Tag Archives: writer

Do women protagonists have to be nice?

Breaking News….

Saturday 2nd July, 2022, 2pm-3pm, I will be doing a signing at Mrs Lofthouse’s Emporium, Queen Street, Scarborough. Come along for a chat, I would love to see you.

Saturday September 17th, 2022, crime festival Bloody Scotland
10:30am-11:30am, I will be appearing on a panel entitled ‘Secrets and Lies’
https://bloodyscotland.com/ to book tickets.

Thursday 20th October, 2022 part of the Big Read, York
7pm-9pm, I will be interviewed & giving a reading at York Explore
https://exploreyork.org.uk/

Does the reader have to like the protagonist?

I have recently been given some feedback on the first of my Donna Morris novels, A Wake of Crows: the reader enjoyed the novel but didn’t like the main character. Unfortunately, this was passed onto me second hand, so I couldn’t probe further, but it got me thinking – should I be creating a likeable protagonist?

In fact, this question has followed me around for some time. I self-published three crime novels 2013 to 2015 with a main character called Hannah. More than one person told me she was unlikeable. She was going through a hard time and we were inside her head which got pretty dark at times. Yet her experience mirrored mine in many ways. After a friend waxed lyrical about just how unpleasant Hannah was, I did wonder whether they knew me at all or whether I was just very good at dissembling.

In crafting Donna, I made a conscious effort to create her more agreeable. She is not as ‘abrasive’ as Hannah was, Donna is kinder, she is not as intense.

Of course, not every reader is going to like every character. However, I did start considering whether this idea of being likeable or not stems from my protagonist being female? Are male detectives in crime novels expected to be amenable? How about Ian Rankin’s Rebus, Colin Dexter’s Morse and Conan Doyle’s Sherlock. Or even Christie’s Poirot? Though in each case there is a more charming side-kick who is, perhaps, the one readers actually relate to.

There has been a long tradition in crime writing of the detective being flawed in some way. I think Donna is less flawed and generally more genial than some, but maybe she (like many women) just has to be ‘nice’?

Do you have to like the protagonist to enjoy the read?

Midsummer

‘Kate Evans delivers a gripping crime debut
with a truly original policewoman as the central character. Highly Recommended.’
Myles McWeeney, review of A Wake of Crows, Irish Independent, May 7th 2022

The days are getting warmer and brighter. In a week it will be the longest day – midsummer. This always seems to come too early for me. We’ve barely begun to enjoy the season and suddenly we are at the mid point.

I also feel slightly out of kilter when it comes to my novel writing. A Wake of Crows has appeared in paperback and Drowning Not Waving in hardback. The first of DC Donna Morris’s adventures in Scarborough is just garnering some interest – like the review above – and I am already finishing off her third story (yet to be titled). I am on track to deliver this in the Autumn.

I was comforted when I heard Abir Mukherjee on Radio 4’s Bookclub. We were discussing his first novel, while he had already published his fifth, and he quipped that he had almost forgotten the plot of his debut. I am certainly afraid I might muddle up what happened when to whom between the three DC Morris mysteries.

What is also facing me – as the excitement around A Wake of Crows is rising – is a big blank. My contract was for three novels and I have, essentially, completed them. What comes next? I have everything crossed for another contract. But the workings of the publishing world are still something of a mystery to me and this is by no means certain. So maybe this is the end of my ‘being published by a traditional publisher’ trajectory. A brief but magnificent arc, like the traces of a rocket on bonfire night.

In my early twenties, I would attend firework displays put on by a BBC engineer friend of my husband. He boosted his pyrotechnics until it felt like being in the middle of the Big Bang when they went off. How I hope my publishing rocket could be given the propulsion of one of his.

Editing and Rewriting

I would never call writing a hard job. Not hard like working in a shop or a care home. But there are times when it gets tougher, and, for me, this is during the editing and rewriting stage. I am lucky to have useful feedback from my editor and her assistant. I like to get this as early as possible, in case there are any big changes to make and I always advise writers to find trusted readers to give a decent critique.

But writers also have to know where to start with editing their own work. Here are some words of wisdom from Booker winner Hilary Mantel, sent in an e-newsletter by Mslexia on the 17th June 2021. (For women who write, Mslexia is a national magazine of women’s writing.)

‘Don’t try to edit while you are writing. Your first draft is all about energy and unleashing your power. Respect the process of creation and give it space. It’s like planting a seed. You have to water it and watch it emerge and grow before you can prune it into shape.

‘There isn’t any failed writing. There is only writing that is on the way to being successful – because you’re learning all the time. It follows that that nothing you write is ever wasted, and that to become good, and better than good, you need to write a lot.

