Thetis is drawn to the shadows liking the dark the atrament
how does she look…
opalesque skin reflecting light
streaming slate hair liquid shadow
iridescent shimmering bright
Thetis is lustrous
don’t do her justice
think peacock shimmer kingfisher wing
This beautiful poem is from Thetis by Sue Watling. She is a writer and poet from Hull where she has an allotment and keeps honey bees. Sue has poems published in a range of journals including: ‘The Adriatic’, ‘Amethyst Review’, ‘DawnTreader’, ‘Dream Catcher’, ‘Ekphrastic Review’, ‘Green Ink Poetry’, ‘Poetry Shed’ and ‘Saravasti’. Sue’s first poetry collection, Heaving with the Dreams of Strangers, was published by Driech in 2022 https://hybriddreich.co.uk/product/heaving-with-the-dreams-of-strangers-sue-watling/
Below she explores the inspiration and writing of her collection Thetis.
I first encountered Thetis in the Hollywood film Troy (2004) with Brad Pitt as Achilles and Julie Christie playing his mother. I remember seeing it at the cinema shortly after release in the UK and then looking up Homer’s epic poem The Iliad, on which it was based, albeit with some major deviations. The Iliad is about the final weeks of the Trojan war. There I was struck by the tragedy of Thetis, an immortal goddess who gave birth to a child destined to die young while her own life was eternal.
Thetis was forced into marriage and motherhood with the mortal king Peleus, but she adored their son Achilles, doing all she could to protect him. This included dipping him in the River Styx to make him invulnerable. Prophecy had decreed the Greeks could not win the Trojan war without Achilles fighting on their side, but that he was destined to die young. The fate of mortal lives could never be avoided and Achilles died from an arrow shot through his heel, the fateful spot where Thetis had held him in the river between her finger and thumb, giving rise to the appellation of an Achilles Heel.
Tragedy is defined as great suffering and this story is tragic by anyone’s standards, yet my research suggested Thetis had never been a central topic of attention. The duality fascinated me and Thetis: a poetic narrative emerged out of this dissonance. My retelling of her story is based on each of her appearances in the Iliad, alongside supplementary resources about the Trojan war where her name appeared. I felt the tragedy was full of poetic potential while the gaps in our knowledge about her life were a gift for the creative imagination.
I took a part-time degree in creative writing at the University of Hull and decided to use Thetis as the subject for my dissertation. My poetry tutor was Felix Hodcroft, who encouraged and supported me in the venture, and I was delighted when Felix offered to publish Thetis through Esplanade Press.
I’ve always enjoyed writing but most of my publications came about through my career in higher education teaching and learning. Following a restructure in 2019, I left work and realised it was an opportunity to reframe what felt, at the time, like an unwelcome change. Really it was a gift in disguise because I had time to write. Poetry has always interested me so I began to study a different way to express thoughts and feelings.
Myth and legend have always fascinated me. I’ve also rewritten the tale of Kalypso and Odysseus, while many poems in my first collection, Heaving with the dreams of strangers (Driech, 2022) have a mythological basis. These include Icarus, the Willendorf Venus and the biblical story of Samson and Delilah. Many mythological stories are set in worlds where mortals and immortals live side-by-side. God and goddesses had great powers but were unable to change individual fates, as these were decided at birth and were immutable. The possibilities for reinterpretation of myth are endless and it feels like the various cultural pantheons of gods and goddesses offer a lifetime of potential story telling.
Today I am delighted to welcome fellow crime writer Jane Jesmond to my blog.
Jane Jesmond writes crime, thriller and mysteries. Her debut novel, On The Edge*, the first in a series featuring dynamic, daredevil protagonist Jen Shaw was a Sunday Times Crime Fiction best book. The second in the series, Cut Adrift, will be published in Feb 2023, and A Quiet Contagion, a standalone thriller, in Nov 2023. 2023 will also see the publication, in May, of a very twisty psychological thriller – as yet untitled.
Although born and brought up in the UK, Jane has spent the last thirty years living and working in France – initially down on the Cote d’Azur around Nice, Cannes and Monte Carlo where she and her husband ran an event management company and more recently at the opposite end of the country in Finistère (the end of the earth).
She loves writing (and reading) thrillers and mysteries, but her real life is very quiet and unexciting. Dead bodies and dangerous exploits are not a feature! She lives by the sea with a husband and a cat and enjoys coastal walks and village life. Unlike her daredevil protagonist, she is terrified of heights!
Jane, what are you currently working on? 2023 is a very busy year for me. I’ve just finished the structural edit for A Quiet Contagion, the standalone thriller, which will be published in November. It features a sixty-year-old tragedy that took place at a pharmaceutical factory on the outskirts of Coventry, kept secret by those involved but now refusing to stay buried.
