, this may consist of the document title/number and a brief sentence summarising the contents. This makes it much easier to re-arrange the order of your material and to find it later on.

Aim to edit bite-size pieces, not everything in one go. With hundreds of pages to edit – and many different versions – the entire content will be completely daunting, rather like standing at the bottom of Mount Everest and wondering how to get to the top. By breaking it down into manageable chunks, you will be able to work steadily through it without having a major meltdown. (Small ones are not only permissible, they are unavoidable!)

Identify themes and characters and follow the course of each through the narrative. Are they consistent? What are the gaps? Do they need more work, further development, additional research?

Never re-write immediately. Read through your material and make pencil changes in the margins. Do not action these until later. First re-arrange the order of the material, write/add any essential material, then re-read the whole section. You will often find that the ‘wrinkles’ that you identified on your first reading have either been ironed out or were not ‘wrinkles’ in the first place. I have often drafted new paragraphs only to find that, on a subsequent reading, the original version was better.

One edit will never be enough. Prepare yourself to re-read many times. However, as you progress through various versions, fewer amendments will be required. Towards the end, you will be focussing on small points of grammar and presentation, not huge re-writes. Definitely something to savour!



Posted in Books, Editing, Editing tips, Fiction, History, self-publishing, The Devil Dancers, women self-publishers, women writers, World War 2, writing, Writing Advice, Writing Tips | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

For want of an egg … the birth of an un-domestic goddess

Arguments break out over the strangest things. I once heard a famous actress describing how a domestic row had been sparked off by a milk bottle. A milk bottle? Well, I can do better. My trigger was an egg.

It’s not so much the object that ignites the row, but the circumstances. In this case, it was Christmas – the first with the man who was to become my husband. I was going to treat him to a traditional Christmas. The best he had ever had. Single-handedly, I was going to make the puddings, cook the cake, fill the stockings and decorate the tree.

It was all going to be perfect: a Nigella-fest of soft lighting, glittering decorations, mulled wine and wonderful food. I pictured myself at the centre of the festivities: a calm, unflappable Maitresse d’, conducting proceedings which would, naturally, run like clockwork.

But life’s not like that. Organising Christmas is like trying to restrain a rushing torrent. It has a habit of swamping you. It was a discovery that nearly cost me my future marriage.

I remember it well. I was in the kitchen stirring, measuring, chopping and generally busying myself with preparations for the Christmas cake. I don’t even like fruit cake but I had to make it. It was traditional. Following my Good Housekeeping recipe to the letter, I had just started to add the wet ingredients to the dry when I noticed that I was an egg short. Perhaps I could get away with two eggs rather than three.

“What do you think?” I shouted upstairs to where my boyfriend was trying out a new drill.

“Well, if the recipe says three, it means three,” he replied, unwisely.

So, I asked him – quite reasonably – to nip along to the shops and get some more eggs. He was reluctant. His excuse being that he hadn’t quite finished drilling the socket/widget/thingy that was so important.

“But I need it now!”

“Well, you’ll have to wait.”

I marched around the kitchen harrumphing, checking my watch every thirty seconds. I couldn’t go to the shops myself because, by this time, I was encrusted in flour, egg and candied peel disgorged by the food-mixer. Unlike Nigella’s perfect make-up, I was covered in an unbecoming pebble-dash which had spread all over my face and up into my hair. I would need a full hose-down in the shower and a clean change of clothes if I was to go out. He had to do it.

There was still no movement upstairs except for the incessant sound of drilling. I tried to picture what our bedroom wall would look like when he’d finished. The only image that sprang to mind was the aftermath of a mafia shoot-out.

Trying to rein in my rising temper, I decided to warm the oven. It was new, shiny … and obdurate. I got the lights to work, but no heat. It didn’t matter how much I fiddled, nothing worked. Finally, in a fit of pique, I pressed all the buttons at once. There was a sort of ‘pop’ and all the lights in the house went out.

A voice drifted down from the darkened stairwell.

