About good writing – but also about good films

Ruth HartleyBooks, film, The Tin Heart Gold Mine, Writing, Writing ProcessLeave a Comment

Films need plots

Good films depend on good stories according to Steven Spielberg. I watched the BBC’s The Little Drummer Girl with dread and delight. Would it be a pleasure? Could it live up to expectations? It was and it did! I sat down happily afterwards to reread John Le Carré‘s brilliant novel. Film and book had to be different but the veracity of the characters, the reality of their relationships and the tautness of the plot, all come from Le Carré, the master storyteller. I have to agree with Spielberg. A good story is the foundation and good writing is the driver of the plot.


Good writing advice.

A friend, Tia, gave me this link to a blog on Grammarly by Joanna Cutrara. It is a really neat summary in 5 points of what you must have to be a good story teller, whatever your creative field.

Emotional truth, says George R.R. Martin – I say that otherwise you are writing for psychopaths and robots.

Good editors,says Kendrick Lamar – yes, essential I agree, but they do also need to earn a living and editing is hard work. They must be paid somehow! Thank you Emma Darwin (see below) and Cornerstones Literary Agency.

Share your perspective, says Hannah Gadsby – I say that you can only write a good book if it has some of your own blood and bones in it. It’s only by “fleshing” out a story from inside you that you give the reader something new. Books written just to make money will often disappoint readers.

The value of a theme, says Lisa Joy – and I note a theme is evident in The Little Drummer Girl but subtly done. As a poet I love thematic writing – the symmetry in asymmetry! Look for themes in your favourite novels.

Managing your creative life, says Issa Rae – Oh yeah, I say, this is difficult especially once you get into marketing your writing. I have to set aside writing time in monthly blocks, but exclude December!








There are two authors I follow who post excellent and useful blogs about how to write:-

Emma Darwin covers every aspect of novel writing and you will find comprehensive help on her blog, This Itch of Writing. I am grateful to Emma for her help with my book The Tin Heart Gold Mine. I look forward to reading This is not a book about Charles Darwin.

Claire Fuller has recently done a very good blogpost about what makes a good short story. I feel inspired to write one again myself. I was stunned by her book, Our Endless Numbered Days and really enjoyed Swimming Lessons too. Claire’s new book, Bitter Orange comes recommended by Stephen Bush who, recently, was a judge on the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction.

Disability and Difference

How are characters who are different or disabled treated in literature? This is something to think about before the launch of Tanvir Bush’s CULL in January. It applies not only to books but very much to film and TV. Have you noticed how often people who are different or disabled are portrayed as either victims or villains? Is it the old Nazi scapegoating technique? Your comments and thoughts are more than welcome!

By the way I have been able to add another link to a previous post about Gabriel Ellison – it is an article about her beautiful stamp designs.

The German surrender & the East Africa Campaign 1918

Ruth HartleyAfrica, Politics, Power, South Africa, War, Zambia5 Comments

Mbala, Zambia 25.11.2018 WW1 Remembrance Service

The photo shows the memeorial in a lsightly scruffy park after a tropical rainstorm. In the background are single story African shops with verandahs typical of a small African town

War memorial Mbala Zambia

The slightly battered metal plaque annouces that "Near this place on 25th November 1918 The German Forces in East Africa commanded by General Von Lettoew Vorbeck laid down their arms before General W F S Edwards CMG DSO

Plaque on the War Memorial






On Sunday in this remote part of Zambia a remembrance service will be held for those who died in the 1914-1918 war during the East Africa campaign. Here is a link to an excellent and brief history of it by Indy Neidal. Its really worth watching. Many people will be surprised to learn of this devastating and terrible campaign  in which so many people died from famine and disease as a result. There are no war graves for most of them. What many people do not know is that the Germans were not defeated in East Africa  and General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck only surrendered 2 weeks after the final ceasefire was declared in Europe.