Next I’m about to start the structural edit of the very twisty psychological thriller that will be published in May. I’m hoping to have an agreed title for it soon!
After that I will dive into the first draft of the third book in my Jen Shaw series. They’re always huge fun to write so I’m very much looking forward to it.
What inspired On The Edge? The initial idea came to me when I was driving home one night past the iconic St Mathieu lighthouse. The coast where I live is very dangerous – the Amoco Cadiz went aground nearby causing untold damage to the local wildlife – so there are lighthouses and buoys everywhere but St Mathieu is a particularly majestic example and stunning at night because its beam rotates through 360 degrees. Anyway I got out of the car to take a closer look and it was at that point that the opening scene of On The Edge, with Jen Shaw’s unconscious and dreaming figure hanging from the top of lighthouse, sprang into my mind.
How much do you think fiction intertwines with real life? What a great question! And I could probably write a thesis on the subject but my short answer is – not at all and a lot. A lot because the characters, the plot and the settings, and all the other wonderful elements which a book has to have to create authenticity and a sense of lived experience. In other words to come to life. Not at all because the particular series of events that make up a plot, the different traits that create a character and the aspects of the setting the writer chooses to use all combine in the writer’s brain to produce something that is completely invented. For me, as a reader, the books I most enjoy are the ones where the world and the characters of the book feel most real but that authenticity comes from the craft of the writer.
Jen, the protagonist in your debut novel, On the Edge, and your upcoming novel, Cut Adrift, is a climber. You say you are afraid of heights, what drew you to making your character a climber? I’ve been asked this a lot and the framing of the question (not in your case) often suggests that writing about someone very different to myself is surprising. However I think that is the reason why I was drawn to Jen. I like to write about people with whom I have very little in common. Being so frightened myself, I am fascinated by people who appear to have no fear of heights and, as in Jen’s case, who seem to love danger and seek it out. I don’t think I’m alone either. Fearless people often have a certain charisma that is very attractive. However making her a climber was not a conscious decision on my part. I’ve described above my encounter with St Mathieu lighthouse that gave me the idea for the opening scene of On The Edge and Jen arrived as the daredevil but troubled climbing protagonist very quickly afterwards. At the time it felt as though she sprang to life fully formed although I suspect she had been lurking in my sub conscious for quite a while.
On the Edge, is written in the first person, why did you choose this pov? Did you experiment with any other pov? I think first person pov is the right choice for On The Edge and for all the Jen Shaw series although, once again, it wasn’t a decision I took, it just happened that way. I was very sure about Jen’s voice from the moment she arrived in my head as the protagonist in On The Edge. I could hear it and I found writing her very liberating.
But writing first person pov comes very naturally to me. It’s my default. Although I write crime fiction, which is typically very plot driven, the characters are key and I enjoy immersing myself into one character’s psyche and seeing the world from their perspective. I think there can be an intensity about first person pov that engages the reader in a different way to third person pov.
That said, I can and do use third person narrative. In A Quiet Contagion the central narrative thread is first person from the pov of my protagonist, Phiney, but the story needed to be told from other characters’ perspectives as well and for these sections it felt more natural to use third person. It was decision based on instinct and one I would have changed if I hadn’t thought it worked well on rereading. For me, it’s all about what serves the story and the character best.
Cornwall is beautifully and evocatively described in On the Edge. What is your approach to creating landscape in your writing? Thank you! My family come from Cornwall and I spent a great deal of time there as a child and love the place very much.
Landscape is as much part of narrative for me as plot and character. The three intertwine to create the story, so the choice of where to set my book is very important but I’m swayed as much by the feel of a place, its history and its culture as its appearance – although that is important! The sea, the little coves of the Cornish coast, the wild moors and the abandoned mines play a key part in On The Edge. It would have been a completely different book if it had been set in Paris or Dagenham. So I suppose you could say my approach is to let the landscape play its role in and influence the narrative rather than imposing the narrative on the landscape. That’s not to say that I didn’t play with the landscape. The geography isn’t accurate in On The Edge and Jen’s childhood home and village are woven from a mixture of different places but I tried to stay true to the essence of Cornwall and how it is in winter when the summer visitors have left. Weather is very important to me. It adds mood and emotion to the landscape (as well as a lot of inconvenience!) so the setting almost becomes a separate character whose relationship with the other characters can be very revealing.
How would you describe your writing process? A little chaotic and very reliant on my sub conscious. When I started writing, I used to write without a plan and see where the story and the characters took me. It was often very interesting but equally often it took me down a rabbit hole. I had to write a huge number of drafts to iron out the problems created. These days I try my best to outline in advance and it definitely saves me writing a lot of drafts before I finally work out what I’m doing with an idea. I am fascinated, though, by the interplay between the conscious and subconscious (probably not the correct terms) in writing. I think both are necessary.
