Sunday, February 7, 2021




- nothing is worse than keeping your readers waiting. 

I might be impatient, but a descriptive introduction drives me crackers. Don't do it. No matter how beautiful the writing, a romance has got to be about people, not romantic trees and flowers.

I stated my case early: this guy's got problems with women. He knows it and so does everybody else.

'You won’t be able to use the razor to shave, so beguile one of those nice nurses to do the honours. Girls love that sort of thing. Makes them feel like mothers. Let them bring out your legendary charm.'

'What legendary charm?'

‘Intimacy, Anton, that female equator you haven’t crossed yet.' 

- or, as they say in the trade, a backstory.

Humans beings are fascinated by gossip, so make sure that each of your characters has a juicy past to explain their behaviour, they desires, their fears, their speech and the way in which they relate to other characters.

There on the riverbank, with his stone heart bleeding before her, stood Miroslav. Given the chance, he would expose his wound until he expired of it. None of the other women noticed the internalization that was draining him, because no one knew him as she did. Yes, she knew she’d hurt him; she knew he believed he needed her, but not for the first time, Mara wondered how someone so vulnerable could be so frightening.


Books are like jigsaw puzzles. All their parts must fit together. I read a romance recently where the heroine went for a lonely walk on a lonely beach, was rescued by the hero (who just happened to be there) from a villain who had appeared for no reason. Sure, you want to get your characters together, but if people are going to pay for your book, then give them value for their money. Get those neurons working and link up your plot points. Even Mara's third romance in the book helps Miroslav find her, and Anton find her, and is used by the Bletchley Park decoders to find the spy they've been searching for.

‘You’re leaving!’ Mara gasped. ‘When?’

‘Unfortunately, Britain didn’t send me here for a holiday.’ Hudson looked almost sad and Mara experienced a flash of pity. She decided she would ignore her forebodings, and he picked up her weakness like a flash.

‘Well, you know,’ he said, adding a trace of pathos to his voice, ‘it could be any day.’

I was right, thought Mara, he is experienced with women.

- essential, because resolution is all the lovelier for the conflict your lovers have overcome.

I wrote conflict between 
Mara and Miroslav, Mara and her aunt, Mara and her father, Anton and Mara, Anton and everybody, and even between Anton and Miroslav, the villain.  

Why hadn’t he leaped up and followed her? Now that’s what I would have done, thought Miroslav, prove to her who’s boss. Well, he was marooned. He couldn’t get off his own island. Miroslav wagged his head at Anton in frustration. He pulled a face and stuck out his tongue. Run after her, you moron! Slam her up against a tree and ravish her. Tell her you’re a prince. Promise her diamonds. Lie to her. Exploit some of that officer’s authority. Don’t just give up.

- is the act as exciting as the chase?

Building up emotional tension is fun and, if you can string it out without overwriting, it's very satisfying for the reader. Anton's in love but he doesn't know it. Not only that, he's far from happy about his confusion. Should he give up his freedom for Mara? Well, frankly, by the end of the book, he's in such a mess, he has to.

Why couldn’t women leave well enough alone? He and his tree had been perfectly at ease and now he was upset, but he couldn’t pinpoint exactly what had upset him. Not what—she. She had upset him. She had got under his skin and he couldn’t get her out. No! Let him rephrase that. He had let her under his skin and, for once, it was more than sex. But how had he let her do this, because, had it been any other woman, he would have ignored the feminine wiles and strolled away. Now suddenly that emotional control seemed to have abandoned him. He didn’t understand why Mara sought him out, what reason she could have for her behaviour and why he overreacted instead of brushing her aside and moving on like the sensible man he used to be. Did she want him or didn’t she?

I did put a 4000 word sex scene in the sequel, Shadower, but I wrote it before I had finished the first book because I was so interested in my own characters that I wanted to find out what happened to them. I personally thought it would have been overkill to include it in Through Forests and Mountains. Anton had enough to get over without trying to woo a girl who had almost been raped by her psychotic boyfriend. (And so did Mara.)

But, more than anything else, he was upset because he had no desire to sleep with anyone but her. It was almost as if sex and emotions went hand-in-hand, which he knew was ridiculous. So, it was beside the point that Mara, a modern girl from a good family and educated, would never consent to sleep with him unless he married her, and it all felt depressingly like the onset of middle-age. But what if she said no? Then there’d be no more sex. Ever. Damn, damn, damn! How had it come to this?

- and knowing that there is a sequel.

If you want to find a publisher for your romance, ask yourself one question: will it sell? Much as you might think you are writing for yourself, you can't forget the reader who will buy your book, and neither can the publisher who is trying to sell it. In the first draft, I made this mistake and my manuscript assessor said: On this matter, I would like to suggest you re-think Mara’s rape at the end of the book. It’s a brutal way to end a story and even though it’s a relief that she doesn’t die, it is very disheartening for a reader to see this atrocity happen to the heroine on the very last page.

Changed that. Rewrote the final chapter.

I was worried that it would sound corny but, guess what? Everybody liked it! He's still blundering a bit, but never mind. I guess the question of how perfect you want your hero to be is something to think about.

‘I have spoken with the commissar,’ Anton began, ‘who has given us permission to marry. If you'd like,’ he added.

‘Oh!’ said Mara and put a hand to her lips. ‘Oh.’

In an effort to emphasise to her the uniqueness of the privilege granted them, he said, ‘They don't generally allow it.’ Still no reply. He added desperately, ‘The commissar's reply ran along the lines of what he thought would be in my best interests, or rather, you understand, our best interests.’

‘I understand,’ said Mara.

‘What he meant was, I can't go back to sea, so...’

