Recently I indulged the whim to buy myself a small badge. It’s in the shape of an old-fashioned red typewriter with a piece of paper emerging from the top. ‘Once upon a time…’ is typed on the paper. I write fiction so it seemed appropriate and indulgently amusing. Wearing it to a choir rehearsal a couple of days later, another chorister - a teacher of young children - noticed it and remarked that most of her pupils, when asked to write a story, started with those very words: Once upon a time. And when I was a child so did I of course.
It started me wondering why. (This may be why I don’t write my books fast enough - I’m too preoccupied wondering why all the time…) I suppose most of us as children are told stories which begin with those same words so, not unnaturally, we quickly learn to expect a story to start in that way. Without much experience of the world, perhaps children think a story has to start with those words or otherwise it isn’t a made-up story. If we don’t start by saying ‘Once upon a time’, it must be true and not fiction.
Or is it because, by using those special words, they’re a magic mantra that opens a door, in this case, the door to a child’s imagination and all the fantastical and wonderful things that their imagination can bring forth? Maybe those words give them permission to create and to visualise and, more importantly, to dare to express it. I like that idea: a code that releases something and gives permission to dream.
It’s often said that adults lose their imagination as they get older. I tend to think we simply suppress it. Real life can become very loud and insistent and it’s difficult to find the time or even the energy to create stories when the clamour of family and commitments press in on us. But perhaps if we all try and think ‘Once upon a time’ every now and then, it’ll allow us to travel to amazing places in our minds, maybe even sprinkle a little faery dust.
I think I treasure my little badge even more now.
A big thank you to all my readers for your friendship and support this past year. May your Christmas be healthy, happy and peaceful and your loved ones close, in spirit if not in person. I'll see you in 2018 - hopefully with a new book! Take care all. x
That Still and Whispering Place' is on special offer in the UK for a short time only: just 99p across multiple digital platforms, including Amazon, Kobo and Apple. Buy now to take advantage of this limited promotion!
THIS OFFER HAS NOW ENDED
Phew. I’ve just finished the second draft of my WIP: 102,000 words, more or less. It’s a strange feeling. I’m reminded of the opening of the film ‘Romancing the Stone’. Kathleen Turner, playing a romance author called Joan Wilder, has just finished a novel and is in tears over the emotional ending she has just written. The house is devoid of tissue of any kind to mop up her tears; she hasn’t been shopping or, it is implied, done anything other than write for weeks. I too feel like I’m coming up for air. So many things get put on hold when I’m writing. I force myself to keep pressing forward, refuse to let myself get distracted (well…up to a point.)
But there, I’m afraid, the similarity ends. Joan Wilder, it seems, writes one draft of her novel and the book is done and dusted, ready to be handed over to her agent. I, on the other hand, wouldn’t let my closest friend see my first scrappy draft. And I wouldn’t let anyone see this second one either - though the story is starting to take a firmer shape now and, in that strange alchemy that always amazes me, the characters are now developing some sort of life of their own. On the whole I relate more to Tom Selleck’s character in ‘Her Alibi’. He plays Phil Blackwood, an author of popular thrillers who spends as much time deleting paragraphs of prose as he spends writing them. Yep, I’m afraid that’s me… Without a computer to write on I’d destroy forests of trees.
Anyway, the second draft is written and now I need to give it a few days to let the dust settle (and to catch up on all the things I’ve been neglecting), then I’ll re-examine it, consider the changes and developments that are needed - and start on draft number 3, hopefully a somewhat speedier one. I might not write as quickly as Joan Wilder, but I’ll get there in the end. I’m a tortoise. Oh and yes, I may watch too many old films.
I have three character-driven mystery novels published to date:
Deep Water, Thin Ice
Silent Faces, Painted Ghosts
That Still and Whispering Place.
You can read a sample of all of them on this website: click the "books" button above and all are available across multiple platforms in both digital and print formats.
My first novel, ‘Deep Water, Thin Ice’, received a one star rating the other day. Two days prior to that, a reader gave it five stars. It occurred to me that maybe it’s a Marmite book. For those of you who aren’t acquainted with Marmite, it’s a thick brown yeast paste, highly seasoned, which you can spread on toast or sandwiches - amongst other things. There are, I gather, similar products in other countries - though maybe not so strongly flavoured - but it seems Marmite is a particularly British institution, one which radically divides opinion here. Some love it; some hate it. Only those who haven’t tasted it remain equivocal.
I’m glad to say that the aforementioned one star rating was only the second one the book had received across many platforms so perhaps the comparison was too hastily drawn; the ratings and reviews otherwise have been good. I’ve had many people take the trouble to contact me to say how much they enjoyed it (which is wonderful). Even so, compared to my other books, the ratings for DWTI suggest a greater division of opinion.
Obviously the one star rating disappointed me - I’m human - but I am pragmatic. Though we tend to assume everyone will like the same things we do - (and when you write a book, you just know that everyone is going to love it!!) - many do not. I have often been blown away by a book, only to find, when I came to effusively review it, that I was in a minority and others had panned it. Similarly, I sometimes read a much-hyped novel and find myself wondering why it’s a bestseller. So what do others see in it that I don’t? If we could only read a book sometimes through someone else’s eyes.
