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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?

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?

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.

 

 

Guest Post: On not finishing things by Hilary Jenkins

Photo from H Jenkins

On New Year’s Day I wrote in my diary that I was thinking about endings, and in particular how to finish my novel. It’s something I’ve put on my list of resolutions for at least ten years now. To begin with I blamed lack of will power, time, a quiet place to work, a view, the right frame of mind . . . but I found that even when I did have all these things, I still didn’t finish it. What happened was that I would re-read, re-write, change my mind, add sections, delete sections, and as a consequence, the ending grew ever more elusive.

Over the years I’ve discovered I have a problem with finishing things. I used to blame my lack of persistence but now I think that it’s because finishing things is hard. Finishing means loss, and loss means grieving. Society urges us to move on, come to terms, learn from our mistakes, seek closure, but the process is never finished  – until we are. As we grow older the whole idea of finishing becomes more real, and therefore, perhaps, more terrifying.

But then there’s this idea of what we leave behind. Who wants to leave an unfinished novel? No one would read it. Of course they probably wouldn’t read a finished one either, but surely you’d feel better on your death bed, knowing the loose ends were all tied up, and the proof reading done?

When I started writing this particular novel, finishing it seemed straightforward. In those days I had not lost a marriage, a career, a partner, a parent. I didn’t know what grief was, or failure. I thought the problem was the beginning. I remember asking my MA tutor how and where to start. She gave me some excellent advice: decide where you think the story starts, and have the confidence to stick with your plan and get to the end.  Why didn’t I listen to her? I set off not knowing where I was going. I’d heard all those stories about writers who don’t want to know where their characters are going, that sounded more fun. And I forgot about my reader, and readers really like staying up all night to find out what happens in the end, don’t they?

The idea of the reader. Perhaps this is the crux of the problem. After all, if you finish your novel there will be readers (if you’re lucky) and you will be judged. However much you tell yourself it’s not you, it’s the book, you will feel it is you. The longer you’ve spent writing it, the more invested you will be, because the chances are you’ve poured in more and more of your life, and if you’re told it’s rubbish, that would mean you’re rubbish, and that’s hard. Why put yourself in this situation? Far easier to keep on tweaking. Forever.

There are of course, other reasons – like ignorance. I’ve had to learn about how to write a novel. Just because you can read one doesn’t mean you can write one, unless you are very lucky indeed. I even  made it more difficult for myself, by including three story lines, tight plotting, complex time schemes, multiple voices, all the things I warn students about.

On the other hand it has become part of me, like those barnacles that grow on whales. I’ve poured into it my difficult times, my Jungian shadows, and zombie childhood issues. It’s helped me survive. My inner therapist says you can give up on it, but I ignore her, because I am also afraid of failing, of change, and of having to start something new. Sometimes it is easier to cling on to what you know even if it is driving you mad.

Last night I dreamed I was swimming across a green weedy pool, unsure if I’d be able to reach the other side. I wasn’t in a panic this time, I accepted that I might not get there, but I knew I’d carry on swimming. In the dream there was the memory of that Vermont pond I swam across the day after my son’s wedding, and an echo of a Japanese Zen garden I’d seen on tv, covered in moss. So I’m going to finish this blog (yes!) not by saying  I will finish the novel, but with that image of swimming on a summer’s day not worrying about getting to the other side. It is the swimming I enjoy, the journey not the destination. I’m going to try to enjoy this experience of not quite getting to the end, and see what happens next.

Hilary Jenkins is a Lecturer in Creative Writing at Teesside University. Her particular areas of interest include writing and wellbeing, creative writing and distance learning, and why people write novels. She also writes poetry which she finds easier to finish. She lives in the middle of the North York Moors where she likes to walk and think about the next novel.

Why Write? – by Sue Spencer

In June 2015 I found myself unexpectedly un-busy – after 36 years of uninterrupted employment I found myself sent on gardening leave. Instead of being responsible for the running of a clinical facility I was asked to resign and not come back – it was horrible. It wasn’t an unexpected event (I had verbally resigned the week before) but the abruptness of the termination of working for the organisation was traumatic. I was sent packing – accompanied from the premises and told to come back at the end of the week when they had packed up my office. At the time I knew it was the best thing for me and would preserve my mental health but it has also been one of the most significant events in my life.

