Tag Archives: novel writing

Writer’s toolkit: editing

This last weekend, here in this small corner of the North Yorkshire coast we were experiencing wintery snow flurries and spring sunshine. Occasionally at the same time. As the plants and trees begin to unfurl, so we are stretching out of the most recent Covid pandemic lockdown. I greet this with a mix of excitement and anxiety. If I can remember back to the me of thirteen months ago, I think I pretty much knew and could accept the uncertainties and concerns I lived with. Now there is a skip-load more to contend with. But there is no doubt I want to take off, be with people, see new places. As with the weather, it is a duality I imagine many are experiencing.

Meanwhile, I am getting closer to the publication of my first novel for Constable/Little Brown, A Wake of Crows, due out on the 3rd of June. Once again there is eagerness mixed with nerves.

Quoted in the Daily Record, author of Trainspotting, Irvine Welsh, talked about when he has a new book coming out and ‘That horrible fear of social embarrassment that my mum’s going to read it, my friends are going to read it, my girlfriend’s going to read it. I think you have to have that sense that you’re going to be humiliated and dragged through the streets on stocks with rotten tomatoes being thrown at me. If you don’t have that it’s not going to work. You have to be incredibly uncomfortable and feel you’re going to die of social embarrassment when you put a book out otherwise it’s not going to work.’ (Online article 11th April 2021.)

It’s not entirely clear what the ‘it’ is in ‘it’s not going to work’. However, I have taken the meaning to be that unless you feel uncomfortable about your work going out there, you have not pushed it to the edge, you have not taken risks, you are not revealing something important about yourself or society (or both). I am, therefore, welcoming in the trepidation. I am sticking my head up like the crocuses and daffodils and, I guess, there is the possibility of being trampled on.

However, one of the things which is keeping me giddy is that this bookshop: Home | Goldsboro Books has asked for 50 signed copies!

Meanwhile, I am also editing my second novel in the DC Donna Morris series, Drowning Not Waving. All writers are different. I love the blank page and the first draft when it feels like anything goes. I know others dread it. I find the next stage of re-drafting and editing more difficult, whereas others relish it. For me, what makes it troublesome is that the reader comes into the picture.

Editing a piece of work is another step in the creative process and here are some interesting pointers: How to edit a novel – working on the big picture … – Curtis Brown Creative

However, some of Anna Davis’s advice does not entirely fit with me. It might be semantics, but it feels more like the drafting rather than the editing stage. I am quite happy to work non-sequentially in the drafting process, but when it comes to this editing stage, the main thing I need to know is that it works sequentially. It is in the drafting process that I am experimental and trying things out. Once I am editing, it is about the totality, it is about the audience.

writer at work june 15 001

Here is what I do. I put away what I have written for at least two weeks. I then attempt to come back to it with new eyes, with a reader’s eyes. I re-read the work (printed out) over several days. It has to be slowly enough for me to really pay attention. It has to be quickly enough for me to keep the whole narrative clearly in mind. I am making sure that it makes sense, of course, that the shape succeeds in terms of it sustaining pace and suspense. I know what my weaknesses in writing are, and I keep a check-list of them to ensure I am always alert to them. I am also reminding myself (as per my previous blog post on dialogue: Writer’s toolkit: dialogue | Scarborough Mysteries) I will want to read my novel out loud at some point.

Though I can read fiction while writing the first draft, at this point, I have to keep to non-fiction or I get too confused.

Drowning Not Waving has quite a history. First devised for a course I took with Curtis Brown 2016-2017, I got it to a point where I was able to send it to agents and publishers. When Constable/Little Brown took it on, we agreed I would introduce my DC Donna Morris character with a different story, A Wake of Crows. Drowning Not Waving would become the second in the series. This has already meant substantial re-writing, including changing both point-of-view characters, even to get it to this stage.