Do you have any crafting tips, eg to do with writing dialogue, for scene setting, plot or pacing? I think my top tip is listen to or read other writers’ tips but remember not everything will work for everbody! There’s a host of advice out there and it can be a bit overwhelming. Nevertheless I will share one thing I’ve found very helpful.
If I’m writing a scene where the narrative is being carried by a conversation between two (or more) people, I will generally write only the words they speak first – as though it was a screen play – and rewrite until it rings clear and then add private thoughts, scene setting, reactions later. The end result is usually much sharper and cleaner – for me anyway.
Could you say something of your publishing journey and your experience? My publishing journey was long with a great number of ups and downs. There were moments when I came very close to getting one of my books published and then didn’t. It was very tough at times as it is for many writers. The point of success came when I was feeling very low. The indie press who I’d thought was going to publish one of my books had suddenly folded and I’d parted company with the agent who I’d been thrilled to sign with a couple of years previously. Although I’d picked myself up, rewritten On The Edge yet again and submitted it, I had very few expectations. I believed in my writing, and an agent and a publisher had too but the final prize still eluded me.
And then an email arrived from Verve (my publisher). It dropped into my inbox just as I was sitting down to lunch. A lovely mail saying they’d loved On The Edge and wanted to know if it was still available. A year later, it was published.
Looking back now, I am very happy that it took so long. I love working with Verve and I feel like we are a great fit. I am actually very grateful for the years I spent learning the craft. Writing a second and then a third book to contract is a very different experience to pre-publication when the only deadlines were of my own making. I drew on all the knowledge and skills I’d learnt during those years to help me.
The question you wished I’d asked you. The question I wish everyone would ask me is Where can I buy your books? And the answer to that is they are and will be available in many bookshops, libraries and, of course, all the on-line retailers. If you prefer audiobooks, Emma Powell did a fantastic job narrating On The Edge and she’s also narrated Cut Adrift. At this moment, as part of the promotional activities for the launch of Cut Adrift in February, On The Edge is free as an ebook to any new subscribers to my newsletter – here. https://jane-jesmond.com/contact/
And please, if you like my books – in fact if you like any book by any author – leave a review on Amazon or Goodreads or Waterstones or anywhere. You don’t have to have bought it from the retailer to do this and it makes a huge difference to those of us who don’t have an already huge profile like Richard Osman – nothing against him by the way!
A big thank you to all my blog readers for sticking with me and my ramblings. I wish you all a creative year, finding joy in the precious little things of life.
I am now officially out of contract as I have delivered my third book in the Donna Morris Mysteries series. No Justice will be out in June. A Wake of Crows is currently available in all formats including audio. Drowning Not Waving is already in hardback and ebook and will come out in paperback in May.
I have various proposals with my agent – including further Donna Morris novels – meanwhile I have been writing short stories. The one I am working on at the moment is for the Crime Writers Association Margery Alingham competition. After much prevaricating I have decided to set it in 1930s Scarborough.
I do find novels easier to write than short stories. In my opinion, they are both attempting to seduce a reader into a world created by the writer. Only the short story has a lot less words to do it in. I have said in the past, a short story is like when you are on a bus and you catch a glimpse of people through a lighted window. You are totally absorbed by them for an instant and then you are gone. It is up to you to work out what happened before and after that fleeting engagement.
In her article ‘Story Writer’ (www.theshortstory.org.uk 11.08.06) Jackie Kay writes: ‘What doesn’t happen in a short story is as important as what does. Like pauses in music; it is impossible to think about the short story without also thinking of its mysterious silences.’
She says: ‘A short story is a small moment of belief. Hard, uncompromising, often bleak, the story does not make things easy for the reader. It is a tough form for tough times. If the novel sometimes spoon feeds the reader, the short story asks her to feed herself. A story asks the reader to continue it after it has finished or to begin it before it began. There is space for the reader to come in and imagine and create.’
Writing a fairly traditional crime based short story has the added challenge that I do want to seed clues, misdirect and come to a resolution. The spaces need to be there, but in quite a restricted fashion.
The other project for January is to come up with a marketing plan which I feel I can implement. For the moment this is mostly about talking to other people (mainly other authors) which I am enjoying.
Have you any thoughts on short stories or any writing projects for 2023 you would like to share?
Winter came to Scarborough and it was beautiful, if treacherously icy in places. Midwinter day in some traditions is a moment for inner reflection. It is also another point in the turning of the seasons, a new year if you like, a moment to look back perhaps.
When I consider our human world, it seems to me to be in a mess and it is rapidly messing up the rest of the earth for every thing else. Once in a while, I see, hear or read about people who are trying to do the right thing within their communities with generosity and commitment. However, this same attitude is not reflected by the leaders of most countries and most big business who appear determined to follow the same old discredited path. I hear on the TV ‘experts’ say we have the answers, we still have time to turn round the juggernaut of destruction and despair. I wish I had their faith.
