Friday, 27 February 2015

A Mother's Duty by June Francis

Looking for Inspiration:
June Francis (left)
at a writers' party in London
I don’t often get inspired when it comes to writing the next novel. An idea doesn’t hit me like a bolt from the blue. I was really searching around for ideas for my novel, renamed A Mother's Duty, when it actually occurred to me to do what published writers are forever telling wannabes, and that is write about what you know. So this book is one close to my heart because it is about Kitty, a mother of three sons. I know what that is like. What it feels like to have someone poke their heads under the hood of a pram and say, “What is it?” And, when I answered the second and third time, “A boy,” a look would come over some faces and I would hear the words, “Another boy! Wouldn’t you have liked a little girl?”

Big sense of failure! Especially as my mother-in-law was one of those who longed for a granddaughter, having given birth to just twin boys, herself.

So Kitty, who just like me loves the bones of her lads, has a secret longing for a daughter. It’s not that she has a sense of failure, though, because she had given birth to a girl. Sadly it had been stillborn. Happily I never had to harbour such a grief.

We writers have to spend a lot of time thinking up obstacles to put in the way of our main characters achieving their aim. So Kitty is a widow who has passed thirty-five. I also wanted her situation to be a bit out of the norm so decided she would be the proprietor of a hotel. There were lots of hotels in Liverpool city centre during the period I had settled on ‒ the Thirties ‒ with plenty going on, ending with WW2 and the famous May blitz in 1941. I knew next to nothing about running a hotel, so I rang the doorbell of one on Mount Pleasant and hoped for the best. I was blessed because I was welcomed in by the proprietor’s son, which led to an interesting conversation with his mother. There is nothing like research for giving a writer ideas.

Hotels on Mount Pleasant, Liverpool

What about my hero? I didn’t want to write the obvious, such as him being a guest in the hotel. No, he’s an ex-medical orderly who had seen action in the Great War. Half-English, half-Scots, with a secret, he’s a bit of a wanderer and entertains cinema queues playing the fiddle.

How much were Kitty’s sons inspired by my own three? I never put real people in my books but I use the odd trait. So the eldest son has a sense of responsibility and is a bit of a worrier. The middle one has a touch of the rebel and the adventurer which gets him into trouble. As for the youngest, he has a real curiosity about people which can lead him astray.

Does Kitty get what she longs for? You’ll have to read the book to find out!
A Mother's Duty
Out now!

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Creature Comforts

Trisha Ashley’s new novel, CREATURE COMFORTS, is out this week and we thought we would take the opportunity to ask her about any creatures she has owned over the years – and if any of them ever made it into her novels!

In Creature Comforts the heroine, Izzy, has broken off her engagement to her feckless fiancée Kieran and returned to her childhood home – the sleepy village of Halfhidden. She soon realises that life in the village is anything but peaceful – for one thing she’s living with her mad aunt Debo, who runs Debo’s Desperate Dog Rescue.

One of Debo’s rescue dogs is a black Newfoundland called Babybelle, who is supposed to live outside with the other dogs, but slowly insinuates her way into the house and the affections of Izzy, who until then hadn’t even realised she wanted a dog.

Trisha says: I have always loved dogs. When I was first married we got a dog from a rescue home in Liverpool. Sasha looked like a little fox and wasn’t housetrained or used to people, so she was a challenge, but she lived for thirteen years. After that we had a King Charles spaniel called Steffi, after the tennis player, Steffi Graff. She inspired Flossie in Every Woman for Herself and was very loveable, but had the intelligence of a cushion. If I called her, she would look around to see who I was speaking to and then gaze blankly at me as if to say “Me?” When I went out I would leave her spread-eagled in her bed, all four paws in the air, and when I came back several hours later she would be in exactly the same position, looking at me as if to say, “Oh, hello. Have you been anywhere?” She was the perfect pet for a writer!

For many years I had an Amazon Blue Fronted Parrot, too, who featured in Good Husband Material (only I changed him to a grey parrot). He would swear in Spanish and liked to bite men (a perfect character trait; you couldn’t fault that!) although he would always laugh afterwards! When I was a student I looked after him for a week and then somehow he stayed on. He was elderly, half-blind and he couldn’t fly, but he used to spend most of his time sitting on the outside of his cage where he could get a good grip and lean out to bite people. Sadly, after over thirty years together, he died just before I moved to Wales.

