Category Archives: A Writer’s Life

A Writer’s Survival Kit for the Midwinter Festivities

Here’s some thoughts:

  • Reduce, re-use before we recycle.
  • Plant a tree instead of giving gifts: https://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/?gclsrc=aw.ds
  • Love, caring & time are more important than giving gifts.
  • Stay in touch with nature.
  • Nourish your creativity.
  • Take time out from the festivities and find some calm.

Wishing all my readers the festive time they desire and a creative 2020.

Three things I have learned about writing crime fiction

I wrote my first crime novel when I was 19, thirty-six years ago. I got a sniff of an interest from an agent who liked my writing but not what I had written and asked for something else. By the time I had produced another novel, she had lost interest.

I re-visited the crime genre with my Scarborough Mysteries series. The Art of the Imperfect was published in 2014. I have written four more crime novels since then; two (The Art of Survival and The Art of Breathing) have been published, the other two await next steps.

Writers learn to write through reading, through study, through supportive critical feedback, but most of all writers learn to write by writing. This blog details three things I have learned since re-dipping my toe into the crime genre.

(1) Jeopardy
An agent has recently told me my crime novels lack jeopardy. She said readers today want real page-turners, they want to be kept on the edge of their seats through the whole novel. Whether this is true or not (perhaps some readers, like me, want an intriguing puzzle or a social critique or complex characters) this idea has an effect on what crime books appear on shelves.

I ask myself, therefore, how to increase jeopardy? The main way is to put someone in danger. If a writer wants to stay close to reality, this causes a problem: most murderers kill once, for a very specific reason. A writer, therefore, has to work out a reason why a murderer might be thinking about acting again.

Then there’s the question of who is going to be in danger. It has to be someone who the reader cares about. A woman, especially a young one, or a child, generally automatically garners a reader’s concern. But if a writer is not going down that route, then there is another character the reader should be getting involved with: the detective. I have noticed that more and more, it is the detective who is being put in peril in order to increase the jeopardy of the story. Obviously this causes an issue in a series, just how many times is a detective stupid enough to risk their lives in the line of duty?

(2) The lone wolf detective
Gone are the days when novels with casts of thousands – à la Dickens or Tolstoy – are acceptable, especially in crime fiction. Once a writer has a victim, the victim’s entourage, a few suspects and a team of police officers, there’s not much room for any other characters. It seems to me this might be one reason why detectives with no friends or family are becoming more the norm.

(3) Naming
I often struggle to find names which stick for my characters. Names denote all sorts of things, including age, social class, nationality, culture, race, gender. The way a character feels about their name and whether they alter it can speak volumes about them. I have a habit of having characters change their names for various reasons and sometimes I have to curb the temptation to use this trope.

It’s not a good idea to have characters with names which start with the same letter or sound similar, unless there is a particular reason for doing so. This can cut down the choice. Dickens sometimes gave his characters names which reflected in some way something about them. I am drawn to this method, though it has to be done with a light hand.

 

What have you learnt about writing in a particular genre?

Writing Tips: Voice

I have previously blogged on ‘voice’, so some of this may be a repeat for some of my readers. However, I am adding to my previous thoughts.

I think there are two aspects to voice for a writer. Firstly there is the writer’s voice. This might include (among other aspects) choices as to plot or point of view or language, structural quirks, an outlook on the world and/or future. In some ways this is like the voice of an actor. There are different types of actors. I watch a film with Michael Cain in and I know I am watching Michael Cain. On the other hand, one year I saw three films starring Daniel Day-Lewis and it could have been a completely different actor in each, so effectively did he morph into the characters. I think writers are the same. For me, Colm Tóibín is more of a Michael Cain, while Louise Doughty is more of a Daniel Day-Lewis.

Then, if a writer is creating fiction, there are the voices of the characters. Here I do believe a writer should strive for diversity, which must mean going beyond their own experiences.

One of the narrative characters in my Scarborough Mysteries novels is Theo Akande – young, black, gay, male. What is a fifty-five year old white woman doing writing in a young, black, gay, male voice? There has been some suggestion that this disjunction is one reason why it has not been picked up by literary agents. Perhaps it smacks of appropriation or colonisation. There is a good point here, there are not enough young, black, gay voices out there and publishers should be focusing on promoting them rather than a voice created by me. I do get that. And sometimes I do feel nervous that I’m not getting Theo ‘right’ in some way.

I was cheered slightly by an interview with Bonnie Greer which I heard on the excellent podcast: https://www.thelastbohemians.co.uk/. Greer said we are, after all, from the same species. She also said don’t be an artist if you want to be safe.

