Prague: A People, A City, A History

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Prague is a city close to my heart. I spent a few memorable months in a town closer to the Slovak border as a teenager teaching English. It was a bitterly cold winter of 1993, only months after the fall of communism and it was just as Czechoslovakia had become a new Czech Republic. It was a unique and life changing moment in history, both for a young girl from Britain and for the Czech and Slovak Republics. The red tape and bureaucracy involved in entering the country to work in a school was immense. I had to sign a form which was also required to be signed by the headmaster, the state police and central government, then photocopied eight times.

The experience was life changing and the memories of a people, as yet untouched by western culture, was an eye opener. Lives were lived simply and with family gatherings a frequent occurrence. The emphasis on Czech culture and folk music, and stories handed down through generations, on lives determined by fierce winters and the need for thick boots, coats and hats (none of which I owned), created a seed in me; a seed that would later grow to become a story.

As I listened to the lives of people who had lived under daily threat of the communist state police, and with the risk of imprisonment, a world opened itself up to me. This was a world where post was intercepted, movement restricted, media heavily censored and ordinary lives monitored secretly, and scrutinized by a power that eventually collapsed in 1989 after the Velvet Revolution and the fall of the Berlin wall. The chain of events across Eastern Europe was cataclysmic. I was amazed to hear different sides to a story that remains a powerful historical period. Girls my age missed the security of one hundred percent employment under a communist government and the comfort of rules and regulations, but as I listened I heard stories of those who were less fortunate and whose families were torn apart by deceit as people were forced to turn on their own friends and family, and parents were imprisoned for being deemed traitors, enemies of the state.

That a land so beautiful and so rich in culture and stunning in its elegance had endured such a savage and restrictive past, was a message to me that over the years grew into a story, and subsequently a book. Take Me to the Castle became my debut novel, published in 2012, and it went on to win The Peoples’ Book Awards in 2013. It was a story that had to be written, a story that developed out of listening to first hand experiences and of staying in Letovice during a unique turning point in history at a time when I heard not a single English voice and felt the chill of the snow as it reached Charles Bridge and the Vltava River, as it covered the musicians and artists, the castle and the cathedral. The silence betrayed a deeper history of Jewish graveyards and of former prisons and government offices filled with files on ordinary people.

I fell in love with Prague and I have been back since to a much changed city, but my memories of 1993 remain and will stay with me.

Photo credits clockwise from top left:

1. Word-visits.blogspot.co.at, Trips to Prague

2. Free-picture.net, Cities of the World

3. Wikimedia, Daniel Wabyick, Prague – sculpture (about the deteriorating effects of communism on man)

4. Prague-guide.co.uk, Velvet Revolution Memorial

5. Panic on the Streets of Prague, Prague-life.com

6. teflworldwidepraguereviews.wordpress.com, Prague Streets

Interview with Strange Alliances

This is just a quick post to let you know that my interview with Elaine Aldred is over at her blog, Strange Alliances: F.C. Malby. Literally Engaged With Her Writing. We discuss my teaching experience in the Czech Republic just after the fall of communism, and various aspects of writing and publishing.

Many thanks to Elaine for taking the time to interview me. She is a wonderful support to writers and her backlist of author interviews is well worth the read. Do leave comments and feel free to ask any questions.

 

Fact and Fiction: How to Weave Both Elements into a Good Book

English: A panorama of a research room taken a...

While the general categories of fiction and non-fiction are distinct book categories in the publishing world, there is good reason to tie the two together in your novels. It will technically still be classed as fiction, but a combination of the two can be really powerful. My debut novel, Take Me to the Castle,  was a fictional story, written within the framework of communist Eastern Europe, and the resulting secret police activity and fractured family relationships. I wanted to use my research skills to bring the facts to life through the eyes of a young girl, Jana.

Mixing fact and fiction is no easy task because, while you have all the facts to hand after months or maybe years of research, you have to be careful not run the risk of any of the following temptations:

Information dump. Too many facts and the reader will switch off.

Twisting the facts. Inaccuracies will water down your plot and make the story less believable.

Lose your creativity. If you feel the need to stick too tightly to the facts, the plot risks being underdeveloped. You don’t want to become fenced in by tight constraints if you are writing fiction.

What is the best way to weave the two together?

It is important to make outlines after your research so that you have a clear idea of where you are going with the plot. If you begin to write before entering into the research you will end up doing a lot of painful rewrites. It’s best to avoid unnecessary rewriting if possible.

Strike a balance between the two, erring on the side of fiction rather than fact. Too much factual information, and you will end up writing non-fiction, which is fine as long as you are clear about defining your work.

Be creative and don’t be afraid to play with the facts. Use your imagination to fill in the gaps and show the reader your interpretation of the events from a unique angle.

Why will this work?