However, if I speak personally, this year has been an exciting one in many ways. A Wake of Crows came out in paperback and Drowning Not Waving in hardback. I delivered No Justice at the beginning of December. This completes the three books I was contracted to produce for Constable/Little Brown. I now have an agent, Anne Williams of the Kate Horden Agency, and together we have been looking to the future. Finger crossed, further Donna Morris books with Constable/Little Brown and maybe other writing opportunities.
I have had a couple of good reviews in national publications. I was on panels for Bloody Scotland in September, for an online discussion of psychology in writing and for Newcastle Noir in December. I had a signing at a local inde bookshop. I have had coverage in the local media and events in Scarborough and York. I have done my best on social media (still not my forte).
When I first got my book deal, I thought whoopee, someone else will be responsible for publicity. I thought (naively as it turns out) that if a publisher brings out a book, it will want to promote the title in order to maximise sales. Unfortunately, I was very wrong. Most of the publicity I have garnered has been through my own efforts. And though I love doing events and having (good) reviews, I find the work required to get them and the knock backs along the way dispiriting and exhausting.
An author who I am coming to know who is a lot more experienced than me said publishers spend 90% of their publicity budget on 10% of their authors and we are in the 90% who get what’s left. How true. Need I mention Richard Osman? The three books in his Thursday Murder Club series have sold over three million copies. The most recent is the fastest-selling adult hardback from a British author since BookScan records began. Why? Because he is known AND still gets the 90% of the publicity budget spent on him. Mslexia (Dec/Jan/Feb 2022/23) mentioned him three times in three different articles and it is supposed to be a journal for women who write.
I am not alone in being exasperated by this aspect of book promotion. Katya Balen won the Carnegie prize in 2022 for her book October, October. She said on the BBC Today programme (15th December 2022): ‘Publishers dedicate a huge amount of publicity and marketing to those big names, to their celebrity authors, getting books out into the public consciousness on train adverts, tube adverts, all the kind of places where people are not expecting to find books, where they kind of seep into people’s lives without them noticing. They dedicate budgets to those authors and other authors aren’t getting it. …brilliant books are being let down by publishers. … Let’s put diverse authors on national radio and national TV and let people make up their own minds about what they want to buy.’
I always thought reviewers would like to find something which no-one else has yet discovered. Apparently not. Most of them want to review what everyone else is talking about. And readers can only read what they know about. Our local Waterstones, after much prompting from me, got in a couple of copies of A Wake of Crows which were hidden somewhere on a shelf not even the assistant could find. Whereas Richard Osman had a table inside the shop and window display. Love them or hate them, my novels are based in this very town and written by a local author.
Looking forward, if I care about my books, which I do, I know I have to gird my loins and be more proactive. I am talking to a social media mentor in January to come up with some new directions on that front. I am talking with other authors in the crime genre to see if we can do things jointly. But if you, dear reader, have any ideas, please don’t be afraid to slip them my way. I would particularly like to do more events, podcasts and have more reviews.
In ‘The Crayon Cure’ by Nicola Masters (Mslexia Dec/Jan/Feb 2022/23) she says that, after finding an agent and getting a book deal: ‘The thing I was not prepared for was how my relationship with writing would change when other people were interested in what I was doing. Suddenly, this thing I did for the sheer fun and love of it, that allowed me to ignore my responsibilities, became, well, my biggest responsibility.’
She suggests doing something creative which does not have the same pressure as producing a novel. For her it is art. For me it is collage, yoga and sea swimming. I can enjoy these activities without worrying about getting any better at them; or whether my sales are going up or down; or I am making a splash on social media.
However, writing consistently saves my sanity and is something I can lose myself in with pure joy. This is as true now as it has ever been. I love creating my characters, my stories and my worlds. I have to hold this in mind when the vagaries of sales and marketing gets me down. My books are out there, a few people know about them, a few people connect with them. This in itself is my midwinter gift.
To end this rather rambling post, let me wish everyone a splash of peace and kindness; the space to nourish their creativity; and pleasure in the small things. Onwards to 2023!
Of course, my life has been very different to Una Marson’s, however, the quote above really resonated with me. ‘My writing is my activism.’ Yes it is for me too. I rarely go on marches these days – though I was once tear gassed by the French police on an anti Front National rally. I am involved in various non-governmental organisations, especially ATD Fourth World UK – All Together in Dignity to Overcome Poverty (atd-uk.org), and I give money to others, but my writing is the place where I mainly explore the issues I feel passionate about.
I came to political consciousness through the feminism of the 1980s. The idea that everything is political and the decision not to discuss something is as political as the decision to do so, remains paramount for me. Plus I write what I would want to read. I want to read things which open me to differing worlds and perspectives.
