Category: Fiction

Cassie carefully lays out objects from the box.

It’s inevitable that, by having so many different projects going on, one will simmer on the back burner for a long time while I focus on others. This has happened with my historical novel, Double the Stars, which is in a fourth draft, and under consideration by three parties – but, having had a bit of time to learn the world of agents and publishers – may not get beyond that stage in this round (though I hope, of course, that it does). However, life is breathed into the project thanks to Cassie Herschel-Shorland.

Cassie and I met because I co-planned/hosted a ‘Herschel Evening’ at the Whipple Museum in 2010, where I read far too much of a far too early draft of the novel (a good learning experience; a long-suffering audience of about 50 people)! Cassie wasn’t at the Herschel Evening, but her father, John Herschel, and her brother, William, and sister, Amanda, were. They are a delightful family: generous and enthusiastic; all one could want in a subject of research – and in a neighbour.

It turned out that Cassie lived only a short walk down the road from me in the Greenwich area of London. She opened her doors to me and shared a great deal of material for which she’s responsible – mostly, textiles, including a dress that used to belong to Caroline Herschel, the heroine of my novel and Cassie’s great (great great) Aunt.

Wax seal of the Herschel family, in a carved wooden box that was so well-turned the seam didn’t show when it was sealed (perhaps Alexander made it?) – the box was tucked inside a beautifully crocheted green bag: all very small and delicate.

Along with being a Museum Access & Design Consultant, with a fine knowledge of conservation, preservation, and reconstruction, Cassie is completing an MA. Because of our growing friendship and her generosity in sharing her family (and family history) with me (a trip to visit her parents and see many Herschel objects first-hand, and a day trip to Bath with her and her father being some of the highlights,) Cassie was inspired to use Caroline Herschel as the subject for her MA Thesis – to work up an historical reconstruction, an image that is as accurate as it can be, of what Caroline might have looked like around the age at which she appears in my novel. It would be ideal, we agreed, if this could be incorporated into the novel.

As an artist and painter, Cassie has also talked with me about my modelling, and she asked me some time ago if I’d be interested in sitting in period dress. I hadn’t made the connection that she was interested in having me ‘sit’ as Caroline! This past Saturday, I did sit as Cassie made some preliminary sketches. We both know I’m not the right ‘model’ for Caroline, who was absolutely tiny, not curvy at all, and in fact, slightly disfigured by smallpox and typhus. But it’s good exercise for Cassie to think of poses: seated, holding a teacup, holding a book, holding nothing? Turned towards the window, turned towards the viewer?

The charming paper orrery.

We also got to go through a treasure-box of miscellaneous items from one of Cassie’s ancestors (also, I think, a great-aunt,) which was full of bobbins, thread, bits and pieces; tiny sketch-books half-full of intricate drawings, gorgeous fluid handwriting copying extracts of poetry, calling-card cases and crumbling fans made of ivory.

By far my favourite object was a tiny paper globe with two pull-tabs (which Cassie gingerly moved around) – the globe lifts the lid and there are a few layers underneath. The writing is in German, so I’ll have to nudge one friend or another to translate (Meghan!) but I was tickled, because it is precisely the kind of thing we’ve got at the Whipple Museum, and this is precisely where the Whipple obtains wonderful objects like this. Cassie’s partner David discerned ‘the heavens and Earth’ from part of the script, and it is definitely a paper orrery of some kind.

So, the Herschel project continues, but it’s become a part of life, of friendship, of discovery, and I’m so grateful. I would, of course, like Double the Stars to be published eventually, but it’s got to find the right home, and the right set of circumstances, to support this evolving endeavour. It isn’t just a book, and whatever book comes of it must be sensitive to that.

A lock of John Frederick William Herschel’s hair.

Badaude's Peirene Salon Poster

I feel the title would naturally run: ‘Muse meets Nymph: All Hell Breaks Loose’.

However, happily it is ‘Friendship Struck,’ or at least, to begin, ‘freelance assistantship’ on my part. On Saturday, I meet Meike, who runs Peirene Press. Her name is pronounced ‘Mike-uh’, or Mica (like the crystal – you know, mica and quartz,) and Peirene is pronounced ‘Pie-ree-knee’.

There is a great video about how to pronounce Peirene. In fact, there are a load of fascinating short films to do with Peirene here, my favourite thus far being The Book Barge!

