The Chicken Soup Murder now!

Holding my novel for our first photo
Holding my novel for our first photo

Tuesday 26 of September 2017 was that special day when I saw my novel as a book, with a life of its own, for the first time. I held it, I smelt it and I even started reading it – not so much to check that things are all in place but to experience it as a book, almost as if it were a novel by someone else. It does feel different: the lines are shorter, the pages not as long, there’s no double spacing!

I started writing this novel in 2012 in the peace of rural Wales. To make myself go forwards, I anchored it in real time. Of course, real time got ahead of me, and I found myself taking notes on the weather, the cricket scores, important events. The idea was that the people in the novel, particularly the narrator, eleven-year-old Michael, would respond as a real person to things going on in the world. It probably doesn’t matter to anyone else, but you can time the murder by the cricket commentary, if you care to look back and work it out. The idea was that these things from real life would not be an intrusion or dominate but give texture and a sense of reality to my first long work of fiction. Later, I pared away what was not needed, wanting to keep the novel moving forwards – but it was a help to me at the time of writing to reflect the world around me, the world around young Michael.

The origin of the title goes back further. My late husband once nearly killed me with his dodgy electrics when I was making chicken soup. I told him I’d write about it one day. And now I have. The book is also dedicated to him: to Mike.

Mike died in 2010 and the short stories I wrote after that were often drawn closely from life: grief burrows so deep into the body and mind it’s hard to ignore if you’re someone who writes from the gut as well as through imagination. I had been working on a different novel while he was ill – a way of keeping myself together – but after he died I couldn’t go on with it. Just had to start again from the place where I was.

For some months after Mike died, I was effectively homeless. I felt so little care for myself that I allowed myself to be savaged by a dog, while trying to protect two others. It ripped into my right hand, my writing hand. When I saw that gaping wound and my own bones it brought me up sharp. Would I ever hold a pen or touch type again? I was lucky. I can do both though my hand aches and the scar is there to remind me. The pain of grief was so intense that I didn’t notice when it turned into the pain of an ovarian cyst, which grew as big as a rugby ball before I was driven to do anything about it. That brought me so close to the idea of my own death, that I decided after all it was better to live and to make what can be made of being in the world.

So at last I got back to our house in Wales, and having already climbed back onto the writing horse I decided to try a new novel. I knew it would have to say something about grief because that was my world, but I wanted to give myself the perspective of distance: I chose a narrator as far from my own experience as possible, a boy, who turns twelve in the middle of the novel. I wanted to show something about the ways those who are left behind after a death cope and do not cope, and what things hold people back: a sense of injustice for one thing. And what greater injustice is there than a life taken before its time? How can anyone begin to accommodate the reality of such a death until the answer has been found: who did this and why?

So here is my novel – part murder mystery with its elements of psychological suspense, part meditation on the process of grieving and the meaning of family, filtered through the consciousness of a person as far removed from myself as I could get without choosing an alien – ready to be served up to the world. I hope someone out there will like it.

New novel The Chicken Soup Murder arrives
The Chicken Soup Murder on my kitchen table

Novel? Due date delayed

Gestation time for a novel is almost always a lot longer than it takes to produce a human baby. In either case, the due date of its appearance in the world is something to look forward to for weeks ahead. And then like a real baby the novel decides not to make an appearance for another seven days.

With a good push The Chicken Soup Murder should appear in physical form on 23 September 2017. Happens to be a Saturday so not sure what effect that will have. Will I have my novel in my hands by then? I’m don’t know. You might have it before I do!

My tale of hidden murder is now available to pre-order from the Seren website as well as from Amazon. Don’t be put off by the fact that Amazon is listing it from today as ‘Out of Stock’. This is true, in an Alice in Wonderland kind of way, though it has never been ‘In stock’. Still available to order – delivered when available. To qualify for free delivery you need to add something for a penny!

Seren has a Bookclub offer – it’s free to join and you will get 20% off anything ordered online, including a book that doesn’t yet exist.

Seren Pre-order webpage

‘The Chicken Soup Murder’ available to pre-order from Seren Books or Amazon

The Chicken Soup Murder

Coming soon – Due date 15 September 2017

Available to pre-order now through Amazon

 

‘A thoroughly original, startling and very good novel indeed.’ – Fay Weldon

‘A beautifully written debut, with characters to fall in love with.’ – Danny Wallace

‘A lovely, warm-hearted novel about love and grief.’ – Francesca Rhydderch

‘In her debut short story collection, Pumping up Napoleon, Maria Donovan emerged as a writer of controlled economy, power and originality.

