The Art of Writing

A Writers Retreat in Tuscany

This Valentine’s Day, turn the love back onto yourself: nurture the artist within.

This Valentine's, turn the love back onto yourself: nurture the artist within.I love Valentine’s Day. I love the flowers, the sentiment and the message behind a day dedicated to love. Romantic love. However this February 14 I would suggest that you turn that love back onto yourself. It’s been such a crazy year, with international news making many of us depressed, emotional and anxious. It’s a weird time in the world. So why not, in 2017, on the day of romantic love, nurture the artist within and give yourself a present?

This Valentine's, turn the love back onto yourself: nurture the artist within.As one of my favourite creative teachers, Julia Cameron, says: ‘Do something for yourself that you normally wouldn’t do. In order to have a real relationship with our creativity we must take the time and care to cultivate it.’

So nurture the artist within! Your special treat can be something as simple as an hour in a café, with a pen and paper, making a list of all the things you’d like to do this year. Maybe make a list of all the things you’d like to do or achieve in your lifetime. Knowing that if you are a part of this Blog, you are a creative, here are some creative gift ideas to give to yourself on Valentine’s Day this year:

This Valentine's, turn the love back onto yourself: nurture the artist within.Buy yourself a lovely new notebook, one that you always thought was too expensive for yourself.

Buy yourself some sweet little pot plants for your windowsill or garden.

Get those pots of rosemary, sage and basil – even if it’s just because they smell nice!

This Valentine's, turn the love back onto yourself: nurture the artist within.Buy some inexpensive water colours or sepia water colour pens and take the time to draw or paint some pages in your notebook, while you listen to your favourite music.

Get that special bottle of wine, special coffee or special tea – your favourite, not your child, mother or spouse’s favourite!

Buy a ticket to your favourite band, show, production or play.

This Valentine's, turn the love back onto yourself: nurture the artist within.Make or buy your favourite sauce, relish or jam.

Go for a walk to your favourite museum or art gallery, or browse your favourite shop.

Make a date with yourself to go to some different flea markets or foreign food shop.

Buy a new novel.

This Valentine’s Day stay cultured, stay calm and stay happy on the inside. Above all, remember YOU don’t need a Valentine. You have YOU! And you are special.

This Valentine's, turn the love back onto yourself: nurture the artist within.

Writing the Blockbuster Novel; learning from New York Literary Agent Albert Zuckerman

Writing the Blockbuster Novel; learning from New York Literary Agent Albert ZuckermanAm reading such a good book on writing at the moment, one that has inspired this Blog. Albert Zuckerman is the New York Literary Agent responsible for doctoring some two dozen blockbuster novels. It is with great reverence that I read his thoughts on how to produce a perfectly polished final manuscript, every morning.

Writing the Blockbuster Novel; learning from New York Literary Agent Albert ZuckermanSince finishing Julia Child’s The Artists’ Way (which lasted me about eight months) I had been writing my morning pages solely in journal form, like a diary. I wrote every morning, just to write, without reading a book with creative writing exercises, artistic guidance, direction or help. In other words, I wrote just to write, to kick-start the day’s work in front of the computer.

Writing the Blockbuster Novel; learning from New York Literary Agent Albert ZuckermanHowever, my Morning Pages of journaling lasted about a month before I became mind-numbingly bored with my own jaded, tired, same old, same old diary keeping. Actually my Morning Pages just became a list of things that were pissing me off (my husband featured as protagonist a lot – sorry Paolo). Then along came Writing the Blockbuster Novel by Albert Zuckerman. I will never journal again. I will always, from now on, do my Morning Pages with someone like Albert.

Writing the Blockbuster Novel; learning from New York Literary Agent Albert ZuckermanNot only do I learn and grow, rather than navel gaze, but Albert is also helping me realise that I am on the right track with my goals and dreams in setting my new novel in a contemporary Florence. Albert says ‘Readers enjoy being introduced to exotic environments where, almost as tourists or students, they can observe and learn about customs, mores, rituals, modes of dress and etiquette, social and business practises largely or wholly alien to those with which they are familiar.’ Because on the whole, readers like to learn. Of course this is not the case with all blockbusters and all novels but some of the best known examples of environmentally dominated bestsellers are Airport, Hotel, Overload, Wheels, The Moneychangers, Alaska, Chesapeake, Poland, Hawaii, Texas, Tai-Pan, Nobel House and Shogun. Then there are the techno blockbusters set on planes or submarines etc.