Theo evolved over several novels (unpublished & published). Initially he was the ‘sane’ counterweight to Hannah’s descent into depression. He has faced prejudiced and bullying and has many reasons to feel aggrieved, but he maintains his more balanced view of the world because of the ‘secure base’ (à la Bowlby) of his upbringing. I believe Theo is more unlike me because of this than because of his other attributes. I have a very bleak view on life. I also wanted him to be different from the many ‘cops with hang-ups’ which are out there in contemporary fiction, while also having his vulnerabilities. He is more a Peter Wimsey (DL Sayers) than a Rebus (Ian Rankin).

Whether readers will be content with my depiction of Theo is up to them. However, as writers, it is worth considering how we come to characters who are very different from ourselves. I have several suggestions. Firstly, writers need big ears for listening. We also need curiosity. When we meet someone, we need to be asking questions and listening to the answers. The ‘overheard’ is also a great source. Secondly, we research through reading, TV, radio, internet, social media, interviewing… Thirdly, I come back to what Greer said about us all being the same species. At a very basic level, we all have the same impulses to want to be loved and respected and have a sense of purpose. How we might try and gain love, respect and a sense of purpose will vary, more, I believe, by nurture than by nature, though genes must play its part. I only have to look at me and my siblings to understand that. Fourthly, characters develop if we writers allow them to. Planning is often useful, but not if it gets in the way of characters bouncing off each other and off what is happening to them. As with real life, characters behave differently, and are changed, because of what is going on around them.

Finally, as a writer, it is important to believe that all human behaviour is possible. For me, I want all my characters’ behaviours/feelings to stretch back to those fundamental needs of love, respect and sense of purpose. I suspect I would not be able to do great violence to another person, I am far too squeamish and fearful. But I wanted to write from the point of view of someone who could and created Max in my short story Adrift (still available on Amazon somewhere). I feel I managed to capture a mindset which could allow extreme violence and rationalise it. That’s not saying I believe what Max did was right, only that he thought it was right.

What is your experience of creating character and voice? Have you deliberately set out to write a character very different from you?

The Changing Seasons

Autumn has well and truly landed in my part of the country, with cold winds and rain. The Rowan is turning a beautiful ruby colour. The sea is roaring as it pounds in on a high tide smelling of ice. The sanderlings have returned, running in and out of the waves as if they are playing a game of tag.

I enjoy the change in seasons. After a summer mostly recovering from a major operation, I am feeling my energy and creative spirit returning. This morning I spent re-working one of my short stories and, for now, I am pleased with the results. I have decided to represent parts of it as if they were exhibits in a museum (thank you to Susannah Walker’s The Life of Stuff for the idea):

Fragment, diary of Jane Anne Hughes (née Moulsdale)
10th December 1859
Ink on paper
Donated, Helena Moulsdale, 1st July, 2019, 2009.

The first of the exhumations and re-burials. I thought I could hardly bear it, but I must for Stephen’s sake. He torments himself so. Should he have buried the unidentified four to a grave, only to have to bring them up again when one is claimed by a relative? I can merely say, it was the only course to take, we did not have the strength to do it any other way. I hope His God is telling him the same when he prays. Stephen holds his belief in His God like a cherished glass globe. Mine has become like a wrung out dishcloth to me. Yet, I will stay by Stephen’s side, even as the words of the Bible, His Words, taste like ash gone cold in the hearth.

When I look beyond my patch, I find it harder to be so sanguine. The UK political situation, the environmental crisis, the endless wars, so many of examples of crass, ignorant or cruel actions one human on another. The seasons change, it seems we humans are incapable of it. It all leaves me feeling stunned and helpless.

Recently I went to the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Art near Norwich, a wonderful place to lose oneself in. Currently they have an exhibition about Doris Lessing. I have to admit, Lessing is one of those writers I have held in esteem without really knowing why and who I have not read enough of. The exhibition took me through her life: her political activism; the development of her writing; her personal relationships. She had donated all her papers to the University of East Anglia, even so I felt a little uncomfortable reading some of her love letters. Had she really wanted that?

Lessing never stopped working or supporting the causes she believed in. She had a vibrancy which shone into old age. I was inspired by a part of her acceptance speech when she was given the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2007 at the age of 88 and six years before her death:

The storyteller is deep inside every one of us … Let us suppose our world is ravaged by war, by the horrors that we all of us easily imagine. Let us suppose floods wash through our cities, the seas rise…. It is our stories that will recreate us, when we are torn, hurt, even destroyed. It is the storyteller, the dream-maker, the myth-maker, that is our phoenix, that represents us at our best, and at our most creative.

As a writer, I have never believed my work is all about publication (and a good thing too, given my record!) My work has, first and foremost been about saving me, about my own healing. But I hope maybe in that process I may offer some healing, some hand held out, to others. And yes, perhaps even, a modicum of healing to a wounded world.