The 1914-1918 War Cemetery, Marondera, Zimbabwe

The photograph shows 4 generations of the Burton family seated in 3 rows round Great-Grandmother Burton who holds the youngest baby on her lap. The man on the top left is in a soldier's uniform

The Burton Family, my grandparents, with Uncle Boet Burton in uniform during the 1914-1918 War

The black and white photo shows 8 men in uniform uaround a rough table under a canvas shelter - They have long shorts and felt bush hats

Gold Coast Regiment in Abyssinia WW2 My father Stephen Hartley second from the right

I discovered a tiny cemetery on a visit to my mother. It was hidden away in the bush, a sad neglected place of iron crosses and concrete slabs protected by a barbed wire fence. Some of the graves held the bodies of soldiers who died a slow death from blackwater fever and were only buried in 1919. As a girl I had put on my Red Cross Uniform and attended the Remembrance Day Service in the Harare city park. I thought then, that both World Wars were fought so far away  that they hadn’t touched Africa. How wrong I was! My father joined the Gold Coast (Ghana) Regiment and served in Abyssinia (Ethiopia) and Kenya. Of course he never spoke of it. Doris Lessing wrote The Children Of Violence, her theme was that every generation suffers its war. What I gradually came to realise was that centuries of European wars have impacted on Africa with European powers fighting each other for ownership of their colonies. This fact explains the East Africa Campaign. It is why I wrote The Tin Heart Gold Mine. It is why there is a Remembrance Service in Mbala tomorrow.

Abercorn, Northern Rhodesia, 25.11.1918

This rather poor quality photo shows Von Vorbeck at the centre walking towards the camera with a coat over his arm. He is escorted by a Soldier while 2 more stand at the right looking at him

The surrender of Colonel Paul Von Lettow-Vorbeck

This memorial looks in good condition. It has a coat of arma on it and a cannon in good condition is on its right

Memorial to Von Lettow-Vorbeck’s surrender and a German cannon

I am fortunate to know two interesting people. One is Roger Chongwe, a Human Rights lawyer, whose forebears suffered death and famine during the East African Campaign. I also know Colin Carlin whose family lived and worked in Abercorn. He has an excellent and informative website on this area and its history here at Abercornucopia. It saddens me that there is not much more acknowledgement of this campaign that resulted in the deaths of over one million people.

Books about the East Africa Campaign and a request from me

The cover shows a tin heart nailed to a tree with the book title "The Tin Heart Gold Mine" in gold across it

“The Tin Heart Gold Mine”

There are interesting books about it. Marching on Tanga by Francis Brett Young, Mimi and Toutou go Forth by Giles Foden, and the brilliant An Icecream War by William Boyd. You all know the film The African Queen with Hepburn and Bogart from the book by C S Forester. My book, The Tin Heart Gold Mine, is not about that period but touches on all the wars that have affected Africa.

**I have 10 free copies to give away in exchange for an honest review. Please just email me your address and I will post my book to you.

A footnote

This simple formulaic drawing shows Von Voebeck on the left surrendering to the British on the right. The German askaris have boots, The British askaris are barefootThere is a palm tree and a horse on the German side and a flowring tree and official car on the British side.

Drawing of the surrender of Von Lettow-Vorbeck in 1918 drawn by an unnamed African artist.

Armies march on their stomachs and in their boots! I note that von Lettow-Vorbeck provided his Askaris with boots and The British under General Smuts used barefoot porters. Another curious fact is that some of the British explorers and adventurers, men like Frank Selous, who died in this campaign, and Francis Brett Young were more inclined to socialism and republicanism even though they chose to fight in the 1914-1918 East African War.

They will not grow old, as we that are left grow old. Age shall not weary them, or the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them.

May they all rest in peace, but please, do also remember the deaths in Africa caused by European wars.