“What’s going on?”

Trying to hide my mounting panic, I decided that attack was the best form of defence.

“It’s all your fault,” I shouted. “I’m going back to my mother.”

And so I did. With a bowlful of raw, half-mixed Christmas cake sitting on the passenger seat beside me. That egg – or the lack of it – nearly ended our relationship.

Since then, I’ve abandoned all Nigella aspirations. The perfect Christmas is a mirage; a last vestige of childhood. But having rejected this bit of adult make-believe, I’ve actually begun to enjoy myself. I buy mince pies and cheat with the bread-pudding mix. (The packet variety is brilliant).

However, I’m not completely cured. This Christmas, we’re going to make a cake – together. So, I’m off to buy eggs and hide the cordless-drill!

Photo: Broken Egg by Jorge Barrios

Posted in 12 days of Christmas, bread pudding, Christmas, Christmas cake, Christmas pudding, cookery, cooking, Food, Humour, mince pies, Nigella, Relationships, writing | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Writer’s Stop! 10 tips for getting back in the saddle

We hear a lot about Writer’s Block but never about Writer’s Stop. In my view, you’re far more likely to experience a Stop than a Block to your literary endeavours.

Just about anything can constitute a Stop. Illness, bereavement, looking after a sick or elderly relative: these are just some of the events that can hinder progress. At such times, you are too tired, distracted or unwell to concentrate on plot, characterisation or the intricacies of editing. Life gets in the way and you simply have to stop.

Here’s where I let you into a secret. All of this has happened to me in the last four years. An avalanche of ‘stuff’ has knocked me off course more times than I can count – and for long periods, sometimes weeks or months at a time. Just as I return to the book that I am editing, another crisis occurs.

Here’s one example or, rather, several. Since last November, my family and I have clocked up some six hospital admissions, two of which were mine. I now have a pair of gleaming new hip joints but no finished manuscript.

Every time I enter a tranquil patch, I have to start again. Despite detailed notes which are supposed to navigate me back to the last point of departure, I find it difficult to re-connect with my work and get back into the ‘zone’.

Somewhere, in my head, is a small voice screaming for time and space. I am tormented by doubt. Will I ever finish my book? Perhaps I have been struggling with it for too long. Has what started as a good idea just gone stale?

But there is also another voice, one that tells me to keep going. Don’t waste all that work, all that time invested in your book. Otherwise, what’s it all been for? And those people who have supported you, what about their sacrifice? You owe it, not just to yourself, but to them, to get back in the saddle.

Other people may distract you, but they are also the ones that keep you on course. Family, friends and readers can provide the necessary motivation.

Writing is a solitary, even selfish, pursuit so it’s good to cultivate a sense of responsibility for others. If you can’t do it for yourself, then do it for them.

I recently jotted down a 10-point life-raft to get me back on track. I hope it works for you, too.

1) Always back-up your material on a daily basis.

2) Keep a writing/editing diary so that, if you have an unexpected break, you can easily get back to where you left off. This is especially important for editing where you are dealing with a large amount of material.

3) If you are unable to tackle large projects, either write something short – a story or blog – or catch up on vital background research.

4) When trying to pick up the thread after a long break, don’t just launch in. Be organised. Write a To Do list and update it every day.

5) If you feel overwhelmed, you are trying to do too much at once. Break everything up into small, manageable tasks.

6) When getting back to writing/editing, don’t spend longer than one hour a day but make it a daily task. Better an hour every day, than six hours once a week.

7) Don’t expect to get back into the groove immediately. It takes time. Be patient.

8) If you need to rest, especially after an illness or operation, don’t fight it. Recent research shows that down-time is not wasted. You often get your best ideas when resting. Just keep a notepad nearby to jot them down.

9) If writing/editing is too demanding, give some time to planning your marketing/PR campaign. You’ll have to do this at some point, so it’s not a waste of time.

10) If you’ve been out of circulation for some time, write some short notes to key people to keep your contacts warm e.g. festival organisers, bookshop owners, librarians.

