An Afternoon in Buckingham Palace Gardens

This is a very self indulgent post. I don’t do many of these, but this week has been a strange one… because on Tuesday I went to Buckingham Palace. No, really.

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Me, in entrance quad in Buckingham Palace. This is the first time I’ve worn a fascinator.

Sometime in January, I had an email from the Society of Authors asking if I’d been to a Royal Garden Party before and if not, if I’d like to go (you’re supposed to go only once). The answer was a resounding ‘yes’ (obviously).

I’d heard about Royal Garden parties, but I had never entertained the possibility of going to one. Well, you don’t, do you? It turns out that the Soc of Authors was offered some tickets which they could offer and my name came out of the ballot. [I volunteer on their Authors North Events committee – which is tremendous fun and I’ve met some lovely people through the events]. Thank you Society of Authors!

I caught the train down on Tuesday morning (Hull Trains do a direct service to King’s Cross) and got there at lunchtime. I had plenty of time to get changed and get across to Victoria Station, where I met my friend who was my plus. I couldn’t take my husband because he was needed at home for babysitting duty. So my friend and I both had an afternoon off while our husbands were left at home looking after the children.

We queued – very British – and went through the grand entrance to the Palace, which meant we got to walk through a small section of the Palace (under the famous balcony where they wave from) to get to the gardens.

DSC_0080The Queen has beautiful gardens. You could forget you were in London if it weren’t for the skyscrapers in the distance and the sirens. It was a nice, warm day and it didn’t rain, so I didn’t need the umbrella or the pashmina that I’d crammed into my handbag. dsc_0083.jpgThe tea itself was lovely. There were lots of little cakes and, of course, cucumber sandwiches. All the staff (both the Palace staff and the catering folk) were very smiley and very helpful, which was nice.

I didn’t get to see the Queen (only a glimpse at a vast distance) because I’m a short person and short people don’t get to see things when in a crowd. I did see the Queen through the screen on the phone of the person in front of me, but I’m not sure that counts as actually seeing her. I did get to see the Duke of Edinburgh, but not to ‘meet’ him as such. My friend and I gave us trying to spot the royals after a bit and went back for a second cup of tea instead (there was no queue this time!).

 

Afterwards, my friend and I went out for a curry, because it seemed like the right thing to do when wearing an outfit posh enough to require a hat.

 

The next morning, I had an hour to kill before my train, so I went to see the Wellcome Collection. It was fascinating (and free). I’m not sure what I was expecting, but the collection of erotic/phallic objects was a bit of a surprise. The things that intrigued me most were the mummified man and the wood and leather prosthetic legs. Oh, and the

human genome
The Human Genome on a shelf

human genome in book form. It always amazes me that everything that we are is coded for by combinations of just four base pairs. From that arises infinite variety.

If you are ever at a loose end near Euston, I do recommend the Wellcome Collection. The cafe does excellent cakes and the shop is full of all sorts of geeky science gifts. Incidentally, if you have luggage, they have a cloakroom, so you don’t have to drag your suitcase around the exhibitions.

So there you have my exciting week. How was your week? Any exciting news?

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Drawing parallels between writing reports and writing fiction – and why characters are everything.

Last week, I was asked to give a talk to a group of counselling trainees at my local FE college about creative writing and academic writing. The contact came through my local writing group, The Beverley Chapter. I was suggested to the FE college because I once belonged to the world of academia and still do  a lot of technical writing and, as you know, I write fiction.

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Totally irrelevant picture of Stormtroopers carrying chocolate.

The brief I was given was fairly vague and I found myself standing in front of a group of 26 adult students, with an hour to fill. So I started off by outlining who I was – someone who had always wanted to write fiction, but was encouraged to do something more ‘practical’ so that I could get a job when I grew up; Biochemistry degree and microbiology PhD from Oxford; short-lived post-doc career; the move into information science and intellectual property, ending up with my current job of IP officer for a university. In parallel, a second career as a romance novelist. After that, I ran out of steam a bit.

Luckily, they asked questions. Here are a few topics we covered:

 

Parallels between structuring a novel and structuring an academic essay:

Both have a beginning, a middle and an end. In academic writing it is an introduction, an argument (or, in case of science papers, a experimental section) and a conclusion. We discussed how a novel is essentially an illustration of an argument. The argument is the theme. Good will triumph over evil, the end doesn’t (or does) justify the means, love conquers all adversity – these are all themes which are exemplified in stories. You use characters to explore the theme.