So why am I telling you this? Well it is because the day after this happened I was talking to a wise friend on the phone and she asked me about my life raft. What was going to keep me afloat over the next few months whilst I made sense of what had happened. Well I didn’t hesitate in my reply – I said it was poetry. Poetry had been a constant in my life for 10 years and it felt like it would keep me going during this unexpected and somewhat perplexing time. There is no doubt that I have found this to be true – poetry has proven to be the foundation I needed to rebuild my career and find myself a space that feels more authentic and stable.

Cultivating regular writing habits have been part of my recovery and also reading and writing poetry. Through regular writing practice I have become more attentive to the difference between sources of energy and activities that deplete my energy. Meditation has also helped me cultivate more attention to the present and calms my riotous brain and the overthinking that is my default setting. But it is the poetry and writing that has helped me more than anything else  – writing first thing in the morning and last thing at night, it is now an activity I can’t live without.

Looking back
Take certainty down a peg or two,
listen for veiled heartbeats.

Tangible traces – illusive.

Take nothing for granted
instead caress tree bark, lichen, moss.
Measuring progress – a fool’s errand

This language thing is tricky,

we miss many moments rushing on.
Sudden insights – falter.
False visions – erased memories.

 

This poem is about being burnt out and how by reading about signs and symptoms of burn out I realised that my career change in 2014 was destined to be difficult – I had never worked out why I was disillusioned with my “successful” career in Academia – going back to clinical practice was a mistake and only one I have begun to understand as I excavate my experience as a student nurse. Hints of the activities that have helped me are indicated here – walking in nature and developing a more secure sense of self through values rather than status.

The poems shared here are from workshops and post-counselling sessions where I have found myself excavating the experiences I have had in the last four years and have begun to shed light on why things happened and also increase my self-awareness. I have been getting things wrong for quite a while and the mistakes I have made are better understood when I am kind and contain them in poetry.

I have been thinking about this approach to sharing my story over the last couple of years and then I was listening to radio 4 and heard a programme where the narrator shared his story weaving his poems into the narrative. It was a light bulb moment and I felt that I had heard something significant.

Ward Report
First there are

rules.

Instead of asking you
seek kindred spirits.

Isolated
not gaining kith or kin

You wander through the colleges on Sunday
Downing, Trinity, St Johns,
Magdalene, Christs
Pembroke, Peterhouse.

Back in your room – nothing fits.

 

I trained as a nurse in Cambridge – I hated nursing and being a student nurse but I loved the city. By the end of my first year (1980) ALL my friends were undergraduates NOT nurses. I didn’t realise this until I was in a writing workshop with William Fiennes. The exercise was about drawing a map of a significant place from our life. My map of the nurses home and hospital in Cambridge was uninhabited – I had labelled places and spaces BUT had not peopled the place. William’s sensitive questioning of this has stayed with me for the last 3 years and found itself in the poem. Reading this poem to a kind and attentive audience has enabled me to be more forgiving and kind to the lonely 19 year old who didn’t leave nursing and spent many years feeling unfulfilled and frustrated.

I went on a writing retreat with the magnificent Kate Fox at the beginning of December. As part of the weekend we were invited to perform some of our writing and share it with the other writers on the retreat. Well I decided this was my chance to try out the interweaving of my poems and story about my career hiccup and the theory I have begun to understand that provides some explanation to the things that have happened. I have been fascinated with the “why” word for a while and staying kind and curious about my recent job-related challenges has helped me learn so much about myself and how others perceive me. It hasn’t been easy, but the writing has helped hugely – morning pages have helped me start the day, writing during tricky times has helped me keep things in perspective and also it has given me confidence in a process that can really help contribute to understanding self and others.

Writing poems that crystallise an experience and help sense making is one thing but sharing them with others in a supportive and energising environment has also been healing. Having people listen to my story and honour my subjective experience has made all the difference.

