Kate Fenton


The Colours of Snow
Dancing to the Pipers
Lions & Liquorice/
(US) Vanity and Vexation

Balancing on Air
Too Many Godmothers
Picking Up
The Time of Her Life

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DANCING TO THE PIPERSA gripping novel full of tantalising twists
Woman's Journal
Kate Fenton writes romantic comedy spiced with intrigue and farce which zings along
Daily Telegraph
Chatty humour… lightness of touch and acid commentary
Times Literary Supplement

Midsummer night in the city of the dreaming spires. What could be more romantic?

Except rain is bouncing off the ancient roofs and pavements and Becca Haydock, dressed to kill, is propping up the balustrade of Magdalen Bridge on her thirtieth birthday - alone, unemployed, semi-broken hearted and wholly broke. Also sober. And is she downhearted? You bet your life she is.

What she longs for is an old friend to materialize magically out of the night and her misspent youth, someone who will whisk her away to a dry room and drier white wine, lots of it. What she gets is a drunken tramp bellowing opera into her disgruntled ear. OK, so it turns out Joe Duff's actually a restaurateur of sorts, but since he's tattooed, hairy-chested and a foot shorter than her, he's not what you'd call an answer to this ageing maiden's prayer.

Unlike Oliver Langham. And once the floppy-haired idol of her long-gone undergraduate days has wobbled off his bicycle and into her clutches, Becca's life is never going to be the same again. Soon, this one-time actress is playing site foreman on the real-life conversion of a gothic castle into a luxury hotel. Browbeating builders, stage-managing balls and banquets, she treats it all as good knockabout comedy. Until she realizes her fellow players are locked into some mysterious tragedy of their own, a tragedy of Jacobean complexity, and nobody's telling her the script…




By the time I embarked on this, my second, novel, I'd learned a thing or two. Not least that everyone reading a sex scene - even the wisest and most book-worldly of your friends - will assume that every last juicy detail is lifted direct from your own personal experience. Very odd. Isn't writing supposed to be an imaginative exercise? I mean, I'm damn sure no-one asks Baronesses Rendell and James how many murders they've committed recently by way of research.

Be that as it may, after publication of The Colours of Snow, a neighbouring farmer whose customary reading matter, I'd swear, didn't extend far beyond The Cow Keeper's Gazette, loomed up from behind a hedge to confide that he'd read my book. With a very disquieting glint in his eye.

I could hardly blame him. Because I'd also learned that, if you write in the first person, you will inevitably be identified with your heroine. No-one, including my own mother, doubted Frankie Cleverdon was a barely fictionalised version of me. Born in Manchester, right? Flat overlooking Clapham Common? Archers fan? Q.E.D. I tried to explain that, having bashed out the book in nineteen days flat, I'd had to borrow the odd detail from my own past, simply because there'd been no time to dream up life histories for the characters. I mean, you can't just go claiming someone's a bird-watching bishop's daughter from Scunthorpe, can you? Not without thinking through the implications. Besides, the woman wasn't in the least like me, not in important matters… Waste of breath.

Since that same frantic pressure had also led to my lifting the story's setting direct from the view outside the window, there was some equally misplaced speculation locally as to the real-life model for the genial, red-headed, blue-eyed milkman, in a valley I'd chirpily (and quite falsely) declared was dotted with flame-haired, blue-eyed children. One way and another, you can see why I opted to set the next book a safe two hundred miles away. I also created a female lead who was as different from me as I could manage, short of giving her three legs and royal parentage - and only succeeded in convincing family and friends I fancied myself a foot taller and blonde with a beaky nose and an Equity Card.

The Oxfordshire setting, however, wasn't just a means of dodging libel actions. This is one of the books for which I can (almost) pin down the source of the idea. The germ was a fragment - a tiny fragment - of autobiog. Like Becca Haydock, I went back to college for a gaudy and, like her, was a lonely and overdressed fish out of water at this jolly old girls' reunion. I, too, felt like a ghost as I strolled up the High, foolishly bewildered to find my happy playground overrun with laughing strangers - children, to boot - who seemed to think they owned the place. There is also, I regret, a factual basis for her sneaking into an off-licence and buying a quarter bottle of whisky. Well, as she quite reasonably argued, what else can one drink in a chilly college room, with no corkscrew and only a toothmug? I may even have paused, momentarily, on Magdalen Bridge and hoped some old friend would miraculously happen along - but of course no-one did. Becca copped in not just for the old friend, Oliver Langham, but also Joe Duff. I trudged back to college and a solitary Scotch. Real life is much less satisfactory than fiction.

I suppose it's fair to say Oliver is a comic amalgam of any number of sweetly innocent, overgrown schoolboys I'd known. Oxford was littered with them. There's no autobiographical inspiration for Joe, however. Sadly. (How many female novelists lust after their male creations? Discuss, with particular reference to Dorothy L Sayers.) I can, though, place exactly where the idea of Joe sprang from. It was when my friend Phil Rickman interviewed me on his book programme about The Colours of Snow.