Writing the Blockbuster Novel; learning from New York Literary Agent Albert ZuckermanAll of which inspires me to write to you and tell you that you can set your book in your own backyard as well, but only if you invent a backyard with unique, culturally spot-on characters and plot that has distinctly different dialogue/dialect and details. But if you are choosing a setting right now for your plot, chose a setting that’s different. That unique setting will help sell your book.

It all makes Florence seem like a good setting for a contemporary thriller. Right, I must get back to my writing now because Albert has inspired me to keep going…and also to learn and grow in the morning over breakfast rather than ruminate on my own dull thoughts.

Writing the Blockbuster Novel; learning from New York Literary Agent Albert Zuckerman

5 writing lessons learned down the rabbit hole of information

5 writing lessons learned down the rabbit hole of informationMy trusty Art of Writing assistant, Gabriella Ienzi, has almost finished her manuscript. Ginormous congratulations to Gabriella! Writing a book is a huge task. However, Gabriella has realised that though the internet has a huge quantity of ‘help’ in regards to sharpening her text and getting her book ‘just right,’ mining for tips can take up too much of her time. Here are Gabriella’s top five writing lessons learned on what to avoid and what to do with cyberspace publishing assistance. 


5 writing lessons learned down the rabbit hole of information

1. Never lose the forest for the trees.

Specifically, don’t forget your book when stressing about your query. You’ll read QUERY so many times that your mind will start to glaze over it, like “a” or “the.” Yes, the query is important. It’s especially important if the agency asks for a query-only submission, with no writing to boost you. Your query (and pitch) speaks about your ability to articulate your story briefly and succinctly, cutting straight to the heart without any arterial ruptures along the way. But don’t forget your manuscript. Ultimately, not every agent will be right for your manuscript, just like not every genre appeals to every reader. Don’t get so caught up trying to snag an agent’s attention that you oversell your book, or sell it as something it’s not. This is why it’s so important to get someone to look at not just your query, but a sample chapter too.

5 writing lessons learned down the rabbit hole of information2. Take everything with a grain of salt, unless it’s advice about your work specifically. 

I’ll use myself as an example. My book is a multi-point of view story where the protagonist’s POV appears in chapter four. Now. I was told to handle my query both ways: include all three women or write it from the protagonist’s POV, whichever sounds more intriguing in the query. Except I just got my query critiqued, and the verdict? If the query focuses on the protagonist, and the opening chapter isn’t the protagonist, it’s confusing. Period. Full stop. The takeaway: always, always, always—no matter how much you read and think you know!—get someone to look at your work directly. Don’t rely solely on online tips, because writing is not math and there is no perfect formula that applies to every author and every book. 

5 writing lessons learned down the rabbit hole of information3. Partner up. 

Get a separate pair of eyes—a beta reader—to read your work, at whatever stage you’re comfortable sharing it. Some writers (me) would rather set the whole book on fire before letting anyone see the first raw draft. Others peck away at a rough draft so the result is a finished story that can be shown to at least close friends. If you have the time, buddy up with a critique partner, where you each read and critique each other’s work. 

4. Invest. 

Your book is your business. You won’t launch a successful business of any kind if you’re not willing to put any money into it. If you don’t have writerly friends who can critique your book, then pay for a beta reader—there are many who offer detailed reader reports on what worked and didn’t work in the story. Some book bloggers charge as low as a couple hundred. Take courses, attend a retreat, register for online conferences (which cost a lot less than most physical ones), pay for a critique or two. 

5 writing lessons learned down the rabbit hole of information5. Never be afraid to ask questions—but always try and ask them in person about your work personally. 

