Cardboard Characters, Lovable, Rounded Characters, Larger Than Life Characters,and Mere Ciphers: How Sympathetic Must a Character Be to Keep You Reading?

Well, every Austen reader knows what scene this depicts. ‘She is tolerable,but not handsome enough to tempt me…’

My PC – which groaned and collapsed –  is finally working again (looks about nervously, scared to tempt fate). Someone has even offered me  an unwanted laptop. Incredibly, I’ve never had one, and I am terrified by the look of those Ipads.

Anyway, in my last post, I was talking about my new fledged writer friend being upset at the savagery of a one star review (though she felt a bit better when I showed some of the fine specimens I have come by). Readers of this blog might remember that the main criticism was that her book was ‘Boring!!!’

The second front was opened over the issue of the characters, who according to this reviewer, were both unsympathetic and unbelievable, in fact, so like a lot of walking cardboard cut outs, that it was impossible for the reader to care what became of the lot of ‘em.

While the image of a lot of cardboard cut out characters stalking through the pages of a story is intriguing material for a fantasy story – I must give one on those lines a go, sometime – those concluding side swipes obviously cut my notice writer colleague to the quick.

This is clearly the last thing that a writer – who has probably spent hours making notes on background details on the past life of those characters, to fill them out in her/his mind – wants to hear. Well, everyone’s idea of a sympathetic or believable character is different – some people even find Heathcliff sympathetic and believable (well, so do I, having the psychiatric treatment he so clearly needs)  but it did make me mull over how far it is necessary to like the characters in a story, in order to enjoy it.

Obviously, and unfortunately, if a reader both thinks the plot is dull and the characters  uninteresting, then there isn’t very much to hold the attention. Yet, as I said last week, and as I pointed out to the writer in question (just call me Polyanna) that as the reviewer  also maintained that she kept reading to the bitter end, something obviously did hold her attention, even if it was how much she hated the characters and the plot, so all was not lost. As I said in my first post, if someone keeps on reading, however much s/he hates what you’ve written, then I count that as a victory.

How much sympathetic characters matter depends a lot, obviously,  on genre. If you are writing some traditional type murder story where you are going to bump off a lot of the characters, then it’s probably best for the reader’s peace of mind if s/he doesn’t get too fond of them. Perhaps that is why most of the characters in traditional, ‘country house murder’ Agatha Christie type detective stories are like a lot of walking stereotypes, often deliberately made hateful.

If, as Colonel Blimp is holding forth about Young People Today and Hanging and Flogging from the depths of his armchair in his club, his face a fine shade of puce, and  all his captive audience suddenly see him snatch at this throat and gargle, dropping his glass of vintage port, nobody is going to feel much outrage.

All the interest lies in the intellectual puzzle: was it his Estranged Wife who poisoned the port? Was it his nephew, the Dastardly Young Heir (entailed property, you see), who is rumoured to have Anarchistic Tendencies? Or was it the Colonel’s daughter, who has been kept at home in dowdy clothes and quietly besotted by her cousin these ten years?  Or was it the Waitress, whose mother he Ruined thirty years ago? I just wrote that off the top of my head, and no prizes for guessing that of course it was the last.

On mystery and detective stories, the Sherlock Holmes stories are, of course, notoriously well written. But the secondary characters are necessarily, just a series of ciphers. There isn’t space for anything more  in a short story, even if the Victorian short story was generally far longer than one for a magazine today. There is the Spirited Governess, the Unimaginative Shopkeeper, the Dastardly Stepfather, the Haughty Unbending Aristocrat, and one of the nicest characters – the Gallant, Dashing Gentleman Sailor –in ‘The Adventure of the Abbey Grange’, my favourite.  I do like a love story as part of an adventure or mystery story – but I am wandering from the point.

Conan Doyle sometimes called Sherlock Holmes ‘a reasoning machine’. This is not doing justice to the subtlety of his creation. In ‘A Study in Scarlet’ when Watson and Holmes first start sharing rooms, Watson does create a list of the areas of Holmes’ supposed areas of knowledge and others where he supposedly shows a startling lack of it. For instance,  he claims not to know that the earth revolves round the sun, which I think we may assume was a joke at the expense of the sometimes credulous Watson. Later on, Conan Doyle ignored – or possibly, even forgot about – this list, much as he forgot about the location of Watson’s wound by the time of, ‘The Sign of the Four’.

Thus, while Holmes’ knowledge of literature is supposedly nil, he sometimes makes remarks on quite abstruse literary figures, for instance, his cynical (and  unfortunately, true, at least for women as sex roles stand) quote at the end of  ‘A Case of Identity’: ‘“There is danger for him who taketh a tiger cub, and danger also in whoso snatches a delusion from a woman.” There is as much sense in Hafiz as in Horace, and as much knowledge of the world.’

Then again, nobody seems to expect the characters in macho war stories to be anything but stereotypes. If they developed scruples about killing the enemy  or something stupid like that, it would spoil everything for the readership, so none of that.

Dracula climbing down the wall of his castle, from a 1916 edition of the work.