I am now at the point when I need some reaction to what I am writing. I could spend a lot of time re-writing and editing without actually being certain whether what I am creating is communicating at all. There’s a ‘golden’ moment for garnering critiques. It has to be far enough along for your embryonic notions to be sufficiently robust to stand up to what others might say; but not too far into the writing that you have invested too much to change anything. Once I am through this re-read and re-write, I will send it to my editor and her assistant for comments. Whatever we are writing, feedback from trusted others, is a crucial part of the creative process.

Writer’s toolkit: dialogue

The other week I received an email from Constable/Little Brown, who are publishing my series of crime novels based in Scarborough. The first one, A Wake of Crows, is due out on the 3rd of June this year. A Wake of Crows by Kate Evans | Hachette UK (littlebrown.co.uk) The email was to tell me that my novel will also be available as an audiobook. I am giddy with excitement.

With the email came extracts of my novel being read by two actors, so I could give my opinion. I have to say, it was unnerving to hear my words – so long only in my head – being spoken by someone else. Some of the characters sounded exactly as I had imagined them, others not so much. It was a bizarre experience.

Having my characters given ‘voice’ by someone else, brought me to thinking about writing dialogue.

Conversations with a barnacled man (Another Place by Antony Gormley, photo by Mark Vesey 2015)

In recent times, I have noticed a penchant amongst writers for direct speech in novels. Being a bit of a fan of indirect (or reported) speech in stories, I thought I might test the waters. In a completely unscientific poll on Facebook, I asked what other writers/readers thought. The overwhelming majority who responded said direct speech is the best. The main reasons given were it helps build the character voice and it gives pace.

The problem is, I still find pages and pages of direct speech dull. I think it actually slows down the pace because of this. Therefore, my first nugget of advice is get to love writing a mix of direct and indirect speech. Reported speech can still capture a character’s syntax and dropping in a phrase or two of direct speech can really focus the reader’s mind in on what is crucial. Useful in a crime novel, where the rule is ‘clues in plain sight’.

All writers should have big ears. Listen, listen, listen. Have a notebook at the ready to capture how people around you speak. Not only the words they use, but the rhythm and the pauses. Characters who come from a particular place and/or background, how would they speak? Research using the internet, if you can’t find a real person to ask. Don’t go for the cliché, but try and find the little something which distinguishes their turn of phrase.

Conversation Piece by Juan Munoz, South Shields. Photo by Mark Vesey.

When writing a dialogue, dive straight into it. In drafts, you may have to write about how the characters get together, about their initial small talk, but in later drafts, ask yourself, do I need all this? Edit, edit until you get to the bones of what the two people have to say to each other.

In real life, conversation has lots of purposes, one is to build relationships and help us to feel that we belong. This is why much of what we say is relatively superfluous to the action of our lives. In a novel, dialogue is a driver – for character building, for tension, for plot. If it’s not serving this function, then cut it or summarise it. Yes, when characters are getting to know each other, they may talk about all sorts of things, but the reader doesn’t need to know the detail.

We rarely speak in sentences. Dialogue should reflect this. The more taut the situation, the more jagged the dialogue. Short, unfinished phrases. Jumping from one speaker to the other. And don’t forget that body language forms part of human communication. It needs to be in the ‘dialogue’ too.

These are some of my thoughts. Here are some more:

Ten tips for writing dialogue | Viola Hayden | Discoveries – Curtis Brown Creative

I have to admit, hearing my characters on the extracts sent through for the audiobook, did make me wish I had followed the ‘rule’: speak you dialogue (or your writing in general) out loud). I will be doing more of that in the future.

Have you got thoughts you would like to share?

Writer’s Toolkit: Plot

When I was teaching creative writing for Hull University’s BA degree, I would suggest visualising plots as a washing line to hang scenes on. This might work for some. However, several years later on and into my second novel for Constable/Little Brown, I am revising my ideas.

With my hysterectomy in 2019, and the restrictions of lockdown since March 2020, jigsaw puzzles have come back into my life. I have discovered my husband hates doing them, and I have a knack for them. I am able to see the shape and content of a piece and how it fits into the whole, in a way that he can’t. Only goes to show, all our brains work differently.