Getting my query critiqued was an eye-opener as to why agents often don’t offer criticism for rejected manuscripts. The critique just left me with more questions. If I fix X, will Y be okay? Or if I just fix Z, can I leave X and Y as is? It’s a slippery slope and hard to get out of. And I started imagining if the critique had actually come with a rejection. It’s hard to navigate the fine balance of “this is what went wrong” and “but even if you fix it, I still won’t be interested.” A weak point in your manuscript isn’t like a loose draft in the kitchen window and you just have to shut the window tighter; it’s a draft that could be coming from anywhere in the house, and you have to find it first. A solution could fix all, or make it worse, or leave it the same. That’s why speaking personally with an agent or author can be so invaluable—you get to bounce an idea back and forth.

New Year’s Resolutions; Finding, and making, time to write.

New Year's Resolutions; Finding, and making, time to write.With Christmas and New Year over I see all the Writing Blogs, writing sites, podcasts and publisher’s social media platforms going crazy about New Year’s writing resolutions. I wish I could join in! After all these years writing you’d think I’d be first in line with encouraging tips and tricks as to how to make 2017 the year of quality text or how to have more productive time etc, etc, etc. Others are screaming; Resolve to Write More! Start Editing Now! Land that deal in 2017! But I’m not. 

New Year's Resolutions; Finding, and making, time to write.I seem to be imploring the universe for time to write, then when I do carve out some time I sit in front of the computer distracted by emails, admin, The Art of Writing, social media and a whole lot of other stuff that doesn’t help me increase the word count on my book.

Surely, I can’t be alone in this vortex of grasping at air, trying to shop for food, cook food, clean up Christmas decorations, send invoices, chase invoices, tend to urgent tax, hunt down errant bills and the other boring mundanities of life?

IsNew Year's Resolutions; Finding, and making, time to write. anyone else being sucked into such a humdrum everyday routine that their creative impulse is left trampled like a mat at their front door?

I was writing. The book was flowing and really happening, moving forward. Then came Christmas and New Year and now I can’t seem to get into the swing of it.

One thing is for sure. I am not giving up. Next week will be better.

New Year's Resolutions; Finding, and making, time to write.

Head of UK HarperCollins Women’s Fiction to join us from September 10-16!

Martha Ashby, the Director of UK HarperCollins Women’s Fiction will join The Art of Writing for one week from September 10-16! Martha will be with us all week but will meet with us formally on Friday, September 15 over a glass of wine to discuss anything you want! What holes does she see in first time manuscripts? What’s hot and what’s not? How can I get my work published?

This is your chance to ask a major publisher anything you’ve always wanted to know about publishing but never had the chance to ask. 

This is sensational news. So if you have…

* an idea

* a plot

* a half written manuscript – maybe your writing has stalled and your confidence has crashed.

* a dream – maybe your dream is to write part or full time. Would you like to know more about the reality of a ‘writing lifestyle?’

* had a series of agent rejections

* a trilogy idea or if you are inventing a genre idea (like me)

* doubts about whether what you’ve written could possibly sell to a reputable publishing house.

Then Martha Ashby’s one week with us from September 10-16, 2017, is an incredible opportunity to chat, one on one, with the Director of major, traditional publishing house HarperCollins.

If you have any inclination to join us, or any questions, just let me know. This is an amazing chance to show your work to the people who might actually buy it, so don’t be shy – let me know asap.

All my very best wishes for a fantastically creative 2017!

Interviewing Nonna, understanding rural life as my 85 year old mother-in-law remembers growing up on a Tuscan farm.

Interviewing Nonna, understanding rural life as my 85 year old mother-in-law remembers growing up on a Tuscan farm.

Nonna and her sister Anita, at Anita’s Tuscan farm. 

For several centuries our little farm in the mountains of Eastern Tuscany, Casentino, belonged to the Catholic Church. Someone hundreds of years ago had left it as an ‘indulgence,’ a gift to the Church that guaranteed a ticket to heaven. Nonna and her six sisters, mother and father farmed the land and gave half of everything they harvested, produced and prepared to the Church. Every year at Easter and Christmas they were also under contract to their owner to consign gifts, like tomato sauce, eggs or chickens. That was the Mezzadria system, the Italian sharecropping structure that sustained the rich and kept the poor in unrelenting poverty.

