In our modern world it seems to me that there is a great and powerful need to hurry. If you have a dream, there is no time to waste, we are told: go out there right now and seize hold of your dream! But this is not the only path to a dream; and neither, perhaps, is it the best one.
As a young woman, I burned with the desire to write. I was ready in so many ways: I had made the choice, in my early teens, that I would be a novelist; I had read and read to learn the craft, and attended university to hone the craft; and there were novels inside me, clamouring to be written.
However, I knew that my time had not yet come. I didn’t try to publish novels: I travelled, I got married, I had children and I ran my own business. Writing was a dream that I treasured in these years, something to look towards on the horizon. I ‘filled my papers with the breaking of my heart’ (Wordsworth), but they were notes jotted down in notebooks, not manuscripts. I knew that there was no time limitation on art; no actual pressure, beyond that which may be exerted internally, to act quickly on aspirations.
Have you heard the expression ‘late bloomer’? It is one which, I confess, I do not much like. Usually, it is used to refer to a child whose capabilities or talents are slower to emerge than others’. But in the creative world, it is also used to describe someone who hits their creative stride later in life.
A prime example is the English novelist Mary Wesley. Mary was a very successful writer, selling three million books. However, she didn’t publish her first novel until she was 70 years of age. (She had, in fact, published three children’s books before this, in her fifties, but they had made her no money.) The Telegraph calls the story of her literary career ‘one of the most uplifting in recent literary history’.
Other notable late bloomers in the literary world published their first novels in their fifties and sixties; for example, Laura Ingalls Wilder with Little House on the Prairie; Frank McCourt with Angela’s Ashes, Kenneth Grahame with The Wind in the Willows and Richard Adams with Watership Down. But in fact, in some circles you can be considered a late bloomer if you first publish as early as your forties, outside the scope of the New Yorker’s annual ‘20 under 40’ list of writers to watch.
You could be forgiven for thinking, based on the media, that new authors in their twenties and thirties are the only ones to watch. Of course we are reminded often that JK Rowling was in her early thirties when Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was published. But according to writer Kazuo Ishiguro, as quoted in the Telegraph, even writers in their thirties are not budding, but peaking.
I disagree. Age does not matter; talent matters – and passion and commitment and, above all else, experience. It is life experience that moulds a writer, and so one must live life in order to write about life. I also believe that patience is a virtue, and that waiting to write, and longing to write, my own novels has made me a far better writer and better equipped to manage all that the modern world of publishing requires.
I am left questioning: For what exactly is a late bloomer late? Absolutely nothing, is the answer. It is never too late to do what you have dreamed of doing; but equally, it is never imperative that you pursue a dream before you are ready.
One of my hobbies is reading dictionaries; not cover to cover, because that would take an age, but dipping in and out. I love to learn about languages – both French and English, because I am bilingual. I especially love etymology, which is the study of the origin of words and the way in which their meanings have changed throughout history.
I have several dictionaries on my desk (pictured) which are well-thumbed. I never throw out a dictionary, even when it is old and fraying; they are the most soulful of books, I think, veritable treasure troves of learning. Along with general dictionaries, I have those for bilingual translation, synonyms (thesauri) and rhyming – not because I am a poet, but because I love the rhythm of rhyme.
Today, for fun, I am sharing ten things I have learned about dictionaries, some of which may just surprise you.
1. Dictionaries in various forms have existed right back to the earliest writings, but they were not so-called. Englishman John of Garland – graduate of the Universities of Oxford and Paris and master at the University of Toulouse – first coined the term ‘dictionary’ in 1220. He called the book he had written to help readers of Latin the Dictionarius.
2. The first single-language English dictionary was published in 1604 by a teacher named Robert Cawdrey and entitled Table Alphabeticall. At the time, advances in literature, science, medicine and the arts were creating all kinds of new words, and Cawdrey endeavoured to capture these and bring some order to the English language. The book had no words beginning with J, K, U, W, X or Y. A copy of this book is held to this day by the Bodleian Library, Oxford (a wonderful place to visit, I may add, if you ever have the chance).
3. Samuel Johnson laid the foundations for modern dictionaries. In 1755 he published the first really reliable modern (for its time) dictionary, A Dictionary of the English Language. It was so good that it was the standard dictionary for more than a century (until Oxford University began on their great work – see below). Samuel’s entries were sometimes colourful; ‘excise’, for example, was defined as ‘a hateful tax collected by wretches hired by those to whom excise is paid’, and ‘dull’ was defined as ‘not exhilarating, not delightful: as, “to make dictionaries is dull work”’.
4. The Oxford English Dictionary – in print to this day, and right here on my desk – was first published in 1928 in no less than 12 volumes, after 50 years’ work. Today, the dictionary is still widely regarded as the go-to source, with quarterly updates of new words (published at http://public.oed.com/whats-new/). Interestingly, though, back when it was first compiled, one of its main contributors was a man named William Chester Minor from his room in a mental asylum, in which he had been incarcerated for murder. To this day, people are invited to contribute to the dictionary: http://public.oed.com/the-oed-appeals/about-the-oed-appeals/.
