Archive by Author | Lorraine Swoboda

The ball of string theory of novel-writing

Penryn Market St - Copy


A novel starts out like a huge knotted bundle of string. You can see the ends of various pieces sticking out, and you must choose one to begin to try to unravel the mess. You’ve no idea where it will take you, but it seems the most likely to lead somewhere. Some of the bits of string will be too short to be of any use, and will be discarded; others will be too long, but may come in useful elsewhere, so you wind them up and put them carefully to one side.  As is the way with string, they will probably meet up with others and end up in a similar mess, but you can sort that out later.

I’m at the start of the new novel now, and I’m picking my way through the first knots. It’s a very strange process; I know who the characters are, in abstract, but I have as yet no clue as to how they will interact with each other. It’s one thing to know where I want them to go; it’s quite another for them to actually go there without a fight. I’ve got my first scene down, and already the people are surprising me. An entire new element to the story has come to light, right there in the opening pages. It’s a getting-to-know-you process at this stage, with lots of notes being written (a lesson learnt when writing Mrs Calcott’s Army) as backstory needs to be recorded.

Major Charles Danbury appeared in the first novel, so I know something of him; but there he was a secondary character, and now he’s the main man, so I have to flesh him out, and give him substance.

He has to be different in most ways from Major Mark Roper. I know what he looks like, and a few of his foibles – his knowledge of horses and his love of a good coat, for instance – but apart from his awe of his Aunt Wereham, and his loyalty, what else is he?

New characters are fun, but also a challenge; they have to fit their roles, and I’m not completely sure what they are yet. It’s a little like drawing in the dark; you never know what you’ve created until the lights go on.

I’ve got my locations in my head. The research trip to Cornwall threw up some unusual and interesting facts which want to work their way into the story – more odd bits of string from that knot which may or may not be put aside for later consideration.  It all depends on what the characters want to do, and until I give them (or they give me) the words to speak, I won’t know that.

So: Cornwall, 1818. It’s an interesting place to be. There is huge wealth from shipping, trade and tin, alongside deep poverty from social deprivation, crop failures, and depressed wages. Smuggling isn’t a choice, for some – it’s the only way to earn a living. For others it’s just greed and opportunism. There is more brought into the country than brandy for the parson and baccy for the clerk, and some of it a lot more dangerous.

The towns are growing and changing. Truro has no Cathedral; Penryn is still a busy harbour. Falmouth’s major shipping parks out in the Carrick Roads and the cargoes are unloaded onto smaller ships for bringing ashore. In the wider country, it’s a time of social unrest as mill workers try to organise – which is against the law.  There’s a lot going on.

How much of that will appear in the novel, I don’t know. I’m just the scribe – I write what I’m told to write by the people in the story. So like you, I’ll just have to wait and see – and keep picking at that knotty string.

©Lorraine Swoboda 2017


Dash it all

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Pesky things, dashes. They creep in at the oddest moments, and if you’re not careful, end up making your work look like some barmy kind of Morse code.

First of all, there’s the hyphen. Now, here’s the thing: hyphens are going out of fashion. There are those who swear by them and those who abhor them. Email or email? Cooperation or cooperation? Go with house style or check the dictionary, or use your own judgement; but be consistent.

Consider, if you will, Clive FfordingleyHaggis, the red-haired squire of North Devonshire, who carries a doublebarrelled shotgun, and avoids the builtup areas of the village when he rides out.

redhaired is a compound adjective. It shows that he is not a red, haired squire, but the Devonshire squire who has red hair.

FfordingleyHaggis is a name made up of two parts joined by a hyphen.

Both doublebarrelled and builtup are as given in the OED.

A hyphen can also be used when you need to spread a word across two lines, rather than leave a large gap. Your word processor can be told to do this for you, or you can do it yourself, but be careful where you split the word so that it makes sense.

A dash, however, is not there to make one word out of two; on the contrary, it is there to separate. If you’re emailing a friend – as we all do – you probably chuck dashes in where brackets/parentheses would more usually appear. We use them to insert comments – the sort of interruption that probably doesn’t need to be there at all – into the middle of otherwise perfectly good sentences.

There are reasons to use dashes: but even if you know what those reasons are, you then have to choose what sort of dash to add.