But Nonna says they were happy. Life was hard, gruelling, exhausting but simple. Laughs and joy and good times were had through pleasures that nowadays seem so modest as to appear ridiculous. But Nonna still laughs as she describes the time her sister Maria climbed up the neighbour’s cherry tree, only to be ordered back down by the neighbour and Maria wouldn’t do what she was told. She stayed up there for so long she could no longer hold her bladder so ultimately let loose on the neighbour. He was not impressed but Nonna thought it was, and still thinks it was, hilarious.

Real joy came often at night, during ‘veglia’ when the day’s work was done and Nonna and her sisters would sit under candle light to spin wool into yarn, knit and sew their trousseaus. They would sing together, roast chestnuts, and make useful or pretty things with their hands. Like rosary beads out of olive pips.

They had no toys or dolls, unless they made one themselves out of leftover fabric. Nonna’s mother always said ‘if I buy you a doll I have to buy one for all your sisters, so unless I can buy seven of something I’m not buying anything.’ Not that they had any money. Cash was scarce and bartering was not only common, but the normal way of obtaining olive oil, wine or sugar. Everything they used, they made. Everything they ate, they grew.

More next week on Nonna’s school years, all two of them. I hope you are as fascinated as I am by the real Tuscany. The lives and loves of those who made Tuscany what is it today.

Interviewing Nonna, understanding rural life as my 85 year old mother-in-law remembers growing up on a Tuscan farm.

The veggie patch is up at our old Tuscan farm, and to this day Nonna still works on it daily.

Interviewing Nonna on Immaculate Conception Day. Going deeper.

Interviewing Nonna on Immaculate Conception Day. Going deeper.It was a Public Holiday in Italy yesterday and the family came over to lunch. Nonna had her cannellini beans on the boil all morning. She boiled them with a bunch of salvia, an onion, salt and three garlic cloves. We had them for lunch, ladled across a thick piece of toast that had been scraped with garlic. We drizzled our dishes with ‘olio nuovo,’ the new, fresh olive oil just picked and pressed last month.

I took advantage of having Nonna here and interviewed her. There is much she remembers about life in the old days, when she was raised on a Tuscan farm without electricity, gas or plumbing and I wanted to probe deeper. Many of her memories have been woven into The Promise and Death in the Mountains but recently she’s started to tell different stories of her past. It’s as though some new part of her brain is alight. She’s telling tales I’ve never heard, accounts and feelings that are new. Maybe it’s because she’s getting older and frailer, but not a meal goes by without her telling a story that I haven’t heard before. It’s as if these memories and her need to tell them to us is ‘piu forte di lei,’ – stronger than her. She has to tell.

Interviewing Nonna on Immaculate Conception Day. Going deeper.So I bought a book called Nonno Raccontami – Tell Me About It, Grandpa. I bought the book in Puglia last year and have finally decided to fill it this year, because it’s an empty book. It’s a book specifically printed to record your Nonno and Nonna’s memories. Such a sweet idea. Each page is almost blank apart from questions, like:

When did you meet Nonno? Where? How? Did you fall in love with him on sight? What was it about him that you fell in love with?

What work did you do? What work did you want to do, dream of doing? Were you given the opportunity to follow a career?

What year did you start school? How old were you? Where? How did you get to school? What did you enjoy learning most? Were there both boys and girls in your class? Who were they? How long was your school day? Did you have lunch there? School on a Saturday?

Some answers I already knew but there are many, many more that I didn’t know. I was so looking forward to a cup of tea and deeper discussions with Nonna, so that we could explore this book together.

Perhaps next week I’ll share some of her answers with you.

Interviewing Nonna on Immaculate Conception Day. Going deeper.

Creative Companionship

In the second part of my interview with writer and creative writing teacher, Martyn Bedford, we look at a couple of his favourite exercises that encourage us to work in different ways with characterization, scene construction and variation in voice and perspective. Martyn will take our September 10-16, 2017 week in Tuscany, teaching every morning. Don’t forget, these thoughts, this encouragement on writing, is for beginners and emerging writers. Though, as an established writer I adore hearing this stuff. It’s all about creative companionship.

02bfb16f9d375bbd9dd9e5c2d7b63b91You’ve taught writers for many years. What is the one common mistake you see your students make?