Then again, as another writer friend of mine pointed out, in ‘Dracula’ (I think that was Mari Biella) while Count Dracula and his adversary Van Helsing are strongly drawn characters, the supporting cast comprising Mina and Jonathan Harker and her ex-pupil Lucy and her three admirers are very thinly drawn. However,  this doesn’t detract from the readers enjoyment of the story. The two main opponents have so much personality that there is no need for the others to need more than a few strokes of the pen.

That modern readers we require sophisticated and consistent characterisation from authors at all, shows how far our study, or perhaps, our introversion regarding human character has progressed since, say, the Bronze Age ‘Iliad’ or even the Mediaeval Arthurian Legends, when the characters often behave wholly inconsistently.

I suppose, though, it must be conceded that while most of the characters in these lasting stories (as distinct from the indistinguishable war hero types) are ciphers, they are carried by the strongly drawn main ones much like an outstanding actor supporting a while cast of mediocrities.

It is also certainly true that there are genres where characterisation is all important. This is true of most so-called ‘women’s fiction’ and is certainly true of psychological thrillers  and has to be true of love stories.

Even with love stories, though (I’m distinguishing these from ‘romance’ which is a separate genre, with set expectations of an inevitable Happy Ever After Etc from the reader) it is still possible to enjoy the story, if you find just one of the main pair appealing. That is rather similar to how it is when a friend sets her heart on someone who you think is as dismal a choice as she could make. You still want her to win through, even if you know disillusionment lurks round the corner.

I would appear to be one of the few readers of Jane Austen who doesn’t like, or admire, Mr Darcy. In fact, I thought he was a priggish so-and-so, and I delighted in Jo Baker’s less than flattering picture of him in her brilliant novel ‘Longbourn . ’ I never could imagine how Elizabeth Bennett could be happy with a man with whom she couldn’t share a laugh, and I still can’t.

However, I did like Elizabeth Bennett. So if she had the poor taste to want the boring fellow (and no, no, I’m honestly not saying anything about the  Freudian implications of her joke about the sight of the grounds of Pemberley swaying her choice) , I wanted her to be able to win him, so I stayed interested until the end.

I mentioned dashing sailors earlier, and on this, and good or bad love choices, and on how it is still possible to fnd a book fascinating while not liking any of the main characters, I can think of at least one classic novel which has long intrigued me where I didn’t particularly like any of the main characters. In one, I actively disliked the two rival flawed heroes and wasn’t especially fond of the heroine. Yes, it’s – wait for it  – ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’ by Elizabeth Gaskell, about which I have often written before.

But this post is getting too long.  So more of that next time.













Where Worlds Meet Out on Amazon

Sophie looks alarmed; and with good reason; Emile has just led her into his own world outside time – and he doesn’t seem quite himself…

At last, ‘Where Worlds Meet’ is out on


And on on


the prequel, ‘That Scoundrel Émile Dubois’ is here free  on Amazon  and on Smashwords here

You can also get ‘Ravensdale’, which also belongs to the same series, free on Smashwords here   and if you care to point out to Amazon that they should price match, they may make that free too:

On this cover, Sophie does look alarmed, in contrast to Émile’s swaggering and savage demeanour, and she has good reason, as he has just introduced her to his own sphere outside time, and doesn’t seem quite himself…

I did love writing this.

Well, I always love most of the writing part, but I particularly enjoyed  drawing back from the dead the half undead Kenrick and Arthur and describing the grotesque absurdities of his monster men. Also, I loved  writing about Émile Dubois and his cousin Reynaud Ravensdale working together as a team, and Reynaud’s Amazonian true love, his ex-comrade-in-arms Isabella,  as a foil to the spiritual Sophie.

When writing ‘Ravensdale’, about the adventures of Reynaud and his meeting with Isabella as a highwayman (that career seems a popular one in that family)  I was tempted to bring in Émile for them to live as outlaws together, but complications to do with Émile’s needing to be over in France at that time made it impossible.

One of the things I really enjoyed about writing this latest, was that one of the main driving points of the plot is a love affair between two characters from the servant class – Kenrick’s man Arthur, and the sultry Éloise, maid to Sophie (and once her rival for Émile’s attentions). In contradistinction to the traditions of so much historical gothic, it was interesting making the actions of a servant have strong consequences for good or evil.

There is a wicked siren in this – would it be  spoof Gothic without – the late Ceridwen Kenrick’s  own cousin (cousin’s abound in this), whose humanity has been compromised by both Ceridwen and Kenrick. She has her secret reasons for joining in Kenrick’s schemes; for Kenrick has still failed to find reunion with his beloved first wife, and as before, will stop at nothing to achieve his aims.

Unfortunately, I had to leave the practical but Tarot consulting Agnes – one of my favourite characters – back at their now home at Dubois Court in Buckinghamshire for this. I didn’t want to overwhelm the reader with competing assertive characters, and for that same reason, I had to give only a walk-on role to Mr Kit in this, and to keep Mrs Kit and Émile and Sophie’s adopted waif  Katarina offstage.

I suppose I am fairly typical in being very fond of my own characters, even such specimens as Kenrick.

What made me reflect on this was reading an excellent Indie novella, ‘The Carrot Man’ by Theo A Gerken which is unusual in having as its theme a sordid, petty struggle between two wholly inadmirable characters that has no serious consequences for anyone.