My friend, talented illustrator Joanna Walsh, aka Badaude, told me about Peirene Press a few months ago when she designed a poster for one of their literary salons. I’d signed up to the mailing list but hadn’t had time to get to any of their events, nor, for shame, to read any of their books.

Just as I thought all my plans for the summer were collapsing, I noticed a mention on Peirene’s latest newsletter that Meike was looking for a few people to help sell Peirene books at their Roaming Bookstore (more on which anon).

I emailed Meike explaining my interest, and after the busy London Book Fair calmed down, she asked me to phone her. I expressed my interest and enthusiasm not only for small presses in general (I told her about my excellent experience with Flambard,) but also for what I see as a very female-driven press: Peirene is a Greek water nymph, and Meike has developed a ‘voice’ for Peirene which plays a wonderful role in her blog, ‘Things Syntactical’.

Meike invited me to meet her and see what the Roaming Store was all about on Saturday.

So, this Saturday, despite rain and various closed travel routes, I fought my way up to the Broadway at Crouch End (about as far into North London as I live in South London) and met Meike and the Peirene Bookstall. Some things I admire about the Peirene approach is an out-of-the-box way of reaching new readers; creative ways of stimulating their audience, and sometimes unconventional ways of selling their books, such as the Bookstall: it is unconventional in that it is at a ‘regular’ market, not a literary fair or even particularly craft-orientated market.

Peirene books are beautiful novellas translated from award-winning European fiction. They are all under 200 pages long, meant to be ‘consumed in the length of time it would take to watch a film’. Not only are the books themselves beautifully designed and published slices of literature, the whole concept behind them is appealing and unique.

Typical London umbrella; typical London weather.

Meike herself stands at the bookstall on freezing, wet days, to chat with people about the Press. For the three hours I was with her, she sold a handful of books, and also got a new subscriber – low-to-medium in terms of how busy they can be, according to her, however, it presented a good opportunity for me to listen to how Meike talks about the books.

Peirene publishes three books per year in a carefully curated, themed series. I love how Meike finds relationships among novels whose authors speak different languages and are from different countries. One huge boon to selling for Peirene is of course getting a copy of all of their books, because I must be familiar with them and be able to speak about them. I read the first book on Sunday, ‘Beside the Sea,’ which was just put on as a one-woman show at the SouthBank Centre. It took me a few pages to get into the modern, distinctly ‘uneducated/troubled’ voice of the narrator (my head has too exclusively been in 18th and 19th-century literature and poetry,) but once I did, the story pulled me along in its riptide. I’m bringing the next two Peirene books with me to Vienna.

Right now, Meike and I are sorting out some dates for me to sell books for Peirene. She liked my suggestion of selling them at Greenwich Market, so I’m looking into which days of the week would be best for that possibility. I also realised that I wouldn’t have contacted Meike if I had not thought that my modelling month in Bruges was cancelled. When I thought it was cancelled, I began to set up plans with Peirene. Then I heard from the Atelier and learned Bruges was confirmed. I explained it all to Meike and she was very kind and flexible about my needing to be away for all of June. ‘Peirene’s reputation is important,’ she said, ‘I’d rather have the right people to represent the press, and work out dates.’ A woman after my own heart!

I’m already thrilled to be getting to know Peirene Press. Stay tuned…

I’m excited to announce our next event at the Whipple Museum of the History of Science for the 2012 Cambridge Science Festival.

It will be an evening of poetry and Oulipo-inspired discussion, playing with ideas of mathematics and measuring the world.

Two excellent guest speakers, Dr Joe Crawford of Murray Edwards College, Cambridge, and the talented Badaude of Oxford, will speak about their contributions to the Whipple’s first art-book (forthcoming):

by Badaude

Wednesday 14 March 6:00PM – 7:00PM

Drawing inspiration from the Whipple Museum’s Hutchinson collection of mathematical instruments,we will discuss constraints of creative form in literature and poetry, from Oulipo to the Gothic. Poet Lesley Saunders will share excellent new poems inspired by the Hutchinson Collection.

This event is free but please book by emailing

Contributors to the book, ‘The Rules of Form: Sonnets & Slide Rules,’ which will be forthcoming from the Whipple, include poet Lesley Saunders, PhD student Caitlin Wylie, and artist & designer Cassie Herschel-Shorland, as well as Joe Crawford and Badaude.

 Come along for a fascinating evening with Sonnets & Slide Rules!