So maybe all books are, to some extent, Marmite books. It depends on your taste and even your mood when you’re reading them. Or on what’s happening in your life at the time. And maybe, if a book divides opinion into ‘loved it’ and ‘hated it’, it’s not such a bad thing after all. At least it shows that the work excited a vivid response, that it wasn’t bland.
Looking at that one star, I comforted myself with that thought.
If you're in the area, come and say hello on Friday 14th July at the lovely Harbour Bookshop, Kingsbridge, where I'll be signing books and happy to talk about them too. All my novels will be available including my latest, That Still and Whispering Place: "Another gripping plot from Kathy Shuker, full of excellent imagery, page-turning tensions and brilliant characterisations.
11.00 am till 12.30. Look forward to seeing you there!
I’m very lucky. I live in south Devon in southwest England, not far from the sea. There’s barely a day goes by when I’m not reminded what a beautiful part of the world it is. But sometimes it’s good to have a change and we have recently returned from a holiday in Norfolk, in the east of England. Our trip was a feast of wildlife, one of my passions. Norfolk is a very different place. Compared to Devon, much of the county is very flat and the terrain shows the influence of centuries of human intervention, draining fenland for habitation and farming and creating waterways through reedbeds and marsh, now known as ‘the Broads’.
We were blessed with amazing weather - the sun shone for two weeks! In consequence we saw hundreds of dragonflies and damselflies darting across paths and skimming waterways. The lavender outside our farm cottage was awash with bees and even hummingbird hawk-moths. Better yet, a stone’s throw from our front windows, a pair of little owls were nesting in an old building, hunting night and day to feed two young owlets which fledged while we were there. Barn owls were doing the same thing further along the same building. We repeatedly saw an eerie pallid shape, silently flapping to and fro, its disc-shaped face clearly visible. Majestic. Walking through the farm one day we disturbed a hare, close enough to see the surprise in its eyes and the beautiful long ears with their dark tips. Heard but not seen was a cuckoo calling - frantic, in overdrive, as if aware that its song would soon end for the summer.
A couple of boat trips on the Broads gave me my first sighting of the tiny, reclusive bearded tit (whose markings suggest a moustache rather than a beard incidentally), which is known locally as a reedling. We saw cranes too and marsh harriers, the latter close up and personal for once, sedge warblers and willow warblers, great-crested grebes and reed bunting; the birdsong was amazing. I sound like a serious bird watcher. I’m not. Most of these things I wouldn’t recognise without help from someone who knows better. But it’s a treat to see the natural world in all its glory and I loved every minute of it.
But now it’s time to think about work again - I’m about to start the second draft of my WIP. This story is set in Devon so it’s back to windswept beaches and tides, something I know and love too…
My second novel, Silent Faces, Painted Ghosts, is on offer over Easter weekend on Kobo.
"Heaps of mystery and intrigue, a nice love story, and a great plot. Shuker is truly a gifted storyteller." It's a mystery set in the art world, against the heat of a Provencal summer. "Really enjoyed this book, read over a weekend and didn't get anything else done."
Normally, $4.99, it's reduced to just $1.99 in Canada, the US, Australia and New Zealand. Apologies to all UK readers! The promo is run by Kobo; I don't know why some territories are excluded.
Sometimes I feel ridiculous - 40,000 words into the first draft of my next novel and I’m still working my way through a selection of names for my main protagonists. I regularly ask myself why it matters. We are all given names by our parents and few of us change them (whatever we might think of them), though we might shorten them or tweak them to make them feel more individual. The name we are given doesn’t affect who we are or how we behave so why should it matter so much for a work of fiction?
But I think it does matter for a novel. I know that, as a reader, I look for clues when I first start a book to help me ‘lock onto’ the characters, ways to distinguish them and for anything that will give me a quick insight into the main personalities. I want to know what they’re about, what makes them tick. As a writer, I want similar things: I need my readers to have a strong introduction to my characters; I want them to be able to tell one from the other easily and to start to feel a personal reaction to them, either good or bad. We, as readers, need to feel engaged and a name can help with that process.
Names have associations, often with a range of memories and emotions both positive and negative: memories of people we have known, or characters we have read about or followed on film or television. Names can make a person seem strong or weak, mysterious, childish, comical or reliable, warm or aloof. Nick-names can soften and render a formal name more accessible, friendly even. And then there's age to take into consideration, as well as social class, period and setting.
Am I overstating it? I don’t think so. Many authors have clearly given the matter serious consideration. Think of Scarlett O’Hara who, until not long before the publication of Margaret Mitchell’s ‘Gone with the Wind’, was called Pansy. Think of the eponymous Miss Marple mysteries by Agatha Christie. Jane was the perfect forename, suggesting someone sensible, direct and unpretentious, maybe even shrewd. Charlotte Bronte perhaps had similar thoughts when she named her wonderful heroine, Jane Eyre; ‘Plain Jane’ maybe but honest, trustworthy and principled. Gabriel Oak in Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd is cleverly suggestive again of someone brave, reliable and steadfast, a man of the earth, a person of substance. The list could go on.