Every jigsaw puzzle-ist has their own method. Mine is to do the outside edge first. Then I choose something substantial in the picture and pick out the pieces which appear to belong there. I put them together and work outwards.

As I was doing this one day, it occurred to me that creating a plot has parallels. Rather than working linearly, I create the borders for the story, then I focus on the important incidents, before working out how they link. This concept is helping me wrangle my current plot into some sort of shape, so I thought I would share it, in case it is useful to others.

Just as I was happily working this blog post into being, my dear friend, Jane Poulton, artist and writer Home (janepoulton.co.uk) sent me an email. She knows I enjoy doing collage, she also knew I was wrestling with the plot of my novel. She recommended a free workshop on collage and then said, ‘Writing is a bit like collage, isn’t it? A moveable feast until things fall into place and the whole feels settled, complete and “just right”.’

I realised this is an even more valuable insight than my one about jigsaw puzzles. Jigsaws have only one way in which they can fit together, they have the image on the lid which must be copied. A collage, however, has the same idea of pieces coming together – some large, some small, some (apparently) insignificant – into a whole which is likely to be only moderately pre-destined.

We all find our own ways of writing and thinking about our writing. We will be challenged by some aspects more than others. Sometimes the guidance of others can be supportive. Maybe, if you are finding plotting a trial, these musings on jigsaw puzzles and collages might begin an opening up. Go for what feels like the most substantial aspect and worry about the rest later. With perseverance and a fair wind, we end with the sense of ‘just right’-ness Jane envisages.

Collage by Kate Evans, February 2021, created during an online workshop with Rosie Vohra Rosie Vohra (@rosievohra) • Instagram photos and videos

Guest Author: Anne Goodwin & free e-book

Several years have gone by since I tumbled over Anne Goodwin’s website annegoodwin.weebly.com and her thoughts on how therapy and therapists have been portrayed in fiction. Since I had been in therapy for some time and was training to be a psychotherapeutic counsellor, we had some enjoyable exchanges over fictionalised therapists – the good, the bad, the ugly and the just plain wrong.

 

I also read her debut novel, Sugar and Snails, which I found compelling and thought-provoking. Until the end of February, Anne is offering you a free e-book of Sugar and Snails. It was shortlisted for the 2016 Polari First Book Prize (given for works which best explore the LGBT experience). Just follow the link:

https://www.subscribepage.com/sugar-and-snails-free-e-book

Meanwhile, I am happy to re-post a piece Anne wrote for my blog: ‘Why I’m Thanking My Therapist’ Here it is, Anne Goodwin writes:

About eighteen months into my therapy, the death of a relative almost rent me apart. We were talking about my tendency to prioritise caring for others above caring for myself, when That Woman (as she’s identified in the acknowledgements to my novel) said that I probably didn’t even know what I wanted for myself. In those early days, I was loath to contradict someone who was so unusually attentive to my needs, but this time I did. Yet I think I was as surprised as she was when I proclaimed that I wanted to be a writer, so successfully had I put my whispered youthful ambition out of mind.

AG at jesmond

I’d been scribbling stories on and off all my life, but my professional training and practice as a clinical psychologist had consumed most of my time and creativity. I’d vaguely planned to pick it up again on retirement, but That Woman nudged me to make space for what I wanted there and then. She helped me realise that I didn’t need to justify the time spent writing with prizes and publications (which was fortunate, given that it took much longer than I’d imagined for these to be forthcoming). It was extremely liberating to discover the world wouldn’t come to a halt if I indulged myself.

We didn’t discuss so much what I was writing at first. It was more a matter of tackling the barriers to taking my apprenticeship seriously, being picked up from the knocks and disappointments along the way. But the larger focus of our conversations wasn’t about my writing at all.

One of the themes of my therapy was my traumatic adolescence. I’d gone to That Woman thinking myself lacking for not having put the past behind me (as Diana is urged to do in Sugar and Snails). Now that I recognise the enormity of my experience, I see that as a ridiculous pressure to put upon myself, compounding the original trauma with the blame and shame of being unable to toss it to the side. Not that, outside the therapy room or wrapped in the arms of my husband, I showed any indication of not coping. I kept my wounds hidden from the wider world.