There are two lengths of dash: the em and the en. Word, not altogether helpfully, will make up its own mind how long your dash should be, so it may be better to choose it for yourself.

The em dash — is a line that covers the same space as the letter m on your page: you can find it under Symbols in Word. You can create it with ctrl+alt+Num- (the minus on your number keypad). It is used with no spacing before and afterlike this.

The en dash is a line that covers the same space as the letter n. It is usually used with a space before and after like this. It’s created with ctrl+Num-

It’s easy to over-dash. When dashes denote an interruption or insertion, they could be replaced (in some circumstances) with parentheses; but an excess of those on your page is not only just as annoying as a rash of dashes but also amateurish. If the part that’s being sectioned off could be cut out altogether, do so, thereby solving the problem. If, however, the words forming the insertion are there to underline a point as they should be then dashes are the marks to use.

Which you choose is up to you. Fashion raises its head once again and suggests that the  em dash is becoming passé in the UK but not in the US. The thing is to make sure that you use your favourite properly: no spaces with the em dash – except when it’s being used to mark a missing word, as in the — of Devonshire, and nearly always spaces with the en dash.

Exceptions to the en dash space rule:

if you wish to express a range or sequence, as in 3540, 201516, you use the en dash with no spacing;

where two people’s names are linked by an implied and,  as in a Holmes–Watson mystery;

in pairs of words linked by to, as in the  Paddington–Penzance train.

You can use either kind to denote missing letters: the Duke of D stayed at the R Hotel, or  The Duke of De – – – shire, but only the spaced em dash to mark a complete missing word, as noted above.

If you break off a line of dialogue, always use the em dash.

‘What do you mean, you don’t

‘Of course I don’t! This is the first I’ve heard of the idea,’ FfordingleyHaggis shrugged.

‘I knewas soon as I saw you, I knew

‘I knew as soon as I saw you, I knew

‘I knew!as soon as I saw you, I knew! where the exclamation mark is permitted before the dash, whichever one you use, but no other mark is allowed there. There is no capital after a dash, as in as soon as I saw you, even if it starts a new sentence, unless it’s a proper name.

‘Knew what, for crying out loud?’ FfordingleyHaggis pulled off his cap, and ran his hand through his luxuriant mahogany locks.

‘That’s itthat’s the clue! It’s the hair, of course! Dash it allyou’re my father!’

‘That’s it that’s the clue! It’s the hair, of course! Dash it all you’re my father!’

FfordingleyHaggis Junior has had a revelation though whether it’s the red hair or a red herring is another story entirely.



Father, dear Father, that’s a capital idea.

Dinan House of the Harp




Father is a noun like any other, except when it’s also a name. The same goes for mother, aunt and uncle. There are times when these take a capital and times when they don’t.
When you use Father as a name – For goodness’ sake, Father, must you smoke that pipe in here? – it takes a capital. You could replace it with George in that instance (unless his name isn’t George).
My father likes to smoke his pipe in the kitchen. In this case, I’m saying that the man who stands in relation to me as a father likes to smoke his pipe there.
Mother objects when Father smokes his pipe in the kitchen. Dora objects when George smokes his pipe in the kitchen.
My mother objects when my father smokes his pipe in the kitchen. You can’t replace the words mother and father with Dora and George in this sentence – my Dora and my George; therefore they are not standing in for names and take no capital. Try replacing them: My parents argue when Father smokes his pipe. You wouldn’t write my Parents.
Does your mother object when your father smokes his pipe in the kitchen? You could replace mother and father here, but it depends on context. If I know your parents as George and Dora, I could ask, Does Dora object… but as written, I’m referring to them indirectly through their relationship to you, as before.
You can of course apply the same rules to Mum and Dad.
Part of the perceived problem arises because these two people are your parents. If you changed the words, you’d see the difference.
My brother likes to smoke his pipe in the kitchen. My sister likes to smoke her pipe in the kitchen. (We’re an equal opportunities blog here.) You would probably not in modern parlance refer to your siblings as Brother or Sister: For goodness’ sake, Sister, must you smoke your pipe in here? That sounds rather Victorian. You would be more likely to refer to her by name instead. For goodness’ sake, Penelope… 
You would capitalise Sister, however, if the lady you refer to is a nun or a senior nurse in charge of a ward. In those cases Sister is a title. Brother also can be a title if referring to a member of an order of monks; similarly, there is Father (a priest), Reverend Mother, and Mother Superior. There is also Father of the House (parliamentary), which again is a title.
My aunt objects when my uncle smokes his pipe anywhere at all. Aunt objects when Uncle smokes his pipe. Aunt May objects when Uncle Simon smokes his pipe. Uncle Simon carries on regardless.