So maybe it’s not so ridiculous to worry about it. I find I have to ‘try a name on’ for a while as I write. Ultimately it becomes clear if it sits comfortably in my mind with the character. If not, I try another, always making sure that the names work with each other too and that no two are very similar. I’m not sure I’m there yet but I have another 60,000 odd words to write (and it’s only the first draft) so there’s plenty of time!
What do you think? Are there names that you find particularly evocative or that make you tend to like or dislike a character on sight?
I’ve just started writing my next novel. If I finish it and it gets published it’ll be my fourth but it’s the seventh I’ve written. I keep thinking it’ll get easier. In some ways it has: I have a stronger idea now of what I’m hoping to create and I’ve learnt a lot about the craft of writing over the years.
But honestly I still feel like one of those cartoon characters who runs off a cliff but doesn’t fall until he looks down and realises what he’s done! Was I ready for this, I wonder? I’ve written in my blog before about how many decisions there are to be made in the process of producing a novel: endless choices about which characters should be included; their individual traits and passions; where the story should be set and when; how many points of view and whose… The list goes on.
And that’s always the problem for me: at which point in processing all these different elements should I actually start writing? When I’ve got a loose outline and a rough idea of the main characters? It would be incredibly slow progress and I’d be bound to take some wrong turnings - I’ve done it before. So, when I know the answer to every question then? No, I’d never start. In any case, some of my best ideas come when I’m in the middle of the draft, as I get to know the characters and what they would do. It means it’s a balancing act, waiting long enough to have the inspiration for a story, to research and plan and let the desire to write it build up, but not waiting too long and thinking that every issue has to be resolved before I start. I should know by now: however long I spend planning it, I always change at least some of it once I start writing.
So I’m on the rollercoaster again. It’s exciting and it’s scary and at times it’s frankly dispiriting as something you think was perfect simply doesn’t work in the story. But somehow it’ll work out and, by some amazing alchemy of the brain, I’ll come up with an alternative. I hope. This is just the first draft. There’s a long way to go on this journey and there’ll be a lot of falling!
A bout of 'flu recently had me sitting self-pityingly on the sofa, idly watching daytime television, unable to concentrate on anything. I was reunited with a detective series from the past, something I hadn't seen since I was a child: Ironside. Maybe you know it? A Chief Inspector of Police is shot in the back and left permanently disabled, confined to a wheelchair. Despite this, he continues to work and, with a commanding - not to say bombastic - personality, he earns the respect and admiration of those around him.
Perhaps it sounds a little clichéd now though I suspect it was fairly ground-breaking in the late sixties when it was made. In many ways it is a period piece. The clothes, hair-styles and music are inescapable indicators of the time in which it was set, as are the frequent cultural references. What I struggled most with was the attitude to women, especially in the workplace. Frequently they are patronised and treated as if they are only useful for decoration. There is the constant assumption that, once a girl gets married, she will stop working and become a dutiful little housewife, with no other ambition than to look after home and family. Am I being too sensitive about it? Maybe. But the change in social attitudes between now and then is striking. I hadn't realised - or had forgotten - that it was still like that in the late sixties.
But I found myself drawn into the stories nonetheless. And, ill or not, I can never quite switch off my analytical mind and I found myself wondering what made them so successful. They are enjoyable and surprisingly compelling and yet, as with all stories, there are flaws. In the very first programme - which I had never seen before - we see Robert Ironside shot and his subsequent (rapid) recovery in hospital. We hear the staggering news that this dynamic and vibrant man will never walk again. In the space of a few days, he is up in a wheelchair and going home. Now, in a previous life I was a physiotherapist and I worked on a spinal injuries ward when I was training. The mistakes the writers had made both in procedure and in what this severely injured man could and could not do were obvious to me. So what makes us keep on watching - and enjoying it?
I came to the conclusion that it's the characters. In Ironside, the eponymous detective is an honest, hard-working, sometimes difficult but ultimately charismatic man. He's clever - with a dry line in wit - and he's supported by a small cast of strong, engaging characters. The stories are multi-layered and move quickly and the dialogue is brisk and snappy, occasionally funny. Mistakes are therefore happily forgotten. They are not so bad that they intrude on the pleasure of a story well-told and it's not hard to see why Ironside ran for several series.
For me, it's something to think about as a writer. I'm human and, however hard I work at it, I worry about the inevitable mistakes which will occasionally creep into my writing. But I need to remember that what wins us over is a good story, convincingly told, and a cast of strong, believable characters - people with whom we as readers are happy to spend our precious time. That's what I keep working on. The next book is starting to take shape in my mind…
Best wishes to all for a happy and healthy 2017.
Does it really matter where a novel is set? Would the development of the characters and plot be substantially different if the story happened somewhere else? Who cares, really?
Well I do. For me the setting is important, both when I'm reading and when I'm writing. It can be almost another character in the story, something that has an essence of its own, a force that infuses the nature and mood of the piece. The setting holds the story together too, draws in all its loose ends, puts it in context and keeps it from spilling out and spreading indiscriminately into wastelands. It's like holding one of those really hard to fold maps - in the UK, they're usually the fascinating Ordnance Survey ones - and seeing just where you can go and all the details that allow you to imagine the place. But you can't stray beyond the map. You can maybe hold another map for a different part of the story, though most of the best novels keep one map strong in the reader's mind. That keeps the story tight and stops it getting side-tracked. It doesn't matter which road or path you're on, you're still going to stay within known parameters. That gives the tale more substance and grounds it.