‘Marriage might be a sweetener?’

‘Well, yes, I expect you could put it like that.'


READER, I MARRIED HIM.  I might have written a cross between Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. Hmm? Love and conflict, but both had nice resolutions.

Margaret Walker, 2021 Penmore Press



Wednesday, February 3, 2021

THE TRIPLE MYTH , A Life of Archbishop Stepinac by Stella Alexander – book review.

You cannot find two things on the internet about Aloysius Stepinac that do not contradict one another and I almost feel sorry for the poor man that Pope John Paul II ever agreed to raise him to the altars, because there has been no peace about him in heaven or earth since.

The preface to this fascinating book, published in 1987, did not fill me with confidence. ‘There is only one main primary source available to the ordinary researcher,’ Alexander commences rather dismally, ‘…two other sources exist but are not available.’ Another source ‘is not always a reliable witness’, a further source requested by the author was ‘refused’ and several others suffer from ‘tendentious’ tendencies or came from representatives of the foreign press who may have had ‘little knowledge of Yugoslavia.’

I know that this is not the reason Pope Francis put Stepinac’s canonization on hold and upset everybody, but it’s tempting to suggest that Pope JP2 could have done his research better (had he been able to). As an example, although the Pope allowed the archbishop to bypass the two miracles required for sainthood by proclaiming him a martyr, the communist government in fact looked after him comparatively well, precisely because they did not wish martyrdom to occur. ‘He was never ill-treated…He was imprisoned in decent conditions, in a double cell with a third neighouring cell arranged as a chapel where he celebrated mass every day. He had books and writing materials and was allowed visitors from time to time.’ He was well fed, and his sister visited him once a month, bringing with her whatever he needed.

To have been archbishop under the Ustasha government seems to have been as confronting an experience for Stepinac as it would conceivably have been for us. Whilst condemning the atrocities against Jews and Serbs, he nevertheless kept up a running tirade against a theoretical communism, so that I had to reread several of his passages in order to understand what he meant. (Stepinac had a tendency to overwrite.) His unfortunate references to returning the ‘schismatics’ (the Serbs) to the ‘true faith’ (Catholicism) are typical of his time, as is the European anti-Semitism he gradually sloughs off as the war progresses. The elegant and conciliatory language of his letters towards Ante Pavelić, leader of the Ustasha, renders his refusal to break from them (on the pretext of not being able to help people if he had) more poignant.

‘Two things stand out,’ writes Alexander. ‘He feared communism above all; and he found it hard to grasp that anything beyond the boundaries of Croatia, always excepting the Holy See, were quite real.’

In 1945, as Pavelić fled Zagreb and Stepinac, grim-faced, awaited the arrival of the Partisans, there were so many accusations and counteraccusations between the two sides that it is possible to believe whatever one wants.

‘Objective history will show that the representatives of the Catholic Church in Croatia never betrayed their callings and that the mistakes of a few priests are trifling beside what is happening…[under] organized atheism’ – Stepinac.

‘Some of his ideas about the role of the Catholic Church in recent happenings were basically incorrect’ – Partisan response to the Catholic Bishop of Šibenik.

‘Only individuals personally and directly responsible for crimes would be brought to justice’ – communist policy towards relations between the state and the Catholic church.

‘I dare to say that the Croatian people will refuse to accept any regime either of the far left or the far right which does not completely respect its more than thousand year old Catholic tradition’ – Stepinac.

‘We want to create a great community of South Slavs in which there would be both Orthodox and Catholic, who must be closely linked with all the other Slavs. The Orthodox are nearer to this than the Catholics’ - Tito.

The mix of these strong and flawed personalities created a huge mess. Certainly, in not breaking with the Ustasha government when he was advised to, and in launching himself into a head-on collision with the communists after the war, Stepinac gave Tito enough rope to hang him with. Yet, as Tito correctly pointed out, Stepinac did not broadcast the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Serbs by the Ustasha with anything like the same energy as he uncompromisingly defended the Croatian Church against communism. 

My own feeling is that the Partisans who so upset the archbishop in Zagreb after the war had been witnesses of the unspeakable atrocities of the Ustasha genocide against the Serbs, Jews and Roma. Because the Ustasha claimed to be Catholic, and some of their crimes were committed by Catholic priests, and because Stepinac refused to break with the Ustasha government, the Catholic church in Croatia was compromised. The Partisans, many of whom were Orthodox, were hurting, they were angry and, as other writers have observed, revenge was in the air. Stepinac does not seem to have empathized with their trauma. To him it was simple: the communists were attacking the Catholic church in Croatia because they were atheists.

The archbishop’s trial I found particularly fascinating. Though it was no doubt set up to find him guilty, its political implications are not well known and are worth considering here. Alexander writes, ‘the actions of the government in bringing Stepinac to trial were understandable,’ and she goes on to list reasons, such as the unstable nature of Yugoslavia in 1946 (which his attacks on the government weren’t helping), disillusion with the Allies regarding land claims and ‘its conviction that the Vatican supported the expansionist aims of Italy in its territorial dispute with Yugoslavia.’

Various communist excesses against the church continued to take place, from time-to-time observers from the west made encouraging (or otherwise) observations about religion in Yugoslavia, and the battle between the two sides seems to have gradually resolved in the years between 1950 and 1953. I can’t help feeling that the Vatican was a major player that allowed neither side to move freely, Stepinac, because he referred all important matters to them, and the Yugoslav government, because the Vatican was a political body.

The Triple Myth ends by lengthy examples of how political opponents in Yugoslavia have exploited the archbishop’s memory for their own ends.

Not a lot of peace there. Let’s hope the Pope can sort it out.

Rather him than me.