‘Suspect the judgment of others. What people coming from a different critical context might describe as slowness or failure you need to reframe as patience and a learning process.

‘Harness the power of intuition to free up your story. Many of us learn to write in an academic style, building a logical argument, picking over every line. This can inhibit a novelist. Aim at perfection – but in your final draft.

Photo by Jane Poulton

‘Rules that are valid in the rest of your life are not always valid for your writing. “Try, try and try again” does not always work for the creative process. Sheer bloody persistence won’t necessarily get you where you want to be.

‘Trust that your work will find its natural form – because it will. Our education system fosters habits of mind that knock out the habit of trust in what we create. You need to rediscover that trust.

‘If you are a great reader then you can become a great writer. If you read many novels, and many different kinds of novel, the principles of novel writing will be encoded deep inside you. That’s what I mean by trust. If you are a reader, then you know subconsciously how to tell a story.

‘Be protective of your work and resist the temptation to show it to anyone before you are satisfied with it yourself. When you do show it, make sure it’s to someone who is qualified to make a judgment. People who love you, or who feel threatened by you, will not provide you with the feedback you need.

‘Seek support from the right people. Try to get a professional opinion from someone who doesn’t know you. But always try to balance their feedback with what you know and trust to be true of your work.

‘Have the courage to try something new. If the world doesn’t seem to want your work, then be adaptable and flexible, but don’t compromise your vision or sell yourself short. Timing counts, and your time may come.’

All good advice as you would expect from such a renowned novelist. I do think searching out the right people to give feedback at the right time is crucial. Too early and it’s like stamping on a shoot just as it is coming above ground and too late the bush is already mature and thriving.

Another thing I have found fellow writers struggling with is when to stop editing and rewriting. Personally I like what novelist, Anne Tyler, said on BBC R4’s Desert Island Discs, (20th & 25th February 2022): ‘I revise until I think I will throw up if I read it again.’ Yep, that just about covers it.

Writing a Sense of Place

It was a great boost to my confidence to have a review of A Wake of Crows by Natasha Cooper in the ‘Literary Review’: ‘Well written and without any flashiness, this believable police procedural deals with guilt, vengeance, love, a serial killer with a God complex and redemption. It is quiet, effective and moving.’

And also to be interviewed on BBC Radio York by Bek Homer:

BBC Radio York – Bek Homer, 07/03/2022

All in time for the paperback edition to be released on the 7th of April.

Meanwhile, I am working on novel three, currently titled The Shark’s Mouth. As I was completing the second half of this particular draft, it felt like, having built up the plot like a Jenga tower of clues, I was having to very carefully take it down piece by piece. If I did this too quickly, the tower would collapse into a pile of incredulity.

For weeks I have felt as if I am living inside my novel and the reality is the fiction. Which, to be honest, is easy, given the madness which has overtaken the world.

In all my novels I want to create a strong sense of place. Here are some thoughts on how I do it.

  • I am lucky enough to live in the town I write about. Pretty much every day I take a walk to the sea. As I do so I make a conscious effort to notice with all my senses and, if anything reveals itself to me, I will write it down in my journal.
  • I describe the landscape using very simple language. The kind of language a child might use. And then I go over and over it, interrogating it for more detail.
  • I love to use imagery which dips into metaphor. Sometimes these will occur to me when I am walking and noticing. Other times, they can start out as a cliché or a well worn phrase which I then cross-examine to find something more interesting. For instance, the white crests on waves are often likened to white horses. But what other four legged animal could they be? And so on.

I always strive towards a balance between stark description and more complex imagery.

What tips do you have for writing descriptive passages?

The Year of the Tiger

January has slunk by without me acknowledging it on this blog. But, by chance, I have hit on the Chinese New Year (just a week late!). It is the beginning of the Year of the Tiger and crime writer, Ovidia Yu has helpfully summarised some predictions: Murder is Everywhere: Gong Xi Fa Cai from Singapore Ovidia is the author of an excellent crime series based in Singapore, next book out soon I believe: Ovidia Yu – The Official Ovidia Yu Site

According to the Chinese zodiac, Donna Morris, the protagonist in my crime series set in Scarborough, is a tiger, so it is her year. The first book in the series, A Wake of Crows, is out in paperback soon, and the second, Drowning Not Waving, is published in hardback in June. A Wake of Crows by Kate Evans | Hachette UK (littlebrown.co.uk)

In a lot of cultures, resolutions are a part of the turning of the year. If the number of swimmers in our pool is anything to go by, most of Scarborough appears to have decided to take more exercise in 2022.

For writers – would be and more experienced – the resolution must be to write. To listen more, to notice more, to read more, but always to write.

I enjoyed this from Cathy Retzenbrink:

https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2022/jan/02/we-often-fail-to-keep-resolutions-but-writing-in-a-notebook-brings-great-rewards

In another interview, she suggested writing as if no one will read your words as a way of keeping going. This might be a method for circumventing the internal critic for some, however, for others I guess the question which might pop up is: ‘If there are no readers, then why write?’

For the pure joy. To tell us about ourselves. To explore the world as we and others experience it. To understand more. To distract us. To give us a safe place.

These are some of my answers. Let me know your own.

I do think that once we think of sharing our writing with a reader, then we have to consider them. We have to get feedback. We have to craft. But I also know that I would keep writing even if publication is not a possibility. Just as I would keep breathing – my rather fiery breath – since, in Chinese terms, I am a dragon.

Yorkshire Sculpture Park

Solstice Reflections

We are at another fulcrum point in the year: after the 21st/22nd of December the days will get (infinitesimally) longer. In many traditions, light is brought into the darkest part of the year and it is a time for reflection. Personally, about the only aspect I do enjoy of the modern frenetic/consumerist Christmas, is the lights which twinkle out even as the day dissolves into evening around mid-afternoon.

2021 has not been an easy year for any of us – and much tougher for some than for me, certainly. However, it is perhaps worth considering some of the things which have kept me going: love, friendship, swimming, yoga, walking, reading and, of course, creativity.

2021 saw the publication of my first novel brought out by a traditional publisher: A Wake of Crows (A Wake of Crows by Kate Evans | Hachette UK (littlebrown.co.uk). Literally a life-long ambition. This is grounds for great joy and satisfaction. And things roll on from this: an audio book (which I still haven’t been brave enough to listen to); a large print; copies in libraries; my appearance at a literature festival; the paperback appearing next April. Sweet.

My second novel in the series, Drowning Not Waving, has been accepted by editorial and is now going through the process of copy editing, proof reading and production. It should be out next June.

The making of Drowning Not Waving has not been exactly smooth. It was a story I wrote when I did a course with Curtis Brown in 2017. It has been re-written several times since. And at the beginning of 2021 I started on the final re-construction: changing the main protagonist to Donna Morris; changing the other point of view character to help with plot issues; and strengthening the environmental theme.

Perhaps it is because of the amount of re-writing and re-configuring which has gone on that I have found getting feedback from editorial and the copy editor more sticky than usual. Still, deep breath, I think I have ended up with a good novel, despite it being a bit of a messy ‘breech birth.’

As a member of the Poetry Books Society (The book club for poetry lovers. (poetrybooks.co.uk), I have enjoyed discovering new poets this year. And with many literary events and workshops going on-line, I have been able to participate in them more than usual.

The most recent has been Radio 4’s ‘Bookclub’ discussion of Abir Mukherjee’s A Rising Man, (due for transmission on 2nd of January 2022). Who knows if I will make the final edit, but it was great fun being involved. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to tell the presenter, Jim Naughtie, that I was there at his debut on radio. I was the production assistant for the ‘Week in Westminster’, where he first got on air. I doubt he would have remembered me: the typer of the script and the bringer of tea.

This year, I have also once again kept up with my monthly collages. Some technically better than others, but all a pleasure to realise.

As the year ‘turns’ and we move into a new year, I send warmest wishes to my readers. I hope 2022 will be easier for everyone and a creative year for all.

The Writing Process: Turning Up

I am not the first person to say that one of the most essential things for becoming/being a writer is to turn up. Of course, there are other factors like: reading; cultivating the creative process; finding support; getting feedback. But in the end, unless we are there with pen in hand or fingertip to keyboard, we won’t be writing. It is not something which can be done in theory.

In general, I would suggest what gets in the way of ‘turning up’ can be separated into two categories:

(1) External pressures.
(2) Internal scripts.

I have been lucky not to fall prey to (1) too often. When I did paid work full-time, I wrote in the evening and at the weekend. I have (selfishly, some might say) never felt responsible for feeding/clothing/entertaining another nor for cleaning the house/tidying the garden. I have never had to negotiate a ‘room of my own’ and time and space to write. However, if you want to write, then this negotiation – with self or others – has to take place.

On the other hand, my internal scripts can pull me up short. They are often along the lines of ‘I am not good enough’ and ‘this is a waste of time’. Ten years of therapy has helped and the support of writing friends. Plus writing around these internal scripts, playing with them, having a dialogue with them can also be beneficial. I would be amazed if there was a writer alive who did not have to wrestle with some internal scripts, so acceptance that it is part of the process can also be useful.

Stepping Away
As well as turning up, I have found stepping away valuable. My creative process works best with bursts of writing (60 to 90 minutes) followed by some kind of exercise. I walk, swim (pool or sea), do yoga or cycle. And then come back to the writing with renewed vigour and fresh ideas.

I think, perhaps, some writers find themselves blocked because they haven’t worked out when they need to step away. However, it is also important to recognise when the ‘stepping away’ is an avoidance or a distraction rather than a refuelling. The clue will be that you are not getting any writing done at all.

What is it about movement and the creative process? Over centuries, a division has occurred between what has been designated ‘the mind’ and ‘the body’. This wrong step is slowly being re-examined with research around holistic medical approaches, and around thoughts/feelings originating in the body to be interpreted by the mind.

It becomes complex exploring this without falling into the dualistic trap. But basically, we are one organism. When we are writing, it might feel as if the creativity is coming from our head and our body is merely the mechanism by which the words reach paper or screen. However, I (and others) do not believe this to be true.

Our head and body work as one system – complementing and informing each other. The creativity swishes around like blood circulating. If we become too static, sat at a desk or scrunched in a chair, only our hands shifting, then the dissemination gets blocked. It is only in getting up and moving that we can release it again.

Creative Process
We all have our own creative rhythms. Be sensitive to them. Notice them. Encourage them. Working out what they might be and working with them will aid us to be the writer we want to be.

Sea Swimming by Kate Evans (mix media/collage: acrylics; felt tip; paper) November 2021

The Art of Remembering

On Saturday the 16th of October, I will be appearing on a panel at the East Riding Festival of Words – East Coast Crime (festivalofwords.co.uk). My first public outing with my novel A Wake of Crows, published by Constable/Little Brown.

A Wake of Crows has a back story which dips into the history of the former GDR (East Germany). I have wanted to write about the GDR for some time because of a long term friendship I have with a woman from Dresden and because of visits to that city and Berlin in the 1980s and after. One thing I noticed soon after the Berlin Wall came down was that the years of communism were being glazed over. Especially in Dresden where it was like the history of the city jumped from Baroque glory to the present day. This is changing somewhat particularly in Berlin. When I was last there, a park was being built up around remnants of the wall and oral histories of the communist period.

However, I do think as humans we are good at forgetting.

Recently I have been reading various books exploring racism to help me examine my part in it. The one I am currently on with is Brit(ish) by Afua Hirsch. She brings into sharp focus how racism is experienced by Black people in the UK and how white people in the UK have not even attempted to understand our history of slavery, prejudice and denigrating those who have been ‘othered’ and exploited because of the colour of their skin. We white people want to forget, because it is easier to do so. As Hirsch writes: ‘We want to be post-racial, without having ever admitted how racial a society we have been.’ (P125.)

Non-remembering is easier, but it means nothing changes.

There is a danger that the true visceral horror of the pandemic is being lost in the sprint to ‘get back to normal’. Plus, that the trauma and mistakes are not going to be springboards for a better way of doing things. We lurch, it seems to me, from one crises to another without any real vision. And we fall into the trap of silo-ing issues. An item on the news about climate change is quickly followed by another on ‘growth’ or holiday flights or problems with fuel deliveries. No link is made. No pause is taken to say, well maybe, because of climate change, we should be looking at things differently.

I certainly do not have any answers. But as a writer, I do think I have a role in keeping the collective memory alive. I have a role in pointing and saying, ‘There look’, even when it’s uncomfortable and upsetting. This is what I attempt to do, in a very small way, in my writing in general as well as in my novels.

Of Gardens and Witches

Today I am delighted to welcome Adrienne Silcock to my blog https://www.adriennesilcock.co.uk/poetry/ She has recently published a collection of herbal poems with The High Window Press called Of Gardens and Witches. Below is one of the poems from her book, plus her thoughts on what inspired it and the whole collection. Enjoy!

‘Dill’ Illustration from Of Witches and Gardens by Hannah Green

Dill
Anethum Graveolens

give seeds
for luck
to the bride to place in a shoe
to the groom for the pocket

give seeds
to protect the baby
– a small bag in the crib –
or to children during church
to hush and stay their hunger

give leaves
to the person who believes
themselves bewitched

give tea
for hiccups, swelling,
insomnia and pain

infused
by Neolithic chef and Pharaoh
across Russia and Rome

consider the smallness of seeds

 

Adrienne writes about her collection:

Even before the Covid pandemic, many of us were beginning to turn towards the natural world for answers and for healing. Some had done so a long time ago. I think I’ve probably been one of the latter, but somehow societal issues seemed to be coming to a head. Climate change, continuing international conflict, people’s mental health issues (I was keenly aware of these, having worked in mental health for a large chunk of my working life)… I started to consider how people over the centuries have turned towards herbs for help.