Or do I? Apart from as background for something I am writing, would I want to read a novel from the point of view of someone who supports Nigel Farage?
Apparently we all want to live in an echo chamber these days. And it is true, that I have grown weary of arguments with people who hold views which are completely opposed to mine. In the past, I have found these energy sapping and, quite frankly, a waste of time. How many opinions have I changed? People are as entrenched in their silos as I am. I think maybe only experience changes views. Perhaps if Suella Braverman spent a night in a detention centre, she would behave differently?
However, it’s worth noting, there are studies which show that reading can increase empathy for people who have different life experiences from our own. So hopefully, if I do my research right, my writing could at least have that effect.
Will I lose some readers through revealing my political stance too readily and clearly? Do I care? I’m not sure that I do.
I am delighted to welcome author Julia Stone to my blog. Julia Stone ‘dabbled’ in writing for many years, studying poetry, short stories and script writing. In 2017 she decided to take writing more seriously and applied to Faber Academy where she wrote a draft novel. In 2018 she won the Blue Pencil First Novel award and was offered representation by Madeleine Milburn. After writing her third novel she won a two book deal with Orion Dash. Her debut, HER LITTLE SECRET was published in 2021, and her second psychological suspense novel, THE ACCIDENT, is published October 27th 2022. Available at: https://amzn.to/3Db7jPo
What are you currently working on? Editing the book I wrote at Faber five years ago. It’s a bit of a personal passion project and it’s now on its sixth major rewrite. It’s set in the 1970s/80s and is a story of intense female friendship – far removed from psychological suspense. That said, I have many other writing projects on the go and dip in and out of them as the mood takes me. Currently I’ve started work on four other projects: another psychological suspense novel about an academic who studies memory; early chapters of a fictional memoir; an outline for a dystopian script; and a non-fiction work on the psychology of small day-to-day pleasures (which may morph into an uplit novel…!)
What has inspired the novel you have most recently published? ‘The Accident’ is published October 27th 2022. In 2018 I was regularly driving down the A12 to visit my 100 year old great aunt. I find my creative brain comes into play when on a long car journey and I enjoy developing ideas to see where they end up. The initial prompt for ‘The Accident’ was sparked when I saw a couple kissing on a pedestrian bridge over the dual carriageway. It struck me as a strange place for a romantic cuddle and I pondered why they might be there. The story developed from there – a girl on a bridge; who is she and why is she there? From those simple questions a web of threads spun out and ended up as my novel, ‘The Accident’. But of course, we don’t find out the answers to who and why until the end…
You are psychologist and psychotherapist, how does this help or hinder your writing? It has helped me in two ways: Firstly, to really understand my characters, what makes them tick, how they became who they are, their wants and needs. When an editor suggests a rewrite or change to the plot it enables me to understand what is wrong and to take the essence of what they envisage but to write it in a way that fits with my style and the character’s personality.
Secondly, to manage my own emotional wellbeing throughout the process. As a psychologist, I’m interested in the emotional journey we take as writers as there are huge ups and downs along the way. During the Covid lockdowns I was asked by Faber to be a guest speaker for their Academy students to talk about writers’ wellbeing and it was great to hear they are taking this seriously.
For example, many of us come to writing from other careers where we had far more agency – often we knew what we needed to do to achieve and had some control over how well we did. In the world of the writer there are so many elements outside our control that it can be quite a shock. Your novel may be fabulous, your cover letter perfect, yet you can’t get an agent’s attention. You get an agent and they ‘love’’ your book but they want you to rewrite the second half – oh, and can you change it from a romance to more of an adventure. You make the edits and the agent pitches it to publishers, but no one is interested as the market has moved towards uplit or there was a similar theme explored by a well-known author last year. And so it goes on…
An approach I use is to think of my goals at three levels: 1) my fantasy dream, 2) an ideal target and 3) the most likely scenario – an achievable positive base point. For example, at my first book signing I set my ‘likely scenario’ at selling one book, so I was thrilled when more people came to talk to me and bought copies.
Another important thing is to try not to take reviews and feedback personally – separate your identity from the novel – they are commenting on the book not on you. Look at reviews of your favourite best seller and you will find a range from 5 to 1 star.
I have heard you talk about the cross-over between therapy and writing/story telling. Can you elaborate on any connections you find? When someone comes for therapy they share their experiences as a story. We tend to think and explain in a causal, sequential way: x caused y which led to z. We include dialogue to bring things to life. We talk about our wants and needs, our hopes and fears. There are highs and lows in emotion. All these are features of story writing.
