Tag Archives: research

The Writer’s Toolbox (3)

I’m not a cat person, but these ladies look pretty curious.

Curiosity may be fatal for felines but it is essential for writers.

If you’ve been following this series of blog posts up to now, you are hopefully writing regularly in a writing journal. At this stage, be curious not critical about what your work. Instead of judging your writing – this is good/bad – wonder what brought me to write this? If you choose to bring your writing to an audience at some point, there will be plenty of time to garner critiques, for now let curiosity and compassion for your words be your guide.

Writers also need a voracious curiosity about the world around them. What you see, hear, taste, smell, feel, experience, are all essential inspiration for a writer. In her seminal book The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron talks about taking artist’s dates. These are trips taken by creatives to feed the imagination. It could be as simple as going to a local museum or visiting a part of town you’ve never been to, perhaps a park, a graveyard, a church (or another place of worship). It could be going further afield. Everywhere is redolent with stories.

Go on these trips of discovery as a writer. Possibly alone or with another creative person, certainly not with others who will constantly need your attention. Then notice, notice, notice. Notice the external, but notice also what is going on for you, how the external is impacting on the internal. Stop frequently to write in your journal. Personally, I find stopping frequently for tea and cake also aids the creative process!

It may be that you have already decided on something you wish to pursue in your writing. Of course, these days, it is easy to sit at our desks and research with Mr Google etc. However, there is nothing like experience as research.

Go to places you want to write about. Find the little niche museum which covers the subject you are interested in, speak to the volunteers/staff about their passions. Visit the historical sites which are connected to what you are interested in. Put yourself in the environments which are inspiring you. It may not always be possible to do this in actuality, so see if there is a way of replicating it. Perhaps it is the rainforest which is stimulating your words and a ticket to Peru is beyond you, then a visit to Kew Gardens may not be.

I was listening to crime writer Ann Cleeves on the radio yesterday, she said, ‘People make a mistake when they separate setting from plot and character. People grow out of where they are born and live.’ (Desert Island Discs, Radio 4, 17th February 2019, Presenter: Lauren Laverne. Producer: Cathy Drysdale.)

Stories also grow out of place, out of environment, out of setting. Open your curiosity to the world around you and your internal landscapes and allow the words to tumble onto the page.

Memoir

This is not where it starts….
I have always enjoyed reading biographies and allowing life to inspire my fiction writing, but recently I have begun to explore more deeply what might loosely be termed life-writing.

Biography, autobiography and memoir are all developing forms which intersect and interweave. Here are some of the aspects I’ve noticed in my recent reading. Firstly, the biographer coming more prominently into the biography. There is often an explanation about why the subject of the biography was chosen and about the connections between the lives of biographer and subject. It is probable, in my opinion, that knowingly or unknowingly a biographer chooses a subject which holds up some kind of mirror to the biographer’s own experiences.

Technically a memoir focuses onto a contained aspect/theme within (rather than the whole of) a life, and the autobiography does the opposite. It’s occurred to me at this moment that I don’t actually read a lot of autobiographies. This genre appears cluttered by those from celebrities which can err on the sycophantic and name-dropping. Memoir on the other hand seems to be more open to the quirky and the off-beat. It also strides hand in hand with nature writing, travelogues and books about walks and journeys, which feeds into other interests of mine (see posts: https://bit.ly/2sEHamp & https://bit.ly/2JGfZyD).

A recent article in The Guardian by Alex Clark (23rd June 2018) suggests there is a new genre of autofiction. This purports to do two things:

  • bring the writer’s life into a novel.
  • Disrupt the idea of narrative and realism in the novel form. For example, by playing around with the narrative voice and the timeline and by speaking directly to the reader (thus making obvious the artifice of the novel).

I’m not convinced either of these are new, but perhaps putting them together is. Clark mentions in particular Crudo by Olivia Laing and Rachel Cusk’s Kudos. Clark suggests this ‘new’ approach to novel writing is trying to ‘find a new way to describe reality at a time when, as Kathy says in Crudo, it is “hard to talk about truth” and perhaps even harder to write it.’ As well as attempting to echo the ‘now’ of social media and also its propensity to encourage its users to ‘present’ an image of themselves.