To sum up: if you could replace the word with a name, use a capital. If it’s a title, use a capital. If neither of these applies, don’t.

Now Then




An innocuous little word, isn’t it? Yet it rates five centimetres of column space in the dictionary.

It means at that time; after that; also; in that case. It can be used as added emphasis: ‘I see you’ve burnt the cakes, then, Alfred.’

These are all perfectly acceptable uses and meanings.

The problem (and you knew there was one or I wouldn’t be writing it about it) comes when it’s overused. Here’s an example.

Alfred thought he had solved the problem of the Vikings. He agreed to pay them lots of money and they undertook to stop invading his land. Then the rotters gathered a huge army and invaded anyway. Alfred was then forced to flee, and to roam Somerset disguised as a peasant, while he sought a lasting solution from a position of safety.

Then one day he came to the house of a poor woman, who agreed to take him in; but not knowing (or caring) that he was her king, she made him do chores in lieu of rent. 

‘I’m going out foraging,’ she told him one bright morning. ‘I’ve set some cakes by the fire to cook. Watch them carefully, and don’t let them burn.’ Then, with a pointed finger and a fierce stare that warned of retribution if he failed, she stalked out, leaving him to it.

He was lost in thought, his mind dwelling, as it must, on kingly matters. For a long time he just sat there, his head in his hands. Then he heard the good woman’s steps, and he looked at the hearth. The cakes were blackened ruins.

She entered. She stopped. She sniffed the air. ‘I see you burnt the cakes, then, Alfred,’ she said with unnatural calm. ‘I ask one simple thing of you, and this is the result.’ Then with a piercing shriek she grabbed the besom broom and brought it down upon Alfred’s head.

This happened; then that happened, and then that happened, and then another thing happened… put like that, you can see the difficulty.

To begin with, there’s the repetition: then appears seven times in some fifteen lines of text.

All too often, then creeps in where it doesn’t need to be. It’s put there to signify that things follow in sequence; but you’ve written them in sequence, so the reader already knows – you don’t have to tell him. It’s like presenting a list with bullet points – not what you want in your sweated-over prose. ‘This reads like a presentation to the board of governors’ isn’t the kind of response you’re hoping for, unless of course it is a presentation to the board of governors.

Try dropping all the thens that crop up in your work. You may find that some actually belong there: Then the rotters gathered a huge army and invaded anyway. Others are just filling space that doesn’t need to be filled: Alfred was then forced to flee; Then one day and Then…she stalked out, leaving him to it. Remove them, and the text becomes more immediate.

Then can be distancing; it can also turn your work into plodding prose with no spark. It slows things down, putting a small hiatus between one action and the next by forming an introduction to that subsequent action. Go straight into it instead, and you pick up pace.

‘I see you burnt the cakes, then, Alfred,’ she said with unnatural calm. ‘I ask one simple thing of you, and this is the result.’ With a piercing shriek she grabbed the besom broom and brought it down upon Alfred’s head.

I’ve kept the use in the first line, because it’s a natural part of the woman’s speech. I’ve cut the next one out, with the result that she moves from her complaint straight into sound and movement.

It’s just a little word, but it has an effect far beyond its size. If it really needs to be there, well and good; if not, then lose it.

To Huff and Puff and Blow Your House Down








Your editor is not the Big Bad Wolf.

Your first draft is your experiment. You know what you want to write; you know your characters and what they are going to do; and you get that story out with sweat and tears and chocolate (or your comfort food of choice). It’s like giving birth, only it takes a lot longer. With a mother’s eye, you gaze fondly upon your finished work, and you think, this is the best it can be. It’s lovely.

