Penelope Lively – still writing at 84

One of my book clubs read The Purple Swamp Hen this year, a collection of short stories by British author Penelope Lively. I’m not a fan of short stories, however, several of these have stuck with me including the one on which the book’s title is based. Lively’s writing is … lively. Her observations of people and situations are insightful and she uses the short story form to advantage.

A New York Times review says: “Lively’s prose is sharp, precise, perfectly pitched, but shrinks from flashiness in a way that has sometimes been mistaken for cozy or middlebrow.” For the record – I don’t think her writing is ‘cozy or middlebrow’ at all!

I found an interview with Penelope Lively published in The Guardian and thought I’d share a few bits with you. After all, someone who is 84, has more than forty books to her credit as well as the Booker Prize (for Moon Tiger) and the Carnegie Medal (for children’s books) must know a thing or two about writing.

Writing a novel is like hacking at the rock face. Somewhere within the daunting but inviting mass of the general idea that you have had, the inspiration, is the careful, sculptured construction of the finished narrative. Two or three years of hacking, usually, for me.


I write in longhand, always have done, then type up later on, which is ideal, to my mind, because that way you make all sorts of corrections and additions in the process; it is an editorial stage.


Writers have to goad themselves throughout a writing life; you are your own employer; there is no one else to see that the job gets done.


The whole thing about stories [she’s referring to short stories] is the idea — once you’ve got that, you’re three-quarters of the way there. Stories arise much more from life lived than the novels do — something overheard, something you’ve seen, which you then sort of mull over and see a way it could become a story.

I’ve now downloaded Moon Tiger so I can experience more of Lively’s writing. I’m sure I’ll learn a thing or two.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION follow A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website

The Craft of Writing: Beginnings

King's-ScarletJohn Danielski has two historical novels to his credit: Active’s Measure and The King’s Scarlet, both set in Napoleonic times. He has graciously offered to talk about Beginnings – how writers start their novels. Readers will appreciate the insight into how novels are created and writers will feel the clang of familiarity. Many thanks, John, and over to you.

“First there is nothing but a slow growing dream that your fear seems to hide deep inside your mind.”

The words are from the movie Flashdance, but reflect the way novels begin. You have an inspiration; it may come from a picture, a book, a song, last’s night’s dream, or even a chance remark in an otherwise prosaic conversation. It could pertain to a character, an event, a predicament, a conundrum, or a thousand other undreamt of things. It’s a doorway to an undiscovered country, above all else. You first think, “that might make a really interesting story,” but then cranky Mr. Perfectionist, ruler of the island of lost ideas, chimes in with his verdict; it’s silly, no one would want to read about it, and you don’t have the talent to make it work.

You pursue your usual banal routine and your conscious mind copes with the day to day worries we all have, but unbidden, like a hidden embryo , the idea evolves, expands, and grows in complexity. Your subconscious unobtrusively taps into some cosmic data base and feeds the idea energy. It starts to look at possibilities and works through various permutations. Late in the day, your subconscious sounds a bell that announces,” you’ve got mail.” You stop, you stare, and you smile. You think,” I had never considered it from that angle. There is the gold nugget of a story hidden in all that mud. By God, that just might work.

Like rioters with clubs, more ideas come at you fast and hard. You feel overwhelmed, yet exhilarated. A stern part of you reads those shouting voices a mental version of The Riot Act. You tell them,” order, order! Your insistent voices are useless, unless they can be separated calmly and listened to one at a time.” You look at your laptop across the room and know it’s time to pay it an extended visit. Those boisterous, undisciplined ideas have short attention spans; they may decide to become surly and depart forever.

You assume your secret identity of the hermit monk. You make sure the phone is off and the cat is out. You pour yourself a mug of coffee, put on some soft classical music, Mendelssohn today, and sink deep into your writing chair. It’s an old battered Lazyboy, hopelessly déclassé and not much to look at it, but supremely comfortable, like donning a pair of well used bedroom slippers. You feel it brings you luck, even if Mr. Spock would raise his eyebrows askance at such a ridiculous thought.

You boot up your laptop and Word appears. The vast expanse of screen whiteness naturally intimidates, like a lifeless, Antarctic landscape. You stiffen your resolve and decide it’s time to put some life into that landscape.

You form up those shouting ideas into disciplined ranks and sound the roll call. The trick now is to get those ideas onto the computer, without judging, censoring, or amending. You are dealing with the raw ore of creativity here. You can worry about refining the stuff later.

You pound the keyboard and the screen begins to fill. You are writing a stream of consciousness yet breaking it into discrete blocks. The ideas flow swiftly as time seems to slow down. The world fades and the only thing that matters is what’s on the screen in front of you. Mr. Perfectionist is unceremoniously booted out and his alter ego, Mr. Creative, assumes command.

You smile in satisfaction and think, “ hey this stuff really isn’t bad! It’s actually kind of cool. Wow, where in the blazes did that thought come from?” You could quit now, you have already filled the equivalent of five pages with ideas and performed due obeisance to the Lords of Creativity. But ideas are fickle; they may not want to come out to play the next time out. You are in a flow state and they are rare. Like a mad scientist, you press on. “ I’ve got to see the machine at its full power! “

Ideas continue to appear and part of you is impressed, although you are frankly a little puzzled as to exactly where those ideas are coming from. They are certainly better than anything you could invent; almost as if some outside force is directing your fingers on the keyboard. But you don’t have time for mystical speculations. You keep writing.

Finally fatigue begins to set in. You hear the cat meowing and scratching at the door. Flow states have their limits. You idly glance up at the clock in the corner. Six o’ clock, it can’t be. Five hours gone! Your stomach begins to growl and you realize you have not eaten anything for quite a while. You are reluctant to depart the country you are in, but know you have to. You have mind melded to a higher energy, now it’s time to step that energy down to a level compatible with the world of the mundane.

You get out of your chair, stretch your arms and touch your toes, and let the cat in. You pet him for a few minutes and realize the link is broken. You are back. You print out your product and glance over it.

You have done good work today. It’s but a small step and it’s a long way to Tipperary. You have a puzzle ahead of completely unknown configuration, but at least you have mined enough materials to start shaping the pieces. Lots of frustration, hair pulling, and highly creative use of expletives await you in the months ahead. Any sensible person would put their warp drive into full reverse, but like a moth drawn to a flame you know you will continue. You are a writer, after all. You can’t help yourself. It’s what you do.

I found so much of this resonating in terms of how I work. Many thanks for sharing your ideas, John. And good luck with Mr Creative!

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION follow A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET will be published by Lake Union on August 16, 2016.

Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website