That is, of course, just about the opposite for the blurb for most books.

Perhaps that was what the author had in mind.  Certainly,  it works brilliantly: here  is the link to my review:

The author thought I was a bit too hard on the protagonist, and I could have been more charitable about him  (I expect he was fond of him in the same way that I am fond of Kenrick).

Anyway, it makes a great read. Like all of the darkest comedy, it’s somehow cathartic.

It can be very hard to carry out that excellent bit of advice by James N Frey and to ‘follow through’ and deliver that bloody end, that unhappy ending, when it comes to writing an unhappy fate of a character to whom you have become attached (in a good way,  I mean, not as in ‘Alex Sager’s Demon’).

And that brings me to another book I relished recently, Mari Biella’s ‘Pietra and Other Horrors’.  This series of dark tales, like ‘Lord of the Flies’ is an exploration of the uneasy coexistence of the savage and amoral and the civilized, both in the external environment, and in the human heart and psyche.

Besides her elegance of style and vivid writing, I have always admired the way that this author never draws back from wreaking havoc to the lives of her characters when the plot requires it.  This is never easy to do.

The author brings a new approach to a series of classical themes of terror, the vampire, the zombie, the werewolf, the sea folk, and the traditional and malevolent spectre.

Here’s my review:

Reverting to Arthur Conan Doyle, whom I mentioned in my last post, he seemingly could do it quite happily. He admitted to being utterly callous about the supposed death of Sherlock Holmes in  1893 in that fight to the death with Professor Moriarty by the Reichenbach Falls. Still, perhaps he resented his character for taking up so much of his time and attention.  He had to be offered – for those times – great sums of money to back his creation and write more Holmes’ stories.

He was equally callous about poor Watson’s wife, the Mary Morstan whom he meets in ‘The Sign of the Four’. As he wished to have Watson share the rooms at Baker Street with Holmes again, Mary Morstan had to be killed off with a pen stroke.

It must have been convenient for him to be so oblivious to his characters happiness. While I do not, like Dickens or George Eliot, shed tears over my characters’ fates if they are sad, they do give me a pang.








Planning the Structure of Your Novel and Writers’ New Year Resolutions


A Happy New Year to all the readers of this blog.

I hope that this year you all get your heart’s desire, whatever that may be, as it’s unlikely to be:

A. Taking Over the World

B. Banning tea drinking


C. Making the wearing of black socks, white trainers and check trousers obligatory.

This year began on a good note for me regarding writing.

…Well, not exactly as regards the formatting and the cover of my sequel to ‘That Scoundrel Émile Dubois’ and ‘Ravensdale’.  I had even  hoped that they would be ready early enough for me to have it out before Christmas, but that was being optimistic.

…Still, I did get a message praising the writing style and structure of my spoof historical romance ‘Ravensdale’ yesterday.

Hopefully, I don’t make a point of repeating compliments.  The reason I mention this one is that readers probably don’t realise how much writers treasure those messages.

And that made me think – how often do I compliment writers whose work I admire myself? With my writer friends whose work I Beta read, who by definition are writers whom I admire, naturally I do as I read through – but the others?

One tends to think that they would be indifferent if they are fairly well known – but is this the case? Perhaps it is only true of those who can rely on a best seller every time they write a book.

Well, of course, a lot of the writers whose work I do read being classic writers, tend to be dead.

That does rather limit the possibilities of communication.

It is true that Arthur Conan Doyle , whose Sherlock Holmes stories I am fairly unoriginal in loving, was interested in spiritualist communication. In fact, he wrote a novella based on it, part of the Professor Challanger series, ‘The Land of Mists’ (1926).

If I could contact Conan Doyle, I doubt he would wish to hear from anyone about Sherlock Holmes, which he regarded as ‘inferior work’ compared to his ‘serious’ historical novels such as  ‘The White Company’  Unfortunately for how he wished to be remembered, few people read this serious work today compared to those millions who read Sherlock Holmes.

I tend to think that if he heard, from the beyond, that Sherlock Holmes is as popular as ever –  1,090 in the Kindle Store on alone today –  he would be dismayed at what he considred to be the public’s inexplicable fascination with his creation.

…And that, of course, is leaving aside international sales of  Sherlock Holmes books, the fllms, and televison series; the board and other games, the takings of the Sherlock Holmes museum in Baker Street and Sherlock Holmes tours in London…


I don’t suppose, eiher, wherever they may be now, that Pushkin, Jane Austen, Elizabeth Gaskell, Anne Bronte and the others care very much either about the fate the writing that they once did in this sphere or the opinion of one reader . I suspect that they must have gone on to greater things. That is one of the reasons why I never feel guilty about saying the harshest things about the writing of any dead author. Living ones are a different matter. It would take a novel that romantises rape, for instance, for me to leave a one star review for any living author.

On writing and New Year’s Resolutions here’ s mine. I have made it several times before, in fact, every time I am halfway through a novel. I suspect it may be one made by many writers.

I must write a plan of my next novel, instead of knowing the beginning and the end, with a few scenes along the way which must be included, but having no idea at all how to get to that ending.