So if you want to tell a story that's hard and fast and clean-edged, brisk with people and the insistent thrust of modern life, you would probably set it in a big city. If you want a moodier story with a haunting backdrop, you would be likely to choose somewhere more rural. Maybe Cornwall.
Cornwall has been a popular setting for novelists for years and it's not hard to see why: it's a beautiful and charming county with a long, stunning coastline - dipping its toe out into the Atlantic - and a wealth of tree-lined inland waterways and idyllic villages. It also has an indefinable air of mystery and 'otherness' about it, with a long legacy of strange sightings and ghostly stories. If you want an atmospheric setting in a rural landscape, you need look no further. Think of the writers who have set their novels in Cornwall: Daphne du Maurier (I can't imagine Jamaica Inn, for example, set anywhere else), Winston Graham (the Poldark story has to take place in Cornwall), Rosamunde Pilcher, Mary Wesley, Patrick Gale, Helen Dunmore, Liz Fenwick and many, many more. Have you read Not Forgetting the Whale by John Ironmonger? The Cornish setting is a fundamental part of this wonderful story.
And now I've done it too and set my latest novel in Cornwall. The list of 'Cornish classics' is a bit daunting - they're a hard act to follow - but for That Still and Whispering Place, I needed that moody and haunting backdrop. It had to be a place where people were thrown together by the geography, where the nature of the terrain infused the mystery of the story. Cornwall felt right. I also know it well - it's a region not far from where I live - and I prefer to set my stories in places I can see easily in my mind's eye. I think the setting has informed the story. I hope so. Readers tell me they can imagine the place clearly as if they were there. That's all I can ask.
I have recently returned from a week's holiday in Cornwall. We stayed in St.Mawes, a coastal village on the Roseland peninsula which, not coincidentally, is mentioned in my most recent novel, That Still and Whispering Place. It is somewhere we have visited often and know well. I love it.
St.Mawes sits on a tidal estuary near the busy town of Falmouth and, all day long, brightly-coloured ferries pass between the two harbours, transporting both local people and tourists. In addition there are countless boats moored along the estuary, regular yachting events, and fishermen plying their trade, checking lobster pots and going to and fro. There is always some activity to watch, even out of the holiday season and yet still the place has a peaceful, unhurried feel; 'there's always tomorrow' it seems to say. Though, maybe that's just the way I feel, being on holiday and at leisure.
As well as the boating activities, there are two pebble and shell strewn beaches where children paddle, fly kites and check out the rock pools at low tide. A variety of sea birds forage for food and gulls follow the fishing boats. I walk the beaches too, as close to the tide-line as possible, listening to the slap of waves on the shore, the suck of the water as it pulls out again, watching for unusually-shaped stones or brightly-coloured shells, enjoying the background piping calls of oyster-catchers. And did I mention the sunsets? Often the western evening sky is flushed with soft pinks, purples and violets. Quite beautiful.
On my last day of holiday I find myself concentrating harder than ever on all these sights and sounds and smells, straining my senses to their utmost, reluctant to leave it all behind. I've done this ever since I was a child with anything which makes an impression on me, as if somehow I can take it with me if I can just focus enough, as if by so doing I can absorb it all inside. And it occurs to me that perhaps this is why my readers often say they can imagine themselves in the settings I create for my books. Perhaps the effort I put into imprinting the nature of a place in my mind enables me to describe it in such a way that it feels real to the reader too. I hope so. Maybe I really can carry my favourite places with me after all!
How amazing the human mind is, to be able to conjure up an image of a place at will and even be able to convey it to someone else. It's like some kind of magic.
My latest novel, That Still and Whispering Place, was published on September 8th. This is perhaps the most nerve-wracking time: waiting to hear how it is being received, wondering if all the time spent writing and rewriting it have paid off and the story has really come together in the way I hoped. Writing a novel is such a solitary experience and takes so long that, by the time it is finished, even with the input of editing voices, it is hard to be objective about it. I struggle to imagine what others will make of the work. I hope it absorbs, entertains and even moves my readers. Time will tell. But I have had some great feedback already so the nerves are starting to ease just a little…
I hosted a book-signing at our local independent bookshop last Saturday and it was lovely to see both familiar faces and new ones there - as well as giving me an insight into the day to day running of a bookshop. Material for a future story perhaps? That Still and Whispering Place is now available in paperback and digital form across multiple platforms.
I am currently running a giveaway on Goodreads. There are 2 signed paperbacks to be won until September 25th. Click this link to find out more and to enter: https://www.goodreads.com/giveaway/show/203354-that-still-and-whispering-place
Advance notice that I shall be at The Harbour Bookshop, Kingsbridge on Saturday, 10th September, signing paperback copies of my new novel, That Still and Whispering Place. It would be such a pleasure to meet you there if you can make it. The event starts at 11 o'clock.
I have no idea when I first thought of setting my latest novel against the backdrop of a vineyard. Not an obvious setting perhaps.