Drunk with post-publication euphoria, I grandly propounded my theory that the plot of this book was an inversion of the clichéd romantic blueprint. Here the woman is the tall, dark handsome rake, with all the dosh and sophistication, who boldly pursues the shy and unworldly boy-next door… Bollocks, said Phil. Or something politer, to that effect. According to him, Ned Cowper, the man in question, was just your pattern card romantic hero with fair hair and a dog collar. Six foot tall, drop dead handsome, well-educated, bit of a toff, etc etc. To really subvert the genre, continued Phil (although he may not have split his infinitive) you want a short, fat yob as your male lead. Going grey. With a northern accent. Bet you couldn't build a love story round a bloke like that, he finished. I may have enquired, a shade tartly, whether he had anyone in mind, given that Phil is not the tallest bloke in the world, nor as dark on top as he used to be, and comes from Lancashire.

Still, that's where Joe Duff lurched from, before cannoning into Becca on Magdalen Bridge. And I really liked that first scene. Only problem was, I didn't know where to go next. This brings me to the big problem I still haven't solved about this writing business - and the reason Dancing to the Pipers took upwards of two years in the writing and re-writing and re-re-re-writing. What I didn't know, and still don't, is whether you should work your plot out first.

Sounds such a simple question, doesn't it? I do realize there's no right or wrong answer. Consult the how-to-write handbooks, and they'll tell you novelists divide into two camps. The split is by no means along literary/pop lines, either, because you find Booker Prize nominees and blockbuster millionaires joining forces on both sides of the divide. There are those writers - let's call them the Roundheads - who argue that an author needs to plan out everything before setting a word of the actual book to paper. They amass card indexes on their characters, detailing everything from which school they attended, to the brand of cereal they prefer, and they plot their story, scene-by-scene, strand-by-strand, with the meticulous precision of a general drawing up his battle plan.

And then you have the Cavaliers, who argue that pre-planning like this kills a book stone-dead, that it's a sure fire way of snuffing out any spark of creative life. These merry freebooters just set off with a bright idea, a song in their heart and (sometimes) a rough idea of their destination and… write.

Where do I stand? Well, um, somewhere in the middle I guess - which is fatal. Falling between two schools, you might say. I've planned books which have been terrific in the blueprint, but dead on their legs in the actual writing. Conversely, I've charged away with an idea (like the opening scene on Magdalen Bridge) on a surge of cock-eyed optimism - and got hopelessly lost in the fictional forest before having to call the expedition to a halt. There is a large wooden box in the attic where I work - not your starving artist's leaky garret, I admit, centrally-heated, carpeted, ace view - which is called the Dead Novel Chest. It's long since full, and the shaggy sheaves have spilled into an adjoining storeroom. They'll doubtless take over the house one day.

I can't remember just how many drafts of Dancing to the Pipers are stashed in there, but there are a lot. Rude shock, after The Colours of Snow had poured out so easily. Wham, bang, two drafts and I'd finished it. OK, I'd tidied it up thereafter, but there had been no heroic surgery. And radical re-writing takes much longer than writing fresh. I can only liken it to unpicking big holes in a complicated fair-isle sweater, then re-knitting a differently designed patch in. Seamlessly. However, even after I'd finally staggered to the end of a half-way coherent attempt of this second novel, and posted it off to my publishers (a mere couple of years late), they came back with… a few suggestions. A few suggestions that led to two more complete re-writes, as I recall.

People often ask if that doesn't drive a writer crazy, some editor jack-booting in and demanding changes to your precious baby. Not me. Oh I admit my chin quivers when I realize they want me to rip into the poor bloody manuscript all over again - with a machete - but I'm grateful underneath. (This hurts so it must be good for me…) I'm sharply aware that editing - proper editing, not just punctuation quibbles and stylistic twiddles - is a rare and precious skill. Dammit, more than half the job of writing itself is editing - cutting, pruning, re-focussing - but by the time you hand a book over to the publishers, you've lost every vestige of your own critical detachment. The perfect editor is your perfect reader. She (or he) has the overview of the wood, when you're long buried in trees. She doesn't re-write a word, she doesn't even tell you how to re-write, she just diagnoses where the book isn't working. She'll tell you (tactfully) that chapters 12-16 flag; that this character doesn't make sense; that she simply can't believe in a certain scene.

Thus I say with perfect truth - even if it does sound cringingly reminiscent of a tearful Oscar winner - that I was lucky to have Jenny Dereham and Richenda Todd as editors. Am deeply fortunate to have Richenda still, come to that.

Besides, even though there were times when I thought I'd killed this book for good and all, somehow the battered and bloodied manuscript was still giving an occasional feeble twitch of life. I was working to plans in later drafts, obviously. I can't imagine it's possible to undertake substantial re-writes freehand - so much has to be referred forwards and backwards. But the ailing story was resuscitated at the eleventh hour - I understate, it was shocked back into riotous, roaring vigour - by the arrival of a character I hadn't plotted in at all. Umpteen drafts down, to my considerable surprise, the urbane Henry Blayne strolled nonchalantly into the action, and he didn't just rescue Becca's castle conversion, he rescued, no question, my book.

Funny business, writing.