Above all, don’t give up. Just repeat the mantra: “Winners don’t Quit”.


Posted in Editing, Editing tips, Motivation, women self-publishers, women writers, writing, Writing Advice, Writing Tips | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Stop Press! 10 Top Tips for Writing Press Releases

Got news? If you want to announce something to the world – for example, a new product or an event – then you need to get your story out there. But how?

Even in the age of social media, it pays to write a press release. There is a skill to doing this. So here are some tips to get you started.

Every news story should cover the five essential ‘W’s: Who, What, Where, Why and When (not necessarily in that order). There is also the ‘H’ element that is often key to a news narrative: How. The degree and order in which you cover these depends on the story.

Visualise the press release as an inverted triangle. All key information goes in the first paragraph. You then expand this in subsequent paragraphs with the least relevant information in the last one. This allows editors to cut your text without having to spend too much time on it – a real plus for busy journalists.

In total, your press release should fit onto one side of A4 and not exceed 450 words.

Here are 10 tips for writing a press release and sending it out:

1. First Paragraph: This usually consists of ‘What’. However, if it is a celebrity scandal, it will focus more on Who. The first sentence, or lead, should be no more than 25 words, preferably less. It encapsulates the story. For instance, a local news story may start something like this:

A giant marrow weighing 80 lbs has won first prize in a national competition. (14 words)

You can follow this up with an interesting teaser:

The super-sized veg piled on the pounds by guzzling 20 gallons of beer a day.

N.B.: Never start the first paragraph with a quote.

2. Second Paragraph: Focus on the five “W”s. In general news stories, this is usually Who and Where. However, in major news stories, ‘When’ may be of much greater importance and appear in the first or second paragraphs for instance when reporting a crime or major accident.

To continue our local news story:

Pensioner Fred Bloggs grew the monstrous marrow on his allotment. Mr Bloggs, 76, of Froggett-on-the-Mould said: “I’m thrilled. I’ve been growing vegetables for 20 years but I’ve never had anything like this”.

N.B.: For this kind of story, the second or third paragraph is a good place to include a quote.

3. Third Paragraph: Expand on the details of the story.

Mr Bloggs, who won £100 in the National Squash Growers Competition, fed his marrow on a secret formula whose main ingredient was beer. In the last days before the competition, he slept alongside his marrow on the allotment to protect it from jealous rivals.

4. Fourth Paragraph: More detail (we’re getting into the ‘cuttable’ zone here). You can include another quote or additional, less important details.

“You can’t trust anyone,” said Mr Bloggs. “That’s why I don’t tell anyone the exact ingredients of my liquid marrow feed. Marrow-growing is a highly competitive hobby.”

N.B. If your eyelids start to flicker and you begin to yawn, that’s a good indication of where the editor’s red pen will strike!

5. Fifth Paragraph: Definitely ‘cuttable’ details.

Mr Bloggs will receive his prize at the National Squash Growers’ annual dinner at Binhampton Town Hall on 25 September.

6. Contact Details: Always include the following information at the end of your press release: *website address, email, telephone and name of a contact.

7. Photos: Include some relevant, high resolution photographs. Journalists are hard-pressed for time and the inclusion of a photo not only makes their job easier but makes it more likely that your story will be accepted.

8. Where to send your press release: Do your homework first. Focus on media that will be interested in your story. For instance, The Times may not be interested in a Golden Wedding, but a local paper probably will be. Try local/regional magazines (many of which also have an online edition). Don’t limit your efforts to paid-for press, there are lots of excellent local free papers and magazines and community publications (including parish magazines). Don’t limit yourself to print. Send your press release to local radio and TV stations (including digital stations).

9. How to send your press release: Details of where to send press releases are usually included under the ‘Contact Us’ link on the relevant publication’s website. Send your press release and photos as an attachment to an email. However, it is a good idea also to copy the press release text into the body of your covering email in case the attachment cannot be opened.