Given the constraints, you may wonder whether it is worth bringing fact into the arena of fiction at all. I would argue that there are many periods throughout history, and many key events in life, which need to be recorded and written down, and I believe this can be done really effectively through fiction.

Think of The Paris Wife and it’s subject, the first wife of Ernest Hemmingway. What has made the book so successful has been the fact that it gives you a window into the life a famous writer at at time that we know little about.

Magda has just been released in March, and tells the story of Magda Goebells in chilling reality but it is, in part, a fictional representation of the facts. It’s fascination lies in the fact that it covers the difficulties of mother/daughter relationships and the horrific period that was Nazi Germany. It gives an inside view into the life of Hitler’s propaganda minister, Joseph Goebells.

Two of my blog readers and fellow writers also wrote their books based on periods in history:

Tom Gething wrote Under a False Flag based on the overthrow of Marxist president, Salvador Allende, in Chile in 1973. The books is based on a series of recently declassified documents from the period and includes a wealth of historical research.

Marianne Wheelaghan published The Blue Suitcase in 2011, telling the story of her Grandmother, Antonia, through her diary as she grows up in Germany during and in the aftermath of World War II. 

Have you read any other good examples that you can add to the list? Many of these are political. Can you think of other examples?

Guest Blog Post and eBook Giveaway

This is just a quick post, as I have already posted today. I wanted to let you know that I have written a guest blog post on writing and inspiration over on Jon Rance’s website if you would like to have a read.

I also wanted to let you know that Take Me to the Castle is free to download from Amazon as an eBook until Friday 1 March.  If you don’t have a kindle device you can download the app onto your smartphone, PC, MAC, or tablet.

Here is the book trailer to wet your taste buds:

Chekhov, Short Stories and Goals for 2013

This year has been a whirlwind of editing, marketing and publishing for me, a year where I started to build a platform and an internet presence as a writer – something which is a necessity for both traditionally published and self-published writers. It might sound familiar to many of you, but if I tell you that for the past five years I have been tucked away writing, with no sign of my name on Google and no contact with other readers and writers, you can imagine how much things have changed.

I winced at the thought of loading my photo and sharing ideas from my heart about my passions, and what I enjoy reading and writing. I shuddered at the idea of my thoughts being public, but what I have discovered is that the relationships you build online overtake any fears. The people I have met here, on facebook, twitter, and goodreads have been interesting, inspiring, and encouraging. These are all people who are passionate readers, a range or writers over all types of genres, and marketers with a vast experience of online communication.

So, now that we are nearing the end of 2012, I have been thinking about my goals for 2013. I haven’t had time to come up for air but my mind is always full of writing ideas and next steps, it is constantly wanting to create.

Having spent several years crafting ‘Take Me to the Castle,’ a novel which I am pleased to release, with the kindle version on special offer over Christmas and the New Year, I now want to spend next year reading and writing short stories and flash fiction. I wrote many of both types of story as I neared the end of the edits of my book, as I was craving some writing time. Editing and writing are two entirely different processes and I defy you to find any author who prefers editing to writing. The first draft goes through many many changes and morphs into a different form to the original version. This is a good thing – first drafts can sometimes miss essential ingredients, have too many unnecessary words, or just not be tight enough for a compelling story.

Short stories and flash fiction:

I found in these a style of writing which suits my writing. I love the condensing or framing of a story into 350 words or 3000 words. You can create so much suspense and exagerate themes in a way in which they would be lost in a longer piece of prose. I read many different stories, mainly short stories, and wrote many which I will be publishing next year.

I wanted to share with you two books which are on my table to read over Christmas and into the New Year:

Image I love Chekhov’s short stories, they are powerful, full of enticing detail, and captivating. His literary genius is timeless; he wrote in a way that makes his tales just as readable now as they were in the 1800s. Anton Chekhov was a Russian playwright and short story author. As a doctor, also, who helped the poor, he was disturbed by the darker aspects of society. His father was a tyranical figure, and this has cast its shadows in his writing. I have already dipped in to ‘The Essential Tales of Chekhov,’ and am hugely enjoying the stories. There is a really interesting account of his life in the Guardian if you are interested in further reading…

http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/feb/06/anton-chekhov-short-stories

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In time for this year’s National Short Story Week, ‘Overheard: stories to read aloud,’ was released. It is edited by Jonathan Taylor and, wrapped within it’s beautiful cover, are a collection of stories from over 30 of the UK’s most popular storytellers, including Louis De Bernières, Blake Morrison, Kate Pullinger, Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan, Adele Parks and Hanif Kureishi.

I bought this as it was released in November of this year, as I really enjoy reading books by Louis De Bernières and Ian McEwan. It is now tucked it away for the cosy (post editing) winter evenings.

So my goals are to read and write many short stories in the coming year. What are your goals for books to read, or ideas to write?