What changed it all...

I enjoyed a lovely day out yesterday with my friend Tracey, an Oxford-based Massage Therapist (if you need one, I’ll give you her email)!

We went to the Oxford Museum of the History of Science, which is of course the Oxford version to the home of my residency, the Whipple Museum. Whilst the Whipple Museum holds a number of objects crafted by the Herschels (especially by William,) the Oxford MHS has the telescope with which William discovered the Georgian Star, Georgium Sidus, later re-named Uranus. Even though I’ve been to the OMHS a number of times, this was a fresh – and obviously very exciting – discovery. I took a picture. And I touched it. Very lightly (you aren’t supposed to touch it).

The OMHS always runs really interesting special exhibits in their downstairs gallery. The current exhibit is ‘Eccentricity,‘ a great theme, focusing on eccentric characters an/or objects related to the collection.

As relevant to a Museum which houses some of the world’s finest, oldest, and rarest astronomical objects, eccentricity is also an astronomical term:

Definition: eccentricity: The eccentricity of an ellipse (planetary orbit) is the ratio of the distance between the foci and the major axis.In other words, the more flattened the circle (ellipse), the more ‘eccentric‘ the orbit.

I’ve begun to re-draft Double the Stars: The Life and Adventures of Miss Caroline Herschel, and it’s always particularly inspiring to encounter ‘Herschelailia’. It’s everywhere! (Well, particularly if you tend to frequent Observatories and Science Museums…) Caroline’s sweeper, with which she discovered comets, is in the London Science Museum, as well as the giant mirror for the 40-foot telescope, which famously caused the flagstones of the workshop to explode when the molten metal leaked  onto the floor: if you find yourself at the Herschel Museum of Astronomy in Bath, you can see the cracks in the flagstones from the damage.

Some other particularly eccentric, and fabulous, objects captured my imagination on the visit to the Museum, including a ‘Logic Piano:’ Photo & caption below…

After the Museum visit, and a break for lunch, I explored the Bate Collection of Musical Instruments, an absolutely charming and off-the-beaten-track sort of place which I highly recommend if you have even a vague interest in musical instruments. It’s free to get in, and you are greeted with the gift of a handset which you can take around while you look at the overwhelming, crammed-in displays of instruments: it all has a bit of a feel of one’s grandmother’s attic. The handset is  programmed to play snippets of music from certain (labelled) instruments. I want a spinet. Or a parlour guitar. Sigh.

The Logic Piano

The Logic Piano

The Muse

May 2011.

I have a full draft of Double the Stars: the Life and Adventures of Miss Caroline Herschel. The past months, since last autumn, I’ve been ‘working on’ the novel in the sense of letting it rest and brew, or simmer, in the back of my mind. Phrases and scenes will float up, and I’ll jot them down. I’m gearing up to revise this draft, and I’m not sure exactly when that’s going to happen, but I’m hoping to really sit down and thrash it out sometime in the next few months.

The reason I say ‘I’m hoping’ (because really, don’t I just have to do it?) is because I’ve been completely immersed in researching anatomical wax models for this poetry play, Venus Heart. The Wellcome Library will either stick a barcode on me or start charging rent. Happily, I was accepted as a Founding Member of Henry’s Club, so I have a place to go have tea when the dissected bodies all become too much.

Meanwhile, I’ve been writing poems and re-drafting for a chapbook, or pamphlet-length work, Atlantic. At present, I’m not sure if it will become a pamphlet, or if it will wait until it’s ready to be a full-length poetry collection. These are very personal poems about my father’s death, my grandparents ageing and dying, and ideas of family, and living abroad. It is themed around the Atlantic ocean, but not so strictly as the themes in Darwin’s Microscope, or of course the close-framed story and history in Venus Heart.

So while the novel simmers, the hand turns to poetry.

Writing & Reading

Available from Ward Wood Publishing

Please pick up the latest New Scientist (Issue 23 April) and turn to page 50!  The first (wee, ickle) review I’ve written for NS, in print: hurrah and cheers.

That’s the writing part.

The reading part: Suffering a cold and subsequent sinus infection does one (and only one, as far as I can tell,) good thing: it forces me to stay in one place and read books. This is because I don’t have the energy to do anything else.