My current dog, like Babybelle in Creature Comforts, is a rescue dog, who was originally adopted by my son, Robin. When Robin went away to university, I said I would look after Dog (as I call him online: he is a very private dog and insists I refer to him by his title alone) and now he lives with me. He was the inspiration for Flash in Chocolate Shoes and Wedding Blues. Dog is completely mad and drives me totally crackers, but I love him dearly and wouldn’t be without him!

Dog in the bluebells

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Serials or Novels? That is the Question by Juliet Greenwood

Most of the time, I don’t get confused by writing as two people...

Some days I sit down as Juliet Greenwood to write historical novels, and other days I sit down as Heather Pardoe, to write short stories and historical serials for magazines. I’ve got so used to it over the years I no longer think about it.

Over the past couple of months, however, I’ve been editing a novel as Juliet, while Heather’s serial Daughter of Conwy has been in The People’s Friend, and any free brain has been working on ideas for the next novel and the next serial. For the first time, I’ve found bits creeping to both and wondered if they are Juliet or Heather.

Daughter of Conwy - Heather Pardoe
(The People's Friend)
So what is the difference? It’s a question of genre. Lots of writers write under different names for different kinds of books, because your name, like your book cover, is a kind of pact with your reader – and yes, that applies to literary fiction, which is a genre just like the rest. And the term ‘genre’ is nothing to be looked down on, either. Some worthy critics might have the idea that readers need to be stretched and challenged, but, personally speaking, I find that’s known as life.

And in life – and particularly when life becomes very challenging indeed – the last thing most of us need is to always be ‘challenged’/‘educated’/‘improved’ in our few hours/minutes of spare time. Hence the pact. So whether it’s Miss Marple or the team from Welsh noir Hinterland putting the pieces of the jigsaw into place and the world to rights, or Scarlett O’Hara battling through whatever life throws at her, we all know what we are getting. Fifty Shades is fifty shades, and Elizabeth Bennett never stumbles across zombies without prior warning.

That doesn’t mean it’s a soft option. Ask Heather. Characters still go through the emotional mill and face life changing (and life-threatening) situations. Readers aren’t stupid. As a reader, I want to find a something I can identify with, which is usually an experience that relates to one I’ve faced. That’s the investment I have in the characters and in the story. A book might have won zillions of prizes, but if that investment isn’t there, I’m off.

Serials or Novels?
At the moment I’m in the slightly odd position of having similar subjects for my next serial and my next novel. There’s plenty of nastiness in the subject (no, I’m not telling!), which Juliet will be referring to, but won’t appear on the page in detail, because that’s not in the pact. Heather, meanwhile, won’t be referring to the nastiest of the nastiness at all. But that doesn’t mean her story will be soft, or that her readers are daft. Far from it.

It’s a question, as with all stories, of which part you tell. There’s a reason why Mr Darcy never grows old and dies, leaving his Elizabeth behind. You don’t need to inform your readers that’s what happens, or how. They know. That’s the thing about story telling: for that moment in time, both as readers and writers, we can choose the rules. They don’t have to be the same rules all the time, but in the boundless world of the imagination, as in life, they are a measure of safety. Don’t knock it: we all need it, and sometimes safety can give the greatest freedom of all.

Juliet Greenwood at her launch for
We That are Left

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Write Foxy Day with Miranda Dickinson

by Johanna Grassick

A writers’ inspiration day. Sounds great, doesn’t it? 
When I saw this advertised, the question of whether to go or not was, frankly, a no brainer. With workshops led by some of my favourite authors – Rowan Coleman, Julie Cohen and, of course, Miranda Dickinson – how could I miss it?

Miranda opened the day by explaining that the aim was to encourage and inspire us, to rekindle the joy that started us writing. There were around 20 of us, a real mixture of published and unpublished writers including the guest authors who took it in turn to lead the workshops. Oh, and Cathy Bramley, who was live tweeting throughout the day (you can see a round-up of her tweets here). There was also a writing den available in case the inspiration became too much and we had the urge to just hide away and write! (Yes, some took advantage of this).
Our very serious workshop leaders: Julie Cohen, Rowan Coleman, Kate Harrison and Miranda Dickinson
First up was Julie Cohen who led us through a fantastic workshop on Creating a Character. This covered topics such as conflict, character arc and symbolism – the nuts and bolts of the writing craft. As with all Julie’s teaching, it was very much an interactive workshop and within ten minutes everyone in the room had created vibrant new characters who were moving around and walking and talking, with problems and conflicts ready to tell their own stories!