 

Why use creative writing in academic writing:

I told a story about how I learned a load of stuff as an undergraduate. I was good at learning stuff and passing exams, so I did it. I even found it interesting from time to time. But I didn’t appreciate why it was important until my fourth year.

I chose to take a module called Genetics and Disease. One of the textbooks contained testimonials. The first one I read was about the CFTR protein and its gene – which is linked to cystic fibrosis. This chapter had a section written by someone whose sister died of cystic fibrosis. The contributor talked about their grief of losing their sister, about how, if she had lived longer, she could have benefited from drugs that could have improved her quality of life, and about how the contributor herself felt about the fact that she was carrying a defective copy of the gene that she could pass on to her children. This testimony moved me to tears. Suddenly, this module which was about genes and proteins and metabolic systems had meaning. It affected real people. This was important.

People are interested in people. Give case studies, where possible. It’s all about human interest. As novelists, we know this. People read to see what happens to the characters. In academic writing, there is less room for characters, but if you can find somewhere, get them in. Give the work a human context.

 

Does passive writing have a place:

Yes, I believe it does. Nothing we write is ever truly objective, but writing in the passive voice forces us to frame things in a more objective way. Most report writing is done in an objective way, but I know that in my own reports, my word choices are affected by how I feel about an invention. The facts remain the same, but at some point my opinion comes into it, sometimes without my noticing. If I describe something as say, ‘eye-catching’ it conveys a different impression to if I described it as ‘flamboyant’.

This lead onto a side discussion about opinions and their place in formal documents. There are times when you are required to give a professional opinion. This can be in the form of a recommendation. It is important that the reader is told that this is an opinion and not a fact. The facts that were used to arrive at the opinion need to be clearly listed in the text before. The introduction – argument- conclusion format lends itself well to this.

 

Saggy middles:

We discussed the flailing around stage in the middle of documents. I talked about the dreaded saggy middle that all novelists face. We talked about the thread of the narrative and how real life has events all over the place – some relevant to the plot, some not – and how, as a novelist, I have to work out which events drive the plot forward. If they’re not relevant to the plot, I have to leave them out.

This lead to a very interesting discussion about the counselling process where you know where you started and  you know where you ended up, but you’re trying to work out the narrative of how you got from one place to the other – which events were relevant, which events were background noise.

 

Towards the end someone asked me why I write romance (because from my background, it would seem I’d choose sci fi). Here’s my answer:

It’s about people falling in love. Why would you not want to write about it? People are endlessly complex. I write about people and how they change. The change happens to involve falling in love.

Besides, that first kiss feeling is wonderful and I live it again and again through my characters.

But, as they rightly pointed out, you’d expect me to read a lot of sci fi. I did when I was younger. Also fantasy and crime. I still do read those, but nowadays I read a lot of more romance and women’s fiction.  I have a theory that this fits better into the way I read post-kids. I no longer have the luxury of diving into a book and staying there for 3 hours until I’m too hungry to carry on. I read in 5 to 10 minute bursts.  I also have a shockingly bad memory (mumnesia, it’s really a thing).  A romance novel is mainly about an emotional arc, which is easier to pick up and put down.

I read A Game of Thrones recently (only the first one, I’ll get to the next in time). DH and I discussed it later. I went on and on about the relationships and the emotional arcs of the characters. He asked me what I thought of the politics … tumbleweed. I’d been too invested in the character conflicts to really pay attention to the subtleties of the politics. I got the broad brush stuff (you can’t miss it), but the subtle power games… nope.

I love reading thrillers (not horror – I’m squeamish). Again, I will plug into the emotional tension and feel the characters’ fear in my short bursts of reading. Give me something where the character emotions  are secondary to the beautiful descriptions and I’ll probably put it down after two chapters.

This being a counselling group, we also talked about how I wasn’t allowed to read romance novels as a young teen, in case it gave me ‘ideas’. I was supposed to focus on studying. I grew up in Sri Lanka, where this was normal. I negotiated with my mother and read ONE Sweet Dreams romance. One. In the end, I decided to write my own. I still have my old typescripts – they’re badly faded and the edges have almost melted from being handled by hot little hands, but you can still read the notes my school friends scribbled in the margins. Reader feedback. It’s a wonderful thing.