5. Noah Webster spent 27 years researching and compiling his American Dictionary of the English Language, and to do so he learned some 26 languages. The final published work contained 12,000 words never before contained in a dictionary!
6. Dictionaries began as prescriptive: the compiler laid down hard-and-fast rules. For example, Noah Webster decided that color should be the American spelling for the British English colour, and center the spelling for centre. These days, dictionaries are more descriptive, exploring usage rather than decreeing it. Basically, those who compile dictionaries don’t necessarily approve of words, they simply report the words that people are using, and how.
7. Lexicography is the word used to describe the study of dictionaries. In fact, no one thought to study them until the 20th century. A man named Ladislav Zgusta, professor of linguistics and classics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, was the first to write a guide to lexicography in 1955, and he is seen as the godfather of the field.
8. All dictionaries are out of date. As Samuel Johnson put it, “Dictionaries are like watches, the worst is better than none, and the best cannot be expected to go quite true.” Because language is constantly evolving, no dictionary can keep perfect pace. Still, there is a lot that can be learned from any dictionary.
9. A dictionary is a wonderful tool for a writer, but it does not teach one to write. As Jorge Luis Borges wrote, “It is often forgotten that [dictionaries] are artificial repositories, put together well after the languages they define. The roots of language are irrational and of a magical nature.”
10. The longest word in an English dictionary is Pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis. It was conceived in 1935 by the then-president of the American National Puzzlers’ League, as a deliberate attempt to create the longest word in the English language. It worked: the synonym for silicosis, which refers to a lung disease, found its way into major dictionaries. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word thus: ‘an artificial long word said to mean a lung disease caused by inhaling very fine ash and sand dust’. A word well worth learning to impress, if not overly useful in conversation, correspondence and, in my case, romantic fiction…
While reading an article in the Irish Independent on romance novels, a quotation from author Kate Kerrigan caught my eye:
‘The people who are reading romance are not like the people who are reading the Booker shortlist. They are voracious readers and they are getting through a volume of books.’
It’s commonly known that romance is the biggest genre, of course, with the most sales, but have you ever considered that the size of the readership is not simply down to the fact that a lot of readers read romance, but also because romance readers read a lot (if you follow my logic)?
How many romance books do you read each year, as opposed to books in other genres? How many books does a romance reader read as opposed to a reader with other tastes?
‘They are voracious readers and they are getting through a volume of books.’ What is it about romance that makes readers read and read in the genre? Do romance readers tear through books more quickly than other readers? Do they dedicate more hours to reading – and if so, why? Does Netflix-style ‘binge reading’ come into play (see this article in the Times Literary Supplement: ‘Netflix, heir to Dickens?’).
This would make for a very interesting research study, don’t you think?
It strikes me that no question of quantity can be asked without also considering quality. There are romance authors (and, indeed, publishers) who are aware of the power of quantity and who consequently churn out fiction. Often, these are books that have been written quickly. They may be short. They may be lacking in complexity and depth. They are offering quick ‘fixes’, as some readers term it, to a romance addiction.
I am signed to a wonderful publisher, London Wall, that supports my way of writing and publishing. I don’t churn out books; I don’t write quickly, with the aim of producing something that’s merely acceptable rather than the very best I can write. I tend to take a whole year to create a book, from idea and research through writing and editing. I labour over that book; I care about it deeply. I always endeavour to write something meaningful, which will transport my readers into the story world. I want to create books that are ‘keepers’, to remain on the shelf and be re-read someday. In short, quality is very important to me – more so than quantity.
When a romance reader chooses to read one of my novels, I know that it is just one of many books they will read this year. But I hope that with my book they won’t feel it’s a quick read, a story to race through before moving on to the next one. I hope that my book offers the reader a chance to slow down, breathe and relax, as they enjoy a journey to an exotic location infused with passion, beauty and truth.
A new ‘Hannah Fielding’ novel may be more of an annual, rather than quarterly, event, but it is one I look forward to immensely, knowing that the new novel is a work of which I am proud. In case you are wondering, a new book, entitled Aphrodite’s Tears, is in the pipeline, and I’m very happy with how it is looking. As soon as I have a publication date fixed, I will share the news on my blog.
Back in the nineteenth century, readers – men and women alike – began to discover and enjoy fiction by new novelists Currer Bell, Ellis Bell, Acton Bell and George Eliot. Male writers, you may well have assumed, but in fact these were the pen names of the Brontë sisters and Mary Ann Evans, so chosen to ensure they were taken seriously in the male-dominated field of literature.
Fast-forward to more recent times, and readers are confronted by covers on which the author’s name is deliberately gender-ambiguous. JK Rowling, of course, is the obvious example (but it’s notable that when she moved into writing crime thrillers, she stepped back in time some two hundred years and, like the Brontës and Evans, adopted a male nom de plume, Robert Galbraith).