So, over the past week, I read Sue Guiney’s novel, A Clash of Innocents. I’m very lucky to know Sue, and so you may argue that this is biased, but I was really impressed. Her characterization is a strong point: Sue manages to use just a few, well-placed, details to give her characters great personality. The novel also enjoys revelling in a sweeping, painterly style to describe the textures and colours of its setting, Cambodia. I’m sure Sue’s skill as a poet comes into play here. Finally, I admire the restraint Sue exercises in telling a realistic story, which, while it engages with a great many vivid, gruesome, and difficult subjects, does not ever slide into melodrama.

I’ve been noticing (and I’m going to stereotype big time here,) a tendency for Americans to need really big, in-your-face drama, and I admit to the temptation to feel that my novel ‘needs’ to include a ‘blow-things-up’ moment. (Fortunately the Herschels did blow things up!)  Some novels I’ve read since coming over here first made me think: hmm, nothing much happens. But I’ve learned that there can be an awful lot that happens in a subtle way. It doesn’t need to be Hollywood. (And in fact I’ve become increasingly sick of Hollywood movies, too, because of the in-your-face nature of the story-telling.)

So, to move on to the other novel I read whilst ill: Housekeeping, by Marilynne Robinson. Wow. Talk about the art of subtlety. Of having an awful lot go on while nothing much happens. Of having the action, the drama, take place mostly offstage, or ‘before,’ but having that affect the story enormously. And of setting, place, mood. Brr. Amazing. Housekeeping has immediately joined Tinkers (Paul Harding) at the top of my list of Favourite Books, or If I Could Write a Novel Like This I Might Never Feel the Need to Write Again.

So, I hope you are all healthy, dear readers – either way, go forth and read: The latest issue of New Scientist, A Clash of Innocents, Housekeeping, and Tinkers. Enjoy!

A photo I snapped on a previous visit to the Herschel Museum of Caroline's trinket box, complete with a lock of William's hair and her worry-bead.

Come Sunday I shall take the train to Bath for the INSAP VII conference: The Seventh international conference on the Inspiration of Astronomical Phenomena, held this year in Bath, home to Caroline and William Herschel (as well as their younger brother Alexander): a conference of precisely 100 delegates who will convene at the Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution to share their work, ranging from art to academic studies – and a novel, of course! – all inspired by astronomy.

The opening reception will be held at the Herschel House, the home at New King Street where the Herschels used to live and work. The following week is packed with 20-minute talks and presentations, and I’m glad to be giving a reading from my manuscript on Monday so I can then relax and enjoy. I adore Bath! So, I shall give a reading from Double the Stars: The Life and Adventures of Miss Caroline Herschel. And I’m sure I’ll meet a great number of interesting and talented people, as well as see a few people I’ve met before in my astronomical adventurings, not least Michael Hoskin, leading Herschel scholar, and Peter Hingley, Librarian at the Royal Astronomical Society and the very person who told me about the conference.

Questions on Genre

Thanks, Summer, for pointing out this really interesting interview with Lee Gutkind on Creative Nonfiction. It is a healthy reminder of how many challenges the genre has gone through to earn a respected place, especially in academia. Though I think there is a good point in that readers have been reading creative nonfiction anyway, it just may not have been going by that name. I tend to think of it as ‘good, true stories,’ or maybe ‘travel writing,’ or ‘nature writing…’ genres blur quickly.

It also strikes me that ‘creative nonfiction’ never seemed new or unusual to me when I completed the excellent BA in English with a focus in Creative Writing at Randolph-Macon Woman’s College (now Randolph College,) perhaps because our skilled professors were (and are) talented and published in a variety of genres, including novels, poetry, and environmental (creative) nonfiction.

Sue Guiney's book 'Dreams of May' is a poetry play.

That, coupled with my predisposition for doing what I pleased (from birth: my mother will attest,) meant I didn’t question genre too closely when writing. I do remember being absolutely certain, as an undergrad, that I could and would write poetry and creative nonfiction, but that I needed to stay away from fiction as I was rubbish at it, especially dialogue. And now I’m working on a third novel manuscript. These things take time.

While the aforementioned manuscript is under critique and before I delve into serious revision, I’m working on a different project, and I’m not quite sure what it is yet. Poems, dialogue, and narrative are all coming out around a particular theme in (surprise,) the history of science. There is a clear story, and distinctive characters, as well as a lot of strong imagery and tone. There is also a very specific setting, certain artwork and a particular music album that is influencing the writing. I wish I could weave something that employed all of these (though I don’t know about copyright permissions!) It almost feels like a play; a performance. I know so little about any of these (besides reading a lot of Shakespeare in Uni,) that I don’t quite know what to do with the material. For now, I’m writing. We’ll see where it goes…

My friend Sue Guiney has written a novel as well as a poetry play. She also works with a charity that puts on plays. Multi-genre talents!