I’m not sure I’d call it a mistake, as such, but developing writers can become so tied up in getting the plot right, grappling with their prose style, organising the narrative, exploring their themes, that they lose sight of their character(s).

For me, character is at the heart of all good fiction – what are stories about, essentially, if not the human condition, and how people relate to themselves and to those around them? Those other very important aspects of fiction-writing (plot, ideas, structure, stylistic issues such as tone and register, etc.) emerge from, and in relation to, character. As readers, if we aren’t interested in the characters, we won’t care what they do or what happens to them. As writers, if we don’t ‘inhabit’ our characters we won’t create authentic voices for them or properly understand or convey their motivations, actions and interactions.

But, commonly, I find when reading my students’ work that a page or two will go by, sometimes entire scenes, in which the character’s perspective has dropped out of the narrative. So, when I’m providing feedback in a workshop or annotating a typescript, I often find myself commenting: What is your character thinking? Why is she/he thinking it? What are her/his emotions and mood? How is all of this affecting what she/he says or does?

Creative CompanionshipIn an age where so much information is readily available online (blogs, virtual courses, podcasts, etc) what are some benefits to personal instruction, based on your years as a lecturer?

I know I’m biased, but you can’t beat face-to-face contact when it comes to creative-writing tuition – or any form of teaching for that matter. Those kinds of remote support have their place and can be very helpful to developing writers, of course, but there’s something special about the dynamic of a group writing workshop led by an experienced tutor and the personal connection of one-to-one mentoring. And I speak not just as someone who’s been teaching creative writing for 17 years but as a graduate of an MA programme and former writing student on evening classes and residential courses.

Human beings are social animals, after all, and even the best virtual interaction is a pale imitation of the real thing. The back-and-forth of conversation, the sharing and testing of ideas, the discussion of constructive critical feedback, the posing and answering of questions, the supportive environment of kindred spirits . . . all of this can be replicated online but anyone who’s taken part in real-life creative writing sessions will agree (I hope!) that tutors and students alike benefit from being in a room together. It’s the difference between chatting to a bunch of friends on Facebook and having them round for dinner.

Creative CompanionshipWhat is your favorite creative writing exercise that you like to teach your students? What is your favorite lesson on writing that you like to teach?

There’s a fairly simple exercise which I used when I began teaching creative writing that I’d nicked – er, I mean borrowed and adapted – from a tutor on a residential writing course I’d attended as a student. I still use it today as it’s a good way of encouraging writers to work with characterization, scene construction and variation in voice and perspective. And, while the set-up is quite basic, the exercise gives any student – whether beginner, intermediate or advanced – something to get their teeth into. Here it is:

A bicycle and a car are involved in a collision. Write the scene three times from three different viewpoints: the young male cyclist, the elderly female car driver, a passer-by.

And here’s a variation of it which allows more scope for dialogue:

A couple are having a fierce argument, witnessed/overheard by their young son or daughter. Write the scene three times, once from each character’s viewpoint.

fdc15712025008f1a8e97017089d0ebcAs for a favourite lesson, there’s a class I run with my BA English & Creative Writing undergraduates at Leeds Trinity University which I always enjoy. It’s the final session on autobiography, on the Life Writing module, in which the topic is ‘lying’. We start by reading and discussing an article about the psychology of deception and the role that lying plays in human interaction. I then ask the students where, and in what circumstances, they would draw the line between ‘acceptable’ and ‘unacceptable’ deceit. We then play a version of one of the rounds of the British TV panel-show Would I Lie to You?, in which three (pre-briefed) students take turns to tell the class an unusual fact about themselves – two are true, one is false. The rest of the group has to ask the three students questions to try to establish which one is lying.

The exercise that follows is for each student to write an autobiographical piece about a particular lie they have told, or been told.

What I like about this session is the mix of seriousness and fun. And because it’s a topic everyone has experience of and can relate to, it invariably provokes strong opinions and plenty of lively discussion – and, often, some good, thoughtful, self-reflective writing.

Creative Companionship

On being published: an interview with Martyn Bedford

On being published: an interview with Martyn BedfordMartyn Bedford will take our writers retreat from September 10-16, 2017, as we focus on nurturing and replenishing your writing skills. Martyn’s five morning classes will teach everything from dialogue to character to voice.