Clark also suggests autofiction ‘speaks to the idea that to capture 21st-century experience writers must breach borders – blend fiction, memoir, history, poetry, the visual and performing arts.’

This is where it starts….
I’ve recently read Charlotte by David Foenkinos, a novel based on the life of the artist Charlotte Salomon. It is written in narrative verse, quite terse and without the descriptive passages which punctuate most novels. It took a while to get used to, but in the end I found it very moving. Charlotte herself created her own autobiography, Life? Or Theatre?, an artwork of over seven hundred scenes mixing images and text. It finishes with the words, ‘I was all the characters in my play. I learned to walk all the paths. And in that way I became myself.’

As she knew she was about to be picked up by the Nazis, Charlotte handed over her artwork in a suitcase to a doctor who had helped her. As she did so, she said, ‘It is my whole life.’ The suitcase was not opened until after the Second World War ended. Charlotte was killed in 1943 aged twenty-six within an hour of arriving at Auschwitz.

I think maybe Salomon knew about autofiction before the rest of us.

Or maybe it starts here….
A sculpted pair of arms made of bronze in a glass case in an art gallery in a small seaside town and the accompanying explanatory label. This led me to read A Great Task of Happiness. The life of Kathleen Scott by Louisa Young. Or a painting in another provincial art gallery of a woman of Asian origin, who was both goddaughter to Queen Victoria and a suffragette. This led me to read Sophia: princess, suffragette, revolutionary by Anita Anand.

Maybe this is where all writing starts…. curiosity.

Meanwhile here is a memoir by a fifty-three year old woman:

 

Writing the therapeutic journey #4: where’s the evidence?

I have prefaced much of the previous posts with ‘I believe’. This belief comes from my own experience, from working with others through writing, and from reading and studying what others say about writing.

Nicholas Mazza claims a long history for words being seen as healing in the form of prayers, spells, charms. (Poetry Therapy. Theory & Practice. 2003, Routledge, New York & London.) It was James W Pennebaker, Professor and Chair, Department of Psychology, The University of Texas, who first put the idea that writing might be good for wellbeing to the test. To summarise, he devised an experiment where, over consecutive days, he asked one group of people to write about something emotionally significant, while the other wrote about something mundane. He found the improvement of the wellbeing of those in the first group was experimentally significant, whereas this was not true for the second group. (Further reading at the end of this post.)

Pennebaker called this expressive writing and he gave no guidelines on how people should do it, only that it should be about something which has emotional consequence to them. On analysing the writing which appeared to improve wellbeing, he found three things in common: (1) a feeling was named and expressed; (2) the writer moved from using ‘I’ to using you or she or he or they. In other words they began to gain differing perspectives through their writing; (3) the writer began to structure a narrative, a coherent story.

Expressive writing leaves this to chance, however, creative writing encourages people to develop the tools which means this need not be a question of luck.

Creative writing for wellbeing is not as recognised as art therapy, drama therapy, music therapy and so on, however much of the theory is the same: self-expression leading to reflection, greater understanding, compassion and acceptance. As with all art therapies, working within a group can be useful as the self-expression is witnessed and acknowledged, aiding the sense of being understood and accepted/acceptable.

I would say, however, there are a couple of things which put writing apart from the other art therapies. Firstly, it is a private activity. Even in a group, we can choose when and if to share. Until that moment, whatever is being expressed is between the writer and the page. Secondly, writing is a relatively everyday activity. It is not easy for everyone and many people do come to writing for wellbeing with preconceived ideas (absorbed during school) about what writing should be which can get in the way. On the other hand, for many scribbling words on paper would be more comfortable and straightforward than, for instance, making some music.

In the end, it is for each of us to decide for ourselves what is right for our wellbeing. Creative writing might be a way towards self-expression and reflection which could be useful. It is for you to decide. And as this series of posts goes along, I hope all readers will see each as an invitation. You have a choice to take it up or not. The principals of invitation and choice are very important in this kind of work. As are the words: compassion, respect, kindness – to yourself and your writing. It is what it is, you don’t have to judge it.

I will repeat my health warning:
Don’t go off on your own. Make sure you have support, certainly of those close to you, but also think about seeking a professional therapist or writing therapist to accompany you. What comes out of the writing could be painful, it could be distressing, it could be disappointing, it could be revelatory, it could be full of anger and hate. It could be anything. It is unknown. We need back-up when facing the unknown.

Take some time to get to know the resources listed below and also connect with the national organisation for writing for wellbeing: https://lapidus.org.uk/. Perhaps there is a local group in your area. And the journey continues with the next post.

Resources

James W Pennebaker: https://pennebaker.socialpsychology.org/

Pennebaker, J.W., & Beall, S.K. (1986). Confronting a traumatic event: Toward an understanding of inhibition and disease. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 95(3), 274-281.

Smyth, J.M., & Pennebaker, J.W. (2008). Exploring the boundary conditions of expressive writing: In search of the right recipe. British Journal of Health Psychology 13, 1-7.

Pennebaker, J.W. (1997) Opening Up. The healing power of expressing emotions. The Guilford Press: New York.

Bolton, G. (1999). The Therapeutic Potential of Creative Writing. Jessica Kingsley Publishers, London & Philadelphia.

Bolton, G. Field, V, Thompson, K. (Eds) (2006). Writing Works. A resource handbook for therapeutic writing workshops & activities. Jessica Kingsley Publishers, London & Philadelphia.

DeSalvo, L. (1999). Writing as a Way of Healing, How telling our stories transforms our lives. The Women’s Press.

Evans, K. (2011). ‘The Chrysalis and the Butterfly: A phenomenological study of one person’s writing journey.’ Journal of Applied Arts & Health 2:2, 173-186.

Hedges, D. (2005) Poetry, Therapy & Emotional Life. Radcliffe Publishing, London & Seattle.

Mazza, N. (2003). Poetry Therapy. Theory & Practice. Routledge, New York & London.

Nicholls, S. (2009). ‘Beyond Expressive Writing: evolving models of developmental creative writing.’ Journal of Health Psychology 14(2), 171-180.

Author Interview: Maggie James

This week I am delighted to invite fellow writer, Maggie James to my blog. Living in Bristol, she writes psychological suspense novels. Her first book, His Kidnapper’s Shoes, was completed in 2011 and self-published in 2013. It has now been republished under a contract with Lake Union. Maggie’s next three books, Sister, Psychopath, Guilty Innocence and The Second Captive followed, along with a free novella, Blackwater Lake. She has also written a non-fiction book aimed at would-be authors, called Write Your Novel! From Getting Started to First Draft. She recently signed a two-book deal with Bloodhound Books for Guilty Innocence and The Second Captive. They will be republished later in 2017. 

Her latest novel is After She’s Gone, published by Lake Union on March 16, 2017 (http://smarturl.it/aftershesgone).

Before turning her hand to writing, Maggie worked mainly as an accountant, with a diversion into practising as a nutritional therapist. Diet and health remain high on her list of interests, along with travel. Accountancy does not, but then it never did. The urge to pack a bag and go off travelling is always lurking in the background. When not writing, going to the gym, practising yoga or travelling, Maggie can be found seeking new four-legged friends to pet; animals are a lifelong love.

What are you currently working on?
I have two writing projects on the go at present. One is plotting my sixth novel, title as yet unknown, which will examine the theme of betrayal. I got the idea from a TV documentary centred on con artists and the suffering they wreak on their victims. The concept is still in the early stages, but I’m keen to start writing. The other book I’m working on is a revised version of my second novel, Sister Psychopath.

What has inspired your most recent novel/writing?
My latest novel is After She’s Gone, released on March 16, 2017. I’d been drawn to the theme of arson for a while, as well as examining how a family copes with murder. Somehow the two ideas became interwoven and ended up as After She’s Gone. In the book, the dead body of a teenage girl is found in a burning building, and as her grief-stricken relatives struggle with the fallout, the fires move ever closer to their home. Who is setting them, and why are they targeting the Goldens?

How much do you think fiction intertwines with real life?
Very much so in some cases, as I’ve found out. After I finished the first draft of His Kidnapper’s Shoes, a case came to light in America of a young child who was snatched as a baby and brought up by her abductor. A similar situation, also in the USA, emerged recently. My book wasn’t inspired by such events – I got the idea after a casual conversation – but the similarity was spooky. Sister, Psychopath was also inspired by a real-life murder. As for Blackwater Lake, I suspect that somewhere buried deep in someone’s compulsive hoarding may indeed be the solution to a crime, as happens in my novella.

Many novels have intertwined fiction with real life, of course. Take Robert Bloch’s novel, Psycho, based on the killer Ed Gein. Or Lionel Shiver’s We Need to Talk about Kevin, inspired by the 1999 Colombine shootings. Real life can provide fertile materials for novelists, and that won’t stop anytime soon.

Could you give five tips on how to tackle either characterisation or plotting or dialogue or descriptive passages?
I think I’ll go with dialogue on this one. Here are my five tips:

  1. This one gets mentioned a lot by authors and editors, but it’s important: don’t overuse speech tags. For the most part it should be clear who’s speaking, so you don’t need to add ‘he said/she said’ to every sentence. It’s unnecessary and clogs the flow of the discourse. Less is more.
  2. For dialogue that does require a speech tag, keep it simple. ‘Said’ is often the most effective one. You don’t need verbs like ‘averred’, ‘theorised’, ‘opined’, etc. The brain tends to skip over short, familiar words like ‘said’, whereas ‘expostulated’ will cause it to do a double take. You don’t want to write something that will jar the reader’s attention away from your story.
  3. Make it sound natural, but without all the ‘ums’, ‘ers’, ‘likes’ and ‘you-knows’ that clog most people’s speech. Contractions such as don’t, shouldn’t, won’t are good, though, because we all use them.
  4. Dialect is a difficult one to get right. Don’t attempt to convey regional speech by changing the spelling of words, as it irritates many readers. It’s best to use speech patterns and colloquialisms instead.
  5. Read your dialogue aloud. What better way to discover if your written conversations sound authentic? Or try text to speech software.

 How would you describe your writing process?
I’m a planner by nature; I couldn’t write a novel without a road map to get my story to where it needs to go. I use the Snowflake method of plotting, whereby I take an idea, and expand it until it’s a fully-fledged outline, complete with character notes, timeline, etc.  For writing software, I use Scrivener, and I love it; it’s excellent and worth every penny of the paltry purchase price. It’s customisable, flexible, and enables me to keep everything I need – research, notes, etc. – all in one place. Then it compiles my document into a formatted e-book in a couple of clicks. Magic!

After I’ve done the basic plotting, it takes me about two months to write the first draft. The next part, editing and revising, takes me much longer. I can spend forever tweaking my narrative, so when I can’t stand the sight of it any longer, I know it’s time to release it to the world.

What helps you to write/what gets in the way?
As I’ve mentioned, I couldn’t write without a structured outline. I could just about make do without Scrivener – after all, my first novel was written using Microsoft Word – but I wouldn’t want to. I need silence to write as well, although white noise such as traffic is fine. Definitely no music, though. As for what gets in the way, sometimes my motivation isn’t as high as I’d like, and I procrastinate. If I’ve had a great writing session one day, completing lots of words, I often need to take it easy the day after. It’s all about balance, I guess.

What kind of research do you do & how do you go about it?
It depends on what the novel requires. I’m not keen on doing lots of research, as I’d rather be writing, but at the same time I don’t want inaccuracies in my books. For police procedural matters, I use Michael O’Byrne’s The Crime Writer’s Guide to Police Practice and Procedure, along with picking the brains of a couple of friends who are retired police officers.

Google is my friend when it comes to research. Like many novelists, I often joke that the police would have a field day should they ever inspect my browsing history. I’ve used Google to check out topics such as identity theft, computer hacking, body decomposition rates, etc.

I also often visit the locations involved in my books. They’re all based in my home city of Bristol, so I can easily check whatever I need. For example, The Second Captive involved a very pleasant afternoon wandering round Siston, taking notes and photographs.

If you are indie published, why did you choose this route? What are your five tips for would-be indie authors? What are the pros & cons to indie publishing?
I’m a hybrid author, meaning that some of my books are with publishing houses and others are self-published. I’d recommend anyone to try self-publishing, even if they hanker after a traditional contract. More and more publishers are keeping an eye on who’s doing well in the self-published world and signing them up. It’s happened to me, as well as to other author friends.

My five tips for indie authors? Here they are:

  1. Don’t skimp on editing. Hire the best you can afford, and listen carefully to his/her suggestions. My editor, Gillian Holmes, has been invaluable in helping me polish my books. Please don’t be like some authors who think correct spelling, punctuation and grammar don’t matter. Self-publishing equates to low standards in the minds of many readers, and it’s a perception with some basis in truth, given a few of the books I’ve read.
  2. Get the best cover you can afford. I often see real howlers on Amazon that look as though I’ve created them; they’re that bad! (There are websites devoted to poking fun at these gems, but I digress.) People do judge books by their covers, and a sloppy one with amateurish fonts might well sink your novel.
  3. Build your author platform as you write your book, so that it’s ready for when you launch. I didn’t, and regretted it later. Set up a website and start cultivating readers, book bloggers and other writers on social media as soon as possible.
  4. Develop a thick skin if you intend to read your reviews. Many authors choose not to; the Internet can be a brutal place and some readers can be unnecessarily vicious.
  5. Learn as much as you can about book marketing. Check out successful authors on social media and find out how they operate. A good start is Joanna Penn’s blog The Creative Penn. It’s packed with advice for indie authors, and Joanna’s written several useful books about marketing.

Pros of self-publishing? In my view this option holds most of the cards. You can set the pace for your writing career, writing as little or as much as you want, and pocketing 70% royalties from Amazon. You’ll need to work hard on your marketing, and put in a lot of hours, but big rewards are possible. A con of self-publishing can be the lack of support and the feeling that you’re going it alone, although that can be mitigated by forming strong support networks with other writers.

If you are traditionally published, could you say something of your journey and your experience?
Until last year, I was entirely self-published, and happy to be so. Having been offered a traditional contract a while back, and rejecting it, I was clear I wanted to remain self-published. My reasons? Higher royalties along with total control over every step of the publication process. That was until I got a phone call one afternoon.

I found myself talking with an acquisitions editor from Lake Union, one of Amazon’s publishing imprints. She enthused over His Kidnapper’s Shoes, and we chatted, with her saying she’d like to explore ways to work with me. More phone calls and emails followed, the end result being the offer of a publishing contract for His Kidnapper’s Shoes and my latest novel, After She’s Gone. Lake Union, being a digital publisher, can offer a far more attractive deal than the traditional publishing firms, and after a lot of thought I accepted, thus becoming a hybrid author.

Since then, I’ve signed a two-book deal with Bloodhound Books, who will re-release my novels Guilty Innocence and The Second Captive later this year. At this stage I’m unsure what will happen with future books, but I suspect I may retain my hybrid status. It seems to offer the best of both worlds.

The question you wished I’d asked you.
I think I’ll go with, ‘Have you always wanted to be a novelist?’ I chose that question thanks to my delight at being able to write fulltime, as it’s the culmination of a lifelong ambition. As a child, I devoured books (nothing has changed!) and never doubted I’d become a novelist when I grew up. Instead, when I reached adulthood, I went into accountancy, where I stayed for the next twenty-eight years. The urge to write never left me, even though I did nothing about it. In my forties, I started penning some short pieces, which were well received online, but I found the idea of a novel daunting. Then I ran into issues at work, which I used as a wake-up call. I booked flights to Asia, Australia and South America and travelled for a year, with the aim of writing the first draft of a novel while away. And that’s what happened, with me finishing His Kidnapper’s Shoes while enjoying the splendours of Bolivia.

How can readers find you and learn more about your writing?
My website and blog can be found at http://www.maggiejamesfiction.com. You can find links to all my books, including my non-fiction offering, Write Your Novel! From Getting Started to First Draft. You can also download my free novella, Blackwater Lake. I blog weekly on all matters book-related, including reviews, discussion topics and author interviews. You can also sign up for my newsletter and receive free books.

Here are my social media links:
Facebook:  https://www.facebook.com/MJamesFiction/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/mjamesfiction

LinkedIn: http://www.linkedin.com/pub/maggie-james/64/381/727

Google+ : https://plus.google.com/101511690389687930651

Goodreads: http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/828751.Maggie_James

Pinterest:  http://www.pinterest.com/maggiejamesfict/

Amazon: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Maggie-James/e/B00BS9LVMI

BookBub: https://www.bookbub.com/authors/maggie-james

 

 

Author Interview: Clare O’Dea

clare-door-jacket

Clare O’Dea

I am thrilled to welcome this week to my blog Clare O’Dea.

She is an Irish author, journalist and translator living and working in Switzerland. Her first book, The Naked Swiss: A Nation Behind 10 Myths (Bergli Books, 2016), is a non-fiction examination of the most prevalent clichés about her adopted country.

Originally from Dublin, Clare has lived in Switzerland for the past thirteen years, ten of which she spent working for the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation. Clare also writes fiction, long and short. She has translated non-fiction books from French and German into English, most recently the biography of a Swiss banker.

What are you currently working on?
I am currently working on a children’s novel for the upper middle grade age group (10-12). It is an adventure story featuring a brother and sister who are on the run in a country controlled by a sinister, all-powerful company. I started writing this book three years ago, but had to set it aside several times when other more pressing writing projects took precedence. I have been sharing chapters from the book with my writing critique group here in Switzerland since last summer, and getting very helpful feedback. Next, I’d like to hear from the target audience, so I am preparing to send the manuscript to several children in the right age group along with a questionnaire.  After that I will be ready to submit to agents.

Could you give five tips on how to tackle plotting?
These tips are not meant to be binding. They are just things that worked for me.

Don’t start writing until you are convinced you have an idea that is big and strong enough to carry you and the story to the finish line. The main idea, or concept, should be something that is both unique and universal, something that captures the imagination and emotions.

The plot should also be describable. If you cannot describe the story neatly, there may be something at fault. Time spent distilling the story in advance will pay off.

Subplots are good and necessary but there’s no need to go overboard. If the reader loses sight of the main storyline, it’s time for some trimming.

Always ask yourself why you are including a particular scene. It can’t just be because you like it. What does it contribute to building character or advancing the story?

After your first draft, write down a simple scene-by-scene breakdown of the novel, if you haven’t done so already. You can break it down into columns that are relevant for your story, for example character(s), action, setting. This is a useful exercise to get an overview, and to identify possible lulls or repetition.

How would you describe your writing process?
With novel writing, once I start something, I usually plunge straight into a flow phase. Because of work and family commitments, I have to squeeze writing into small pockets of time, and may have interruptions and delays. After mulling over the story in advance, I sketch out a simple one-page outline of the plot. I write in chronological order starting at the beginning. From then on, the story has a momentum of its own. In the gaps between writing, the ideas build up so that when I sit down, scenes unfold and characters appear almost of their own accord. I usually write one chapter per sitting. The second, third and subsequent drafts take longer to complete. On my first novel (unpublished), I had to discard an awful lot of material in the rewriting phase. The second novel (children’s) has been a much more economical writing experience.

If you are traditionally published, could you say something of your journey and your experience?
The submission and publication process for my first published book, The Naked Swiss, wasnakedswiss_cover surprisingly pain-free. I left my job covering news for the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation in 2015 because I felt I had come as far as I could as a part-time working mother. When I went freelance, one of the things on my to-do list was to submit a non-fiction proposal to a publishing company in Basel that specialised in English-language books about Switzerland. I had ten years of reporting to draw on, as well my personal experience of living in the country. The editor answered within days and asked to meet me to discuss the project. It took a few months of back and forth to rework the concept and write more sample chapters before he was ready to offer me a contract. I wrote the book in six months (part-time) up to May 2016 and it was published in October 2016.

Fiction took a back seat during this time but I have an event coming up this month in Geneva that could be promising – a meet-the-agent/publisher weekend organised by the Geneva Writers’ Group. I will have a one-to-one session with a publisher, and get professional feedback on my first novel.  As you can gather, I still have my sights set on the traditional publishing route, although I don’t rule out self-publishing in the future.

Do you find it difficult to switch between writing fiction and non-fiction?
I find it manageable because I am so used to it at this stage. With my job as a journalist, it has never been a case of one or the other. After many years of false-starts, I finally began writing fiction in earnest five years ago, and it has made my life more interesting, as well as helping me cope with the isolation of being an immigrant. With writing, I am never alone and never bored. I have made wonderful like-minded friends, and the joy that I experience creating my own worlds, in short and long-form fiction, has become an essential part of my life.

How can readers find you and learn more about your writing?
The about page on my writing blog is a good place to start. For a sample of my writing, check out my short story, The Favour, which was shortlisted in the Hennessy New Irish Writing competition last year.

I have an author page on Facebook, concentrating on The Naked Swiss for the moment, and you can follow me on Twitter @clareodeaz or connect on Goodreads.

‘Made-up truth’ by Jane Davis

JD compressedThe main protagonist in Jane Davis’s latest release is Lucy Forrester, a political poet and activist. Anti-establishment all her life, she is horrified to find herself nominated for a New Year’s Honours. Her inclination is to turn it down. But what if it’s an opportunity…

Jane’s author biography says that her favourite description of fiction is ‘made-up truth’. In fact, she has admitted to me that she makes up very little. When she writes a character, she wants you to believe that they existed, and that means parachuting them in a particular landscape at a particular point in time, often with real-life characters. “If it doesn’t feel authentic, then I’ve failed.” Research, then, is the key. And while Jane’s fiction may not fall under strict definitions of historical fiction, she has made the recent past her speciality.

One of the key decisions she needed to make when writing about her poet-activist was the cause she would claim as her own. In fact, the answer became obvious. Born in the 1940s, Lucy Forrester’s only early memories were of war. Fear of the Nuclear Bomb was a hangover from childhood. Talk of a third world war – the war to end all wars – permeated her adolescence. Bring her governess Pamela into the equation, a young woman who was prepared to take a stand, and, of course, Lucy was interested. Watching footage of Rod Stewart taking part in the first of the CND rallies and marches from Trafalgar Square to Aldermaston brought it all together. She had no trouble imagining Lucy Forrester there, at the centre of it all.

“It is 1958,” Jane explains. “Six years after American scientists finished gathering data on radiation sickness at the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission in Hiroshima. It is supposedly a time of peace, but thoughts have once again turned to war. Imagine being eighteen years old, shipped to Christmas Island on National Service. It is the furthest you have ever strayed from home. Your job? To stand on a white sandy beach and observe as scientists detonate nuclear bombs over the Central Pacific. No protective clothing is issued. At the signal, you must turn away and cover your eyes with your hands. When the flash goes off, you see your veins, your skin tissue, your bones, and through it all, diamond white, a second sun.

Around 22,000 servicemen performed similar roles. Some suffered radiation sickness immediately, and some died. For others, symptoms followed patterns seen in Hiroshima. TheyJDV-MCS2016-Clays-02 lost their appetites and ran high fevers. Their hair fell out in clumps. Others still appeared to be well for decades before developing cancers and other rare diseases. It was only over time that dots were joined, convincing some veterans that their illnesses and disabilities were caused by nuclear radiation. Up until 1999, the veterans had repeatedly run into brick walls in the bid to have their claims recognised. Largely ignored, dwindling in numbers, the veterans referred to themselves as ‘ghosts’.

Then researcher Sue Rabbitt Roff of the University of Dundee tracked down 2,500 veterans and their families, finding unusually high rates of infertility and birth defects. This was the trigger. The columnist Richard Stott (1943 – 2007) of the Sunday Mirror launched his Justice for Nuke Vets campaign. I was 32 in 1999, not a distracted teenager. But if I saw the reports, I’m ashamed to admit I have no recollection of them. And I wasn’t the only one. Others with far more direct links to Christmas Island had also missed the reports. Of the relatively small group of beta readers I use for initial feedback on my early drafts, three confided that fathers or grandfathers had been on Christmas Island. None of the men liked to speak about the experience. It was over and done with. It seems unlikely, then, that they would have mentioned it to doctors. All died prematurely, all of cancer. Up until the time my beta readers had read my book, no one had made any connections. Now the explanation seemed obvious. In 2014, researching my novel, it became clear that the Atomic Veteran’s cause was one Lucy Forrester would have thrown herself behind.

The Ministry of Defence continued to insist on more proof. It wasn’t until 2007 that two scientific studies demonstrated clear links. What’s more, they also estimated that genetic birth defects would last for 20 generations – in other words, 500 years.

The remaining 700 New Zealand and UK veterans launched a class action against the British government claiming damages of NZ $36 million. But the MoD countered with a statute of limitations defence. It had happened 50 years ago. Following a parliamentary inquiry in early 2008, the government agreed to fund new studies into veterans’ health, and to pay interim compensation of £4,000 each.

By the time I completed my research, £25million (£5million a year over five years) had been set aside for an Aged Veterans’ Fund. But this wasn’t just for the Atomic Veterans. There are approximately two million qualifying veterans. In addition to applications from individuals, the British Nuclear Veterans’ Association (BNTVA), the premier charity representing those who have worked alongside radioactive material for the benefit of the nation, can apply for funding for projects such as respite care or counselling. Whilst such services may benefit the families of the Atomic Veterans, once the remaining veterans die, funding will cease. Without an admission of negligence from the MoD, there will be no help for the next 20 generations.

Many Atomic Veterans are proud to have served their country. However, given that the risks of exposure to radiation were either known or reasonably foreseeable, they had every right to expect to be taken care of if things went wrong. They couldn’t have imagined that the British government would introduce a higher burden of proof than other governments, so that their American counterparts received compensation while they were denied. It shouldn’t be left to the Prime Minister of Fiji to step in and award each surviving veteran three thousand pounds, saying, ‘Fiji is not prepared to wait for Britain to do the right thing.’ With Trident back in the headlines, I hope this issue will surface once more.”

You can find out more about the Atomic Veterans or make a donation here.

Jane Davis s the author of seven novels. Her debut, Half-truths and White Lies, won the Daily Mail First Novel Award, and The Bookseller featured her in their ‘One to Watch’ section. Six further novels have earned her a loyal fan base and wide-spread praise. Her 2016 novel, An Unknown Woman, won Writing Magazine’s Self-Published Book of the Year Award. Compulsion Reads describe her as ‘a phenomenal writer whose ability to create well-rounded characters that are easy to relate to feels effortless.’ Her favourite description of fiction is ‘made-up truth’.

JD Red compressedWhen Jane is not writing, you may spot her disappearing up the side of a mountain with a camera in hand.

You can also find Jane Davis on Facebook, on Twitter, on Google Plus, on Pinterest, and on Goodreads, as well as on her Amazon author page.

Anyone who signs up to Jane’s newsletter receives a free copy of her novel, I Stopped Time. Jane promises not to bombard subscribers with junk. She only issues a newsletter when she has something genuinely newsworthy to report.

 My Counterfeit Self was published October 1, 2016, and available in paperback and eBook formats.

 

 

Writing our shared humanity

Art of Survival Coverfront onlyfinalAfter six weeks focusing on the launch of my latest crime novel, The Art of Survival, http://goo.gl/MfMBUj I am back to the working on the third in the series, The Art of Breathing. One of the advantages of writing a series is that I already know the point-of-view characters pretty well, and reader and writer can get to know them in greater depth with each outing.

I had already written the stories of these characters several times before I embarked on this series. They had popped up in one or other of the five unpublished novels which I have written since I was in my late teens. However, the one I was most shy of pushing onto the public stage was Detective Sergeant Theo Akande. After all, what does a white, middle-class fifty year old woman know about the experience of a black, thirty-something man? I could add in the mix the difference in our stated sexuality, though I do believe that this is (perhaps?) more fluid than aspects of race, gender and age (perhaps not?).

A main character in a novel has to have a developed back-story. There were many, many narratives which would lead to Theo’s black skin, I needed to know which one authentically belonged to him. The one thing I was certain about Theo was his sense of security and stability. I was clear this had to come from his parents and background. Having family connections to South Wales, I knew about the rooted Cape Verde community in Cardiff. As I read more about it, I decided Theo’s mother would come from there.

Theo’s father would come from Nigeria, a notion born from the story of a friend I had at university and from the biography of writer, Jackie Kay. Still there was a sketchiness to this. I read the novels of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and have recently begun Nigeria, a new history of a turbulent century, by Richard Bourne. As I paint in detail for Theo’s father’s story, Theo himself takes on greater substance and exciting new possibilities open up.

I am utterly committed to creating characters with depth and complexity. Theo is as real to mewriter at work june 15 001 as the others in my novels. Sometimes I’ll have conversations with him (as I do with the others) to test out what I know about him and to find out new information. Yet, I have less confidence presenting him to others and wait to be slammed down for attempting to do so.

I hope if/when this happens, I will be able to channel some of Theo’s assurance and hold onto my belief that what connects us as humans is greater than what divides us.

How do you, as a writer, build character? What, as a reader, do you consider good characterisation?