There were also workshops led by Rowan Coleman (finding your voice and developing it) and Kate Harrison who helped us to identify the emotional heart of our writing. I loved this exercise. There is so much written about craft and technique, but asking myself what emotions I hope to arouse in my readers really helped me to rediscover the core emotion of the novel I’m working on just now – that nugget of an idea which triggered me to write it in the first place. Hopefully I’ll be able to re-inject that same energy into my book during the next few weeks as I finish the final draft.

During the day we had lots of chances to mingle and meet new friends. We discussed pseudonyms (a hot subject for me at the moment but that’s for another blog post!) and agents and we got to sniff the delicious new fragrance which has been developed for Julie Cohen’s latest book, Where Love Lies.  

Dressed for the occasion
And then Miranda finished off the day with a session on Writing Against the Odds. She gave us tips and techniques for overcoming the fears that can hold us back when writing.

I came away reenergised and confident and full of cake and chocolate – not a bad feeling at all!

Love Is All You Need: Ten Tales of Love from the Sophie King Prize

Monday, 9 February 2015

Recommended Romantic Reads for Valentine's Day

It's that time of year when love is in the air and Valentine's Day will soon be upon us. Looking for a gift more meaningful than roses? Less calorific than chocolates? Or perhaps you're just searching for the next good read. Well, search no further because the Novelistas have got together and come up with a selection of romantic novels which come highly recommended:

Valerie-Anne Baglietto
The book I chose, without any hesitation, was Howl's Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones. Not a conventional love story, by any means, but I think it should be essential reading for anyone who wants to write romance. (Or anyone who enjoys an innovative, fast-paced fairy tale aimed at young and old alike.)

Forget the usual conventions of a love story, the old clichés, the traps we fall into. You won't really find them here. And yet it was very much a love story that kept me turning the pages. A brilliantly addictive romantic narrative, proving we don't need those clichés after all.

The hero is an infamous wizard; vain, shallow, spoilt, ambitious and a heartbreaker. He can't help falling for every pretty face he sees. The shy, retiring heroine spends most of the time under a spell, looking - and feeling - like a wizened old woman. 

Weak, flawed hero. 
Mousy, wrinkled heroine with a walking stick. 

But sometimes, when we're shielded by a mask, we don't care how we act and we're certainly not going to be intimidated. In fact, we might actually discover that love can make us braver than we imagined, and the power to break an evil spell might lie where we least expected it...

Beth Francis

I recommend My Brother Michael by Mary Stewart. This is an intriguing, at times terrifying, story set against vivid descriptions of the Greek mountains. I read this book when it was first published in 1962 and still remember the heroine's hair-raising drive up the mountain road to Delphi. Like many of Mary Stewart's books it's now available as a Modern Classic.

Johanna Grassick

I've got so many favourite romantic novels it's hard to choose, but this is one I read recently and I read it very quickly - always the sign of a good book: The Perfect Affair by Claire Dyer. 

It's a wistful book, beautifully written, which interweaves two stories, past and present, of love against the odds. I'd never read this author's work before, but I'll certainly look out for her in future.

Juliet Greenwood

I chose The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte, which is a wonderful story about a woman’s two loves. Her first love is born of idealism and inexperience, and a romantic ideal of what love should be, and ends in disaster. Her second love is a healing love with a sweet and gentle man who loves her for herself and all she has been through. It’s a deeply romantic read about the worst, and the best, of love, and about two people who, against all odds, are able to find each other. A romantic read for all seasons!

Cheryl Lang

There are so many books I could have chosen. I loved Dr Zhivago by Boris Pasternak. The political background, the turmoil of revolution. The barren, snowy wastes, and all the time the love triangle. It has it all. Wilbur Smith’s books always grab me too.

And yet…

Just recently I’ve read a few books, the themes of which have stayed with me. One is Zemindar by Valerie Fitzgerald. There are various covers for this book, but I like this one. Set in India at the start of the Indian Mutiny and the siege of Lucknow. The story twists and turns against a very detailed background of time and place. The privation the heroine endures during the siege is made so real. She is surrounded by disease, starvation and death. The romance is for the most part long distance, but you feel for her. In a living hell she wonders if the man she loves has managed to survive somewhere in India.  An epic read.