 So, dear readers, I would appreciate your thoughts. What genre(s) are you writing in? Do you feel you can write in some but not others? Have you moved around or are you a devoted poet, novelist…What about cross-genre writing? A play in poetry, or a novel with poems in it? An entire verse novel? A sequence that can be read/performed but also works as a book?

New Fairy Tales is a free, online magazine that enchants and intrigues.

Even the music on the youtube trailer inspires Hansel-and-Gretel butterflies.

But ladybirds, not butterflies, have made it into Issue 5 of New Fairy Tales, in the form of a new and very different poem of mine — and I’m delighted to have been selected for the lovely publication. Read ‘An Ambivalence of Ladybirds’ on page 36.

Do have a look and read through New Fairy Tales. ‘It was greatly enjoyed by all who fell under its spell…’

From the Bookshelf

I haven’t posted in awhile, partly because I was meant to be visiting family in the States for my awesome Grandpa’s 90th birthday but some crazy Icelandic volcano had other ideas…and partly because I’ve been working on a novel. 

In doing so, I predictably have bouts of productivity and bouts of panic, and when the latter happens, I turn to my bookshelf (or the library). One book I returned to was Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, which we read for one of my BA Creative Writing classes (thanks, LG!) It’s funny, encouraging, and gentle, and really helps remind a writer that she’s not alone in the world (a common and alternately egotistical / depressing thought). 

A book I borrowed from the library — and I’m glad I borrowed, not purchased, it, was A Novel in a Year: A Novelist’s Guide to Being a Novelist, by Louise Doughty. This book might be pleasant for the extremely beginning-beginner, but I found it maddening. Doughty spends an awful lot of time reassuring the reader that he can write a novel, even if he doesn’t have an idea for one! What? For goodness’ sake, have some notion of plot before you start writing, and don’t quit your day job. Doughty encourages everyone to try his hand at a novel, which I rather like, because I can imagine many that do realise very quickly just how difficult it is, but this is not a book for those with any background or experience in novel writing. It is extremely basic and panders to the uninitiated.   

Two books I’m pleased I did purchase are How Not to Write a Novel, by Sandra Newman and Howard Mittelmark, and How Novels Work, by John Mullan. How Not to Write a Novel had me laughing aloud both times I read it. The book’s subtitle is ’200 mistakes to avoid at all costs if you ever want to get published,’ and it goes through each mistake, highlighting hilarious examples of what not to do. (Even the cover is makes me chuckle.) 

The first time I read the book, I marked every mistake I noticed myself making. Then I worked on how not to make them. I’ve just re-read the book again, and repeated the process — wholly aware that the mistakes I noticed the second time were mostly different from the first ones! I know I’m still making plenty. This book makes you laugh at yourself, which I think is healthy in small doses. 

I’m only 50 pages into How Novels Work, and thus far think it’s very good. It brings back a lot from my literature classes, and is also making my ‘to read’ list skyrocket. Part of the back cover blurb says, ‘Drawing on his popular weekly column in The Guardian, John Mullan sets out to open our eyes to ways of understanding the writer’s craft, and appreciating and enjoying novels more fully.’ 

Reading this book (and reading or re-reading the books mentioned within, which is going to take a while!) is undoubtedly useful to an aspiring novelist. Mullan goes through elements of fiction, from the title to the use of epigraphs, to first sentences, to plot, narration, characters…well, you get the idea. I’ll try to provide an updated review when I finish reading How Novels Work, but I can safely say I recommend it. 

Also on the bookshelf is a 2006 copy of the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook, and a 2010 copy of the Children’s Writers’ & Artist’s Yearbook. (The 2006 copy cost 50p from the library, hooray!) If you are an aspiring writer, it’s the first place to go. Read anything about ‘where to start if you want to be a writer,’ and you will be directed here. Also, it’s laughable that they produce a new edition annually because come on, it’s not like we can afford that, but it’s also necessary because it provides updated listings of agents and publishers, as well as a wealth of essays from successful writers, agents, and publishers. Put it on the Christmas List.


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