Archive for category Authors
This article was written for the Mirthy website but I have permission to reproduce it here.
A positive aspect of lockdown has been the increased time available for reading. I’ve got through a wide range of novels but, until recently, avoided anything that focused on pandemics or lockdown. For me, fiction is a means of escaping ordinary life and day-to-day problems. However, this self-imposed rule was broken when Lockdown by Peter May was chosen as the monthly read by my book group and I spotted publicity for Just the Two of Us by Jo Wilde. These two very different books transported me out of my lockdown situation because the challenges facing the characters were so very different to my own.
Lockdown by Peter May
Lockdown takes place over 24 hours in a London locked down by a bird flu, H5N1, pandemic. This flu has a mortality rate of more than sixty percent and London is at the epicentre. This fictional lockdown is far more rigorously imposed than our own COVID regulations. There is a night-time curfew, checkpoints, soldiers carrying guns and special clearance needed to drive in certain areas. Against this backdrop, a bag of bones is discovered, the bones of a murdered child. D.I. Jack MacNeil is put on the case but MacNeil is working his last shift before leaving the Metropolitan Police. The case and the injustices this child went through consume the detective and the race is on to solve the murder before he leaves the force.
Before writing the novel, May already had an interest in pandemics following his research into the Spanish Flu for an earlier book, Snakehead. Then, in 2005, he started investigating the possibility of a bird flu pandemic and how it might spread and engulf the population. Armed with the science and a crime, May wrote Lockdown in only six weeks but it failed to find a publisher. Editors thought May’s portrayal of London under lockdown was unrealistic and could never happen. Fast forward to 2020. May dusted off his old manuscript, which had suddenly become very topical, and the book was published.
This is a fast-moving thriller which hooks the reader on page one and keeps him enthralled until the end. Like most fictional detectives, MacNeil has personal problems that get worse as the story races along. He breaks the rules, performs heroic deeds and goes far beyond the call of duty, given that this is his last shift with the force. The final sentence of the book is poignant – so don’t be tempted to read the last page first (yes, there are people who do that!)
Just the Two of Us by Jo Wilde
Just the Two of Us takes place in the first few weeks of the March 2020 UK lockdown. Julie and Michael have been married for thirty-four years. They sleep in separate bedrooms, they live separate lives and their children have left home. The disintegration in their relationship is so bad that Julie has consulted a solicitor and has the divorce papers ready to hand to Michael. Then Boris Johnson announces the national lockdown. Julie and Michael can’t escape one another. It doesn’t seem the right time to rock the boat and Julie is left in limbo. Unable to leave the house and forced to meet eyes across the dinner table every night, things begin to change but is it possible for them to rekindle their relationship or do they have to find another way forward?
Jo Wilde is an established author, writing historical novels under the name Joanna Courtney and contemporary fiction as Anna Stuart. Unusually, Jo’s publisher came up with the idea for Just the Two of Us and presented Jo with outlines of the characters and the main plot points. Jo liked the idea and with lockdown kicking in hard was happy to devote herself to the writing. That actual writing took only four weeks followed by a further two weeks of editorial input. Usually it then takes eighteen months before a book appears on the shelves but, because of the topical nature, the whole process was accelerated and Just the Two of Us came out in July 2020.
When asked about the writing, Jo said, “It was pretty hectic but gave me the perfect excuse to make my teenage kids (two of whom had just had GCSEs and A-levels cancelled and one of whom had sadly had to come home from a ski season working in Canada, so all were at loose ends) do all the housework and cleaning. I holed myself up in my office and wrote and I really enjoyed it!”
This is an easy-to-read story about relationships, families and empty nests. It captures perfectly how things can disintegrate when there is a lack of communication between two people and no time in hectic lives to talk things through. The story is set in the early part of the first lockdown but uses a lot of flashbacks to earlier points in Julie and Michael’s marriage. The reader slowly pieces together how the relationship disintegrated, why Julie is carrying secret guilt over her mother’s death and how Michael feels about working away. But, unlike some books, there is never any confusion over what is current and what is flashback.
As a woman of a certain age, I could empathise with many of Julie’s feelings.
Although initially wary, I enjoyed both Lockdown and Just the Two of Us. I was worried that I might find them too much of a mirror to the lockdown world we find ourselves in, and thus depressing. But because the characters’ situations were fundamentally different to my own, I was still able to escape into the fiction without being constantly reminded of face masks, hand sanitiser and the two metre rule!