We all have a personal narrative, a story we tell ourself about our life and who we are, to help us make sense of our experiences. And this informs how we react to events in the here-and-now. One therapeutic technique is to consider whether this version of the story is useful to us in its current form; is there another interpretation of events? Or different language? Maybe it was something we were told by someone else, or it was a reaction to specific experiences and hasn’t been revised as we have grown. Helping people to reframe the way they think of the story, to see the events through a different lense, or to assume another role (survivor rather than victim), can help cause a significant shift in mental wellbeing.
How would you describe your writing process? Although I dip in and out of different writing projects, I am a strong planner and hate wasting time on something that isn’t going to work in the long run. So I plot an outline of the novel to help steer the story line, generally using a simplified version of Save the Cat. (Email me if you’d like a copy of the worksheet I use: Julia@juliastonewriter.com) I was told the first draft is ‘telling yourself the story’ which I’ve found immensely helpful, so I relax into it and don’t worry if I stray from my plan. I also create psychological profiles for my characters and create mood boards of their worlds. This helps as I have Aphantasia – an inability to see things in my mind’s eye – so if I need to describe something in the novel I have a stock of images I can refer to.
What kind of research do you do & how do you go about it? It depends on the book. I will sometimes read related texts, particularly if I am exploring a psychological theme that is well researched, like memory. I also attend relevant talks and listen to podcasts. Most of my ideas for novels don’t require much more than a quick Google search and checking small facts, like how much it cost to make a call from a phone box in the 1970s!
Do you have any crafting tips? When I write a first draft in third person I find it often reads in a stilted ‘Janet and John’ way. One way to avoid this is to write in first person and then change the perspective. This enables you to experience events through the character’s eyes and ears and understand what they are thinking and feeling. This helps make their actions/reactions true to their wants and needs.
There’s a wealth of writing craft information out there. One of the best sites is Emma Darwin’s https://emmadarwin.typepad.com/thisitchofwriting/ She gives practical advice on so many aspects from how to write a fight scene to pacing, it’s almost a one-stop shop.
The question you wished I’d asked you. Ha – clever! Maybe something about social media for writers and readers. If an author is going to use it properly, it seems to be a daily job and I’m not sure I have that much I wish to say! I’ve mastered Twitter and interact semi-regularly with fellow writers and readers @JulesTake3. Despite attending workshops run by The Society of Authors and being tutored by friends, I struggle with the others. Instagram is designed for visuals, so I largely post images of my ceramics and occasionally a book related photo. Facebook has so far defeated me – I’ve recently signed up but seem to see a lot of videos of guinea pigs and exceptionally well-decorated camper vans! Any advice gratefully received!
Luckily I do understand old-tech and my website can be found at www.JuliaStoneWriter.com where you can find information on both my novels, read past blog posts and sign up for my monthly musings on writing and psychology.
I have been rather overly excited these last few weeks as I have been involved in several literary events.
The first was Bloody Scotland, in Stirling, 15th-18th September. The biggest crime writing event in Scotland, and the biggest I have ever attended. I got to wear one of these for the first time!
It was a whirlwind. I tended to swing between feeling, ‘Yes, I have arrived, this is my tribe’ to feeling small and a fraud. The well known ‘imposter syndrome’. But I got to meet some genuinely lovely people who I hope I will stay in contact with. And my panel went well, ably chaired by Harriet Tyce, with Jane Corry and Trevor Wood either side of me. The audience of about 30 to 40 people were attentive and appreciative.
Then a surprise invitation from Philippa East, to be part of an online panel chewing over the Psychological Secrets of Writing. Along with Philippa chairing and me, there were authors Bev Thomas and Julia Stone who are both working psychologists and psychotherapists. The discussion was far ranging and interesting from my point of view, looking at how our psychology/therapy training and experience interweaves with our writing. It is perhaps not surprising that our novels feature therapists. Some of you will know from my self-published novels a counsellor called Hannah. She will make a triumphant return in my third in the Donna Morris series, No Justice (soon to be delivered to the publisher and out next year).
In the same week, I was lucky enough to be invited to do an event at Scarborough library. It was fun to be on my home patch, with people in the audience who I knew. Not all of them were friends and family, though, there were some new readers and I am grateful for that, not to mention the book sales.
And in October, I am making the short journey to York to be part of their Big Read programme.
I do feel dizzy with it all and that means I have less headspace for the creative stuff. But this week I have to centre myself – walking and swimming will help – in order to complete No Justice and work on proposals for the next three Donna Morris mysteries.
Long time subscribers to my blog know that it is very unusual for me to post two weeks in a row, let alone one day after another. But I want to share this exciting news. My interviewee of yesterday, crime writer Philippa East, has invited me onto a virtual panel ‘The Psychological Secrets of Writing’.