The people in the group were all very lovely and said it was different and interesting talk. I hope it was. It was certainly a very interesting experience for me. The people I usually talk to are writers who are more interested in the how than the why. It was interesting to be made to think about why I write what I write. I still come to the same answer. People are so fascinating. Why wouldn’t you want to explore them more?

Bacteria inspired names and GBBO – a podcast

A few months ago Sarah from Smart Bitches Trashy Books reviewed Please Release Me. She also contacted me and asked if I would do a podcast for her blog. It’s gone live today!

http://smartbitchestrashybooks.com/podcast/212-gin-tonic-bacteria-us-uk-romance-markets-interview-rhoda-baxter/

For those who aren’t followers for the affectionately named ‘Bitchery’, it’s a blog about romance novels written by a group of very smart women who read romance because it’s fun. They also read high brow literary fiction, but, you know, romance is where the heart is.

Anyway. Sarah and I talked about all kinds of things – like how romance is defined in the US vs UK markets, how jacket covers differ in the two countries, the diversity debate that is currently rocking the US romance publishing world (but hasn’t quite reached here yet) and the lack of scientists in romance novels until The Big Bang Theory came along. Because we both like cake, we also discussed gin and tonic cupcakes. It seemed rude not to.

I’m off to jump up and down in an excited manner for a few minutes now. If you listen to the podcast, please leave a comment and let me know what you thought! Especially  if you know any good recipes for cupcakes.

 

 

A weekend of science related fun

Some time ago, I read a piece in the Guardian about the Butlins Science Weekends, went on the internet to look up what it was all about… and ended up booking us in for the weekend; which is how we ended up being in Skegness last weekend. I’d never been to Butlins before. I didn’t think it was the sort of thing I’d enjoy. On the other hand, science themed activities are fun and I thought we might learn something.

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It was brilliant. The kids got to help mix cornflower and water to make ‘custard’ and then they got to run along it. In case you haven’t come across it before, cornflour in water makes a non Newtonian fluid which goes solid (momentarily) on impact. This means that you can run along it, so long as you keep moving. If you stop, you sink. It’s quite tricky to get yourself out again because if you tug, the stuff goes solid around your foot. You have to ease it out very gently. See here for explanation:  http://www.bbc.co.uk/science/0/22880407

At one point, we went past the tent and there wasn’t a huge queue of kids waiting, so I had a go at running along the custard too. It felt like you were running along a slightly sticky rubber sheet.

We did a few workshops (chosen by DD1 who was itinerary monitor). We had a go at code breaking, in a session run by a chap from Bletchley Park. He let us have a go on real live Enigma machine! The session was fast paced and I managed to let the side down by transcribing a number wrong (in my defence, I was trying to pacify a very cross DD2 at the time and I HAD solved my puzzle correctly).  

Later, we learned how to program a BBC microbit to play rock, paper, scissors (but not lizard or Spock).

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I didn’t get to go to the Sound/Lighting workshop or the Brainiac’s show, but DD tells me they were good. She was especially taken with the Brainiacs… something to do with electric shocks (?!). People from Aardman did a show on the basics of stop frame animation, which was really good fun and had me wondering if I should have a go at making some brick films for book trailers…

The Science Museum had a set of stalls where you could try tabletop science experiments. There were loads of members of staff on hand to explain stuff and they were all very well briefed. I was mildly amused to see that the people wearing lab coats were Butlins staff and the people from the University of Plymouth were in plain clothes.

As I said, I never thought of Butlins as a holiday destination and I wouldn’t have gone if it hadn’t been for the science theme. I was pleasantly surprised by the whole experience and I might even consider going there without the sciencey stuff – although, I don’t think I’d last for much longer than a weekend.

So, am I glad I took a chance on the Butlins Science Weekend? Definitely.

Would I do it again? I rather think I might.

Goodreads Book review: How I Wonder What You Are by Jane Lovering

How I Wonder What You AreHow I Wonder What You Are by Jane Lovering

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’d heard about Phinn, the hero in this book and I was so looking forward to reading about him that I pre-ordered the book. When it arrived on my Kindle, I zoomed through it within 24 hours. It would have been quicker if I could read in the shower.

Anyhew – Phinn is a genius and, like a lot of geniuses (geniusi?) he has only a passing relationship with living in the real world. Phinn is more Leonard Hofstader than Sheldon Cooper in that his insecurities have insecurities.Since I like my men to be cute in a stupid-ass way (sorry, DH!), I loved Phinn.