Susie Kearley is a freelance journalist who writes regularly for Practical Poultry, Weekly News, and Caravan magazine. She’s taken advantage of the extra time gifted by lockdown to publish A Grand Tour of Scotland in a Freedom Caravan on Kindle. The e-book is full of detail and illustrated with colour pictures of the sights, people and animals she met along the way.
I was pleased when Susie agreed to answer my questions about how she put the book together and about the tour itself. Here’s what she told me:
The level of detail in the book must have necessitated keeping a holiday journal. What form did this take?
I took an A4 lined pad and wrote about my day every evening in the caravan. I’d hoped to sell it as a series of articles to Caravan magazine, but hadn’t got a commission at that time. I persuaded the editor to take the series when I got back, but it took him six years to publish them all, which is why I wasn’t in a position to publish the collection as an e-book until 2020. And then some updating had to be done!
When I returned from our Grand Tour of Scotland in 2014, with a bulging notepad, it took two days to get it typed up on my desktop computer. I had a bit of help from Dragon Naturally Speaking (dictation software), and resolved to getting a laptop, so going forward, I could type drafts straight onto a computer while travelling.
I was pleased to see you’ve included photos in the book. I’ve never formatted an e-book containing pictures. What are the main points to be aware of when doing this?
If the images are too big, KDP will throw up error messages about the file size. You’ll need to use low-resolution images to avoid this. If you post the original image files onto Facebook, a small image is created, which you can then download and use in a Kindle e-book without getting error messages.
The photos are a mix of those taken by you and some sourced from organisations such as English Heritage. How do you go about securing photos from such bodies?
I emailed the press office at English Heritage to ask if they had photos of Carlisle Castle, and got the rest from the Scottish Tourist Board and from www.visitbritainimages.com. Visit Britain has a great range of photos available for editorial use, for promoting Britain, free of charge.
Were you able to get multiple benefit from the holiday by writing magazine articles as well as producing this book?
Yes, writing about the experience means you have to pay attention, so you take in more information and remember more details! The holiday and my detailed drafts written as we travelled, obviously led to a series of articles in Caravan magazine, and some of the experiences were used in other travel pieces too. Publishing as an e-book seemed like a natural progression, especially as I have more time on my hands during lockdown.
The caravan looks very small! Was there any friction with two of you living so closely together?
Not much. We get on very well and we have an understanding that if one of us is standing up, the other must sit down, because there isn’t room for two people to stand up and move around at the same time! The only problem is that my husband has lively nightmares, which usually involve him being chased by monsters. Sometimes he lashes out. This isn’t great when you’re sharing a small double bed in a tiny caravan!
Do you have a top tip for caravan holidays?
I’m not sure I do. Everyone has their own likes and dislikes. We prefer quiet sites with nice views and a natural feel, perhaps a lake, but some people like big sites with lots of entertainment. We tend to avoid those!
Do you have a top travel writing tip?
You don’t need to travel to far flung places write travel articles. I’ve written articles about my home town, local heroes, and local National Trust properties, without having to leave my home county.
A Grand Tour of Scotland in a Freedom Caravan is available on Kindle for the bargain price of £1.99. Essential reading for caravanners, would-be travel writers, lovers of Scotland and the generally curious!
It’s a privilege to introduce you to Cath Barton, a prize-winning writer of novellas. Cath has agreed to share her experience of novella writing and I hope it will encourage anyone looking for a publisher for a novella length work. Over to Cath:
I never wanted to write a novel. As a writer I found pleasure – and some small success – in writing short stories and flash fiction. I would have happily carried on along this path, but at the first meeting of a local writing group in 2015 one of my fellow writers unexpectedly threw down this challenge – Who’s going to write a novella this year? I saw my hand going up! The truth is I relish a challenge, and a target too, so I looked for a novella competition and aimed for that.
My starting point for my novella The Plankton Collector was a flash I had written as an exercise about a boy whose brother had died. The boy was at his bedroom window, watching his mother visiting the brother’s grave in the churchyard just below their garden. That gave me the centre of my story – a family’s grief – and a location – a house in the middle of England. To that I added the mysterious character of the Plankton Collector, who visits each member of the family in different guises and helps them. I saw a clip on TV about the Victorians collecting plankton, those tiny shells which have housed the creatures who are the base of all life. Quite how my story evolved I can’t tell you – not because I don’t want to but because it’s as mysterious to me as the Plankton Collector himself!