Martyn has written several novels for adults and young adults. His debut novel Acts of Revision was the winner of the Yorkshire Post Best First Work Award. His third MG and YA novel, Twenty Questions for Gloria, received wide acclaim. He has also published numerous short stories in anthologies, newspapers and magazines and his first solo collection is being published by Comma Press in 2017. 

For this week’s blog, I spoke with Martyn about publishing, success, and ‘making it’ as a writer. 

On being published: an interview with Martyn BedfordWhat is something that you still struggle with as a published writer today?

The same things I struggled with when I started out! Each new work of fiction poses its own set of creative and technical challenges: new characters to create, a different story to tell, the search for an appropriate structure and narrative approach, a new voice to strike, different themes to explore, and so on. Just because you’ve written stories and novels before doesn’t mean you’ve cracked the art and craft of writing or discovered some kind of formula that enables you to reel off the next one without difficulty.

With every piece I’ve written, there has always come a point during drafting or redrafting when one or more of those elements I’ve just listed isn’t working and I start to doubt whether I can fix things this time round. What experience gives you, though, is the degree of self-confidence that comes from knowing you’ve somehow found a way through previous crises. And an awareness that struggle is part and parcel of the creative process.

On being published: an interview with Martyn BedfordIf you could tell your debut self one thing about being published, what would it be?

Don’t assume that being published means you’ve ‘made it’ or that all will be sweetness and light from now on.

I was thirty-six when I signed the deal for Acts of Revision and, having spent nearly a decade trying and failing to get two previous novels published, I allowed myself to believe that I’d finally entered a kind of writers’ nirvana. What I’ve come to realise in the twenty years since that debut novel came out is that the publishing world is a welcoming place when things are going well for you but can leave you feeling isolated and forgotten when you have the inevitable professional or creative dips. So, I’ve had to learn to enjoy the good times when they come along and hang on in there during the bad times. In the end, all you can do is try to stay focused on your writing and not on the distractions of ‘being a writer’.

On being published: an interview with Martyn BedfordYou published several adult novels before switching to YA. What are some aspects of YA fiction that you think writers across all genres can learn/benefit from?

The distinctions between fiction for adults and young adults aren’t as great as you might think. I certainly don’t feel I write all that differently when I’m working on a YA novel to when I write for an adult readership. It’s still about getting your characters right and telling their story in the best way that you can.

But there are some key characteristics in YA that are worth noting. For example, younger readers tend to prefer stories that keep the plot ticking along more quickly and more obviously than is the case in ‘literary’ fiction for adults (although, of course, plot-driven narratives are also a feature of genre adult fiction, such as crime, thrillers and science fiction.) And while YA, these days, often explores serious and sometimes quite dark themes, this is done through character and story, without slowing the narrative pace. You don’t tend to find the long passages of reflective interiority or thematic exposition in young-adult novels that you often see in literary fiction for adults.

So, I do think there’s something to be said for writers of all kinds of fiction bearing in mind that we are storytellers not message-givers. I’ve read so much YA fiction over the past few years that when I’m reading a literary novel for adults I often catch myself thinking, “Oh, for crying out loud, just get on with it!”

For next week’s blog, I will be asking Martyn to share his favourite creative writing exercises, lessons, and tips for his students, as well as the most common errors he sees his students make.

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Marriages Are Made in Bond Street; Penrose Halson and her fascinating book about a 1940s Marriage Bureau.

Marriages Are Made in Bond StreetPenrose Halson is the author of Marriages Are Made in Bond Street and this year, Penrose and her husband Bill joined us for a week in Tuscany for The Art of Writing. I was intrigued by Penrose’s story, the fascinating purchase of a Marriage Bureau and the subsequent stories and ultimately a book that she wrote from its archives. The stories in her book Marriages Are Made in Bond Street reveal the lives, expectations, yearnings and loves of the men returning home from the Second World War and the women who remained at home, searching for a partner in life that in those years were difficult to find.