‘The Chicken Soup Murder shows she’s just as intelligent and entertaining in the long haul of the novel. She evokes the sometimes disturbing voice of her boy-narrator utterly convincingly. She’s skilful in suggesting the adult world and a wonderfully exactly realised milieu and range of characters through 12 year-old Michael, as well as the limitations and liberations of his perceptions.

‘It’s fresh, suspenseful and tantalising. But under the clever structure with its building tension, under the clear, lively style and her playfulness with some well-known tropes and genres, under the comic set-pieces and adept plotting, she works a subtle set of variations on the theme of loss, the damage it wreaks, and on how difficult it is for us to comprehend and deal with that damage when it hits the people closest to us.’ – Christopher Meredith

Question: Psychological thriller or literary novel?

Which of those descriptions would make you want to look inside this book!

And can it be both?

 

Author completes questionnaire: deserves ice cream

How sweet the reward for a job done.

The job: completing the author questionnaire or A.Q. to go with my forthcoming novel The Chicken Soup Murder.  

What is an A.Q.? The completed Author Questionnaire is a document that draws together all the elements that will help to present you (the author) and your book to a possibly unsuspecting world of booksellers, reviewers, literary festival organisers, members of the wider media, and most importantly, potential readers. It’s an essential tool of communication and reference for the marketing department.

Exactly what goes into the A.Q. depends on who is asking the questions. Is it a small publisher who relies on your extra input and contacts? Or a big publisher with a formidable marketing and publicity machine (who nevertheless will hope that you bring in your own ideas and have active social media accounts). If you’re self-publishing, it would be useful to devise your own A.Q.

Filling in the answers will help you focus, if you have not done so already, on exactly what your work is about, who you think might want to read it and how you will engage with your potential reader. The A.Q. even offers legitimate opportunities to be creative, when it comes to summarising your book in 15 words, 30 words, 100 words, 250 words or whatever is required.

And yet I still approach mine with all the enthusiasm I usually keep for starting on my tax return.

Why? Perhaps it has something to do with the change of hats – no longer the writer doing as she pleases (more or less). Now you are the author with responsibilities.  

It helps to prepare, to collect ideas along the way and to keep your author profile up to date. Even without the A.Q. it saves stress and embarrassment if you are able to respond quickly to a request for a photo or a bio and know what to say when someone asks, ‘What’s your book about?’ I keep a list of my publications and awards and can copy and paste a string of URLs about my online presence: website, email, social media accounts. 

I also knew I’d be asked about ideas for a book launch, to make comparisons with other books written recently (which might help you to answer the ‘which section of the bookshop?’ question if you’re still unsure), to list influences, expound on ideas for readings, appearances at literary festivals, provide quotes from reviews and so on.

My method is to create a draft file and fill in the easy answers: name, date of birth and address. I try to read the whole set of questions in case it contains something I haven’t prepared for. Insert answers at will – even if they are highly speculative or a reminder to take action (where are all those clippings of your reviews?).

Do some research. Have a good think. If you’re forewarned you might have been already gathering an awareness of what goes on at a literary festival, or a reading in a library or bookshop. You might have attended some open mic events. The best advice is to engage with the A.Q. – even the bits that seem daunting. It will help you notice and develop the answers. 

For me, the messy draft bloats as I shovel in ideas or reminders-to-self and try to get to grips with the whole package. Do I have ideas for related feature articles? Where would I like to have a launch?

These are lovely things to contemplate but a bit disconcerting if your initial answer is ‘Ermmm…’ While nothing is more important that creating the work in the first place, it’s reassuring to feel on top of the issues that form part of the business side of being an author. Even if, inside, you feel the job of a writer is to run from such responsibilities, an agent or publisher will be glad that you’ve give them some consideration. These are people too with jobs to perform and you can make that easier. After all, who knows your work better than you?  

As long as the A.Q. remains in draft form it is still open to possibilities. Not that you can’t add ideas later on: it’s just that the A.Q. draws them all together and is a main point of reference. But eventually, with Orwell’s ‘menacing finger of the clock’ pointing towards some sort of deadline, completing the A.Q. has to become the #1 priority.

I make sure I have answered every question – even the difficult ones – and save a new file for editing. It has to be tidy and accurate. It must go by Friday. While this was not a strict deadline it’s good to have one, especially if the A.Q. has already been with you for some weeks.

OK, by Monday morning. No one is going to look at it over the weekend anyway.