When I’d completed the story I sent it off to the competition – and got nowhere. I looked around for other opportunities and found very few. Disheartened, I put the story aside. Nearly two years later I heard about another novella prize. It was in Wales, where I live, so, without any great optimism, I decided to give it a try. To my great surprise and delight I won! The prize was an advance on publication, which was wonderful. But the best thing about that win was the affirmation and the impetus it gave me to continue writing.
I had experimented before I won that competition with writing a novella-in-flash – a collection of short pieces which can all stand alone but together form a whole. I didn’t really know how to do that and, unsurprisingly, my effort didn’t get anywhere. But when I saw another publisher looking for novellas last year I sent her the first few thousand words. She was keen to see more and that has led to me completing and signing a contract for publication of my novella In the Sweep of the Bay.
Will there be a third novella? Possibly. And now I have given myself a new challenge, yes, you’ve guessed it – to write a novel!
Cath Barton is an English writer who lives in Wales. She won the New Welsh Writing AmeriCymru Prize for the Novella 2017 for The Plankton Collector, which is published by New Welsh Review under their Rarebyte imprint.
Her second novella, In the Sweep of the Bay, will be published by Louise Walters Books in September 2020.
Today I have the fabulous Lorraine Mace in conversation and she is offering you the chance to win an audio or e-book version of Retriever of Souls, the first in her dark and gritty DI Sterling series. But first, let’s learn a bit more about Lorraine and her work.
Lorraine, you have many strings to your writer’s bow. Please can you tell us what they all are?
How much time do you have? It might take me a while to list them.
• I am the humour columnist for Writing Magazine, penning the Notes from the Margin page, a compilation of which has since been published as a book.
• I am the head judge for Writers’ Forum monthly fiction competitions and also write two columns for the magazine – the Competition Round-up and the Writers’ Workshop.
• I provide the critiques for entrants to the Writers’ Forum short story competition.
• I am a tutor for Writers Bureau – fiction, non-fiction and writing for children.
• I run my own private critique and author mentoring service with clients around the world.
• I run the Flash 500 website featuring competitions for flash fiction, short stories and novels.
• I am a children’s novelist and also write non-fiction books.
• Last, but by no means least, I am the author of the D.I. Sterling crime series: Retriever of Souls, Children in Chains and Injections of Insanity.
How do you fit all of this into your daily life?
With great difficulty! Serious answer is I have to be disciplined and organised. I schedule my time out into morning and afternoon slots at the beginning of each month to make sure I cover all the things I have to do. As with most authors, my novel writing has to fit in around my many day jobs.
Which is your favourite out of all these writing activities?
Writing the crime series. I get to inhabit the heads of some really evil people and so work off all the frustrations life might throw at me. I think I’m probably only sane because my antagonists are psychopaths!
How did you earn a living before becoming a full-time writer? When did you become a full-time writer?
This is another of those how much time do you have questions. I have owned my own businesses, sold cosmetics, worked in the insurance industry, part owned a restaurant, part owned a corner shop, did the books for a stud farm, waitressed, worked as a telephonist, worked in a pharmacy, spent a year as a barmaid, was the sole sales force for a lock company, and, finally, became a writer. I started writing as a hobby and then discovered I had a knack for it. I’ve been writing as a professional since 2002.
Tell us a little about D.I. Paolo Sterling, the lead character in your detective series?
Paolo is a troubled man (aren’t they all?) in that he is dealing with some horrendous crimes by seriously disturbed people. He has an on again off again relationship with his ex-wife and a fabulous relationship with his daughter, Katy. His eldest daughter was killed in a hit and run that was meant for him and he is still living with the guilt of that. He has a good sense of humour, integrity, tenacity, and a burning sense of wanting to do what is right.
What are your writing plans for the future?
I am busy writing the sixth in my series. Book four, Rage and Retribution, will be out in February 2020 and number five, Petals of Pain, has been accepted for publication, so I need to get book six finished so that I can move on to the standalone psychological thriller that is playing on a constant loop demanding to be written.
Spare time must be rare. How do you fill it?
Sleeping! No, that’s not really true. I read as much as I can and run 5 km five times a week. Also, my partner and I try to spend a long weekend in one of Spain’s many gorgeous towns and villages as often as we can. I leave the laptop behind and try to ignore the guilty voice in my head telling me I should be working.
