You know those moments – those moments when a book speaks to you? When you read something that might have been written exactly for you to find it? Well, I had a rather peculiar moment of that kind, yesterday… Continue reading
Well, not quite a full week, if you like, as today is just the sixth day… But I have to say: so far, so good. Last night, quite late (after the loveliest Alice rehearsal) I completed the draft of my fifth story, and took a few notes for things to come… Continue reading
For the first time in ages, I’ve listened to an audiobook. No, really – audiobooks and I… I absolutely love the idea in principle, only I find myself easily distracted by details. I begin to wonder about the exact lie of the land, the pigments that would have been used to dye a particular kind of silk, the sort of face this or that character would have… and by the time I come back from my wanderings, the narrator has gone ahead.
And this is why I usually regard audiobooks the way I would a tiger: fascinated but wary – from a safe distance.
Then I had this email exchange with Margaret Skea, who told me about having her Munro Saga turned into audiobooks, and described the fascinating process of choosing a reader and working with him rather in the way a stage director would… I was so taken with the whole that, when Margaret very kindly sent me a copy of Turn of the Tide’s audiobook, I was more than ready to face my tiger… Continue reading
A few months ago, as I was working on Road to Murder, I found trouble in the form of a French town called Montreuil sur Mer.* Well, for various reasons, my sleuth Tom Walsingham finds himself spending a night there, much against his inclination, and I needed to have a good idea of the place for that… Continue reading
They stopped Walsingham and Paulo, my Italian, whom they seemed resolved to rob [… and] another Englishman in his company, called Skeggs, as I remember.
On the twelfth of November 1581 Elizabeth’s Ambassador in Paris, Sir Henry Cobham, wrote to the all-powerful Secretary of State – and spymaster – Sir Francis Walsingham . It was almost in passing that the ambassador slipped in this bit of information about the misadventure of Sir Francis’s much younger cousin, nineteen-year-old Thomas, riding as a diplomatic courier between London and Paris. Continue reading
What can I say? Much as I love Cate Blanchett and Geoffrey Rush, I can never watch Elizabeth without cringing at what Hirst, Kapur and Craig together managed to make of Father John Ballard – in terms of both historical accuracy and characterisation. Continue reading
Teaching in the Covid era – even teaching playwriting in a drama school – means that we are back to distance learning, these days. My corner of Italy is shut down again, and last night’s class happened on Zoom.
It was all about dialogue, you see, and using it to either forward action, or enhance characterization. Well – both, ideally, and all the more when writing for the stage, where dialogue is one of only two tools the playwright has to tell a story, the other being action.
But as we discussed ways to use dialogue to build character, I was reminded of a bit in Charles Nicholl’s The Lodger. Now, The Lodger is wonderful nonfiction, focusing on Shakespeare’s time as a lodger with the Mountjoys, a family of successful tyrers (or wig-makers) of French origins.
Shakespeare managed to get himself embroiled with a lawsuit between Christopher Mountjoy and his son-in-law, and let us say that the Bard doesn’t cut his finest figure – but that’s hardly the point. The point is the Bard’s landlady, Marie Mountjoy, who went from Huguenot refugee to tyre-maker to Anne of Denmark, no less. Well, at one point Marie, a wealthy businesswoman and perhaps an adulteress, goes to see astrologer and physician Dr. Simon Forman, in the hope of recovering a couple of lost ring and some equally lost money. It was a common practice, at the time, and Forman was a man of huge renown in the field. The good doctor used to take copious and detailed notes of his cases, and his notebooks have largely survived, to provide us with a treasure trove of details. Details like the very short list of Marie’s suspect thieves – one being Margery, a servant in the Mountjoy household. A tall and freckled wench, in Marie’s words.
These few words, jotted down by Foreman as he listened to Marie, have always given me the shivers – in the best possible way. It’s a bit of a voice from four hundred years ago, unphiltered by the conventions of literature, law or ritual. It’s a small window thrown open across the centuries to show us, to make us hear this long dead woman… Nicholl loves it just as much as I do, and goes a step further: Whenever I try to conjure up a sense of Marie, he writes, I imagine her while she pronounces “freckled” with a French accent.
Try Nicholl’s little game – and here is Marie at thirty, leaning forward in her seat in the flickering light from a pair of candles, with a disapproving frown, and pursed lips, with her hands folded in her lap, and her French ‘r… So vividly alive, after four hundred something years, and all because of five words told to an astrologer. Five words that keep a trace of her origins, her mindset, her beliefs, her voice, her personality. Five words.
It goes to show how a few well-chosen words of dialogue can go very far in creating a voice and a character – whether history kindly provides them, or we make them up ourselves.
Don’t you think that literature has far too few elephants?
I mean elephant characters, with a central place in the story and a definite personality. You see, yesterday I was discussing Elephant World Day with some friends, and at one point the conversation veered on the literary aspect of the subject – and there was surprisingly little. Surprisingly, when you consider what wonderful, intelligent and meaningful creatures they are – and yet, when you discount those elephants that are merely extras or window dressing, that have nothing to say for themselves, that just walk through the forests, crash into gardens and are hunted, I can think of only a handful of literary elephants. Continue reading
Ages ago, I was dragged into one of those meme things… I must confess I always go very reluctantly about those. After all, why would anyone want to know ten things about me, or what music I have on my iPod, or where would I like to travel…
This one, though, was about writing – and when it comes to writing and reading, we’ve long established that I have no control whatever. So I did the meme on my Italian blog. It was about writing obsessions – those recurring themes one writes about again and again, intentions, obdurate passions – half guiding lights, half Trade Winds… we all have a handful of those, right? Continue reading
Late in January 1593, the Privy Council, worried about what looked like a new bout of plague, wrote a letter to London’s authorities, ordering to close all playhouses. It was one of many times this happened: City fathers, Privy Council, Puritans – a lot of people seemed ready to blame the playhouses for anything, from the corruption of minds, to general dishonesty and health troubles. Let us say that an attempt to contain contagion was one of the saner reasons for closing them down… Continue reading