A hundred years of remembering the Great War

Ruth HartleyThe Tin Heart Gold Mine, War, Women's suffrage, Zambia9 Comments

The war to end all wars

Hand-crafted and crocheted poppies made by the Hilmarton community – every poppy represented 1000 deaths.

The notice says that the display of poppies is icreased every 2 weeks until there are 888 in total. Each poppy represents 1000 military deathsTomorrow people in Britain will wear red poppies and visit cenotaphs, war memorials, churches and gravesides to remember those they will call the fallen heroes. In Germany they will carry Forget-me-nots, in France they will wear cornflowers. I will think of that song asking where have the flowers, the girls, the young men, the soldiers gone – gone to graveyards every one – when will they ever learn? This song composed by Pete Seeger must have been sung for over half a century yet wars still continue. What no one will remember tomorrow is that the war was not over in East Africa on the 11th November 1918 and that  the Germans were not defeated in that arena. I’ll write more about that on the 24th November 2018.

Never, ever, but again and again

A painting in black and white of a poppy. Around the stem is a banner saying 100 years, 100 days

The first of Kate Slater’s black and white paintings.

While I was in England I visited Hilmarton Church and was moved by the way the community there are remembering the First World War in charming and sympathetic displays and crafts. There is a very gifted artist, Kate Slater, who has made 100 paintings to commemorate those from Wiltshire who served in WW1 and she will be working with local school children on the same theme. The paintings are lovely and evocative so please do take the time to look at her website. I always like to refer to a book when I write a post. All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque is about the trench warfare endured by the Germans and the British and the tragic damage suffered by the soldiers. The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West is also thought-provoking as is The Shooting Party by Isabel Colegate. All are excellent films.

But where is peace and an end to war?

The display of poppies starts from the cross on the altar and spills down onto the church floor increasing in numbers and width as it falls

The display of poppies

I thought hard about war and peace and I found that I had conflicting ideas about what was appropriate to say. I might have quoted one of the well-known war poets but so will many other people. There are pacifist quotes but it would be hypocritical of me to use them. I might generalise and say that women oppose war but British suffragists joined the war effort while British suffragettes used violence to fight for the vote. Experience in Southern Africa has taught me that sometimes freedom can only be won by going to war and that withholding freedom is a form of war against those in bondage. War is always terrible but it can’t always be avoided. Who knows, but if Britain and the USA had fought against Assad in 2013 perhaps there might have been fewer deaths and a shorter war?

Making peace last

Perhaps the real problem is that we only know how to make war and not how to make a peace that works. Here is one of Bertolt Brecht‘s War Poems.

On the white altar are vases of forget-me-nots and white poppies, a pair of knitted mittens and a scarf in army green

Forget-me-nots and white poppies symbolise the dead of other nations.. The knitted mittens, scarf and embroidered card symbolise the work of women left behind.

Are of different substance.
But their peace and their war
Are like wind and storm.

War grows from their peace
Like son from his mother
He bears
Her frightful features.

Their war kills
Whatever their peace
Has left over.

Good, bad, sad, & happy books & trending endings

Ruth HartleyBooks, genre, Promotion, Publication, Reviews, Storytelling, The Love and Wisdom Crimes, WritingLeave a Comment

Books that taught us to be good








My grandmother gave me a Victorian children’s anthology. It had tales of Jack Downing who always was second in his class and Jack Upping who was always top of the class. The moral was acceptance of being second best – I can’t remember what the advantages were! Charles Dickens and Charles Kingsley wanted people to care for the poor. George MacDonald wanted to teach us the value and complexity of being good in The Lost Princess and At the Back of the North Wind.

Stories that taught me to be bad

Love stories in women’s magazines. They were like too many chocolates and made me feel sick. I wasn’t supposed to know about that stuff! Marvel and Beano comics were rubbish I was told. Girl and Eagle (Not titled as Boy!) were okay – I can’t remember why but the paper was better quality.