Do you have an all-time favourite book or author?
I have many, but Harlan Coben, Terry Pratchett and Georgette Heyer are three that I will read over and over for the sheer pleasure of entering the worlds they have created.
Born and raised in South East London, Lorraine lived and worked in South Africa, on the Island of Gozo and in France before settling on the Costa del Sol in Spain. She lives with her partner in a traditional Spanish village inland from the coast and enjoys sampling the regional dishes and ever-changing tapas in the local bars. Her knowledge of Spanish is expanding. To stop her waistline from doing the same, she runs five times a week.
To be in with a chance of winning your choice of either an audio or e-book version of Retriever of Souls, simply send an email to email@example.com with the subject header: Retriever of Souls. The competition will close at midnight BST on Wednesday 9th October. Lorraine will pull a name out of the hat, contact the winner directly and also leave a comment on this post announcing the winner’s name.
Erin is prolific and even more so when you know that she juggles all this writing around her work as a teacher. Erin is inspiring and I want to share with you some of the recent words of wisdom from her blog. She has been writing a series of posts for aspiring writers and in the first one she says, “Many aspiring authors want to write but don’t actually write.” It might be closer to the truth to say many aspiring authors don’t write often enough. Erin goes on to explain that she joined a writers group for motivation but found that most members wrote nothing between meetings. Listening to all their excuses Erin had a light bulb moment and she realised that the only way to fulfill her dream of becoming a published author was to write every day. So she did and she still does. She snatches time in the early morning before work and in the evening. Follow her on Twitter and you’ll get to know her writing habits.
Are you one of those wannabes that dreams instead of doing?
Get motivated by reading the full texts of Erin’s blog posts:
I’m just back from a cycling holiday along the banks of the Danube from Passau, near the German/Austrian border, to Vienna, in Austria. The weather was excellent. I didn’t get saddle-sore, thanks to several pairs of padded shorts. And although my leg muscles were exhausted by the end of day two, I got a second-wind and finished the trip without too many aches.
However, the point of this blog post is to highlight a memorial to the authoress, Emerenz Meier, on the river bank in Passau. The written work of this lady suffered due to the pressures on her to earn a living and keep house. She laments this in a poem reproduced on the memorial. It reads:
If Goethe had had to prepare supper, salt the dumplings;
If Schiller had had to wash the dishes;
If Heine had had to mend what he had torn, to clean the rooms, kill the bugs –
Oh, the menfolk, none of them would have become great poets.
Most of us have moaned, at some time or another, about the way chores and working for a living take up too much time. Time which could otherwise be used for productive writing. Today, equality of the sexes means fitting in the housework is no longer a uniquely female problem. But Emerenz Meier was born in 1874, died in 1928 and was married twice, so I’m guessing neither husband was particularly domesticated.
So next time domestic drudgery is getting in the way of creativity, be glad that we have washing machines, vacuum cleaners and many other labour saving devices: Emerenz would have been doing everything the hard way. And we don’t usually have to kill too many bugs!
The memorial was erected by Soroptimist International Club Passau, an organisation of professional women.
Sutton Coldfield BookFest took place yesterday, billed as, ‘a new festival for children who love stories’. I was involved as a volunteer and found it a great learning experience.
My role was to check people’s tickets as they entered one of the library areas set aside for the performances of the authors and illustrators. This meant, once everyone was inside, I was able to stand at the back and watch fantastic sessions by author/illustrator Steve Smallman, Winnie the Witch illustrator Korky Paul and animal storyteller BB Taylor. They were all a great hit with the children and I took away the following points:
- It’s harder to face an audience of children than an audience of adults. Even when bored, adults will sit still and quiet and look at you. Children have a habit of interrupting with questions, walking around, touching things and fidgeting.
- In front of an audience of children a speaker has to exude energy, drama and enthusiasm. Speaking half-heartedly or without animation loses audience attention.
- Visual aids and fancy dress are a must in front of youngsters. Between them the three performers had a viking helmet with chicken accessories, a wizard’s hat and a purple wig. BB Taylor brought along live animals: an armadillo, tortoise, millipede and a parrot.
- Audience participation should be encouraged. Ask questions of the audience, get children up to the front and have prizes – children like to take things home!