I began to do the research. Society has had a very long relationship with Dill for instance. Ever since Neolithic times in fact. People used seeds to support superstition, to suppress hunger in times of starvation, to treat mental health issues (give leaves / to the person who believes / themselves bewitched), to treat insomnia or simple physical discomfort, such as hiccups! In a way we have learned to take herbs for granted. On the other hand we’ve forgotten about their magic, their taste, how they can be part of a healthy diet. Suddenly I found myself writing a herbal!

There are so many ways to talk about different herbs. Some of the poems in the collection engage with history and/or mythology, others reflect their usage in modern life, or in the case of Hyacinth (who knew that is considered a herb?) a symbolism for the brevity of life itself. Some are edible, others poisonous. Some have disappeared. I found man’s imprint on the planet and the world’s fragility appearing in my writing again and again. Some poems are light, others wistful and sad, some poems are written with form, others are free. And there are even notes for the curious at the back. I hope that there is something here for everyone.

Adrienne’s most recent publication is Of Gardens and Witches, a collection of herbal poems is from The High Window Press (September 2021). She has also published a poetry pamphlet Taking Responsibility for the Moon with the Mudfog Press (2014), has appeared in the independent press and various anthologies, including Chaos (Patrician Press, 2020), Geography is Irrelevant (Stairwell Books, 2020) and is a featured poet in Vindication (Arachne Press, 2018). She has published two novels, Vermin (Flambard, 2000) and The Kiss (on Kindle) and was shortlisted for the Virginia Prize 2009 for an unpublished novel Controlling Aphrodite.

Strange Meeting

I am sometimes asked: where do you get your ideas from? My response is: everywhere. To be creative, all we have to do is open up our bodies and our minds. Feast our eyes, our ears, our nose on the world around us, stick out our tongues to taste the day, be curious, reach and touch the varied textures (Covid restrictions may apply).

I was very happy to learn, therefore, that one of Britain’s greatest dead poets, Wilfred Owen, was also stirred by his environment, the town I now call home.

When I moved to Scarborough eighteen years ago, I found out that Wilfred Owen had been here just before he was sent back to the front near the end of World War One. In late 1917/early 1918 he was billeted at the Clarence Gardens Hotel, now the Clifton Hotel, on North Bay. Several years ago, I heard a talk by Dr Paul Elsam and John Oxley MBE FSA in which they discussed how this sojourn had fed into Owen’s poetry. I was overjoyed to find this talk expanded into six podcasts for the recent Big Ideas By the Sea festival. Each podcast takes a poem and explores the links with Scarborough. The series is accompanied by an art installation at the railway station.

https://bigideasbythesea.com/festival/index.php/wilfredowen

Art installation at Scarborough railway station by Kane Cunningham, Ben Cunningham & Dr Paul Elsam.
Window based on the poem, The Calls. Photo by Mark Vesey. July 2021.

I have always said graveyards are a great resource for writers. Half told stories adorn every grave, demanding: ‘What happened here?’ And ‘What if?’ In the current novel I am working on, Drowning Not Waving, DC Donna Morris walks through Dean Road cemetery, the dedications to fisherman giving her a new perspective on her investigation. The paths she walks, I have walked dozens of times. And, according to the podcast on the poem Strange Meeting, so did Wilfred Owen. He stood in front of a memorial which has always intrigued me and, perhaps, like me, it got him wondering.

Photo by Kate Evans, July 2021

I was very glad the podcast on the poem The Calls explained the background to it, as, at first, I was not taken by it. However, as I sit overlooking the South Bay, it comes back to me and I write.

The Calls, 25th July 2021
The drone of the speed boat.
The excited prattling of the children paddling.
A man arguing into his mobile phone.
The (not quite) silent beat of the wing of a seagull gliding in to grab.

A winter visitor in 1918,
he would not have noted these.
Yet, a hundred or so years apart,
we can share the shush-shus-shush-shoosh —
the inexorably incoming tide.

Both Wilfred Owen and I have been inspired by Scarborough. Now his words have stimulated mine. That’s how writers roll, moved by our surroundings, but further stirred by the language of others who have also been inspired in this way. A never ending process, whirling on and on.

Now I invite you, dear reader, to use this blog post as a portal to the Wilfred Owen in Scarborough podcasts:

https://bigideasbythesea.com/festival/index.php/wilfredowen/

If you love reading or writing poetry or stories, I can guarantee you will find them fascinating.