Fellow panellists are writers Bev Thomas and Julia Stone, with Philippa hosting. We all have a background in psychology and/or therapy. We will be chatting about the links between psychology and writing, how our day jobs inform our creative work, and how a little expertise in psychology can help with character, plot and engaging with readers. We will also be delighted to answer live questions from the audience.
Today I am delighted to welcome crime writer Philippa East to my blog.
Philippa grew up in Scotland and originally studied Psychology and Philosophy at the University of Oxford. After graduating, she moved to London to train as a Clinical Psychologist and worked in NHS mental health services for over ten years. Philippa now lives in the Lincolnshire countryside with her spouse and cat, and alongside her writing she continues to work as a psychologist and therapist. Her debut novel Little White Lies was long-listed for the Guardian’s “Not-The-Booker” prize and shortlisted for the CWA John Creasey New Blood Dagger. She has since published two further psychological suspense novels, Safe and Sound and I’ll Never Tell, and is currently working on her fourth. See more at: Amazon/Philippa East
What are you currently working on? I am currently working on my fourth psychological suspense novel, currently titled The Hoax… It features a remote Scottish boarding school, a group of troubled teens, the untimely death of a therapist, and two ex-spouses thrown together to investigate. I’m coming towards the end of the first draft right now, which means the hard work of “making it good” starts soon!
What has inspired the novel you have most recently published? My most recent novel, I’ll Never Tell, had lots of iterations before it fell into its ultimate shape! I think ultimately, it was a combination of two idea kernels. The first was of a couple arriving in a foreign country and having to confront their own marital crises in the process of searching for their missing daughter. I also was fascinated by the question of how a family might function with a child “star” at its centre. And then I thought: what if the child star was the one who had gone missing?
How much do you think fiction intertwines with real life? As a crime/thriller writer, I definitely draw a lot of my story ideas from true crime TV shows and podcasts. I think I write to try and understand people and what makes them “tick”, so although I write fiction, I am definitely always trying to make sense of real life, and the people we encounter in it. Sadly, my novel Safe and Sound was inspired by the real-life story of Joyce Vincent, a charismatic, sociable woman in her thirties whose death went unnoticed for nearly three years. Since I wrote and published Safe and Sound, tragically there have been further similar stories in the news.
You are a working clinical psychologist, how does this help or hinder your writing? I think mostly, it helps it. As therapists, we hear many, many narratives about people’s lives and struggles, and I think this has given me insight into some of the universal themes of the human condition: love, acceptance, belonging, self-esteem and truth. I think it also helps me understand how people generally “tick” – what affects us and how, what motivates or frightens us, and how we relate to other people.
For me, writing is a way to try and understand the world, other people, and myself. I think this drive originally led me into the field of psychology – and now story-telling has become my means to ask and explore those questions. Therapy is so much about empathising with other people – putting yourself in their shoes, with compassion. This is the way I try to relate to my characters too.
How would you describe your writing process? Um… messy! (Despite being a very organised person generally in life.) I generally will spend a number of months exploring an idea and working it into a rough outline, before I start writing. These days, I steer clear of formal outlines (which tend to lead me down the wrong track) and I just make loose notes in a notebook to steer me along the right story track. I will then do a VERY messy first draft of about 80k words, writing about 2,000 words a day. I don’t edit as I go, and I write in a VERY undisciplined way. I will then usually spend another 2-3 months working through a number of further drafts to sort everything out before showing it to my editor. After which, I’m likely to go through at least another three drafts.
What helps you to write/what gets in the way? Since becoming a professional author (wow, that’s weird to say!), I’ve learnt to keep a clear separation between my creative processes as a writer, and the business of publishing, promotion, etc. Too much focus on sales, reviews, the market, etc can really create a lot of instability and self-doubt which is fatal to creativity! On a more practical level, I treat writing as a job (which, um, it now is!), meaning I prioritise it and carve out time for it every week. Having author friends to chat to and share ideas with is also essential. As you’ll see from the dedication and acknowledgements for I’ll Never Tell, my fellow authors have been an invaluable source of support along the way.
What kind of research do you do & how do you go about it? Mainly using Google! With the sorts of books I write, there isn’t usually too much research required, and most things I need to know I can find on the Internet. Occasionally, I will put a shout-out on Twitter for someone who knows about something more niche that I need help with. I generally focus on telling my story first, in the way that works for me, and do my fact-checking later, otherwise I think I would get too restricted by the facts and feel unable to keep the plot going. I have to give a shout-out here to my friend Stuart Gibbon, a retired Police Detective who has helped me hugely to get any police-procedural parts right in my books.
Do you have any crafting tips, eg to do with writing dialogue, for scene setting, plot or pacing?
There are five key craft elements that I would say all writers should aim to grasp, practise and master. These are: # show vs tell # point of view (POV) # psychic distance # the “five commandments of story telling” (the art of structure) # story genre (NB: this is different to marketing / publishing genres!)
