Jilly: Bake, Write, Repeat

Which of your newly acquired corona-shelter-lockdown skills is proving most useful?

I know I’m not the only one working on my baking craft. I’ve been cheering Elizabeth’s sourdough progress and applauding Kay’s inspired ingredient substitutions.

Not sure I’ve heard anyone else say that the experience has also been good for their writing, though. Michille said she’s a procrasti-baker. Weirdly, my adventures in bread-making have provided me with both food for thought and a handy writing routine.

Creative inspiration
As you know, I write fantasy romance in a historical setting. My fictional world is similar to northern England or Scotland, broadly late Medieval or early Tudor period. Of course I knew bread was the main carbohydrate in my characters’ diet—they had no potatoes or rice to bulk out their meals. I hadn’t thought enough about how the quality of flour and the kind of bread would vary according to a person’s social standing (apparently in the real world at that time there were at least seven different kinds). Or to wonder whether a character would have their own bread oven, or would take proven dough to a communal bread oven and pay to have it baked, or would buy it ready to eat from a bakehouse. To think about where and how they would acquire flour. How they’d find the time to hand-bake on an almost continuous basis. What they might flavor their dough with. And so on.

It’s not that I expect to use all those details in my books. Maybe a snippet will come in useful, here and there. But it’s a very practical way to immerse myself in my story world and connect with the rhythm of my characters’ lives. And it gives me something to think about while I’m kneading away 🙂 .

A writing routine
Making bread by hand isn’t something you can rush. At my kitchen temperature, a simple loaf needs to sit quietly under a damp tea towel for around two hours—an hour after first kneading, and another hour after it’s been knocked back and shaped. That rhythm works wonderfully well as long-ish writing sprints. Bash the dough, leave it to rise, set a timer, write for an hour. Knock the dough back and shape the loaf, leave it to prove, set a timer, write for an hour. If things are going really well, write for another 35 minutes while the loaf bakes.

Or even better-make sourdough. Mix the ingredients with the starter, set a timer, write for an hour. Add salt, write for another half-hour to an hour. Then turn the dough every half an hour for four hours. Write for eight half-hour sprints between turns. Shape the loaf. Write for another half hour. Then put the loaf in a proving basket and leave it in the fridge overnight. I get at least six hours’ worth of writing time, complete with timed breaks to get up and walk around. And fresh baked sourdough for breakfast.

I feel absurdly pleased to think I’ve inadvertently acquired a small lasting corona-benefit to offset all those missed birthdays, canceled holidays, and absent friends.

How about you? Have you discovered any corona-compensations, large or small?

Jilly: New Story, New Cover

It’s August already, and the end of this pandemic is starting to feel very far away. Here’s hoping at least one of those vaccines turns out to be a magic bullet.

I expected to be in California now, drinking cocktails, eating ice cream and hanging out with Eight Lady Kay. Instead I’m about to start the nineteenth week of our involuntary staycation in North London. Sigh. The weather has turned gorgeous. I like my house, and we’re lucky enough to have a small garden. My husband is great company. The food is okay and the wine is good. I’m trying to stay focused on the positives, but a change or two would be welcome.

So while I wait for the copy edits of The Seeds of Exile (Daire’s novella) I’m turning my focus to a new writing project—the second full length Elan Intrigues novel, called The Seeds of Destiny. The main character is a mountain-dwelling healer with uncanny powers. She’s called Annis Benkith. Daire seeks her help as he battles the energy sickness that is driving him toward an early and painful death.

It’s always hard to get to grips with a new character and a new piece of world building. Annis is a nomadic mountain dweller, wildly different from the princes and princesses of the two previous books. Fortunately I have a cover for The Seeds of Destiny that evokes the ambience I’m trying to capture. I’m using it for inspiration.

It took me hours of searching to find a stock photo of a woman who looked as though she could be Annis. She makes eye contact with the reader. She looks natural and rather serious. To me she feels like Annis—calm and empathetic, skilled, but also decisive, courageous and determined. In the original photo she was Victorian and glamorous, but my cover designers, Deranged Doctor Design, gave her a new look with a homespun dress and a high-altitude setting.

What do you think? I hope you like the cover as much as I do. I’d love to know what signals it gives you. Does it look like your kind of book? If you noticed it as you were browsing online, would you click on it to check out the blurb?

Thank you in advance for your comments, whatever they may be.

And huge thanks to the talented team at Deranged Doctor Design. I feel very lucky to be working with them.

Jilly: Fix It With Gold

Just when you think 2020 might be getting a little better, it gets a whole lot worse. Elizabeth captured the zeitgeist perfectly in her Wednesday post, Living the Conflict Box. That’s exactly how the world feels to me every time I check out the news.

I spent much of yesterday staring at my laptop, trying to decide what to talk about today. Eventually, for reasons I hope will become apparent, I settled on the ancient Japanese art of kintsugi.