Sense of Place

Recently the film and the sit com both called Scarborough have had their UK release. I have some issues with both movie and TV series, but the town I have chosen as home certainly comes out as visually stunning. At its UK premier, Barnaby Southcombe, the director of Scarborough the film, explained how the location had informed the final version. The plot contains two interweaving narratives and Southcombe said the two were filmed at separate times of year, aiding the feeling of a shifting time frame. Though in many ways both film and sit com are not really rooted in Scarborough, they could have been set in any (at times faded) seaside town.

In my series of crime novels Scarborough and especially the sea are more than mere backdrops. I want them to become almost like another character interacting with the stories being told. I am currently working on Scarborough Mysteries number 5, No Justice, and seas and oceans from various parts of the globe flow through the narrative.

* * *

Extracts from No Justice:

She lets her gaze travel across the sea to where it meets the sky. It had been a blue day, tolerably warm given such a late Spring. Now the darkness is sifting through the scrapes of cloud to reach down to the flat sea. It is like molten silver alloy. The sun is setting and tinting the hills behind Hannah. It is the brushwork of the moon which is painting the water. A misshapen orb is nudging above the castle which stands on its headland to Hannah’s left, above the harbour, between the two bays.

She continues down the cliff path, through the gardens to the beach. Below her is the meringue-white curve of the sun court attached to the Victorian Gothic spa buildings. At the base of the cliffs, she sits on the sea wall. The waves are easing themselves up the tawny sand, she can smell the salt on them and the Bladder Wrack which garlands the rocks. She’s taken this walk many, many times since moving to Scarborough, five years ago. Temporarily as she thought at the time, to finish her training as a counsellor, moving back in with her parents, into the house she now owns. It hadn’t really been her choice, she had felt she had to finish something, succeed at something, but now she relishes her life here. Especially her walks by the sea. Though more recently, Kelsey’s story has given Hannah pause for thought. She’s more likely to start at movements, which are usually a bird or squirrel rootling about in the bushes. She gives men more than a second look – though the vast majority are obviously dog walkers and many are elderly. She looks out across the water, she won’t give this up, she needs this breathing through her.

Where Blessing and Marianne live, all their windows are nailed shut and the watchers insist the curtains are kept drawn. Only the bathroom has a narrow louvred opening. Through it Blessing can smell the cool salty air. She’d caught the scent of it the early morning of their arrival and had a glimpse of the expanse of dark water, like a tank of oil, a fire lit at its rim. The ocean. Only here it is the sea.

She has memories of holidays by the ocean, with her family, when she was young. For several years they had owned an apartment on the beach. She and her husband had visited the ocean, during the early years, before things became difficult. She had swum in that ocean, strong, steady strokes. She had sailed along the coast of that ocean. She had thought a sea, an enclosed sea, where, in places, one shore is clearly visible from another, she had thought such a sea could hold little danger. How wrong she’d been.

* * *

I am also collecting together some short stories I have been writing over several years. In these the sense of place is more germane. As every writer knows, stories can start from anything – an idea, a person, an overheard conversation, a walk through the countryside, a visit to a museum….. I found that every time I went away somewhere new, a short story began to emerge and I would take down notes. Once back home, I would work on these stories which are very much rooted in a place. The place itself birthed the story.

Extract White Night

The white nights will send you crazy. I walk the hills between Fløyen and Ulriken. I keep to the route, mostly, and there are plenty of others out there being sent crazy by the daylight at midnight. The grey granite rises steeply. There’s rowan, beech and birch on the lower slopes. These soon give way to the spruce and red pine under which the soft fronds of the ferns unfurl and bilberries ripen. Blackbird and coal tit chitter in the branches. Terns swoop silently over the still waters of the Blåmansvannet. A crow caws abrasively. Soon after the trees peter out leaving the naked rock scarred with lichen and moss. I have found my own paths which are safe to stray down, leading to the sheer drops; down, down to the fjord, a black mirror rippled with silver wire. I know the spots they choose, those sent crazy by the white nights. I know where they saunter too close and I am there waiting.

The fjord has its moods. Its surface turns from charcoal, to ivy, to forget-me-not, concealing its glacier-torn depth with a pleasing cloth. An uncareful step, a slip, and a body is gone. A body turns to bone before it is discovered. I am little more than a skeleton now, since you left me here. No flesh. Unremembered, unspoken of, the flesh loses its corpulence.

Since it is unlikely you will return to save me, I have my existence and I follow those who have misplaced the path, envious, let it be understood, of their lustrous flesh. I am made crazy by these white nights.

* * *

I am now reworking the story drafts following comments from various first readers. During my recovery from my hysterectomy I have done a lot of listening to the radio especially to stories being read. It has made me wonder whether I should produce these stories as audios rather than in print. There is something magical, I find, in being read to and I think my collection would lend itself to this approach.