Molly is hiding from her past. As this past trickles out, you realise that Molly isn’t as nice as you first thought she was, but then, who is? I felt sorry for her dawning awareness. It made her more believable.

As always, there are very funny bits. The scene in the pub was hilarious. There’s also a couple of interesting best friends, a cesspit tank, a horse called Stan (quite a character) and a biting North Yorkshire wind that sees more action than anyone else.

The usual disclaimer applies – I know Jane. We both write for Choc Lit, but I was a fan before all that etc.

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Goodreads Book Review: Here’s Looking at You by Mhairi McFarlane

Here's Looking at YouHere’s Looking at You by Mhairi McFarlane

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read this book because Alison May suggested it as a good read for geek girls. I like Anna – her voice was suitably sharp and witty, her love of her subject was charming to see. It’s interesting that the hero was the boy who bullied her at school.
I didn’t like James as much. In some ways he still hadn’t grown out of that streak of cruelty that hurt Anna so much at school. On the other hand the gradual realisation that he wasn’t as nice as he thought he was and that he’d actually ended up with a best friend and a wife that he didn’t actually like were well handled and the change in James was plausible.
In places this book was laugh out loud funny.

I really enjoyed reading this book and will look out for more books by Mhairi McFarlane.

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Goodreads book review: Girl From Mars by Julie Cohen

Girl From MarsGirl From Mars by Julie Cohen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Every so often there’s a book that you pick up and it speaks to you instantly. For me, Girl From Mars was just that sort of book. I recognised the type of people in it and definitely recognised the dynamics of the friendship Fil has with Jim and Digger.

The comic book geek side of things was very entertaining and I loved the insight into how Fil sees the world. There are two potential suitors in this book and I honestly did not know which one she was going to choose right until the end.

I think this is going to be one of my all time favourite comfort reads from now on. I don’t know why I didn’t read this book sooner.

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Goodreads Book review: Joss Whedon Geek King of the Universe by Amy Pascale

Joss Whedon: Geek King of the Universe - A BiographyJoss Whedon: Geek King of the Universe – A Biography by Amy Pascale

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amy Pascale is clearly a big fan and treats her subject with reverence. This is a biography of Joss Whedon through his work. That suits me fine because I hoped to learn something from it.

I didn’t watch Buffy when I was a teenager (despite being right in the middle of the target demographic at the time). The first time I came across anything by Joss Whedon was when I watched Dr Horrible. I totally loved it. I want cowboys singing my text messages like they do for Bad Horse.
Likewise, I adored Firefly, Serenity and Dollhouse. I admired the writing. A lot.

As I mentioned, I didn’t watch Buffy. But, having watched a couple of episodes now, I realise that I talk like the characters in it. I probably picked this up from people around me, who picked it up from Buffy. Joss Whedon shaped the way I talk. Influential, much?

So, what did I learn from all this?
1) Joss is very talented.
2) He’s a nice guy and likes to work with people he gets on with.
3) He tends to like people who are very bright and good at what they do (is the flipside of this ‘doesn’t suffer fools’?)
4) He expects a lot from himself and others.
5) He works ridiculously hard. This guy works so hard there should be a new word to describe it.

I also learned the answer to something that has bothered me for years: Why did Wash have to die?? (Alan Tudyk fangirl, me).

I’d recommend this book to anyone who is a fan of Joss Whedon’s work. Read, absorb and learn.
I wish I’d bought it in hardback because it’s the sort of book I’d dip into for motivation.

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It’s here! It’s here! Doctor January is out in paperback!

I’m ridiculously excited that my first ever print book is out now!

Doctor January by Rhoda Baxter
It looks like this, but in 3D

It’s published by the fabulous Choc Lit. You can buy it on Amazon and other ebook retailers. Also you can buy it from proper real life bookshops. To test this theory (’cause I’m not sure I totally, 100% believed it was possible), I asked the Waterstones at the Uni where I work if they’ll stock it. They said yes. I shall be going by tomorrow to check!

I’m planning on eating lots of celebratory chocolate and having many cups of tea today – I know how to party on a school night.

So, here’s the link to Amazon. 

Please tell your friends, and your relatives and total strangers!

If you read it, please, please review it. We writers are constantly plagued with doubt and it’s very reassuring to know that people like what you’ve written (and if they’ve not liked it, why they didn’t, so that we know what we need to work on).

I’m off now to go jiggle about and cuddle my book. There may be cake. Byeeee!