There are excellent plans available online which obviously, can be really useful: here’s one

I have to admit I have never writen one of those plans yet – in fact, it looks harder work than writing the novel. I just write ‘off the top of my head’, which can be nerve wracking, but feels easier for a frequently disorganized person (and that’s another New Year’s resolution I should make).

I can see the massive advantages to having a plan – for instance, it helps solve writer’s block problems, provides balance, and ensures that you don’t leave out anything essential. You also keep in mind what you are aiming for in the novel and how best to effect that.

I don’t know how many writers feel this way and whether it is best to stick to the approach that comes most naturally to one’s temperment. Oddly enough, I have never asked one writer friend whether or not they write a plan of their stories.

That is one of the reasons why I was so pleased to be congratulated on the structure of ‘Ravensdale’, written, like the others, off the top of my head.

Lauryn April’s Excellent Article on ‘Bad Boys’ and Unhealthy Relationships in YA Fiction.

Lauryn April wrote such a brilliant article on how far an anti hero can ‘turn it around’ when he meets his true love that I just had to re-blog it here. Besides, her view of this matter is so like mine (well, naturally; how could anyone disagree with my views about anything?) that I agreed with virtually every word (surely I didn’t hear any reader mutter ‘Not like you, that’? ).

So over to you, Lauryn…

Today I want to look at the trope that the evil, yet handsome bad-boy can turn it all around when he meets the love of his life. Characters that argue and build sexual tension between them are interesting to read about, but often in an attempt to achieve this angst writers create a bad-boy character that pushes the romance in their book into unhealthy relationship territory. In response, many writers and bloggers have been posting about how unhealthy relationships in books aren’t okay. Which is great! But, I think sometimes the message gets oversimplified, leading some to think that all bad-boys are just bad.

The reality is that real relationships are complicated and that even the best relationships have hard times. Any married person or anyone that’s been in a long-term relationship will tell you that there’s been moments, fights, events in their relationship where they said something they didn’t mean, or did something they regret. Real relationships are messy at times. Sometimes people that love each other are mean to each other. But, there is a difference between complicated and messy and unhealthy.

There’s a big push for authors to stop writing bad-boys and unhealthy relationships altogether in fiction. I disagree. I think authors need to start writing bad-boys and unhealthy relationships realistically and stop romanticizing them. For example, maybe the main character falls into an unhealthy relationship and finds the strength to get out of it. Or, maybe the main character works to inspire another character to be a better person without dating them. Or, maybe that bad-boy, tortured anti-hero, decides to be a better person and realistically puts in the work to change, being affected by realistic consequences for his bad behavior.

So, if you want to write a bad-boy, how do you make his redemption arc believable and stay away from that toxic relationship scenario?

1. The bad-boy’s redemption should take time, and be about more than just getting the girl. If your character instantly decides to be good when he meets your lead, this is unrealistic. Don’t teach your readers that “you can change him.” Your bad-boy can be inspired to change by your lead character, but she shouldn’t become his conscious. If your main character is your bad-boy’s only reason for being good and she’ll do anything to save him you’re throwing them into a co-dependent relationship. Super-unhealthy. He’s got to make changes because he truly understands why he should change and wants to do it for himself.

2. Your female lead should not be getting involved with your bad-boy or staying in a relationship with him if he’s being abusive. If your YA bad-boy calls out your lead at school, completely embarrassing her, she should not be hooking up with him in the next chapter — not even if he lamely says sorry. She should probably be really mad. If your vampire bad-boy murders a bunch of innocent people, your lead should not be hooking up with him in the next chapter. She should probably be utterly terrified, really angry, or both. In other words, if your bad-boy does something bad, there should be realistic consequences, which do NOT include getting the girl. And a truly strong female lead should acknowledge that her bad-boy might be bad for her. That’s the thing about a bad-boy redemption arc that I think many writers miss. If the bad-boy needs redeeming then as he is, he’s not good enough for their female lead, but said lead is often written to act as if he is.

3. Stay away from sexual assault and rape if you want your bad-boy to be redeemable. A bad-boy being sexist, rude, crude, a total jerk, or doing something to make your lead feel uncomfortable could possibly be redeemable if you include appropriate consequences and show your character understanding why what he did was wrong and learning to be a better person. BUT, rape is not something your main character should forgive. Rape is all about control and unless you truly understand the psychology of it, and include appropriate consequences such as going to jail and therapy, I’d avoid it. I have a BA in Psychology and work with both victims and perpetrators of sexual assault and I don’t feel like I could realistically write a redemption arc for a rapist — at least not in the context of a romance novel. That said, I do hope authors continue to write about tough issues like sexual assault and rape — just not in a way that romanticizes them.

Books/TV that did it wrong:

Bella and Edward in Twilight by Stephanie Meyer: This series breaks rules #1 and #2. Bella and Edward and completely co-dependent, and Bella swoons over Edward regardless of how he acts.

Patch and Nora in Hush, Hush: Breaks all the rules, especially rule #3. From what I understand (I’ll admit I haven’t read this) there’s way too much sexual assault happening in this book.

Chuck and Blair on Gossip Girl: This relationship started out really interesting, but when the writers broke rule #3 with Chuck’s character, I felt this was unforgivable.