Wine-making in the UK used to be laughed at. Our climate was considered unsuitable, the wine therefore unable to compete with that from more traditional wine-producing - and warmer - countries. All that has changed: a gradually warming climate, research into and development of grape varieties suitable for cooler summers, and the gradual honing of techniques to suit our temperamental weather, have all meant that UK wine-production is no longer the sad poor relation that it once was. We still produce a tiny amount of wine compared to the big vineyards elsewhere in the world, but a lot of it is good quality and it regularly wins medals and awards in international competition.
I do not pretend to be an expert but I do like to have a glass of wine - usually red - and I have visited a number of the vineyards both here in the West Country and further afield. Most of them are small enterprises. They open to the public not only to sell their wine but also to run tours of the vineyard and the winery, explaining the procedures involved with genuine enthusiasm for what they do. It is fascinating. If you get the chance to do a tour yourself, do take it.
And, at some point, it occurred to me that the cyclic cultivation and rhythms of a vineyard would make the perfect backdrop to my new story. I imagined somewhere small and rural and insular, but also a place that was busy in the summer with tourists. Bohenna was born - a little Cornish village dominated by a family-run vineyard, a pretty riverside community with dark undercurrents of family dissension, confused friendships and old rivalries. Against this setting, a child disappears and no-one knows how.
That Still and Whispering Place will be published September 8th 2016.
Further to my previous post, I can confirm that I am now addressing a few editing issues and that the publication of my next novel will be in September 2016. The title of the book is - drum roll - 'That Still and Whispering Place'. I'm foolishly excited that the cover design process has started and I hope to share both that and other details with you shortly.
Watch this space!!
I recently finished the sixth draft of my WIP and now it's the nail-biting time when other people get to read it for the first time. I know there will be mistakes, repetitions and omissions and I'm relying on fresh eyes to point those out as well as more structural issues. Then, depending on the feedback, I shall revise and maybe even rewrite, but still I'm tentatively excited about this story, one which touched me as I wrote it and which I hope will touch others in the reading.
All I can reveal at this point is that it's set in a small, insular village in Cornwall and that the story revolves around the disappearance of a nine-year-old girl, a disappearance made more shocking because it takes place in a community in which everybody thinks they know everybody else's business. Gossip and rumour abound so how can a child disappear without trace?
This next novel is timetabled for publication this summer. Please watch this space for further information. Alternatively, you can Like my Facebook page for up-to-date information or contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org to be kept in the loop. I never pass on your contact details to anyone else.
Nefarious. Don't that just drip with sin and evil? You can feel it. Say it slowly and dwell on the second syllable: ne-faaarrr-ious. Wonderful.
A friend recently asked me: 'What's your favourite word? You're a writer; you must have one.' I was stumped. Put on the spot, nothing came to mind. Zilch. (Another great word by the way.) And the most embarrassing thing of all is that I have a passion for words and for language generally; I regularly exclaim - to the consternation of my companions - of my delight in a word I've just heard or read. So how could I not come up with anything?
It got me thinking, trying to decide. But how do you choose one word when there are so many marvellous ones? And what parameters do you use? English is a wonderful language. Though there are many others across the world, English has been one of the most ruthless and shameless about stealing vocabulary from the others. The consequence of this is that it allows great expression and nuance of description. If we don't want to describe someone as unhappy, for example, we can say they are discontented, or sad, or miserable, or perhaps depressed. What about disgruntled? Isn't that a wonderful word? There are many more words with a similar meaning to this too. Or suppose we want to say someone is stubborn? We might say instead that they are obstinate or wilful or obdurate or intractable - or maybe mulish.
When I was about eight I loved the word gorgeous; I remember it clearly. Red was gorgeous (my favourite colour at the time); everything that was good was gorgeous. Thankfully, I quickly grew out of it. But I think that word gives a clue to what is still my favourite category of word: the onomatopoeic variety - the ones that sound like they mean. (And isn't onomatopoeia a wonderful word in itself?) Think of splash and hiss and nebulous and popinjay and lascivious. I'm sure nefarious fits in here too. And finicky and mimic and prissy and rumbustious. What about hullabaloo? I love that. The list goes on.
Of course there are other words I like too - for no particular reason - such as serendipity and confabulate, palimpsest and tarradiddle. And transmogrify and beholden, anthropomorphise and mickle. I find it doesn't even matter if I don't know what the word means. I can fall for its sound then look it up later. In fact, there are so many words that I love that if someone asks me again what my favourite word is, I may quote one of the above (if I can remember them) or I may just say: how long have you got?
I'm nearing the end of the fourth draft of my next novel now (85,000 words in - they're usually around 100,000). Of course it has taken longer than I had hoped to get this far but then it always does! But this latest rewrite has developed the structure of the book well and, though it will still need a lot of work, I feel confident - (as much as I ever do) - that a good framework is in place on which to hang the details.
There are wonderful stories everywhere; it isn't difficult to find something to inspire a novel: corruption, divorce, sacrificial love, contested inheritances, life-threatening injuries or disease… There are few people's lives which are not touched by some drama or tragedy and they can all form the basis of a plot. The bigger problem, I find, is what not to include. Sometimes, there seem so many possible ways for a story to develop, or for different characters to interact with it, that I end up crippled by the choices. I can't decide which way to go and end up going nowhere!