So perhaps it’s inevitable that my first published novel should feature another traumatic adolescence. I’d had other ideas, other novels begun and abandoned, one even getting as far as the second draft, but it was always Sugar and Snails to which I returned. Not that it was easy to write: from inception to publication, this novel consumed seven years of my life. My therapy has been equally epic, the successive transformations of my novel proceeding in parallel with my increasing understanding of myself. While each would feed into the other, That Woman helped me maintain the boundary between my own biography and that of my character. She also provided a container for my frustrations with the publication circus, that Kafka-ish world in which logic seems not to apply, and encouragement to claim my author authority as publication date approached.

I believe that my therapist has been of greater benefit to me as a writer than any of the industry experts I’ve consulted along the way. But, having paid my bills more or less on time, I don’t owe her anything, not even my gratitude. Yet I felt it would be dishonest not to include her in the acknowledgements for my novel, for my sake more than hers. Conscious that some writers are suspicious of therapy, I was anxious about this initially, but the support I received when I posted about this (thank you, Kate and others) convinced me I was doing the right thing.

It’s not easy to write about a therapy, partly because it’s such a private endeavour, partly (judging by the mistakes writers commonly make in creating a fictional therapist) because it’s so difficult to get to grips with from the outside. Maybe, on reading this, you’ll understand why I’m thanking my therapist, or maybe you’ll just have to take it on trust that this novel would never have got written, let alone published, without her. Yet because of the confidentiality inherent in the relationship, she can’t tell anyone else what part she played.

Poetry Bites #7: Locating the Full-Stop

A friend’s teenage daughter asked a question to help with a presentation she had to do at school and it got me thinking. The question was around whether poems are ever finished. It echoed others I had received from students during my teaching years. Is this poem/piece of writing completed? Can it ever be said to be finished?

There is the famous quote from French poet, Paul Valéry (1871-1945): A poem is never finished only abandoned. Which suggests it is indeed difficult to know the end point of a poem.

I think a poem, perhaps more than any other type of writing, begins with a conversation with oneself. Some of our deepest conversations with ourselves are life-long and, therefore, so is the working through it in writing. Themes and characters reappear in writers’ works over and over. Colm Tóibín is the first to admit he has spent many a novel trying to deal with the early death of his father and the relationship with his mother.

However, I do believe a poem captures a moment in that process, which means it can have a full-stop at its end. I think it is can even be healthy to find that full-stop so we avoid returning and returning again to the same spin of the record. When I was training to be a psychotherapeutic counsellor we would get exasperated with ourselves for ‘playing the same record’ when we repeated old scripts or behaviours. It came as something of a relief when someone suggested, yes it’s the same record, but it’s a different track. Finishing a poem could help us move the needle to an alternative groove.

Concluding our work on a poem could also depend on whether we want to share our conversation with another. This brings in all sorts of considerations about comprehensibility, acceptability and whether we are open to our writing being understood in different ways from how we intended. Writers have very varying attitudes to the latter. Some want to retain a lot of control over how their work is read and what is taken from it. Personally, I love to hear others interpreting my poems in their own way – even if it is not at all as I anticipated – because it shows they are engaging with it and finding their own personal meanings in it. (I should say there would be a limit to this, I would not want my poems used in a way to promote something I found abhorrent. I hope never to hear Trump reciting something I have written at one of his rallies!)

I have noticed that some writers and students of writing seem to want everything they write to be directed towards an audience. Visual artists are allowed their studies and sketches, musicians can practise their scales, dancers have their warm-up routines, but writers? Once words are on the paper they should be destined for a finished piece. For me, this is not the best approach. As creatives we also require the space to experiment and develop. I have ‘delivered’ A Wake of Crows, my first novel of three to the publisher Constable. I am now turning to the second, Drowning Not Waving. It will be essentially a re-working of a novel I have already ‘finished’ but I am changing both narrative characters. It means that the story as seen through ‘Sarah’s’ eyes won’t be read by anyone (a good third of the novel as it was originally written). But it is not obsolete, it is not wasted. I have learnt so much about Sarah (who is still in the novel) by writing through her, this will enrich the new version.