I could probably continue on with this list for miles. It’d probably consist of mostly YA PNR books. But, let’s move on. Feel free to comment on other books that break the rules in the comments below.

Books/TV that did it right:

Willow and Tara on Buffy the Vampire Slayer – Willow and Tara’s relationship starts out really healthy, but as Willow’s addiction to magic grows she becomes abusive to Tara, using magic to erase Tara’s memories of fights they’ve had. I love this example for a few reasons. One, bad-boys aren’t always boys. Girls can be bad-boys. And while Willow’s character certainly didn’t start out very bad, she’s pretty badass by the beginning of season 6. Also, girls can be abusive in relationships too. Two, Willow’s abuse of Tara is mental and emotional. Abuse isn’t always physical. Three, Willow convinced herself that what she was doing wasn’t so bad. She just wanted her and Tara to be happy and not to fight. And finally, when Tara realized that Willow had again removed her memories, Tara LEFT HER! Tara still loved Willow, but she realized that what Willow had done was wrong, abusive and that Willow wasn’t going to change if Tara stayed. This was an incredibly sad story arch for these two characters, but this unhealthy relationship was necessary for the writers to explore other things with Willow’s character, like addiction. It was an unhealthy relationship done right, and if Willow had been able to get the help she needed for her addiction, I think these characters could have found their way back to one another in a healthy way.

Katy and Daemon in Obsidian – There are some parallels to be made with this book and Twilight. They both have quiet, new-to-town, female leads and mysterious, gorgeous male love interests who turn out to be supernatural creatures. And, they both involve said love interests being not so nice to the lead characters in the beginning of the books. However. Obsidian portrays a much healthier relationship between Katy and Daemon than Bella and Edward in a number of ways. One, when Daemon is mean to Katy, Katy does not turn around and swoon over him. She basically writes him off and only ends up giving him another chance when his behavior starts to change and Katy promises her best friend (Daemon’s sister) that she’d try to be nice to him. Their relationship is really brought together by Daemon’s sister. Unlike Twilight where the characters just sort of swoon over one another for no real reason. Two, Daemon is definitely a jerk and does push Katy away creating that tension that bad-boy book lovers love, but when it matters he proves himself as one of the good guys. Daemon is the guy that steps in when Katy’s homecoming date doesn’t accept “no” as an answer, instead of being the guy to push her to say “yes” like in a lot of YA PNR books. And, at the end of the book, despite having feelings for Daemon, Katy walks away from him because she doesn’t think he’ll be good for her.

“No. Sorry. You have spent months being the biggest jerk to me. You don’t get to decide to like me one day and think I will forget all of that. I want someone to care for me like my dad cared for my mom.” (p.357)

This is just the beginning of Daemon’s redemption arc and part of the reason it’s done right is that Daemon gets held accountable for his actions and doesn’t straight up get the girl by being a jerk.

Juliette and Warren in Ignite Me – I think part of what makes this a great example is that Juliette and Warren don’t get together until the THIRD book. I hated Warren in the first two books. He had to do a lot to win me over as a reader and in turn to win Juliette. One, I think what works for this book is that a lot of the reasons why you think Warren is the bad guy are misleads. The reader learns a lot about who he is by the third book and you realize that he’s not exactly who he first appeared to be. Juliette doesn’t like him, at all, until she sees his redeeming qualities. Two, I like that this book addressed that Juliette’s relationship with Adam wasn’t super healthy and showed her getting out of that. Adam appears to be good for her in the beginning, but as Juliette grows as a person she realizes that he’s not exactly what she needs.

Who are your favorite book bad-boys?

If you liked this post, you may also like:
Unhealthy Relationships: A Twilight, Graceling Comparison
Review for Obsidian by Jennifer Armentrout
Review for Ignite Me by Tahereh Mafi

Christmas Ghost Stories: ‘The Crown Derby Plate’ by Marjorie Bowen: A Classic Ghost Story as Comedy




I have already wished everyone Season’s Greetings, but will do it again.

I wanted to add a post about a ghost story at Christmas. Well, I am about to read the new selection by Mari Biella, and expect to revel in those. Last year, I recommended her ‘Wintergreen’ as a Christmas mystery with spooky undertones.  That’s a  fine Christmas read, available  here.

But which Christmas ghost story to choose this year?

Readers of this blog over the last year or so will have endured my diatribes on the  debilitating nature of an addiction to escapist romances and happy never after alternative views of history. Fear not: this isn’t another…

I am in fact recomending – again, but now as Christmas reading – a  ghost story that is about as light as could be, and written from a wholly conventional perspective. The only eccentricity is the fact that the protagonist is content to be that figure of horror and ridicule for previous generations,’The Old Maid’.  Still, as that was generally associated with comparative penury and economic dependence, perhaps the fact that she is a successful business woman – an unusual thing for the early twentieth century – has something to do with it.

I think for spooky humour,  ‘The Crown Derby Plate’ by Marjorie Bowen takes a lot of beating.