My reflection on all of this is about how the process of writing that works towards making sense of ourselves and the world around us can make all the difference in relation to how we develop knowledge and I have learnt so much. The books that have inspired me about writing and healing over the years are now beginning to be part of what I do – rather than talking the talk I am also walking the walk. Regular habits of writing have significantly contributed to my sense of wellbeing and I am also more confident in encouraging others to do the same – encouraging regular practice and increasing well-being by doing so.

I believe that I am more confident in calling myself a writer and less hesitant in explain myself to colleagues at the University. Writing this blog and trusting the process of telling my story has really helped as well.

Further reading
Julia Cameron – The Artist’s Way https://www.amazon.co.uk/Artists-Way-Discovering-Recovering-Creative/dp/0330343580
Lousie De Salvo- The Art of Slow Writing https://www.amazon.co.uk/Art-Slow-Writing-LOUISE-DESALVO/dp/1250051037
Jo Bell and Jane Commane – How to be a poet http://ninearchespress.com/publications/poetry-collections/how%20to%20be%20a%20poet.html
Sage Cohen – Writing the life poetic https://sagecohen.com/books/writing-the-life-poetic/

 

Sue Spencer is a former senior nurse and nursing academic. She has an interest in creative approaches to facilitation and working with person-centred learning and linking this to reflection and increased self-awareness.

She currently works at Newcastle University within the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences developing creative pedagogies and activities for undergraduates studying the Combined Honours programme. The focus of her work is to encourage early help seeking behaviour in relation to self-care and well-being.

A Writer’s Toolbox: the self

If you’ve read the first post in this series, https://bit.ly/2RqqBKn, then hopefully that has encouraged you to write regularly. You may have adapted the sprints to suit yourself, all well and good. The point is to be writing regularly without critiquing and without too much concern over what is the point, apart from enjoying yourself.

Now we come to the most important implement in the Writer’s Toolbox: the writer themselves. Everything that comes from the writer is mediated through the self. So let’s consider how the self might work for the writer.

We have five physical senses: touch, smell, taste, sight and hearing. We may favour one of these senses. If I say the word ‘tractor’, do you see it, hear it, smell it, taste it, feel the texture of it? This little exercise gives an idea of which sense you may lean towards. A writer encourages the development of all the senses. Try these explorations:

  •      walk (preferably through a bit of nature) with all your senses opened. Write for ten minutes, uncritically, letting the words drop onto the paper.
  •       Once you have worked out which sense you least favour, go for a walk and focus on that sense. Write for ten minutes, uncritically, letting the words drop onto the paper.
  •       Take an image (a photo or a postcard or a picture or a painting), imagine yourself within the picture, what would you be seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling? What textures could you touch? Write for ten minutes, uncritically, letting the words drop onto the paper.
  •       Imagine that one of your senses has gone. Take a short walk without that sense working. Write for ten minutes, uncritically, letting the words drop onto the paper.

You may discover your own ways of opening up your senses. Keep exploring what your five physical senses can tell you.

Writing is about imagination, inspiration, that’s what people commonly say, which all sounds very head-based. Poet William Blake likened the imagination and inspiration to a grinding millstone and a blacksmith’s forge. If we continue with his analogy, then we need the grain, we need the base metal, for the millstones or the fire in the forge to produce anything. We need the raw materials for the imagination and inspiration to feed on. These raw materials come through the senses, but also through the body as a whole. The body is the receptor by which we experience the world as we pass through it, then the mind puts language and interpretations to this experience. Working in concert, the two enrich our writing.

The self can be a tuning fork, resonating with the environment and finding the individual note for the individual writer. One of the things I have found which encourages the mining of the resources of the body is mindful walking. Mindfulness is a word which is used in many different contexts with a myriad of meanings. I like this definition from psychologytoday.com (accessed 5th October 2015): Mindfulness is a state of active, open attention on the present. When you’re mindful, you observe your thoughts and feelings from a distance, without judging them good or bad. Instead of letting your life pass you by, mindfulness means living in the moment and awakening to experience. Try walking mindfully and then writing for ten minutes, uncritically, letting the words drop onto the paper.