Sad Books about the end of the world and worse







It was the 80s – that time in world politics – the Cold War – Nuclear bombs – and psychology and we were all well educated  – the first post war generation to get free university education (I didn’t quite). Even children’s books told tales about the apocalypse but adult books were definitely morbid with tragic endings.  For over a decade I survived the trauma by reading children’s books sent to me for my children by the wonderful Puffin Club. Kaye Webb deserves a sainthood for her work as their children’s book editor. She inspired generations of children.

Trends in books and trends in how they end

I‘ve been reading for long enough to know that the book market changes according to fashionable trends. It affects what I read and I have to think about it when I am writing. Trends and marketing are among the reasons I have chosen to be an independent author. There are now book prizes which are all controversial in one way or another. They provide a select few with riches while most writers survive on their day jobs. There are stories without punctuation, without names for characters, without endings, or any inventions at all just a recounting of daily events. Anything and everything goes but what do most readers like? Do they like the prize winners or the blockbusters or the best sellers? Will they like my next story – The Love and Wisdom Crimes? Will you like it? I am reading Richard Rive’s book Buckingham Street, District Six which is about the place in which the second half of my book is set. He writes about the place as I remember it!

Please tell me in the comments below about the kinds of endings that you like to read.

Sunday afternoon, homemade fudge, a book to read in bed

Ruth HartleyBooks, Reading6 Comments

My mother’s recipe for bliss

An old-fashioned book cover with embossed gold lettering and decoration around a cameo of the 4 girls, Meg, Jo, Amy and Beth in Victorian clothes

The book I read had an original cover

The olf fashioned cover has embossed gold lettering and shows a profile of Anne Shirley with her abundant red hair

The original cover showing Anne’s red hair

On the Day of Rest, after The Sunday Roast Dinner, there was the Homemade Fudge, and the lie down on your Bed with a Book. (I am not sure if my father either read or slept.) As a devout child, however, I observed the rules and that was the start of my addiction to books.

Book shelves, the bucket loo and the Queen Victoria Library

A black and white photograph of a Italian Renaissance-style Victorian building building.

A photograph of the Queen Victoria Library from Jonathan Waters’ photographic essay on the evolution of Harare, Zimbabwe.

We had a book shelf with Reader’s Digest Condensed Books on it. I did have some children’s books.  The Christian Science Sentinel rested by the loo seat over the bucket toilet. (It was an indoor toilet awaiting conversion to a purer septic tank state.) I read absolutely everything in the farmhouse and understood some of it. (I was mystified by the sheepskin trousers worn on Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki expedition and by James Bond in Casino Royale.) The place I loved most of all was the 1903 Queen Victoria Library which smelt of paper and old hardback books. Its atmosphere was dust and sunlight but it had every volume of Little Women and Anne of Green Gables. When it closed at 4pm, I sat on the stone step outside while I read until a parent arrived.

The very best reading experiences of all

My book-reading friends have come up with ways of describing their best reading experiences – one of them said that a “book had been ‘balm’ to her soul”. Other readers talk of ‘an immersive experience’ – ‘opening a door into a new world’ – feeling ‘compelled’ – being ‘lost in a book.’ Gail, a Facebook friend, said about a book ‘it has slightly shifted something deep inside me – and that must be the highest compliment one can pay a book!’ I have spent hours wrapped up in the enchantment of a story that whizzed me off on quests to other galaxies and new adventures. Please, if you read this post – do tell me of your own experiences of the pleasures of reading in the comments below.

To update you on my next book, The Love and Wisdom Crimes – it is being typeset at the moment!

In memory of a friendship & of a shared love of books and reading

The photo shows a lit memorial candle and a few flowers in a small vase.

A candle lit for Emma

Today I will have been to the celebration of the life of Emma, a remarkable woman who I was fortunate to have as a friend. Emma started our book club and shared many books with us, her book club friends, so for the rest of my life, when I look at my bookshelves, I will think of her with gratitude and love .