Category Archives: A Writing Life

Janus Perspectives #4

The word January comes from the Roman god Janus who had two faces looking in different directions – behind and in front. In my December blog post I asked for responses to this. Today I am delighted to feature an image by artist Ruth Collett (Ruth Collett Artist), plus, below it, some of her reflections on her work. Thank you Ruth.

Comply 2. Ruth Collett. 2020.

Before the Covid 19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown I had a ceramics studio and was teaching practical arts and art history to adult learners, then suddenly I was alone in my flat 24/7 self-isolating.

Making daily ipad drawings came about as a way of exploring my reactions to the complete and sudden change of life patterns as I had been living them. This daily practise has been a major factor in maintaining my mental health, and feeling that I am still working, communicating & sharing ideas.

I have always created self-portraits as a means of understanding my evolving relationship with gender, sexuality, mental health and disability, so continuing this work on the ipad feels a natural progression.

What was surprising was my compulsion to create pattern, shape and colour to express my daily state, and to work mindfully but not critically. Using my finger rather than a stylus on the screen adds to the commitment and energy of the mark-making. I created images I would not have done in another medium – it freed me to be immediate and responsive to what was going on and how I felt about it.

Janus Perspectives #3

In my December blog, I posted this invitation: the word January comes from the Roman god Janus who had two faces looking in different directions – behind and in front. Do you have an image or a short piece of prose (up to 250 words) or a small stone (an ‘in the moment’ short poem (up to six lines), rough and ready) which either represents the year just gone or your hopes for the year to come? If you would like me to feature it on my blog in January 2020, then please send it to me.

I was delighted to receive a diverse bag of responses which I am happy to share with you over the next few weeks. Here is the offering from Suzie Millar. Thank you Suzie!

The time is NOW, not someday,
to work upon my dreams;
raise them up in real-time;
make them solid;
let them breathe.

Phot by Kate Evans. From a series of photos of gateposts which have lost their original function.

Janus Perspectives

At the end of my December blog I sent out the following invitation: The word January comes from the Roman god Janus who had two faces looking in different directions – behind and in front. Do you have an image or a short piece of prose (up to 250 words) or a small stone (an ‘in the moment’ short poem (up to six lines), rough and ready) which either represents the year just gone or your hopes for the year to come? If you would like me to feature it on my blog in January 2020, then please send it to me.

I was delighted to receive a diverse bag of responses which I am happy to share with you over the next few weeks. The first is an offering from Karla Mcdonagh. Thank you Karla!

Looking back, what a year it has been.
An eye-opener: worry, panic, living in fear, so it seems.
A change of lifestyle, a new hobby to keep some normality, oh people were keen.
Parents struggling to keep their children’s faces a-gleam.
Isolating the vulnerable, the fight for human contact became extreme.
A needle of hope, the future seems promising and today will be of what has been.

Gateway in Farndale, March 2020. Photo by Kate Evans, from a series taken of stone gateposts which have lost their function.

There’s still time to let me have your Janus Perspectives. So get in touch if you wish.

A Writing Life: Solstice Reflections

Sunrise swim. Photo by Rachel Welford

We have reached another hinge-point in the turning of the year: the Winter Solstice, or, more prosaically, the shortest day (in the Northern hemisphere at least). In some traditions, this darkest time of this dark season is seen as a moment for introspection and reflection. The lights we might dangle around our Christmas trees or over our windows, could represent the sparks of intuition and creativity which are possible if we allow ourselves to sit and be still.

2020 has been a very strange and disturbing year. For some people, it has been extremely tough in lots of different ways. I think those who initially found relief in the first lockdown, have perhaps grown weary of the continuing sense of impending (or actual) crises. Those of us who have come through 2020, have a shared experience like no other. However we have fared, I believe we will be effected by the grief, trauma and anxiety which is palpable in the environment. Whatever we may think about what has happened, we will be breathing in this collective angst whether we like it or not. It will take us all time to digest and process it. Many of us hope good things will come out of it: a greater sense of collective responsibility; more appreciation of those who work in retail, delivery, health and social care; greater awareness of the importance of the small kindnesses; pleasure taken in the natural world around us – to suggest just a few possible positives.

For me, 2020 has been exceptional in that I achieved something I have been working towards for over thirty years – a contract with a traditional publisher for my long fiction. In February I signed a book deal with Constable/Little Brown for a series of three crime novels set in Scarborough. And yes, I do have to keep repeating it, as I still have to pinch myself to make sure I am awake and not dreaming. I have delivered the first novel, A Wake of Crows. It has now been copy edited and is being proof read. I will see cover roughs in the New Year (completely thrilling, I love a good cover). The hardback and e-book is due to be published in June 2021.

The excitement and unbounded joy in writing A Wake of Crows has contrasted uncomfortably with the unrelenting grimness and bleakness stirred by the pandemic and (dare I whisper it?) Brexit.

Collage by Kate Evans 2020

An invitation

The word January comes from the Roman god Janus who had two faces looking in different directions – behind and in front. Do you have an image or a short piece of prose (up to 250 words) or a small stone (an ‘in the moment’ short poem (up to six lines), rough and ready) which either represents the year just gone or your hopes for the year to come? If you would like me to feature it on my blog in January 2020, then please email me: kateevanswriter(at)gmail.com

Thank you

Have a peaceful and pleasurable festive season, however you choose to spend it.