And here’s my former post on it:

Marjory Bowen seems to have been an intriguing author. I was astonished to find out on Wickipedia that she wrote under six names:

‘Her total output numbers over 150 volumes with the bulk of her work under the ‘Bowen’ pseudonym. She also wrote under the names Joseph Shearing, George R. Preedy, John Winch, Robert Paye and Margaret Campbell. After The Viper of Milan (1906), she produced a steady stream of writings until the day of her death.Bowen’s work under her own name was primarily historical novels.’

To say that she came from a ‘difficult’ background would be an understatement. Her alcoholic father deserted the family, and was later found dead of drink on a London street. Her mother was seemingly a far from fond parent, and so she (Marjorie Bowen) was obliged to support the whole family by her writing for many years.  She was married twice – her fist husband died early, and both their children died in infancy. Her two children by her second husband survived, anyway…

From this, I had to be the more struck by the light, playful tone of ‘The Crown Derby Plate’. Although this is available on project Gutenberg and on Amazon as a Christmas story, the original publication date is not stated.

220px-ImariCI would guess, from the feel to it – and the fact that the heroine for her drive to the isolated house across the marshes uses as a matter of course, a pony and trap – that it was written no later than the 1920’s, before the car became common enough to have such a disastrous effect on our landscape (couldn’t possibly be an environmentalist, could I? But no ranting from me at Christmas)

It is not written as great literature, but as an effective ghost story which, unlike some of the others, is not intended to arouse deep emotion or raise questions. It could almost be used as an example of ‘How to write an entertaining ghost story with the use of humour and economy of style’.  It is set over the Christmas period, so was presumably written for some Christmas Annual or magazine for those days. Accordingly, the vocabulary is simple, and the tone is upbeat, even on such a topic as – for the women of the early twentieth century  a nightmare possibility  for themselves – the image of the Spinster Who Must Earn Her Keep:

‘Martha managed an antique shop of the better sort and worked extremely hard. She was, however, still full of zest for work or pleasure, though sixty years old, and looked backwards and forwards to a selection of delightful days.’

She is a collector of valuable china. Staying with her cousins in Essex for Christmas, she remembers that years ago she bought a set of Crown Derby plate from an auction at a local house, which unfortunately had one plate missing.

Her cousins remark that that house has a reputation for being haunted, its former owner, old Sir James Sewell, a collector of antique china, having been buried in the garden.

Martha Pym drives over to see if she can find out if the current owner, who she met and forgot two years ago, has found that missing plate.


The description of the wintry scene is evocative:

‘Under the wintry sky, which looked as grey and hard as metal, the marshes stretched bleakly to the horizon; the olive brown broken reeds were harsh as scars on the saffron-tinted bogs, where the sluggish waters that rose so high in winter were filmed over with the first stillness of a frost.  The air was cold but not keen; everything was damp; faintest of mists blurred the black outlines of trees that rose stark from the ridges above the stagnant dykes…’

I quote that at length because so fine a word picture seems incongruous in such a light piece of writing. Marjorie Bowen obviously had exceptional talent, but wrote for the market, which often does not give much opportunity to show it to advantage.

‘The house sprang up suddenly on a knoll ringed with rotting trees, encompassed by an old brick wall…It was a square built, substantial house with “Nothing wrong with it but the situation,”  Miss Pym decided…She noticed at the far end of the garden, in the corner of the wall, a headstone showing above the colourless grass’.

The person who answers the door presents a startling appearance: ‘Her gross, flaccid figure was completely shapeless and she wore a badly cut, full dress of no colour at all, but stained with earth and damp from where Miss Pym supposed that she had been doing some futile gardening…another ridiculous touch about the poor old lady was her short hair.  (In that era, women were not expected to cut their hair at all).

An absurd conversation follows between Martha Pym and the owner:

‘“…I generally sit in the garden.”

“In the garden? But surely not in this weather?”

“You get used to the weather. You have no idea how used one gets to the weather.”

“I suppose so,” conceded Miss Pym doubtfully…’

Later on, the person whom Martha Pym assumes to be the last owner Miss Lefain informs her visitor that she frightens people away from the house:

‘”Frighten them away!” replied Martha Pym. “However do you do that?”

“It doesn’t seem difficult; people are so easily frightened, aren’t they?”

‘Miss Pym suddenly remembered that Hartleys had the reputation of being haunted – perhaps the queer old thing played on that. “I suppose you’ve never seen a ghost?” she asked pleasantly.  “I’d rather like to see one, you know –”.’

The reader doesn’t have a great talent for solving mysteries to begin to have suspicions about the house’s owner.

This is as excellent an example of the ghost story as light entertainment, as distinct from the ghost story which makes a profound impression and is written as literature, as in ‘The Wendigo’.  There is no particular moral to ‘The Crown Derby Plate’ – unless it is the very obvious one that if you are too attached to material objects, then your spirit will be unable to move on.

I am astonished by the output of some of these late nineteenth and early twentieth century authors. Even given that they wrote for a living, however did they manage to get so much writing done – particularly when this was in an era when most of it was done in longhand?

The Sequel to ‘That Scoundrel Émile Dubois’ and ‘Ravensdale’ due out soon



Now is the time to wish all readers of this blog,  and all my wonderful writer friends, Season’s Greetings.