The beauty of rewriting a novel for me is that each time I do it, it becomes clearer the direction in which it must go. Motives become obvious, characters develop or change and then begin to dictate their own actions. Characters may be added or removed too, complexities in the plot reduced. Less is more. It's possible to spoil a story by trying to include too much, too many twists and turns. Character development and lyrical background descriptions are all well and good and they are important but a plot needs to drive forward. Sometimes I find it all too easy to get distracted by the details or the appeal of a particular subplot or character; it's a struggle to keep my eye on the bigger picture.
When I painted watercolours and oils for a living, the key to the best pictures was always what I decided to leave out of the image in order that the eye focussed on the essence of the scene. I think a novel requires the same discipline and the only way I can achieve that is through several rewrites. Inevitably this is time-consuming and, unfortunately, it makes me very slow! But to those kind readers who have asked about when my next novel will be available: I still confidently expect to publish it later this year. I shall post more information nearer the time.
Is Christmas what it used to be? Do you look forward to it? Do you dread it? It might be the rose tint that comes with the passing of time, but when my brother and I were children I remember Christmas as something magical. We always had a real tree in the sitting room, put up just a couple of days before the event, lodged in a pot with soil (though it had no hope of surviving) and we decorated it gleefully, as a family, with delicate glass baubles and - great treat - foil-wrapped chocolate figures. The lights strung haphazardly around it only worked intermittently and they were clumsy and, oddly, shaped like coloured acorns. I thumped Christmas carols out on the piano and sang along enthusiastically - if not always melodically. My father roasted chestnuts over the fire and burnt his fingers trying to peel them for us. Christmas dinner was usually chicken, never turkey, and it was delicious but not overly extravagant. It was a simple event but it was fun and it was family and I guess we were lucky to have such a special time.
But nowadays Christmas starts in September (if we're lucky) and everything seems bigger and more expensive; everything is a must-have; everyone wants to win our pound. We're bombarded on all sides by adverts that tell us we need x or y to make our Christmas complete, that in fact we're letting our families and friends down if we don't purchase them. Emotional blackmail is rampant. Isn't it easy to become jaundiced? And every charity wants to take advantage of the season to boost their income which, though understandable, is incredibly draining: how do we do justice to everyone who needs us? We can't. (As an aside I must raise my hand guiltily here: I have recently jumped on the Christmas bandwagon by advertising an offer on one of my books on Facebook for a couple of days with my long-suffering husband dressed up as Santa. At least I hope it made people smile!)
I don't want to get cynical about Christmas. Perhaps it's childish of me but I love it - not the excess and the commercialisation but all the fun trappings: the Christmas music pumping out of loudspeakers in every shopping centre; the stupid animated reindeer statues which jig along to 'Jingle Bells'; the ritual decorating of the tree with nostalgia-filled baubles; and the repeats of old films on the television. And more than anything I love that every year it's clear from stories spread across news and social media that people do still care and try to make a difference, perhaps more at Christmas-time than at any other. There are wonderful tales of generosity, both of spirit and material goods, especially to those for whom Christmas is an extremely difficult time: the lonely, the homeless, the grieving. Small acts of kindness are played out repeatedly, every day, everywhere, and that's what gives me hope; that's what stops me from getting cynical about it.
So I hope that your Christmas will be warm, joyful and peaceful, wherever you may be.
I think it's about time I reported on where I am at with the next novel. It's been a difficult year in many ways, particularly because my dear father-in-law was ill for much of it and then sadly passed away in August. He lived at some distance from us and, inevitably, we have spent a lot of time away from home and with preoccupied thoughts. This has taken its toll on my writing output but the novel has progressed and I am now back in my stride having recently started the fourth draft.
Both the story and the characters are taking shape now and - on good days - I dare to feel quite excited about it! I know that I'm visualising my fictional world well when I catch myself thinking I can Google one of the characters or places in the story to find out more! I have even ventured to give the book a name though it's too soon to share it (and it might change yet).
I'm flattered and thrilled that so many readers have asked about this next book and are waiting on it. Thank you so much for your support. But I daren't say too much about it - not yet anyway: the superstitious part of me is scared of bursting the writing bubble…
I have made a fool of myself on stage before, many times, usually singing, sometimes acting too in Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, and I have performed musically to a variety of audiences. It has always been frightening; I have often shaken almost uncontrollably with nerves. But I thought that filming myself doing a book-reading would be easy. After all, I thought, who else was going to see me except my husband (wielding the video camera) until that is I had had a chance to see and edit the resultant footage?
I was wrong. As soon as my OH said, 'Start,' or 'Rolling', or 'Go,' or whatever it was he did say (you see I was already panicking), my brain seized up and I couldn't remember the first line. I had tried reading from one of my novels sitting safely in the comfort of my own home but it felt a bit dry and I tended to mumble into the book. So then I decided that it would be more fun and much more interesting to do the recording outside, with a backdrop which reflected some of the background of the story. The problem with this otherwise good idea was that, for practical purposes, I had to learn the excerpt off by heart.