‘Isn’t it lovely?’ you ask Auntie Madge, who reads a lot, and your best friend Frank, who is into sci-fi, rather than the historical mystery that’s your chosen genre, but hey – it’s all words, after all. They tell you it’s great, which coincides with your own hopes and beliefs, so it must be true.

Frank gives up halfway through when he discovers that none of the carriages fly, and Auntie Madge always tells you that what you do is lovely, on the grounds that you’re her favourite sister’s child.

They don’t spot the errors: a few spelling mistakes, yes, but not the punctuation or the gaps in the plot or the fact that you state in Chapter One that it’s Thursday, and in Chapter Two the same day is suddenly a Tuesday. They don’t notice that you keep lapsing into present tense, or that you say someone has left the room when they’re still there and speaking.

You suffer a sudden rush of authorial blood to the brain and hand the finished thing over to an editor, just to confirm what you are sure is the case – that it’s all perfect. Back comes the novel, covered in red ink. The mean, rotten, nasty editor has picked up every flaw there is, including some you are not sure are flaws. Like the first of the three little pigs’ houses, the editor has huffed and puffed and blown it down, and you feel like s/he has gobbled you up and spat you out.

After a period of reflection, which can be months or years, you start again. You face the red ink, and you resolve to banish it. This time you’ll make sure of the typos and the spelling mistakes by using autocorrect, and you’ll tweak the tenses, because you realise that actually the editor was right about that part. Convinced that this time it’s really as good as it’s possible to be, and anyway you really want to get this thing published now, you send it off and sit back to await the praise.

Once again it comes back. S/he can still find errors: all your autocorrecting has done is to put weird replacements in where they don’t belong. You didn’t check, did you? You thought you’d sorted out the Thursday/Tuesday thing, but the editor says that you now have the longest day in history instead. Oh, and the hero who started out as James has changed to Denzil halfway through this version.

The big bad wolf has blown down the second house and gobbled you up and spat you out again.

This time you open your eyes and your inner ears. You listen to what you’ve written; you hear its rhythms, you see the words as they appear on the page, not in your head; you concentrate until your forehead is a mass of lines that will be with you for ever, and you work out what’s wrong and what’s right. You look at it, not as though it’s your innocent child, to be protected against all slights, but as though it is a piece of work, to be honed and manipulated and polished so that when the reader opens that first page, they are hooked. You realise that all this tweaking and correcting has actually made a good, solid, finished piece of art from what was a shoddy thrown-together prototype, full of good intentions and possibilities but unrefined.

The big bad wolf, far from destroying your houses for no reason, has actually made you realise that construction isn’t about the plans and the paper they’re written on: it’s about the execution of those plans. Old Furry Snout isn’t in this for the fun of knocking your house down, but for the joy of seeing you build the final version – the one that will last.

You have the right to by-pass the editing part; you can do whatever you want with your novel; but when the reviewers seem to be overly rude about your work, and picky about the plot holes, and cranky about the name changes, what will you have gained? You’ll be the little pig in the straw house, free from the attentions of the Big Bad Wolf, but prey to every other passer-by instead.

If it looks like a wolf, and it snarls like a wolf, it’s just being a wolf. That’s what it’s there for.

I, me, myself

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For some reason, people fall over themselves to try to get this right, and end up getting it horribly wrong instead. This is a simple guide to how to tell which pronoun to use correctly – but see the anomaly below.

Myself went to a party. Me had a good time until someone spilt their drink on I.

Yes, it’s total nonsense. You’d never talk like that; but it’s only a natural progression from the confusion over when to use I, me, and myself.
I do things. Things are done to me.
I went to a party. I had a good time until someone spilt their drink on me.

My husband and I went to a party. It’s obvious, when you’ve seen the line, I went to a party; but all too often you’ll see My husband and me went to a party. Who went to the party? My husband and me.
You wouldn’t say me went, so don’t say My husband and me (went).

Similarly, Myself and John went to a party – if you wouldn’t say myself went, don’t drag John into it.

I went to the party by myself.

Simple guide: if you can say us instead, it’s my husband and me. If you can say we, it’s my husband and I.
The car nearly ran over my husband and me (us). My husband and I (we) were nearly hit by the car.
The car nearly ran over me. I was nearly hit by the car.