10. *Website: Haven’t got one? Then get one now. If you have got one but have not visited it recently, do so again. Journalists can glean a lot of information from websites – it saves them a lot of work. Post relevant information about yourself and your subject on your website, keep it up-to-date and make sure that it is easy to find.

About the author: I am an author of historical fiction. My first book The Devil Dancers is set against the turbulent backdrop of 1950s Ceylon. My second book Barley Bread and Cheese is a collection of short stories inspired by Rochester Cathedral. I am currently working on my third book, a novel which explores an unusual angle of World War II.

To find out more, click here to visit my homepage.

Posted in Barley Bread and Cheese, The Devil Dancers, women writers, writing, Writing Advice, Writing Tips | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Slobs vs Workaholics: 10 Resolutions for the New Year

Time for new resolutions

It doesn’t matter which category you fall into. Somewhere out there is a resolution that you can keep.

The problem for most of us is that many resolutions are of long duration and require a good deal of effort.

For that reason, I suggest starting off with one of the Slobs’ resolutions. Why?

It’s simple. A Slobs’ Resolution can be fulfilled without stirring from the couch. Bliss.


The festive season puts us in a perfect position to feel positive – mainly because it only comes once a year, it consists of unusual excess and many of us are glad when it’s finished.

Eat less: Not a difficult one to keep after Christmas. Any reduction after that mighty binge has got to be an improvement.

Exercise more: Likewise. Even a quick canter to the fridge and back equates to a marathon at this stage. Just wiggling your toes is exercise (well, according to me it is).

Keep a tighter control of finances: With all those bills looming, this is a necessity not a choice for most of us.

Learn something new: Unless you’re living in a cave, you can’t avoid it. Everyone watches the news, don’t they?

Stop procrastinating. Ouch! This is getting painful. Never mind. You can read my 10 Tips for dealing with it in a sitting or lying position.


The next 5 resolutions are the tricky ones because they require real effort.

Acquire a new skill: From crosswords to languages, painting to pottery, there is something out there for you.

The trick is to find something that will fire your imagination and hold your interest. (*See suggestions below).

Finish that book/story: Many people begin to write, but few stay the course.

Going the whole distance requires total focus. It is lonely. But if the thought of becoming an anti-social ogre does not fill you with horror, this is the goal for you.

(‘Tis the season for ghost stories so why not read my blog on What Makes a Great Ghost Story and write one yourself? My blog 10 Creepy Choices for a Rattling Good Read also has some suggestions that may inspire you).

Discover a weakness (one of yours!) and tackle it: This is subjective and needs some serious introspection.

Note: This requires peace and quiet, not another spell on the couch in front of the telly!

Banish the cat, dog, bird: Alternatively, banish yourself.

Having moved my PC to a nice light room downstairs, I have also moved into the cat’s range of vision.

My concentration is frequently interrupted by frantic meows for: food, affection, shelter, any damn thing that takes his fancy. I am already planning a removal upstairs.

Make new friends: It’s a sad truth but the passage of a year usually marks the disappearance of one or more friends.

The result? An emotional backlash of grief, anger and loss that can be debilitating. Time to top up the friend-bank.

Get out there and meet new people and, while you’re doing it, enjoy yourself.

The best resolution is to have fun!

*Whet your appetite for learning with a MOOC (a Massive Open Online Course).

These are generally free and offer tasters of subjects including archaeology, history, IT, languages and medicine.

Some of the best-known providers of MOOCs are: edx and Futurelearn.

In addition, the Open Culture site offers links to all kinds of free online courses and resources including MOOCs, language courses, textbooks, movies and a range of other culture-related subjects.

Posted in 2018, Archaeology, Christmas, Courses, Crosswords, Culture, exercise, Festivals, Fiction, finances, Food, ghost stories, History, IT, Languages, Learning, MOOC, Movies, New Year, Painting, Pottery, Resolutions, Short stories, writing, Writing Advice, Writing Tips | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment