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John Jenkins Sept 11


The September column from the former editor of Writers' Forum

John JenkinsAs a publisher and editor I have been answering queries from writers for something like 20 years and as a result I have recently published a book FAQs and the Answers for Ambitious Writers.


Every biography begins with a single sentence

by John Jenkins

The new Oxford Concise Dictionary is just out and as usual has adopted a few new words and dropped others. According to Fiona McPherson, who had a hand in the new edition, foozle has gone and so has growlery.

Now these two words are excellent and should be retained. One of the reasons is because they are easily understood and define important actions in our daily lives.

Take foozle. As soon as I say the sentence: the Chancellor has foozled the economy you know exactly what I mean. It means he has made a pig’s ear of it.

And if my family says Dad has gone to his growlery they will know at once that I have retreated to my study muttering about international chaos, overpaid footballers and children who cannot spell. Every man should have a place to growl.

In any case, one word instead of two is always to be preferred. I heard some alleged expert say that, in an effort to boost trade, his town had turned an old derelict mill into a retail environment. I think he meant shop – a good four-letter word we all understand.

Now Collins has got into the act by wanting to drop aerodrome and charabanc from its dictionaries.

If we are talking about Croydon airport circa 1938 it was an aerodrome. And if we are talking about a works outing to Bangor or going dahn to Sahfend to see the lights it’s a chara.

Enough of that. But talking of words, have you ever fancied writing your life story?

There is always a market for biographies. Your story is equally exciting – a piece of social history, fascinating to your family and perhaps a wider audience if you go about it in the right way.

The Diary of Anne Frank, Lark Rise to Candleford by Flora Thompson and Borstal Boy by Brendan Behan have been megasellers.

The secret of making a family memoir or biography interesting to an audience outside your own family circle is to set it against the social events of the day. This does not mean you need to have read history at university or even liked the subject. You are merely looking for events, which impacted on the lives of your forebears. The Internet will give you all you need.

Did anybody in your family fight at Waterloo or Trafalgar, the Crimea, Great War or World War II?

Did great grandma spend a day on HMS Hood at Plymouth’s Navy Day? Who was born in a workhouse? Who went down the mines at the age of 15? Who was taught to read by the Lord of the Manor?

Whose friend went to Eton? Did mass unemployment or something more personal force Great-Uncle Jamie to emigrate to the United States in a hurry?

What was your Great-Great-Grandfather doing with one wife in Cork and another in Helston? What were the penalties for bigamy then if he had been found out? Expect a few skeletons to come tumbling out of the family cupboard and pause to celebrate, for villains make much more interesting copy.

I have recently had the privilege of editing the biographies of two ladies who live on the Dorset-Hampshire border. Both of them modestly said that their lives were not that remarkable.

In fact their lives provide an amazing and fascinating read.

Some gentle probing here and there. Some jogging of memories, a little encouragement, and within a short space of time we had two stories which illuminated recent history and showed their indomitable spirit which, with incredible reticence and modesty, they had thought nothing exceptional.

Let me tell you first about a lady in Dorset. She is in her nineties, mentally alert, physically active and still helping other people less fortunate than herself.

About a year ago she rang me and said that one of her friends, who attended my creative writing class, said she should speak to me. She was writing her life story and wanted to know if I thought she was on the right path.

I read a chapter or two of what she had done, made a few suggestions, shook hands and left. Recently the phone rang again. Could we meet? Would I like to edit her life story and advise her on self-publishing?

Her story was incredible – a slice of social history the like of which you never find in history books. Her command of grammar is faultless, the style consistent and her recall incredible. She thought it strange that she had found the nerve to write about such a humdrum life. Her description: humdrum.

Within a month of getting married in January 1941 her husband, who had volunteered, was called up for service in the Royal Air Force. He served with distinction as a pilot, flying a Lancaster on 30 missions to Germany, including devastating attacks on the V1 and V2 rocket sites.

Some 10 months later she gave birth to their son and while her husband flew nightly into danger she brought up her baby as the V1 and V2 rockets thundered into London. Fortunately the family survived and life returned to what passed for normal in those ration- restricted post war years. As the family expanded a saga unfolded which would have graced the imagination of our best novelists. It charted a course full of drama, joy and heartache.

On a lighter note she recalled how when she first met her husband he took her for a five-bob flip in an aeroplane from Croydon Aerodrome. (I’m sticking to that word.)

Later she looped the loop in a Tiger Moth, took a ride on an airship and in retirement flew on Concorde and sailed the world in luxury liners. As I wrote in her prologue – love was in the air.

Sum humdrum life.

A member of my writing class is halfway through her first novel which I am sure will be published. She began writing a couple of years ago with her family history. Her father was a test pilot who, with R J Mitchell and Jeffrey Quill, helped to develop the Spitfire into the most iconic fighter of World War II. He flew more than 1,000 test flights on this aircraft before dying in a tragic accident.

Her mother was left with two small children to raise. Not only was her family history a triumph, but she also used the research for a five page feature in this September’s issue of Aeroplane magazine – the first time she had ever submitted anything for publication.

Another of my class is entering her novel for a national £5000 prize and I think she has a good chance.

I am starting new classes this autumn. One thing I am certain of - somebody with a talent to write will have a great story. It isn’t that difficult. Many are amazed what a little effort and a few guidelines can achieve.

Chairman Mao once said that every long march begins with a single step. Well, every novel, or family history, or biography begins with a single sentence.

I’m sure you can manage that.

If you have a question you would like John to answer please email it to:

The latest book from John Jenkins is FAQs and the Answers for Ambitious Writers

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