On that, I wish I had that plug in with snow drifting across the screen that everyone else seems to display at this time of year, but I believe you need to have the self hosted wordpress to enjoy that. No matter. ‘I ask everyone to picture a snowstorm…’ as I once heard a drama teacher say. Update: lovely Jo Danilo has just told me how to do it; so here are those snowflakes.

In common with many areas, we had the real thing here last week. A foot of the stuff, so that for days people round here had to abandon car dependency and walk down to the town. People actually started to talk to each other and strange things like that.

Snow and plug ins or not, I’ve been in a jubilant mood these last few days, because at last, I have finished the final edits of “Where Worlds Meet’ the sequel to both ‘That Scoundrel Émile Dubois’ and ‘Ravensdale’ . I hope to bring it out after Christmas. Well, at this time of year, everything is ‘After Christmas’. I hoped to bring it out before Christmas, but that schedule is too tight for the formatters, who have a backlog of work, no doubt of Christmas novellas.

That surge of relief the author has, when finally, s/he has read that manuscript through  for inconsistencies, anachronisms, and typos for the last time!

Now, you can get on with the next project. Well, there always is a new project, isn’t there?

That is the problem with reading something over and again. It slightly ceases to entertain.  There will be a time when once more, you can bear to look it in the face – but re-reading can be torment when you come on those same jokes and funny scenes again and again. You do remember that you thought they were funny when you wrote them; you can only hope that the reader doesn’t feel as weary on encuntering them the first time, as you do, on your sixth reading…

Being dyslexic and so having a mild form of ‘word blindness’ , I am particularly prone to missing those typos: what would I do without my Beta readers? And, it’s amazing how none dyslexic authors say that they have the same problem, and some typo becomes invisible. Ah yes, I know there are copy editors. But the expense, the expense…

Anyway, back to ‘Where Worlds Meet’.

You can download ‘That Scoundrel Émile Dubois’ for free here

Spoilers follow.

Readers may remember that Goronwy Kenrick’s half vampire household on the Famau Mountain is a menace not only through their liking for a nice sup of blood, but through their time travelling ambitions.

Kenrick has come back from a journey to Transylvania, having accidentally killed his beloved wife. Having no faith in another life, he now set his mind on time travel as a form of reunion.

Being unable to find a capable enough mathematician who will work with him willingly, he uses his siren second wife to lure in the rakish French émigré  Émile Dubois, then besotted with his aunt’s companion Sophie de Courcy, but at odds with her and seeking diversion elsewhere.

Gothic adventure amongst the snows on the isolated Famau Mountain in North Wales in the bitter winter of 1794-1795 follows – some of it alarming, much of it comic. Finally, the mutual hatred between Émile and Kenrick culminates in a brutal knife fight where Émile and his ally Georges – as they think – stab Kenrick and his man Arthur through the heart.

They believe they have killed them. But an explosion soon follows, which draws the bodies away before they can sever their heads.

End of Spoilers…

Three years have passed.  Kenrick and Arthur plan to return from that other sphere in the time distortion, and Kenrick, having failed to achieve reunion with his wife there, once again sets to draw in Émile into his schemes. He has a new accomplice in another siren, Ceridwen’s cousin Guinevere.

Émile and his cousin Reynaud Ravensdale, the eponymous anti hero of ‘Ravensdale’ available from Amazon here,  are now on their way up to North Wales to investigate if all is yet still at Kenrick’s house, and the sharpshooter Reynaud carries silver bullets. Kenrick sends through some odd creations of his own to waylay them.

Kenrick – who always suffered from what was once known as a ‘servant problem’ – has been far from idle in his other sphere, and has created a private army of monster men.

…And if they don’t deter Émile and Reynaud, perhaps his new siren accomplice will.

Meanwhile, he sends ahead his man Arthur to prepare his house for his own return. Unluckily for Émile and Sophie, their maid, the sultry Éloise, has always had a soft spot for Arthur. When she comes upon him, bloodied and seemingly dying, she can’t resist helping him, paving the way for another full scale confrontation between the deadly enemies.

Can Sophie – with the invaluable help of Agnes – her mentor and nominally her maid –  change the course of events, so the men and half men do not once again descend into another bloodbath?

This is the scenery thorugh which Emile and Reyand ride on their way up to North Wales. This is in fact, the Horseshoe Pass, not created until 1811. They would have passed near here, but in the very different landcape of June – albeit the very wet one of 1797.


Blackwood by Jo Danilo: A Darkly Humorous Fairy Tale for All Ages

I found this a real page turner; it may be officially YA, for twelve or over – but it is not a book with an appeal restricted to a particular age group, It is laugh-out-loud funny, intriguing and sad in turns.

At the climatic scene, where the protagonist Silas is briefly given his own particular hearts’ desire – only to have it snatched away – I found that there were tears in my eyes. That is a compliment indeed to the writer, as these days, after all reading so many novels, I am hardened towards characters’ feelings – unless they are really well portrayed.

It begins with the feel of a quirky, tongue-in-cheek fairy story, but it is far more than that; the rising tensions in the merciless battle between the humans and the ethereal population at Blackwood leads to a climatic section of powerful transcendence ( a word that readers who are truly YA may have to look up in the dictionary, but a useful one to know for literary criticism).