Writing creatively means engaging emotion, both for the writer and for the reader. We don’t think emotions, we feel them. Philippot et al. (2004) suggest that emotions are primarily experienced though bodily sensation and then translated into feelings and brought into consciousness. Writers connecting with their bodies are more aware of emotion, more able to capture them and find ways of communicating them which will touch a reader. However, writers are in the business of engaging with a plethora of emotions, not just the ones which we might think are nice or respectable or allowed. This can be hard, can be painful, can be distressing. Be sure you have supports in place to help you through.

The self may also be the spanner in the works, which jams the creative wheels. Another part of a writer’s toolkit is a small but resilient core of self-belief. This is usually difficult to hone and maintain. Writers need to experience a full range of emotions to put them into their writing, some, such as shame and anger, are not conducive to self-belief. Writers might lay themselves open to criticism and rejection – generated by themselves or by others, or (even harder) imagined others.

It is worth remembering that both the creative practice and the construction of self-belief are iterative. There is a back-and-forth to the process. ‘Onwards and upwards’ is an oft repeated phrase, as if going forwards is always what’s best. Writers can feel they are going backwards or round in circles. Remembering that this is an important part of being creative may help this become less frustrating.

Take your time exploring your senses and mindful walking and see where it takes you. I’ll be exploring further tools in the writer’s toolbox in the next post in the series in the coming weeks.

 

Philippot P, Baeyens C, Douilliez C, & Francart B. (2004). Cognitive regulation of emotion: application to clinical disorders. In: Philippot P, Feldman RS (eds.). (2004) The regulation of emotion. New York: Laurence Erlbaum Associates.

Rosy Stewart

Writing – especially writing a novel/novella – is often characterised as a solitary occupation. However, there are ‘authors’ who are, in reality, two writers collaborating, Nicci French for one. In my neighbourhood, there is Rosy Stewart, the nom de plume for writers Rosie and Stuart Larner (who also write separately).

In 2015, Rosy Stewart published Hope. The book is about a fictional women’s refuge. Each chapter tells a separate story involving the main characters with a different case. There is also an ongoing storyline threading through the chapters to the conclusion of the book. Rosie was a social worker and lecturer and Stuart was a clinical psychologist. In their professional careers they saw thousands of cases of marital discord. They have a wealth of experience of how distress can affect people and how, under the right conditions, it can be used as a springboard for personal growth. They say of Hope: ‘We want our writing to be realistic, gritty, but optimistic, giving solace to readers who might be seeking a solution to their own personal problems.’

Hope is available at: https://amzn.to/2CSG5dN

 

Rosy Stewart is currently working on a sequel, so I interviewed them about their writing process.

 

 

 

 

 

What was the inspiration for Hope? What motivated you to write it?
We wanted to write something which was accessible and popular. Abuse impacts most people in some way or other and we are very familiar with the topic through our work as health and social care professionals.

We know that domestic abuse takes many forms and is not just physical violence but it involves social, cultural and psychological factors. In Hope, and the sequel we are currently writing, we want to get across the idea that a person who has been abused need not continue to be defined as a victim, by themselves or others. Our stories aim to show that people from all backgrounds can make lasting positive changes with the help of friends, family and committed carers.

How do you write as a couple? What are the mechanics of the process?
Writing in collaboration is usually associated with comedy scriptwriting, a strategy, probably essential, to test out in practice what produces the laugh. I do not know of any detailed account of the process, but I imagine there is no set formula. Galton and Simpson, writers of Hancock’s Half Hour and Steptoe and Son, report spending long periods of silence together when working on a script: https://binged.it/2HzFHIT

Stuart and I use an approach that has evolved from lessons learned writing our first novella, Hope. Then we spent a great deal of time talking and planning each chapter and writing our own versions before coming together to merge them. As you might guess this was not easy. We had to discard rafts of material and, because each chapter’s content and style might be very different, we risked long debates or uncritical acceptance of the other’s work.