I am singing in the choir – but Sarah and I are singing in the choir: I am singular, but Sarah and I are plural, and could be replaced by we; and we takes are not am. If you took Sarah out of the equation you’d have to change the verb too, to reflect the change in number.

 Sarah and me aren’t doing anything, because me can’t.

The boys are picking on Kevin and me. If Kevin isn’t there, they’ll still pick on me. It can never be said that the boys are picking on Kevin and I, because if Kevin isn’t there, they won’t pick on I.

Simple guide: if you aren’t sure, take out the Kevin and part and see if it makes sense.

Don’t blame me. Here, the subject of the sentence is the unseen you – what it means is, Don’t you blame me. me is the object, and that is never followed by a verb; me can never do anything –  things are done to me.   

Anomaly alert: Dialogue, colloquialism, or writing in character

Correctly, Who broke the window? isn’t answered by Me, but by I – because it’s verbal shorthand for I did it. However in dialogue,  writing in character or colloquially, this rule can be broken with impunity. Who broke the window? It were me, ma’am –  if the character doesn’t speak good or formal English. Otherwise, I did, ma’am.

(By the way – I didn’t break the window. It was him what done it, ma’am. Honest.)




-ing, -ing

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Tricky little things, -ing words. Writers often use them in the wrong places and for the wrong reasons, and they can turn serious situations into farce quite unintentionally.

The -ing ending occurs in different guises.

It’s part of a verb. That’s the present participle, used in continuous tenses both past and present (I’m loving it, I was enjoying it), and also frequently used as a sort of shorthand (The men watching the cricket cheered = The men who were watching the cricket cheered.)

There’s the gerund, where what is part of a verb plays at being a noun (the first sitting for lunch; my knitting is full of holes; bread and dripping).

If you use it as a verb, the –ing word has to have a subject. Use it as a noun, and it doesn’t – it is the subject.

You cannot have a present participle without a subject.
Running to catch the bus, the street shone with rain. Who is running? Not the street. There’s no subject here.
Shining in the puddles, Mark ran for the bus. Again, the subject – Mark – doesn’t belong to the participle. He’s not shining—he’s running.
Catching his breath, Mark ran for the bus. That’s better; Mark is the subject of all the actions. But see simultaneous actions below.

Reading is good for the brain as walking is good for the body.
It’s the equivalent of saying carrots are good for the eyesight. In the first part, reading and walking are gerunds, or verbal nouns. The line does not say that ‘you are reading’ or ‘you are walking’, but that the activities of reading and walking are beneficial. No specific person is implied – it’s a general statement.
Reading and walking are good for you. Carrots and broccoli are good for you.

But Reading and walking is not recommended.
Here reading and walking have both become verbs, and the combination of the two – that single is shows they have been bound together as simultaneous actions – alters the meaning. It’s the shorthand approach I mentioned earlier: Reading a book while you are walking is not recommended (which is not to say that it’s impossible.)

Some simultaneous actions should be used with care.
Walking across the road he ran up the steps. This is a physical impossibility. He can’t walk and run at the same time. There are (presumably) no steps in the road. Walking is a continuous state; he’s got to stop walking and start running up the steps. If you add while, you’ll see it more clearly: While walking across the road he ran up the steps. Not possible. He walked across the road and ran up the steps. These are two separate actions, and therefore acceptable.
Walking across the road he took out his phone. Yes, he can walk and put his hand in his pocket for his phone at the same time.

Continuous tenses need care too.
She watched them walking together, cracking jokes, smiling at their happiness. Who is doing the joke-cracking and smiling? It’s not clear. She could be smiling at their happiness; they could be cracking jokes. Maybe she does both. The continuous verbs need subjects – we need to know who owns which action. She watched them walking together and cracking jokes, smiling at their happiness. Better: we know that they are walking and cracking jokes, but the smiling is still slightly ambiguous. Better to change it to and smiled – we have her previous action described in the past tense, so this one will match it.

And finally…

Cantering up the drive he swept her into his arms, closing the door with one booted foot. Multi-tasking heroes are one thing, but impersonating a horse is quite another. Make sure you aren’t making a laughing stock of the poor man.