Writerly tips from author Patrick Gale

British author and screenwriter Patrick Gale was one of the international acts to join this year’s Open Book Festival. The Oxford-educated novelist is an avid gardener who lives near Land’s End in Cornwall, where he and his husband farm.

Patrick Gale

By Dan Hall (www.dan-hall.co.uk) from the author’s website.

Gale, whose books have previously made it onto Richard and Judy’s list of summer reads, is currently promoting his 17th novel, A Place Called Winter. The novel, a BBC Radio 2 Book Club choice, is described as follows:

To find yourself, sometimes you must lose everything.
A privileged elder son, and stammeringly shy, Harry Cane has followed convention at every step. Even the beginnings of an illicit, dangerous affair do little to shake the foundations of his muted existence – until the shock of discovery and the threat of arrest cost him everything.
Forced to abandon his wife and child, Harry signs up for emigration to the newly colonised Canadian prairies. Remote and unforgiving, his allotted homestead in a place called Winter is a world away from the golden suburbs of turn-of-the-century Edwardian England. And yet it is here, isolated in a seemingly harsh landscape, under the threat of war, madness and an evil man of undeniable magnetism that the fight for survival will reveal in Harry an inner strength and capacity for love beyond anything he has ever known before.
In this exquisite journey of self-discovery, loosely based on a real life family mystery, Patrick Gale has created an epic, intimate human drama, both brutal and breathtaking. It is a novel of secrets, sexuality and, ultimately, of great love.

A place called winter cover

In a panel talk on researching time and place, Patrick generously shared some tips and tricks with the aspiring writers in the audience.

On the limits of research
Patrick described how A Place Called Winter came about. When his mother decided to move into an old-age home, he inherited her set of Georgian drawers, stuffed full of old Vogue patterns, mismatched knitting needles, years of correspondence between his mother and grandmother… and his grandmother’s unfinished life story.

When asked why he decided to fictionalise his family history, rather than writing a biography, he said: “Fiction is very useful to get to the emotional truth of a situation that you won’t find with only historical research”.

He also confirmed that old adage that you should write from what you know, saying: “The glorious realisation you’re a novelist comes when you suddenly realise no experience is wasted”.

On the subject of researching when you’re a new novelist, Patrick said he believes a lot of the extraneous research is about the writer’s need to gain confidence. “But sooner or later,” he said, “you must trust your ability to tell the story”.

He also suggested that new writers follow advice he’d heard another author give: Try tell as much of the story you want to tell before you research it, even if only in note form, as “it’s easy to get overwhelmed by research with your first novel.”

On archiving your past, and your stories, for the future
Gale keeps all the notebooks from his old manuscripts, but he hands them over to an archivist for safekeeping. The first time he did this, the archivist was pleased he did things the old-fashioned way. Apparently, with technology changing so much, paper lasts more than documents on memory sticks (which you may not be able to read from in a few years), so archivists always print out any digital material authors hand them.

He also reiterated something my Irish great aunt Margaret told me: It’s really important to write the names of people on the backs of photographs for the sake of leaving an accurate record of your life as legacy.

On the value of writing in ink
Extending the writing-like-gardening analogy he mentioned at the start of the talk, Gale said the reason he makes his writing students have “inky days”, with no electronic note-taking or writing allowed, is because “the mess that comes with scratching out and so on is hugely fertile”.

His own preference? Gale writes in Toffee Brown ink (the one that “looks like dried blood”) as archivists say that’s the tone that lasts the longest.

On what writers talk about
“People think when writers get together, they talk art. We don’t. We talk about backing up,” Gale quipped. When I tweeted this, writer Jenny Colgan replied: “and VAT and writer’s arse and unfair car insurance premiums.”

Gale, still generous with his writerly tips, replied to say “I beat writer’s arse by investing in a sort of brain surgeon’s chair − the Hag Capisco: lets one lean forward”.

The Hag Capisco is environmentally sound (the seat is made from recycled car bumpers and waste household plastic packaging, and its plastic components are labelled to help sorting for recycling) as well as ergonomic. Here’s what the chair looks like, and where to learn more about it.

Hag CapiscoHag CapiscoHag Capisco


The Big Box: Cape Town’s boardgame café

Recently, I’ve spent a few Saturday mornings getting my geek on at The Big Box, a boardroom café located slap-bang between South Africa’s Parliament and the Jewish Museum, round the corner from the National Gallery.

It’s one of the things I’ve done with the Cape Town Coffee and Tea Socials Meetup group, and I must say, when it comes to breaking the ice and taking the pressure off meeting new people, playing games is a great alcohol-free ‘social lubricant’ for those not that into sports.


Timeline: One for the history buffs.

The Big Box back story
As this article explains, the café has French owners and origins. It’s the sister company of a boardgames café in La Rochelle, called La Grosse Boite. When husband and wife Eric and Emilie Breteau moved to the Mother City, they started hosting boardgame nights across the city, before opening Big Box in June 2015. As the only Giga Mic distributors in the country, the café also serves as a games shop.

The French flavour is found in the games themselves, many of which have instructions in French.
(No worries: Eric and Emilie come round and explain the rules to get you started.) Then there are the yummy crêpes on offer.

Ghost Blitz

Ghost Blitz and coffee.

I also like the fact that Eric and Emilie believe so strongly in the developmental benefits to playing boardgames, they’ve started a social-development programme to supply at least 20 schools and orphanages in the Cape Town area with free boardgames. So if you purchase a game from the café, 5% of the price helps finance the programme.

Games to play
The games I’ve enjoyed include:

  • Dobble, an observation game that’s great fun for all ages.
  • Story Cubes, pictograph dice that serve as storytelling prompts.
  • Timeline Historical Events cards, which require that you guess the order of key historical events on a timeline. (I can’t rave about this one enough. SO much fun!)
Story Cubes

Writers recommend Story Cubes for writing prompts.

But there are plenty others to try, including French games (such as Quarto), family games (such as Monolopoly), strategy games (such as Risk: Lord of the Rings) and solo games (such as IQ Link).

Go on, give The Big Box Café a go one Saturday. You can also hire the venue out, and BYO booze, for a group of 10 people or more.

To visit the café’s website, click here.