Louise Marley

I’m not very romantic and I don’t like reading what I think of as a ‘hearts and flowers’ kind of book. I do love romances, but there has to be something else going on, such as comedy or suspense – the kind of thing I like to write! One of my favourite authors is Anne Stuart and my all-time favourite book by her is Fire and Ice (#5 in her Ice series).

The story is about Jilly Lovitz, who has gone to visit her sister in Tokyo but arrives to find an empty house and a gang of Russian assassins who are after her brother-in-law. Jilly is rescued by Reno, an agent for the mysterious Committee, and so begins a chase around Tokyo as they try to keep one step ahead of both the Russians and the Japanese Yakuza.

The reason I love this book is the hero - Reno, a red-headed, tattooed punk, who is flamboyant, outrageous and completely fearless. (That’s him sitting on top of my Kindle!) Fire and Ice is a fun read (definitely not to be taken too seriously) with lots of action, some very steamy scenes and funny moments. I loved it.

Wednesday, 4 February 2015

Writing What You Know... by Annie Burrows

Continuing Novelista Annie Burrow's monthly alphabetical rambling though the writer's life.  This week, she's reached the letter K, which is for...Knowing.  (Or not)

"There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don't know we don't know." (Donald Rumsfeld)

When you first start writing people advise you to write what you know.  The argument goes that you cannot write a convincing story unless you know your subject inside out and upside down.  The trouble is, I wanted to write fiction set in Regency England, which is a place I have never been, and never can go to.  All my knowledge of the era comes from books.

However, when I started attempting to get a publishing deal, I felt fairly confident that I knew enough to be able to create a convincing fictional Regency world.  I've read stacks of Georgette Heyer, Jane Austen and the like.  And whatever I didn't know enough about, I could look up, right?

So I bought loads of books about every subject I thought I might need to know about - fashion, the army, the navy and biograpies of people who actually lived in the time which would hopefully give me an idea of the mindset of people living back then.

I even go round stately homes to get an extra "feel" for the era, especially ones where I can dress up in period costume, or have a ride in a carriage.

All the little details of dress, manners, and so forth, help to create a world that strikes a reader as "real".

For example, an author may set a scene by having the hero check his cravat in the mirror.  The heroine curtsies to him.  Instantly we're in an age where manners are more formal than today, and the costumes easily dateable.  The hero asks the lady to dance the waltz.  She refuses lest she be thought "fast".  We're very firmly in Regency territory.  So far, so good.

The trouble is, there are things about the Regency world that I never knew I didn't know.  I didn't know, for example - until it was mentioned on an author loop I belong to - that a girl couldn't waltz in public until she'd been granted permission, by one of the patronesses of Almack's, within those hallowed walls, to do so with an approved partner.  I'd had no idea how close I'd come to the brink of writing one of my heroines into committing such a social gaffe.

And a lot of authors fall into the same trap.  As a resident of the UK, I cringe whenever I read of Regency bucks going down to Dorsetshire to sample the local whiskey.  Or having to banish their dogs to the stables after an encounter with a skunk on the South Downs.  For me, such slips of the pen ruin my belief in the Regency world the author is trying to create.  Though I don't suppose it has any effect on readers who don't know that in Dorset the local brew would most likely be cider, and that the only way a skunk would wander onto the South Downs was if it had escaped from some local eccentric's private collection of rare species.

Which brings me back to the inimitable Donald Rumsfeld, who has been soundly mocked for warning the world about the danger of the "unknown unknowns".  As an author, I can vouch for the peril of those pesky facts that hamper us in our creative endeavours.  I have had my own heroes and heroines unwittingly do and say things that a person living in 1815 would not have done.  I have had them use the word "hello" - which was not in common use until the 1880's except on the hunting field.  I have also had them perform a twentieth century waltz, having had no idea that in the Regency era, the waltz was nothing like the rather tame dance performed today.

Only look at the way these couples are cavorting in each other's arms...

However, if I was now to describe the dance with complete accuracy, I suspect that editors and readers alike would find it hard to believe in it if my hero performed an acrobatic leap while the heroine hopped to one side.  It would strike them all as bizarre, and would ruin their belief in my Regency world just as surely as it would had they arrived at the ball in question in a porsche 911.

So - I'll probably need to disguise what I actually know, so that a reader will be convinced I do know what I'm talking about.

Donald Rumsfeld might have fared better with the world's press if he'd done the same.

Annie's next book, "A Mistress for Major Bartlett" which is part of a trilogy "The Brides of Waterloo", will be out in July 2015