So I spent weeks - no, really, weeks - wandering up and down in the house, learning the extract I wanted to say, telling it to the walls, getting it wrong, starting again, and thought I had learnt it pretty well. And then, of course, we needed fine weather to do the recording and we needed to do it early in the day while it was still quiet to avoid having an audience or any interruption. And, to film on the beach, the tide had to be just right. And then the sun was in my eyes… I had had no idea just how difficult a project I had naively embarked upon!
Of course, once the filming started, my much-practised lines deserted me; I had camera fright. Fortunately, I got over it. After several attempts we got footage with which I was reasonably content and which I would consider letting someone else see. The result of all this activity is a short video of me speaking an extract from the second chapter of my first novel, Deep Water, Thin Ice. If you would like to watch it click here. It's just for fun, really. (I suspect the out-takes would prove rather more entertaining - especially the issues with the sandwich…)
I was honoured a few days ago to be interviewed on the blog of prize-winning literary author Jane Davis.
(Please don't forget to check out her beautifully written novels!) My thanks to Jane both for the opportunity and for her thought-provoking questions.
If you would like to read the interview, please click here:
The weather forecast said it would rain but when I got up in the morning the sun was shining and the only clouds in the cobalt blue sky were white and fluffy.
I thought they'd got it wrong. (It does happen…) Feeling a little smug at our unexpected good fortune, I suggested to my husband that we visit a nearby local nature reserve: Slapton Ley.
It's a huge freshwater lake - the largest in south-west England - and is only separated from the sea by a long narrow shingle bar.
Around its margins are extensive reedbeds, marshes and woodland and the place is a peaceful haven for all kinds of wildlife: swans, ducks, moorhens, coots and an assortment of warblers;
plus wildflowers, butterflies, dragonflies, damsel flies and bats; and badgers, otters, dormice and water vole. If you don't see at least a few creatures of interest there,
you've been very unlucky.
We parked the car nearby and set off. It was quiet and still; only one dog-walker and a jogger passed us. Perhaps everyone else had believed the forecast.
The dry gritty path hugs the edge of the lake and before long we came upon a swan standing ankle deep in water, preening its feathers, and ducks paddling quickly away,
complaining stridently at our approach. With the reedbeds and marshes hugging the lake's edges, access to it is patchy but in places there are specially constructed wooden platforms
and occasionally the path even drops down and follows the gently lapping water's edge. On reaching one of the viewing platforms, we saw countless water fowl scattered across the lake,
including several pairs of great-crested grebes, and coots too with their young. Further along the wooded path and set back safely behind trees on a tiny island,
a pair of swans rested side by side on a nest, unconcerned at our approach.
Then the reeds began to rustle and whisper in the breeze and the blue sky rapidly disappeared behind grey cloud. The first drops of rain fell.
Nothing daunted, the warblers continued to chatter and call incessantly in the reeds. Above a neighbouring field, a skylark rose and its honey gold song dropped to earth.
Unseen birds piped melodically in the tree canopies above. Magical.
It began to rain and of course we got wet. It didn't seem to matter and we didn't even hurry: even in the rain Slapton Ley is a wonderful place.
It is just such a place as this - a wetland habitat - albeit without the huge lake and on a more intimate scale, that I used as part of the setting for my novel 'Deep Water, Thin Ice.' If you'd like to learn more and see a sample of the book click here.
My parents were talking about someone but the name wasn't Longbottom; in truth I can't remember what it was but I was sufficiently intrigued to pursue the question. Who was Edie?
Did you do that as a child? Did your parents sometimes talk about people they clearly knew well but people you had never heard about? People who, as soon as your parents realised that you were showing an interest, they instantly dropped from their conversation and changed the subject as if they'd been caught discussing pornography.
The names mentioned - unfamiliar and, at the time, unfashionable - often conjured up fantastical images suggesting a different era - something verging on historical, married up in my mind with the sepia photographs I had seen once or twice of people who were apparently my relatives: stiff-necked people with high collars and fixed expressions, glaring at the camera. But clearly the people being discussed weren't those people, because they had lived ages ago. These were people who were still alive - or only recently dead; it wasn't always easy to tell from the scraps of discussion I overheard.
Sometimes I was told bits, in a clear attempt to assuage my curiosity. 'He was someone I used to spend a lot of time with as a child.' 'She was a cousin.' 'I haven't seen him for years.' 'We lost touch.' It wasn't what was said which intrigued me so much as the way in which it was said, the finality of it, the dismissal of other information which would quite obviously be more interesting but which, equally clearly, was not going to be divulged. Then, with the fickleness and short attention span of the child, I would be distracted from the subject by something more immediate and more promising. If I revisited the subject again - 'So, what exactly happened to Charlie?' - it would be a shrug, and a, 'Oh I don't want to go into that now,' or a look at the other parent and a, 'We fell out. I don't want to talk about it.' And that was it. Subject well and truly closed. Not to be reopened.
It's amazing how easily family stories can be swept under the carpet. Children don't pursue; they have small, insular worlds and the unseen people of the past don't seem important for long.
And how quickly the years go by. It's not until you're older that those figures from the past - your relatives - suddenly develop any significance.