According to that fount of all knowledge, Wikipedia:

Kintsugi (金継ぎ, “golden joinery”), also known as kinsukuroi (金繕い, “golden repair”), is the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery by mending the areas of breakage with lacquer dusted or mixed with powdered gold, silver, or platinum, a method similar to the maki-e technique. As a philosophy, it treats breakage and repair as part of the history of an object, rather than something to disguise.

I’m not Japanese and I’ve never been to Japan, so clearly I’m not the best person to talk about this (hi, Michaeline!), but I can broach the subject and invite you to learn more. I’ve been in love with the idea ever since it was featured on BBC Four’s 2017 season celebrating all things Japanese.

Click here for an article from the BBC series, including some stunning photographs.

I’d love to own a piece of kintsugi, but it would have to be something that has personal significance for me. If I ever break a cherished vase or bowl, say a wedding present, maybe something that was bought for my husband and me by my parents (who aren’t around anymore), I’m going to see if I can find somebody who can fix it with gold.

The reason I like kintsugi so much is that it doesn’t seek to hide a fracture, or even multiple fractures. There’s no attempt to mend something that’s seriously broken by fixing the damage so that it’s invisible to the naked eye. Quite the reverse. The idea is that the breakage is an important part of the pot’s history and should not be hidden or forgotten. But if it gets fixed with care, and love, and valuable materials, the pot not only becomes usable again, it becomes differently beautiful—a celebration, a reminder, even a triumph.

I love the idea so much that I incorporated a version of it into one of the stories I’m currently writing—a novella about sibling rivalry and family fractures and reconciliation.

And I hope it doesn’t sound naïve or pretentious to say that it’s what I wish for our world. The sooner the better.

Take care, be kind, and see you next Sunday.

Jilly: A True Story, Brilliantly Told

Have you ever watched a great musician play? Wondered at the way they seem to be one with their instrument, physically and emotionally?

If you wanted to express the intensity of that connection through the medium of dance, wouldn’t it be inspired to use two dancers, one for the musician and one for the instrument? That’s what choreographer Cathy Marston did in her recent one-hour modern ballet The Cello, based on the life of renowned cellist Jacqueline du Pré.

The role of the cellist was created for British ballerina Lauren Cuthbertson; the role of her cello was created for Portuguese dancer Marcelino Sambé, and the way they move together, almost becoming the music, is breathtaking.

The storytelling is inspired. Everything centers around the cello. The instrument is the emotional link between the cellist and her husband, the celebrated conductor and pianist Daniel Barenboim. Then it becomes the means to express the loss and heartbreak they suffer as du Pré develops the multiple sclerosis that cut short her career, and then her life. She died twelve years ago, aged 42.

Even if you’re not a dance fan, you might enjoy this four-minute discussion between the choreographer, the cellist who accompanies the piece, and the dancers who play du Pré, the cello, and Barenboim. They discuss the process of creating the story, including working from a selection of word prompts. Click here to watch on YouTube.

If that whetted your appetite for more, click here for a New York Times review of the ballet.

Best of all, if you’d like to watch The Cello, you can. It’s free to watch on the Royal Ballet’s Youtube channel for another 12 days. Have tissues to hand. Click here.

Sigh. Have a lovely weekend.

Take care, stay safe, and see you next week.

Jilly: Hay Festival Digital–Free Brain Candy

Another Sunday, another silver lining. I wrote a few weeks ago about free lockdown streaming from London’s National Theatre. Now summer’s approaching in the UK and we’re heading into festival season. For the great and the good of the arts scene that means the Hay Festival of Literature & Arts, usually just called the Hay Festival. I’d say it’s our most famous literature festival. Apparently in 2001 Bill Clinton described it as “The Woodstock of the Mind.”

Normally the festival would take over the beautiful town of Hay-on-Wye, Wales. This year the event is virtual, and it’s all free. Hay Festival Digital runs until next Sunday, 31 May. The tagline is free live broadcasts and interactive Q&As from the world’s greatest writers and thinkers.

You can register to watch any of the sessions, and if you join live you can chat with fellow audience members and send questions to the presenter, just as you could if you attended the festival in person. If you’re in another time zone and the live stream isn’t convenient for you, the recorded sessions will be available for a further 24 hours.

I watched an interview yesterday morning called Dead Famous: An Unexpected History of Celebrity from Bronze Age to Silver Screen, by author and historian Greg Jenner, who also has a fabulous, quirky history podcast called You’re Dead To Me. The discussion was great fun and the technology worked well. I saw people from the US, Nigeria, and a number of European countries as well as the UK, chatting away and having a great time.

I’m definitely planning to catch another session or two. Continue reading

Kay: How a Romance Author Helped Save the Jews

Ida and Louise Cook on their way

Sometimes people ask themselves—or tell others—why they write. Sometimes people decide that their writing will take a different path than they’d expected. (See Elizabeth’s post from yesterday.)