For Hope we compiled an essential outline of all central characters and their histories, and this has been an invaluable tool to refer to in writing our second book, set in the same women’s refuge. Those characters have evolved and new ones have emerged through our writing. We knew that our protagonist in both books, Sue the manager of the refuge, is strong, idealistic and determined to help individuals who have been abused. In some stories in Hope she was frustrated by the restrictions of her professional role. This has developed into an increasing tendency to take risks. So we expanded the role of her deputy, Cath, an ex-prison officer who speaks her mind and can sometimes be cynical about the motives and behaviour of residents in the refuge. She allows Sue a different perspective.

Our first step in writing our second book was to review the first book, and as a result of this we have published a revised edition of Hope. Following this, and ready to start afresh, we spent a morning brainstorming ideas for new stories that centred on individuals who might had suffered abuse. They could be any age or gender and from any social or cultural background. We came up with over twenty possibilities from which we chose twelve. Each story/chapter was to be around 4,000 words.

Once we identify a story we intend to work on, we meet and discuss ideas, getting an agreed shape. We make only very brief notes at this stage as we try not to fix the plot, and during the following week we just think individually about possible directions for the story. I think a good deal of the work is done at this stage, not always at a conscious level. We then have a further meeting where we firm up our ideas and list plot points in the chapter. As we are writing a series of potentially stand-alone stories, we can identify a beginning and work out how, with suitable shifts and complications, we will reach our intended end, bearing in mind the word limit. Having done this we choose the parts of the story we would most like to write. Generally we quickly agree to this, though sometimes we both want to write the show rather than tell sections. In writing our latest chapter, Stuart chose the beginning of a story that starts with a fire in the refuge, and a section near its end describing a fight between an abuser and his brother-in-law. In a previous chapter, I was keen to write an account of a conflict between a homeless man and woman who turn on Sue, when she tries to help the woman. It is set on Westminster Bridge in the early hours of the morning.

The following week we put the words on the page knowing it should be completed in a week. This is not difficult as we are pretty sure we will enjoy writing those 2,000 words. We chose them. At our next meeting we merge the sections we have written and read the story aloud, then produce a written copy that one of us will edit. We return this to the other who will again edit the work. It is in editing and re-editing where we aim to bring the writing to a unified style. I feel this process has also brought our initial writing style closer.

We now send the work to another writer for critique. This is a reciprocal process and Stuart meets face-to-face with them to give and receive feedback on chapters as we write them. This ensures that we all make every effort to meet deadlines. We make notes of their comments and take these into account when editing the whole book before publication.

The method we use is suitable for the kind of material we are writing, and it is an enjoyable process, however I believe it would be very challenging to try to write a longer, more complex work in this way. We are also in a position, as a married couple to write together, meeting frequently for quite short periods of time and able to quickly rearrange our other commitments if necessary. We are both very used to others critiquing our work and because of this we do not find it threatening but a useful source of ideas.

What does writing as a couple bring which is different from writing individually?
Writing as a team, we benefit from deadlines that we give each other because our work is dependent on the other completing theirs. As we have frequent, regular writing meetings, we bounce ideas off each other and consequently have no writer’s block. Our pieces are more developed along the editorial pathway because we edit and re-edit each other’s work before finally sending it to an external editor. Having accomplished a piece and having gone through all the processes, we are much more confident about it than we would be if we were writing alone.

 

Stuart Larner is a chartered psychologist, who worked in the UK Health Service, and was mental health expert in XL for Men magazine. He writes plays for performance in Scarborough and York, poems, and stories. His latest books are the cricket novel Guile and Spin, and The Car: a sequence of sonnets with illustrations. http://stuartlarner.blogspot.com/.

Rosie Larner is a retired social worker and lecturer in Health and Social Care. Rosie was co- leader of a West Yorkshire Drama Workshop that focused on festival performance and members achieving external LAMDA awards. She has directed and performed twice at the Edinburgh Fringe. She has a MA in Theatre Writing Directing & Performance from York University. Rosie writes prose, poetry and plays.