Saturday and Sunday produce real progress. 

Monday – a thorough check.

Monday evening. 

At 8.30pm, having slogged to completion, I attach the final, fully-filled in A.Q. of many pages, along with a high-res photo of myself and a suitable extract of The Chicken Soup Murder, to an email and press SEND.

Job done. 

The reward:

As far the A.Q. goes, the process isn’t really ended, because it will help if you keep on engaging with its concerns. But then again you’ve just finished a large and important assignment and you really feel you deserve to do something relaxing. Something you can enjoy. It could be writing. 

But whereas the creative work, the venting of the pressure cooker, is to some extent its own reward, the accomplishment of this kind of author-related task seems to call for a specific treat, a breathing space outside the normal working routine. It could be just going for a walk or seeing a friend. It could be ice cream.

 

Baboo Gelato West Bay Kiosk
Baboo Gelato West Bay Kiosk

In my case, a reward was a trip along the Dorset coast east from Bridport the next day, taking my lunch to Abbotsbury Castle, an iron-age hill fort overlooking Chesil Bank and the sea; a pause to sit with the ancestors, skylarks overhead and long views all around. And on the way back, a spontaneous detour to West Bay to visit an ice-cream seller I had heard about: Baboo Gelato.

Annie Hanbury trained in Italy and started making her ices from a surplus of fruits on her family’s smallholding in Dorset. The ices are hand-made in Bridport using seasonal produce. There’s a kiosk in West Bay – near the bridge over the sluice gates between the harbour and the River Brit – and another in Lyme Regis.

Baboo Gelato started winning awards in its first year: Taste of the West Gold for Lemon Sorbet in 2016 and again in 2017 for Maple and Walnut Ice Cream;  a Taste of Dorset Award in 2016 (and a finalist again in 2017) in the category ‘Best Dairy Producer’; the Guild of Fine Food gave gold stars to the Raspberry Sorbet and the Pistachio Gelato. 

It must only be a matter of time before local restaurants pick up on this deliciousness on their doorstep. 

What lured me to this new enterprise was the promise of dairy-free sorbet. I couldn’t decide between the seasonal options of rhubarb (grown in Bothenhampton) and elderflower (picked from the makers’ own garden) and so settled on a scoop of each. Rhubarb and elderflower sorbetI was also delighted to know the wafer cone is dairy (but not gluten) free. Annie herself served me with scoops untidy and generous, and sorbet sank all the way down to the tip of the cone. By the time I had walked past the boats for hire and crossed the bridge over the backwater to the footpath by the Riverside Café (a route which, if you care to know, is how you get within shouting distance of the blue wooden house once occupied by David Tennant in Broadchurch) to take this photo looking across the fields towards Bridport, I had already made at least a third of what I’d bought invisible.  

Now that was a project I thoroughly enjoyed licking into shape.

 

What major or minor tasks have you accomplished lately?

If you were to give yourself a reward, what would it be?

 

 

On Eggardon – learning and poetry

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Eggardon hill with its Iron-age fort is a well-known landmark in West Dorset, from which you can see for miles, a view that takes in the sea and coastline and several more hill forts in this area including Abbotsbury Castle, Lewesdon, Pilsdon Pen, Lambert’s Castle and Coney’s Castle. Of all these I feel most attached to Eggardon. One branch of my mum’s family farmed here and as her side were embedded in this part of the country going as far back as we can know, I often wonder if some of my ancestors lived up here. It was first occupied in the Bronze Age, probably, although the ramparts visible today are deemed to be from the Iron age. I have often associated the place with a sense of loss and hurt pride, thinking of the coming of the Romans in AD 43, or thereabouts. Last weekend we were lucky enough to hear about some of Eggardon’s history from Steve Wallis, Dorset County Council archaeologist, who pointed out that we only have two lines reporting the campaign led by Vespasian, and that very little is truly known of what happened. He also showed us things about the place I didn’t know about at all such as the ditch and bank of an eight-sided enclosure, all that remain of a fenced-in stand of trees planted by famous smuggler Isaac Gulliver as a mark for his ships. (Despite what it says in the link I’ve given, interesting as it is, the trees are long gone. Certainly, they were not there half a century ago. Are they thinking perhaps of Colmer’s Hill?)

Steve also pointed out that the hill and the fort are divided into two parts, one owned by the National Trust, the other being in private hands. Separated now by a fence line through the middle of the fort, the south (N.T.) part is in the parish of Askerswell and the north part in the parish of Powerstock. Eggardon Hill would have been a convenient meeting place for conducting the business of Eggardon Hundred, the collection of parishes known at the time of the Domesday Book and on through the centuries.   