You write crime novels which are stand alones. Have you ever thought about writing a series? What do you think are the pros/cons of writing stand alones rather than a series? I tend to think of my books as standing “one step to the side of a crime”, rather than traditional crime novels. As a result, I’ve tended to write stand-alone books that often focus on interpersonal relationships and the emotional fall-out of extreme events as much as solving a mystery. For me, story-telling is about a character’s journey though challenge, conflict, “death” and “rebirth” (the classic “Hero’s Journey”). For me, the story naturally concludes once the protagonist has completed this cycle of growth. I can imagine that in some ways it is “easier” to write a series, in that you generally have your setting, characters, etc. ready and waiting for you at the start of each book. However, I think I’d feel too “hemmed in”, since I do like the flexibility of being able to explore brand-new characters, themes and set-ups each time – even if it means starting from scratch with each book!
Could you say something of your publishing journey and your experience? I began writing ‘seriously’ about 12 years ago, with a terrible novel that I never finished or showed anyone, but which made me fall in love with writing. I then wrote short stories for many years, which was a great way to practise my craft and learn what it takes to get published. In 2015, I left my full-time NHS job to work part time as a private psychologist, and began another novel. After slogging through 12 drafts (yes, 12), an agent at the York Festival of Writing showed some interest. She read the full MS and then suggested I re-write the whole thing. The thing is, she was totally right. So I re-wrote it – cue another 12+ drafts! – and (thankfully!) the agent took me. This ultimately became Little White Lies, which subsequently sold at auction to HQ/HarperCollins. Somehow, I have since completed two further novels, and have a fourth in the pipeline!
The question you wished I’d asked you. Oo, I’m not sure! I’ll take this opportunity to say do come and say hi to me on Twitter (@philippa_east), which is where I’m regularly hanging out. I love chatting to readers, writers and all book-ish people, so I’ll be happy to hear from you. Obviously you can keep updated on my book news there, and I also post about upcoming author events I am doing (online and in person), in case you’d ever like to join in on that. You’ll also get to know my cat Mimi who regularly appears in my posts!
Attending events – especially those where a certain amount of networking and putting myself out there is required – is not without its anxieties. Then Covid added its own peculiar menace to being around people. I have to admit, therefore, it was with some trepidation that I set off for Harrogate and Theakston’s Crime Writing Festival on Saturday.
Luckily this year the sessions were in a large airy marquee and eating and drinking could be done outdoors, which allayed some of the fears. And I was able to meet with a couple of authors who I already knew, so that also helped.
I enjoyed the sessions I attended. ‘Experts Chortling’ brought together some of my favourites: (Baroness) Sue Black and Carla Valentine with psychologist Emma Kavanagh. They were joined by former police detective Graham Bartlett. As well as being a wellspring of interesting information, they were all very funny too.
By the time I got to the book shop Sue Black’s books had sold out. I am not surprised. She manages to make the business of death and the dead fascinating and entertaining without ever losing respect for those who have died. Plus, if you are a newbie crime writer, along with Unnatural Causes by Dr Richard Shepherd, Black’s books, interviews and documentaries are gold dust.
During the panel, Emma Kavanagh said crime writers were too often drawn to featuring characters traumatised by their pasts. What is more remarkable in reality, Kavanagh suggests, are the number of people who fall apart after trauma, and then show resilience, recovery and growth. It got me wondering where this might fit into a crime story.
The other afternoon session I went to was a discussion of the ‘future of the police procedural’. The panel was: AA Dhand; Jane Casey; Parker Bilal and Adam Lebor. All were clear on the duty of the crime writer to tackle difficult issues in a responsible way. Casey suggested crime authors are the ‘Rapid reaction squad of the literary world’ developing stories around current debates quicker than other writers.
Lebor said (as I have done in the past) that there are far too many young women who end up dead in the crime fiction genre. His series is set in Hungary and has a detective from the gypsy community (apparently ‘gypsy’ is the term used by the peoples themselves in this country). It has plenty of scope for exploring the lives of refugees, as well as the prejudices against the Roma.
They all characterised their protagonists as ‘lone wolfs’, especially AA Dhand’s Harry Virdee who the author likened to a gothic comic book hero (not my taste at all and I realised why I had never taken to his books). With my Donna Morris mysteries, I have gone in the other direction. Donna is definitely not a maverick and she needs the team, just as they need her (though she struggles to properly comprehend this). The relationships between the police officers are something which has been praised by some readers. I hoping the future of the police procedural includes space for a team player.
After paying £4.35 for a cup of tea (yes!!) and spending more than I would care to mention on books, I wended my way home. A shout out to Northern and Transpennine Express whose staff were friendly and whose trains were on time, comfortable, clean and not too busy.
Have any of you some good memories of literary festivals you would like to share?