Evaluating our own work
Deciding whether a poem is finished will entail some evaluation of our work. My friend, writer and artist, Jane Poulton asked me once: how do we evaluate our own work?

My first response was, with great difficulty. Though it certainly becomes easier with practice, with writing, with reading (as a writer, ie critically) and with the support of friends who are writers. We do need to be aware of our own internal psychological processes. Generally are we perfectionists? In other walks of life, do we think we are rubbish at everything? What shape is our internal critic in? All these things will effect how we evaluate our writing. And whether we can finish. Perfectionists tend to find it hard to say it’s done, for example.

Plus, who are we evaluating it for? Is there a real audience/editor? Are we clear about what they want from us? Or are we evaluating it with an ‘imagined’ audience – this can be within or outside of awareness. For instance, when we evaluate our work are we unconsciously trying to prove something to a parent or a teacher (who are no longer even around)?

Bringing psychological processes within awareness aids assessing whether they are helpful or not and how they might be attuned to be more beneficial.

JP, herself had some more useful thoughts which she is happy for me to share. She suggested some questions:

  • Would I want to read this if I hadn’t written it?
  • Is this so personal other people might not identify with it?
  • Am I making enough bridges/connections for readers to identify with it?
  • What – specifically – would be relevant to anyone else?
  • What will others take from this?
  • What is really essential to this story/poem?
  • What could I take out and it not really matter?
  • Is it in a relevant style bearing in mind the subject matter?

She also cautions avoiding repetitions – saying the same thing in other ways – and overt sentimentality. She counsels a lightness of touch, less is usually more – suggestions often carry more impact than long descriptions of something.

On re-reading her contribution, JP did want me to point out that she doesn’t always manage to, and sometimes chooses not to, follow her own checklist.

Finding your own way to a conclusion
Since I consider a poem to be an essence of a moment, or of me in a moment, then I rarely go back to one to re-write once I deem it finished. Other writers are completely the opposite, forever revising and reworking. There are some poems which I would not share anymore because I do not judge they have stood the test of time. However, I would not alter them. I sometimes like to return to older poems to chart my journey – emotionally or as a poet. But if I want to return to the theme or image, since I am in a different place (in terms of understanding, psychologically, age-wise, geographically), I will make a new poem.

How do you know if something you have written is finished?

 

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?

 

Tip for Writers #1: Read

We’re all probably trying to find our stride again after the festivities and the turning of 2019 into 2020. How do we support our writing projects for this year? One way is to read. Read widely, indiscriminately and a lot.

We might read to research, or for background to, what we are writing. We might read the same genre as we are writing or to study technique. But, I would contend, it is equally important to read things which seem to have little to do with what we are currently working on.

Graze the shelves of your local library. Borrow from friends (and lend to them). Have a hunt round your local charity shop.

I think it is important to read as a writer not as a reader. Yes, of course, enjoy the story or the emotional engagement, but also have a third eye, a critical eye, looking out for technique, for ideas, for flourishes which surprise.

I keep a note of all I read, stating briefly what I thought worked and what I thought was less successful. I may not re-visit these ‘reviews’ but just writing them concentrates the mind and allows ideas to seep into the creative brain.

It’s easy for reading to get hustled to the end of the day, when we’re too tired to absorb anything. And I love to read in bed, though I tend to go to bed early to read so I am not dropping off over the pages. But I also put time in during the day which is for reading. For many people reading is a recreational activity. For writers it is work.

I am intending on putting more time aside for reading poetry, though I am currently working on novels. Dear readers of this blog, what are your writing projects for 2020 and have you any reading intentions you would like to share?

 

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?

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.

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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.

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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.

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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?