The weekend was part of the poetry parks programme, organised by Marc Yeats and poet Ralph Hoyte of Satsymph. There’s a series of these workshops connected to the Dorset AONB (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty) and the South Dorset Ridgeway, the Land of Bone and Stone. The aim is to create poetry which can be accessed via an app. By finding the correct GPS location – or poetry pool – you can hear the recorded poems. You don’t need a mobile phone signal and the app is free.

On Saturday we were all up on Eggardon. The rampart slopes were thick with pyramid orchids and there were bee orchids too, red-winged burnet moths and dragonflies. Below us three deer watched from a field. Buzzards wheeling, skylarks warbling overhead. Perfect midsummer. It was a lovely way to spend the day, a break to get away from the laptop and just work with pen (or in my case pencil) and paper and try something different. If prose sometimes feels like my day job, then poetry is recreation, an adventure, something I can just enjoy. Also slightly scary, which is part of the fun. 

On Sunday, David of Diva Contemporary came to Askerswell village hall to record our finished work. Throughout the day we were sharing books, knowledge and impressions, writing, re-writing and recording. Amazing to hear some of the work produced in such a short time. Schools in the area are also joining in with this project, so not all the poems will be in the app but I managed two examples of an englyn milwr (three-line poems, seven syllables to a line, all lines end-rhymed), a short history of Isaac Gulliver’s enterprising enclosure, another poem speculating on the original name of the place (not Eggardon, which is probably from the Old English for Eohhere’s Hill) and something a little more free, mostly about the feeling of being up on the spur of rampart so high I was eye-to-eye with the buzzards while the deer swam through the landscape below. 

The experience of being up on Eggardon for those hours and hearing from Steve Wallis about the many different ways in which has been of importance to the people who live in or visit Dorset helped me to lengthen my sense of its timeline instead of focussing on that one period of defeat and change two thousand years ago. I look forward to finding out more of Eggardon’s roughly 5000-year history of occupation. 

I liked the weekend so much I’ve signed up to go to Maiden Castle too. This is said to be the biggest and most complex of all the hill forts in Britain. Many years ago we had a trip up there from our primary school but I had no idea what to expect, no clue of what the place was like and so was disappointed, having heard the word ‘castle’, to find myself on what seemed to be a bumpy hillside, with no towers or turrets. Now I find it a thrilling sight when passing by Dorchester and with Steve Wallis once again sharing his knowledge I’m looking forward to learning something I don’t yet know. 

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Photo credit: by kind permission, Mark Yeats of SATSYMPH

My Haiku Diary May 25 2017

We stand with ManchesterOne minute’s silence

twenty-two dead, dozens hurt

Millions sending love

 

I’m not a poet (can you tell?) but there’s comfort in putting words in order. Defining something out of chaos. I’ve been working on some posts about writing haiku: poems of just three lines – some say count the syllables, five, seven and five. You could try it. Anyone can – that’s the point. But more on that another time because …

In this terrible week for those who were out in Manchester to enjoy themselves in all innocence, I don’t feel like going ahead as if nothing’s happened. Gratitude that people I know are safe sits alongside sorrow for those who have lost. So this is a short one.

Maybe, reading my haiku, you will think, ‘I could do no worse and probably better!’ Please, I would be glad if you would share your haiku in a comment on my blog. Or just say hello.

Love, Maria

 

Credit where it’s due

The image is by Evelyn Hartshon, reproduced here under a CC licence.

Contract!

Read the contract carefully
Read carefully

A long silence on the blogging front usually means much invisible work going on. I’ve been busy on a final edit of my novel, The Chicken Soup Murder. This was a finalist for the Dundee International Book Prize and has now found a home with Seren Books (publishers of my short story collection, Pumping Up Napoleon). Publication date for the novel to be confirmed, possibly as soon as September 2017.

Continue reading “Contract!”

News: people are kind

another-rak-imageA while back I shared a post on Facebook about bees. What a hard time they’re having. And a Facebook friend commented, ‘Reposting a post doesn’t mean the problem has been solved. Sadly, this is what people think is protesting nowadays’. That stung – and I found myself scrabbling to tell her what I was actually doing about it – encouraging clover in my patch of lawn instead of keeping it in bowling-green trim, planting flowers the bees will like. And so on. Continue reading “News: people are kind”