Ida Cook wrote to save Jews from the Nazis just before World War II.

I don’t think that was Ida’s plan, though. Many years later, she said: “The funny thing is, we weren’t the James Bond type. We were just respectable Civil Service typists.”

Born in the early 1900s, neither she nor her sister, Louise, ever married, as was common with many women of their generation after the deaths so many young men during World War I. Instead, they lived at home with their parents in south London. Continue reading

Jilly: Where Would You Go?

Another weekend in lockdown, at least here in the UK. How are you doing? I hope you’re safe and well and facing the corona-challenge as best you can.

This week we finally received confirmation that the 2020 Romance Writers of America  National Conference, scheduled to take place in San Francisco at the end of July, has been cancelled. That’s…kind of a relief, since I saw the writing on the wall a couple of months ago and refunded our plane tickets and hotel bookings. I’m sad it won’t be happening, but glad we won’t be missing out on the fun.

Last weekend I talked about the idea that a cancelled vacation is a double disappointment—you miss out on the trip, but you also miss out on the planning, which may be the best bit. No budget constraints, no logistical difficulties, nothing but good times ahead.

In last Sunday’s comments, Elizabeth said that since much of the fun is in the planning, we should keep working on our itineraries, enjoying the luxury of our virtual trips without being hampered by financial considerations or practical details. I think she’s right.

So. Once this crisis is over, if you could go anywhere in the world, money no object, where would you go? Continue reading

Jilly: Getting Away From It All

It’s a holiday weekend here. The sun is shining, the birds are singing, and we’re in limbo, waiting for the corona-crisis to be resolved or at least assimilated into our post-pandemic daily lives. Wherever you are, I hope you’re safe and well.

Usually around now people in the UK get the first inkling that summer is around the corner. That promises vacation, relaxation, maybe a change of scenery, perhaps a beach read or two. Except this year relaxation is not an option, and the scenery is depressingly familiar. Mr. W and I had tickets to visit San Francisco at the end of July for RWA Nationals. We expected to meet up with California-based friends and to enjoy a civilized meander down the coast with Kay. Clearly none of that will happen. We’ll be lucky if we’re allowed to hop on a train and visit friends and family outside London.

Many of my friends have reported increased cabin fever lately, and I wonder if at least some of it is down to the loss of that holiday promise, the anticipation of a treat or just the idea, the possibility of something new. Chez Jilly we’d have shared days and weeks’ worth of fun planning our road trip, investigating possibilities online, talking to Kay about places to stay, discussing landmarks to visit, imagining food and wine we might sample. Planning a vacay is like a free holiday-before-the-holiday, with only the good bits—no budget constraints, no sunburn, and no jet lag. I think being robbed of that fantasy is almost as bad as missing out on the trip itself. Continue reading

Kay: Today’s News, Yesterday

“Liberty Leading the People” by Eugène Delacroix (1830)

I struggled to find a topic to write about this week, and I decided to go with an old chestnut idea: find out more about an unknown literary figure who was born on today’s date. Initially, the only person I could find was Anna Robeson Brown Burr, whom I located on some wacky web site. She was a wealthy socialite, married a wealthy socialite, wrote books, volunteered at the library, and died at age 68 of pneumonia.

Not that interesting.

However, her obit ran on the front page (!) of the Chester (Pennsylvania) Times of Sept 11, 1941, which was fascinating, although (full disclosure) I read and catalogued 18th-century newspapers for my research grant when I was in grad school, so I admit I might have a stronger-than-usual interest in old newspapers.

In any event, Sept. 11, 1941 was before the United States entered World War II, of course, and the front page was full of war news. But there was a lot of news about polio, too. Continue reading

Jilly: Traditional treats, surprising skills

Another week, another Sunday. I’d swear the days are dragging, yet blink! and here we are again. I hope you’re still keeping safe and well as we inch toward the new normal, whatever that may be.

An unexpected upside of the current crisis has been a surge in demand for various niche businesses. Amid the general gloom and depression, it’s been lovely to see artisanal flour producers, needlepoint tutors, hen-keepers and the like enjoy an unexpected moment in the sunlight.

I’m sure I’ve mentioned here before that I’m a huge jigsaw puzzle fan. Jigsaws are traditionally regarded as a staid older-person’s form of distraction, but apparently in these stressful days of lockdown confinement they have seen a huge resurgence. Yay! Long may it last!

I always have a jigsaw on the go when I’m plotting a book. When I get stuck trying to figure out character arcs, world-building, turning points and plot holes, I take a time out with the puzzle and the challenge of identifying colors, patterns, and shapes seems to re-set my brain. According to the interwebs, this is because jigsaw puzzles Continue reading