It’s a beautiful book and its rise and rise in popularity has Penrose busy with Writers and Literary Festivals all over the UK. Not only has Penrose found herself to be a successful writer within the world of publishing long after retirement, but she’s also found herself the owner of a series of stories that are very likely to become a major TV series.

Here is a peek at the Marriages Are Made in Bond Street precis:

Marriages Are Made in Bond StreetIn the spring of 1939, with the Second World War looming, two determined twenty-four-year-olds, Heather Jenner and Mary Oliver, decided to open a marriage bureau. They found a tiny office on London’s Bond Street and set about the delicate business of match-making. Drawing on the bureau’s extensive archives, Penrose Halson – who many years later found herself the proprietor of the bureau – tells their story, and those of their clients. We meet a remarkable cross-section of British society in the 1940s: gents with a ‘merry twinkle’, potential fifth-columnists, nervous spinsters, isolated farmers seeking ‘a nice quiet affekshunate girl’ and girls looking ‘exactly’ like Greta Garbo and Vivien Leigh, all desperately longing to find ‘The One’. And thanks to Heather and Mary, they almost always did just that. A riveting glimpse of life and love during and after the war, Marriages Are Made in Bond Street is a heart-warming, touching and thoroughly absorbing account of a world gone by.

Marriages Are Made in Bond Street

Gorgeous, just gorgeous. I love everything about this book and the story behind the author so I couldn’t help but ask Penrose to be a part of my Blog on writing. Here’s how Penrose’s life changed:

In 1986 Bill and I bought the Katharine Allen Marriage & Advice Bureau, established in 1960 by Betty Allen-Andrews, a formidable Irish-American woman who conducted her business by personal interview and letter. She wrote long, detailed, graphic letters, which I read with amazement as I tried to understand how the Marriage & Advice Bureau worked. Betty’s letters were full of stories.

In 1992 the daughter of Heather Jenner, who was then running the Marriage Bureau founded by her mother in 1939, faced with a 700% rent increase, was forced to close the bureau. She asked me to take over her clients, which I did. Later she gave me the bureau’s archives.

In 2014 the speaker at a meeting of the Freelance Media Group, run by a dear friend, novelist Jane Corry, was television development producer Tara Cook. She asked if anyone had ideas for television; I said I had a lot of marriage bureau stuff. Intrigued, Tara came to see the archive – ledgers, press cuttings books, photographs, documents, letters, which smelled mustily of the old barn where they had been stored for years. She read some of the Marriage & Advice Bureau stories that I’d written up fourteen years earlier; and eventually, to my bemusement, Carnival bought an option.

At the same time I dusted off those stories, which had been sitting in a drawer for 14 years while I was otherwise busy (mother with dementia; becoming Master of a City Livery Company) and sent them to an old friend, Katie James. Katie had always been interested since she was the step grand-daughter of Heather Jenner who founded the business. She also happened to work at Pan Macmillan; and unbeknown to me, she showed the stories to the Non-fiction Publishing Director, who called me in and said that she wanted to publish the book.

Marriages Are Made in Bond Street

Having imagined that I would have to try to persuade her to consider a book, and that I would probably fail, I was fairly taken aback, but got on with it, beavering away for about a year. It was totally absorbing and I was gripped. Originally I had imagined a book covering the entire life of the two marriage bureaux, 1939 – 2000. However, there was so much fascinating material that Marriages Are made in Bond Street covers only 1939-49.

There is enough to fill more books, so if Marriages is successful enough to warrant sequels (which may of course depend on whether a television series materialises) I could still be writing when I’m pushing 90! I have always loved writing, and did a great deal early in my so-called career (innumerable educational language magazines, readers, courses for children learning languages, and children’s books, as Penrose Colyer). But a grown-up book such as Marriages is a far more complex and engrossing activity than Parlez Français avec Dougal

Such a lovely story. And I hope it inspires you all to keep writing and to keep believing in your ideas. You never know what can happen!

I also couldn’t resist this week adding some lovely comments I received today from an alumni member of The Art of Writing, Rose. “It’s incredible how the strength of connection that we all gained two years ago in those Casentino mountains still holds firm and true. Well done on creating something so special – it remains one of the most significant weeks of my life.” Rose’s comments, along with Penrose’s magical story inspire me to keep going!

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