In fifteenth century England, the family of the fisherman ridiculously called Crumb are delighted when a baby sister is finally born to their son Silas. But the genius baby has been conceived through magic, and is finally revealed as a changeling.

The family have a few happy months together before they realise this. During this time Silas – an unusually sensitive boy – makes up and sings a wistful cradle song to his sister which has much relevance to what happens later:

‘‘Tis just the beginning of you and of me,
As we wander by the stream.
You on one side, I on the other,
Just water in between.

I’ll sing to you as time goes by,
As winter melts to spring.
As flowers bloom, and die again,
So to life we’ll cling.

I’ll sing to you as the river floods,
And we’re poured into the sea.
And then I’ll hold you in my arms
Together, finally.’

In carrying out the ritual recommended by the priest to exchange a changeling, both parents and the baby are drowned. Silas is left alone. He is devastated, but after a months’ disappearance, during which time he is seemingly mysteriously healed, he returns to the village and his old life of fishing.

As he grows up – seemingly light hearted again – he becomes friends with a local gypsy youth, Otto. He falls for a village girl, the spirited tomboy Mab, who unfortunately for him, only cares for him as a friend.

She is in love with the handsome Otto, who fascinates most of the women in the village: in fact, Christina notices about him:

‘The way he walked and the way he held his head showed how confident and sure of himself he was. He had a very authoritative air. A girl would feel safe from the world in his arms.’

The villagers have no doubt that evil magic from the fairy population caused this tragedy and many others. They have long been petitioning the local lord of the manor to do something about it – without success.

These fairies are anything but sweet. They are warlike, vengeful, and if delicately made, often human sized. They regard humans as their natural enemies.

The Lord of Blackwood believes that the peasants exist to give him taxes, not to be protected from nonsense about fairies exacting tolls to venture onto their land.

Some of the petitions are serious, but some are absurd. The absurd ones made up some of my favourite parts of the novel:.

‘Mrs Wainwright went to the Black Wood to gather mushrooms last week, but forgot to pay the toll. She awoke in her bed the next morning with no recollection of what happened after entering the woods, and without a sense of smell. She believes she was abducted by the faeries who subjected her to experimentation. (The Lord of Blackwood was informed of this petition, and concluded that Mrs Wainwright’s lapse of memory is most likely due to harvesting and consuming the wrong type of mushroom).’

Christina knows of Silas’ tragedy, and the fear under which the villagers live. When her alarming stepmother is killed in a hunting accident, she learns that her taskmistress – who brought her up to be stoic and hardly – was preparing her for an hereditary task, that of fighting the fairies, which she has long been doing herself.


At Christina’s first attempt to confront them, her eyelids are magically removed by one of the enemy. This horror, which might have destroyed her, inspires her to become a wholly dedicated warrior. She wants vengeance, for herself, for Silas, and for the others. Christina mourns all night; she knows that disfigured as she is, she will almost certainly never marry and have children now. She must become the dauntless warrior that her stepmother wanted her to be.

She enlists the help of a Captain of the Guards, a redoubtable warrior who recommends a gruelling routine:

‘VI of the Clock: Upon waking, immerse completely in a cold bath to waken the mind and body. Breakfast: Porridge, 3 eggs and fresh bread. VIII of the Clock: Dress in full armour and run three times around the castle walls, stopping as little as possible. Followed by sword practise in the yard with one of the soldiers. Followed by an ascent of the Keep (still in full armour). If all this is completed before lunch you may take a rest…’

This seeming mercilessness is based on concern for her welfare: he knows that she must be in unbelievably strong and tough minded to wage her personal crusade against the ethereal enemy. He is in fact a lovable man (my personal favourite in the book). She comes to realise: – ‘She loved him without question, and had for a long time. She had hidden it well even from herself.’

But then tragedy strikes…

Meanwhile, Mab and Otto have discovered that they are in love. She has visited the Sacred Tree, which grants wishes, to ask for Otto to be hers. Unluckily, she forgets to pay the toll to the fairies. Accordingly, he has been kidnapped by another gypsy group by way of retribution from the faeries.

She and Silas go in search of him. Mab is brave; Silas has something to learn about courage, and they make a comic duo as they go through many, often alarming, and often laughable, adventures.

But at last, all the main characters meet in Blackwood, to enact a decisive conclusion to the war between the humans and the ethereal enemies.

It is difficult to do justice in a review to this book, as it is wholly original. Likeable characters, unexpected twists to the plot, exciting confrontations, happy and sad scenes and dark humour combine to make a truly unique tale.

To round off, here are some of my favourite quotes:

‘The trees went from being welcoming towers of greenery to being haggard, frosty sentries with a sudden wind howling through their branches.’

‘As always, he pictured his family. His mother was knitting at the fireside, his father was smoking fish in the backroom with his cheerful whistle clearly audible, little Salome was sleeping soundly in her crib by the small window. Silas shook his head. With a puff, it all vanished.’

‘Now he was angrier than he had ever been (which was not difficult). He roared at the faeries and charged. It did not matter if he lost his life, for he had lost everything.’

 You can buy this book  on here
from here