Gateway, Brant Fell, July 2020

Musings #1: Pantser or Planner

For devotees of this blog – thank you for staying loyal – the concept of pantser or planner, when it comes to writing a novel, will not be new. However, to recap:

  • a planner plans meticulously each twist and turn in their novel before they start writing;
  • a pantser writes ‘by the seat of their pants’. They start writing without any real idea of where their story is going or even what it might be about.

I used to be a pantser. After now writing six crime novels – three self published, two unpublished and currently one under contract with Constable/Little Brown – I am moving towards becoming a planner. And, like many things in life it is a continuum, not an ‘either/or’. Or it should be, I believe, for any writer.

‘Pantser’ is joyously following your imagination and characters where they wilt. It means the writing surprises you the writer and will, therefore, surprise the reader. It will mean the writing can really plumb the layers of your sub-conscious and come up with what is truly original, unique to you and what you really what you want to say. On the other hand, perhaps especially with a crime novel, at least keeping a plan as you go along saves time in the future. Clues and red herrings have to tie up in the end. Whatever is written later in the novel has to be presaged by something earlier on. Tweaking or rewriting earlier passages in the re-drafting process means things have to be altered down the line. A prosaic example: in my current novel, A Wake of Crows, late on in the rewrites I decided my main protagonist had to have married when she was just 20, rather than just 19, this changes the wedding anniversary she thinks about in the ‘now’ of the story.

Val McDermid has said she has moved from being a planner towards being more of a pantser and, let’s be honest, her novels have improved over time (perhaps not just for this reason, learning ones craft is also important – writers are rarely born, they have to be developed). I was interested to learn from Ian Rankin (interviewed at the Edinburgh International Book Fair 2020, more of that below) that he writes a first draft and then does the research – a pantser turns planner. I would imagine this must mean the second draft requires a good amount of care in keeping everything straight.

What are you, pantser or planner?

Collage postcard by Kate Evans, Summer 2020

Zoomed Out
This pandemic has spawned a host of new language in the usage of once familiar words. Pandemic, in itself, was once something which happened elsewhere but not to us – not anymore. Self and isolation when brought together have developed new meanings (and attendant feelings). Language is always evolving, though often more slowly, it is interesting (if unnerving) to watch it happen over just a few months.

Many of us are spending more time online. Hence the term ‘zoomed out’ (other platforms are available) to suggest too much screen time. I know I have been zoomed out more than once. However, there has been an upside to being forced more into the digital realm. I am a devotee of radio and am now discovering and enjoying more and more podcasts. Plus various events which I would never have thought to attend in person have become accessible to me. For instance, I joined an excellent series of poetry workshops exploring racism facilitated by Charmaine Pollard (https://charmainepollardcounselling.co.uk/) and Victoria Field (https://thepoetrypractice.co.uk/home/about/). In addition, here are a few other suggestions which may serve as an antidote to feeling zoomed out:

This is all pretty much free, so don’t forget, if you can, donate to a cultural organisation, they really need our financial support right now.

Have you any digital recommendations?

 

Tips for Writers: writing through difficult times

For those of you who read my blog regularly, you will know that I am interested in creative writing for wellbeing. How might creative writing be therapeutic? Yes, there are ways of gently writing through the troubling emotions and teasing out understanding. But, sometimes, creative writing for wellbeing is about diversion, it is about taking our thoughts away from the difficulties and for a short moment connecting with the uplifting. This is unlikely to solve any problems, but it might help in the way we feel in ourselves which could mean we approach worries in a different way.

Here are some suggestions. Give them a try, but don’t be down on yourself if you don’t connect with them. Perhaps they will spark off ideas of your own, in which case follow them.

daffsMarch16

#1. Find an uplifting word. My suggestions would be: love; friendship; joy; happiness; pleasure; sparkle; fun… But find a word which works for you. Write it at the top of the page and answer some or all of these questions:

  • what colour is it?
  • what shape is it?
  • what sound does it make?
  • how heavy is it?
  • what does it taste of?
  • what does it smell like?
  • what texture does it have?
  • what does it feed on?
  • if it were an animal, what animal would it be?
  • if it were weather, what weather would it be?
  • if it were a landscape, what landscape would it be?

You might want to add some questions of your own. Take about ten minutes to do this. If nothing comes, leave it. If you get inspired, follow your inspiration.

#2. Focus on a piece of nature. This might be something you have indoors – a stone, a feather, a leaf, a plant – or maybe you can look out the window or open your window and hear a birdsong or go for a walk. Find something from nature and focus on it for a couple of minutes. Then write for five minutes. To start with, write freely, whatever words present themselves. As you go on, start to think about the five senses – sight, hearing, taste, smell, texture – and make sure you are using all of them as far is possible.

Write for another five minutes about the journey this piece of nature has taken to come to your notice.

Overall, take about fifteen minutes to do all this. If nothing comes, leave it. If you get inspired, follow your inspiration.

#3 Framing it. You might now have something quite crafted or a jumble of words. It doesn’t really matter. Go off and have a break. Preferably, do some stretches, get a gulp of fresh air, have some water. Make it a longer break if you want and return the next day or the next, the words are likely to look different whenever you choose to re-engage with them.

When you come back, read through the words or sentences or whatever it is you have on your paper. Choose several, the number is up to you. Write them in the middle of a plain piece of paper. Then create a frame around them using colourful paints, paper torn from magazines, pens, crayons… whatever you have to hand.

Try not to judge what you create. The process has been the thing, the time spent with words and colour has, hopefully, helped your mood.

However, if you wish to share your experience and/or your creation, then please comment on this post or contact me. My email is on my website.

 

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.