It is not only female writers, though, who are opting for gender-ambiguous pen names. The Wall Street Journal recently published an article entitled ‘These Male Authors Don’t Mind if You Think They’re Women’. The article profiles male authors whose books have sold well under an ambiguous pseudonym. SJ Watson, for example, author of Before I Go to Sleep, is in fact Steve Watson, though his book is written from the first-person female perspective. His was one of the stand-out thrillers that launched the ‘Girl Who’ genre currently in vogue that is aimed at female readers.
In my genre, romance, male writers are under even more pressure to hide their gender. A 2014 Goodreads survey found that women read women; 80 per cent of a new female author’s audience is likely to be female. And yet women can also make the choice to be ambiguous; take EL James and JR Ward, for example.
Issues can emerge with using pen names to occlude gender, relating to discomfort in either the reader or the writer over lack of transparency and honesty. From the author’s point of view, it is one thing to choose to put a name on a book cover, but another to actually pretend to be that fictional person – to have Twitter conversations with readers under that name, for example. From the reader’s perspective, discovering that an author whose book they have enjoyed is not the gender they had assumed can be disconcerting. It can even feel like a betrayal – ‘It leads me to be suspicious of the writer,’ said one reader. ‘I just feel a little bit lied to.’
Book marketers insist gender-ambiguous pen names can make a difference. (Would JK Rowling have achieved her stratospheric success as Joanne? We can never know.) But clearly there is a down side to taking this marketing angle.
I am left wondering: should there even be a reason, in the twenty-first century, to consider concealing one’s gender? Should readers judge a fictional (or non-fictional) work based on the gender of its author?
In her 1847 book Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë wrote: “I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will.” Her heroine’s words, and perhaps her own longing – for she was not free then to write as herself; she had published as Currer Bell. All these years later, one has to ask: should writers today be free to write as themselves?
She’s the one: Five reasons I write in the third person
‘I had not intended to love him; the reader knows I had wrought hard to extirpate from my soul the germs of love there detected; and now, at the first renewed view of him, they spontaneously revived, great and strong! He made me love him without looking at me.’
So declares Jane Eyre in the eponymous novel by Charlotte Brontë. It is my favourite work of English literature, and in my teenage years, when I first began reading literature, it was one of the books that inspired me to want to be a novelist myself someday.
Yet, there is one aspect of Jane Eyre with which I never connected well: the first-person narration: ‘I had not intended… I had wrought… He made me love’. When I came to read French literature at university, I found I was entirely more comfortable reading novels like Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert, in which Emma’s story is narrated in the third person.
I was stirred to consider this preference by a recent article in the Times Literary Supplement entitled ‘A brief history of the first person’ (http://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/public/brief-history-first-person/). The author charts her personal journey from writing only in the first person, because the alternative felt ‘remote, false, a performance’, to struggling to so much as read a book written in the first person, let alone write in it. Interestingly, she describes the turning point as being when she became a mother and began telling stories to her child.
All of the books I have written are in the third person: I write ‘She entered the room’, not ‘I entered the room’. Here are the reasons I believe third-person narration works for my romance fiction:
1. I draw on a heritage of oral storytelling.
The third-person narrative is as old as time. Imagine ancestors at the fireside telling stories – fairy tales like Cinderella, Aladdin; the storyteller told the story in the third person. As a result, there is an intrinsic sense of comfort in being told (or reading) a story in which the narrator is not a part of the story.
As a little girl, I lived for story time, and for me that meant listening to stories. My governess would challenge me to come up with my own stories, and I did: so my first steps into storytelling were in the third person, and when I write now, it feels right and natural to tell a story in that way.
2. I like to explore multiple perspectives.
The first-person narrative allows the reader to get very close to the protagonist, to see the fictional world through her eyes. There is a limitation, however: the reader can only see through the heroine’s eyes.
In my fiction, I like to move occasionally into the hero’s point of view. It is important to me that he have a voice, a perspective on the story – and it allows the reader to see the heroine from another angle. Using an omniscient (all-seeing) narrator allows me to move about as I wish.
3. I want to have a bird’s eye view.
Readers of my fiction know that settings are very important in my novels. I like to set a scene and really transport my reader there. A heroine can’t achieve that; I need a narrator who knows all about the scene and can stand back and describe it.
4. My heroines are not extensions of myself.
When a writer writes ‘I’, the reader can quite naturally infer that ‘I’ means ‘I’! That is to say, if I write ‘I’ for my heroine, the reader assumes there is something (a lot, even) of myself, the writer, in that heroine; she is more personal.
In addition, over time heroines could blend together. To date, I have published five novels, each with a different heroine. I think had I written each of these books in the first person, it would have been harder to differentiate between the heroines. A reader working through all my novels may start to wonder, ‘Who is this “I”?’
5. A little emotional distance allows for breathing space.
I write epic, romantic fiction in which characters go on emotional journeys. Were I to write in the first person, I think my fiction could become claustrophobic; my reader could get quite overwhelmed by the strong emotions of the heroine. The third-person narration allows me to create just a little breathing space. Having said that, you may still need a fan to hand for the passionate scenes!