A chance find of an old photograph, a family resemblance, a particular talent ('Where did you inherit that from? Can someone else in the family sing?')
can spark a whole chain of musings and questions, questions which, given the passage of time, there are generally few people left to answer - even if you knew where to find them.
Have you watched those programmes on television (in the UK, it's most commonly 'Who Do You Think You Are?) where a 'celebrity' tracks down information on their family's past. Often, the celebrity has been told stories about their family: incidents and relationships and honours and professions which have been passed on and accepted as fact. After a little delving it becomes clear that 'fact' doesn't come into it. Family stories are often made up to hide the truth. Sometimes small uncomfortable truths; sometimes very big ones.
I haven't uncovered any big 'untruths' in my own family…yet. But there have been some intriguing small ones. Without some serious application and investigation I may never know any more. But wondering about families and the things they keep secret is what lies at the heart of the stories I write. It's that 'What if…' thing that sets my mind running. What if someone found out? What if someone decided to tell? What if someone found something they weren't supposed to find? How far would someone go to hide the truth?
So, have you ever wondered what secrets your family has been keeping…?
This week I finally finished the first draft of my next novel. There's a sense of triumph but also, I admit, one of relief. So often I wondered if I'd lost the plot completely - pun intended - and if I wasn't maybe just going round in circles. Insecurities endlessly stalk… I considered giving up, starting again - as if that first draft would magically be better on a second attempt. Fortunately this time I resisted the temptation. (I haven't always!)I stuck at it and ultimately got there: 93000 words. I can assure you that it's not a pretty read but somewhere in there is a story which I am more convinced than ever is worth telling; there are also characters who will live and breathe, engage and enrage - when I've finished with them, that is… I hope. At the moment the plot is a mass of contradictions, the characters keep mutating (and I don't write fantasy!) and there is a confusion of sub plots. It is, still, very much, a work in progress.
As I believe I've mentioned before in my blog, it's not until I've worked my way through that first draft that I begin to work out what I want to say,
that I know whose stories I'm telling. Even now I'm unsure about which points of view I'm going to settle on. A couple are certain but I like to write with at least three,
maybe four, in order to give a lively, wide-ranging, three-dimensional story, so there are still decisions to be made.
And now there's more research to be done and collated too. Bumbling through that first draft has shown up all the things I don't know. So many things.
So it's back to the books and the internet and to making trips here and there, studying places, acquiring background information,
all the while letting the story run through my mind and trying to clarify it.
Michelangelo said: 'Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the job of the sculptor to discover it.' It feels a bit like that in writing a novel:
finding the story in among all the unimportant details, paring it down to its essentials. It's a little bit scary and there's a way to go yet but, whoa, it's exciting too.
And then there's the small matter of a title; this embryonic chunk of stone doesn't have a name yet…
For my next book I'm researching wine production. This involves a lot of reading and visits to commercial vineyards but maybe not enough wine tasting. There will be many more subjects which will need investigation before this book can be finished, many of them only occurring to me as I struggle my way through the first draft, but I realise that I've researched some strange things in my time and I suppose French graveyards must be one of them.
The thing is: the details do matter; you have to get them right. I don't just owe it to my readers, I owe it to myself. I can't write a story properly unless I know everything I can find out about the setting, about the work my characters do, about them, their hobbies, what illnesses they've had, the kind of cars they drive, how they met, where they went to school… Obviously, a lot of it won't feature in the book but I have to know it all the same.
I wrote a novel a few years ago which revolved around a medieval icon. The icon was a painting of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary into heaven and,
in order to be sure I had all the details correct, I dragged my long-suffering husband round a succession of galleries in London and Florence to see as many
examples of the subject as possible. He was truly amazed (and disappointed) to find out just how many paintings there are of the Assumption…
For the same book, set in the south of France, I found it necessary to wander round a number of dusty graveyards as well. No doubt because of the differences in the soil and the climate,
the graveyards in that part of the world are different to the graveyards in England and I wanted my description to be authentic.
It's not until I start to write a story that I realise just how little I know. (This particular book was never published incidentally but we learnt an awful lot about
paintings of the Assumption and southern French graveyards.)
When I painted pictures for a living I used to do a lot of work to commission. I would be asked to paint a particular view or a house, an interior or sometimes an event.
It could be challenging, sometimes having to get to awkward, virtually inaccessible places in order to get an angle on something, but again it was about getting the details right;
it was a kind of research. I was asked once to paint the view of someone's stunning garden as a surprise present for her husband's birthday.
The lady gave me a tip-off that he would be out one morning and I duly turned up, camera in hand, ready to shoot some quick pictures and withdraw.
The problem was that the lady in question was a mobile hairdresser and, before going out, she'd pegged out about 30 towels on the line to dry.
I had to take them all down, put them to one side, take some photographs and put them back up, all the while expecting her husband to return home and find me there.
I still have no idea what excuse I would have given him for pegging his wife's washing on the line.
So…since it's so important - both with novels and with paintings - that I know my subject well, I'm just going to have to visit as many vineyards as possible to make sure my
research for this next book is as thorough as it can be. Fortunately many of the wine producers here in the southwest of England do tours of their vineyard and winery.
They also offer wine-tastings… Oh dear.