Has anyone else made a podcast of their stories? Any advice?

Cautious Creativity

A continuing discussion between writers, would-be writers and non-writers is whether you wait for inspiration to strike before picking up a pen or sitting down at a keyboard.

My approach has always been to think of creativity as a muscle and that it grows stronger with use. Just as preparing for a marathon starts with walking for five minutes on a treadmill, writing a novel, a story, a poem, starts with putting a word on a page and then several more and so on. I develop my creativity by ‘flexing’ it again and again. I mainly do this through various means:

I was, therefore, chuffed to hear the poet, the late Mary Oliver, say much the same but in a very different way. I was directed by a friend to the podcast On Being with Krista Tippett when she interviews Mary Oliver (https://onbeing.org/series/podcast/). In it Oliver talks about creativity being cautious and that a writer has to regularly turn up to meet their own until they gain creativity’s trust. It is only then that our creativity will blossom.

I have often written about giving permission, giving time, for creativity.

Even if you have no desire to write for an audience, there is a myriad of evidence which suggests creativity is good for us, for our well being (Lapidus). So there are many reasons for turning up regularly and gaining the trust of our creativity. Why not start with pledging an hour a week? Take a 20 minute walk, preferably somewhere in nature. On returning sit down with a large piece of plain paper and play with words, colours and putting marks on the paper for 30 minutes.

See where it takes you!

*** Those of a sensitive disposition may want to stop reading here ***

On a personal note, I have recently had a long awaited hysterectomy, necessary because of years of heavy bleeding, fibroids and anaemia in the run up to my menopause. My husband, who loves a fact, told me over 56,000 hysterectomies are carried out in the UK every year. I was wondering aloud to a friend, Ruth (ceramicist and artist: http://ruthcollett.co.uk/), what happens to all these wombs and (in my case) ovaries? She suggested they ended up in catawombs. Which got us laughing and me thinking. Below is the resultant collage of my very own catawomb. The stapling is significant. Farewell my womb.

One small step….

What with the anniversary of the first moon landing, we have all been reminded of the oft-quoted ‘One small step… one giant leap…’ It fits with the idea of the slightly cliched: every journey starts with the first step.

And every piece of writing starts with writing the first word (even if later that first word will be discarded or become the 10th or the 100th or the last). In recent weeks I have been in conversation with several people who are struggling with the next steps in their writing. When drilling into what is going on for them, it appears to boil down to two issues:

  • What will people think?
  • Being too fixated on the product and not enjoying the process.

These may be dressed up in any numbers of ways including thoughts such as: I’m not good enough; what’s the point of this; I haven’t enough time; I’m not a writer; I should be doing the cleaning (or any other soul-destroying job you can think of). Or perhaps actions which means that any writing/thinking time gets squeezed out by trying to meet the (supposed?) needs of others.

Once some literacy skills have been gained, writing isn’t hard. I mean it’s not hard in the way going down a mine is hard or trying to eek food from an unforgiving soil or climate. What more often than not gets in the way of our writing hand is our heads. I am not immune. I can get mired in fears of being found wanting or in trying to find a point to spending time writing (beyond the simple fact that I enjoy it).

And there are parts to writing which I enjoy less. Such as currently I am re-reading Drowning Not Waving, in preparation for getting ready for (self) publishing. This novel, the fourth in my Scarborough Mysteries series, has not had an easy gestation. Picked up and then unceremoniously dropped by an agent, there are parts of it which I feel I wrote to please her and do not entirely please me. However, I have a strong urge to get it finished and out there, so I can move on. Plus, I am very aware that I see every sinew in magnified detail while the majority of readers will barely skim the skin.

So my challenge is not to take the first step, but to keep going though the terrain may be getting uncomfortable. My method (should you choose to adopt it) is to break things down into palatable chunks, write them on a list and tick them off as I do them. I am half way through my ‘re-read and take notes on Drowning Not Waving.’ I am doing it an hour at a time with breaks in between for walking, swimming, eating, reading, seeing friends, yoga, playing tennis….

It is perhaps a harsh reality that most of what most of us write – most of what we tear from the cavities of our hearts and commit to paper – will not be read in any great detail (if at all) nor appreciated much. Shed a tear for this and then think, wow what freedom this gives me. I can write to please myself! How joyous is that?

I have just spent a week in Swanage. One of the things I most enjoyed was swimming in the bay, especially in the morning in the flat sun-rimed water, in sight of the Isle of Wight and Old Harry’s Rocks. It wasn’t easy to get in. The sea was chilly, there were sharp pebbles to be negotiated, but once I stopped hyperventilating and just let myself go, relaxing into the waves, it was glorious. Another metaphor, if you want one, for my writing method.