So how does this help those of us who write for adults? It made me think about what I like to see in a speaker and it’s the unusual which ignites my immediate interest. And it’s the energy and enthusiasm of a performance that maintains that interest beyond the initial few minutes. So, thanks to three great children’s entertainers, those are the points I’ll be working on in my own author talk. Thanks guys and gal!
When you win the Booker, and the champagne has been drunk, the interviews given and the books signed, how will you spend the £50,000 prize money?
There was an interesting piece in last week’s Sunday Times about how some previous winners have spent the money. In 1986 Kingsley Amis said he was looking forward to spending the money on, “booze, of course, and curtains.” Four years later AS Byatt spent her prize on building a swimming pool at her home. The 2018 winner, Anna Burns, is using her winnings on something far less frivolous but, hopefully, life changing. Her prize money will fund back surgery to stop the chronic pain which stops her writing.
If I was in receipt of that £50,000 cheque, I’d use it to ‘buy’ more writing time. This might mean a combination of reducing my hours at the day job and/or paying for help around the house. However, more time doesn’t always equal more writing productivity. It would be up to me and my self-discipline to use that extra time wisely rather than in procrastination or in madly tidying up the house before the cleaner arrived!
What about you? Would the £50,000 buy something pleasurable or sensible or both?
Christine Hancock is my publishing ‘twin’. Her book, Bright Sword, was published by The Book Guild on the same day as The Promise: January 28th 2018. We write in different genres and have followed each other’s journey over the past six and half months. Christine has kindly agreed to guest on my blog today and explain something about historical fiction and why it’s got something for all writers and readers.
Why Write Historical Fiction?
When I started to write it seemed like the obvious thing to do. All my life I have read historical fiction. I don’t know why. To escape? To learn about the past? Perhaps I just thought the stories were better. I have enjoyed other genres: Science Fiction, Horror, Romance (when I was young.) Horses (when I was very young), but I always returned to Historical Fiction.
So, what actually is Historical Fiction? The Historical Novel Society defines it as:
To be deemed historical (in our sense), a novel must have been written at least fifty years after the events described, or have been written by someone who was not alive at the time of those events (who therefore approaches them only by research).
For example, if you want to write a book set in the 1960s, it is historical if you were born after that period, or if you were alive at the time, living in rural England but are writing about life in the USA. If you want to write what happened to you, if you remember it, it is something else.
After that, anything is allowed, any period and any place. It can be of any genre: romance, detective, adventure, biographical. Psychological thriller? It also includes sub genres such as time slip, alternate history and fantasy.
Some people aren’t interested in the past. They say only the future is important. But if we recognise that what happens today has happened before – in one form or another, we can learn how to deal with it, or live through it. I suppose that applies more to straight history books, but why not learn and enjoy the experience at the same time?
There is so much in the news to worry us nowadays, people want to escape. This is where historical fiction comes in.
Why concern yourself with the details of Brexit, when you can stand beside King Harold and his warriors at Hastings, defending your country against the Normans? Probably not the best example!
Worried about Trump? Imagine trying to survive in the court of Henry VIII or in Rome under Emperor Nero.
Weather too hot? Acclimatise yourself beside the Nile in Ancient Egypt or cool down at a 17th century Frost Fair.
Fed up with queues to see a doctor? Discover the problems of avoiding the Black Death, or any illness or accident, at almost any time before our own.
If you just want good read, why chose historical fiction?
The basic plot of a romance is boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy finds girl. How interesting it can be when the clothing are tight breeches and a beautiful silk gown and when the hero must fight for his lady’s honour with a sword. There is so much space for misunderstanding when your character has to wait for the post instead of texting from his iphone.
People say to me “But don’t you have to do a lot of research?” Yes, but it depends on what you are writing. If it is a novel about the life of someone famous, Ann Boleyn, to take an overused example, you need to know every single fact – get it wrong and someone will notice and tell you!
I’m sure writers of modern fiction have to do a lot of research: What car does my character drive? What clothes does she wear? What is the “in” drink to order? Then in a few years it is all out of date.
I write about the Anglo-Saxons in the mid tenth century. No need to work out which make of car they drove (a horse or they walked) what clothes they wore (tunic, long for women, shorter for men and cloak in cold weather) or which brand of ale or mead they drank. So long as I have the right king on the throne and avoid killing off a real-life character before their time, it’s fine.
Oh, and don’t have them eating roast potatoes with their dinner!
Never tried historical fiction? What do you enjoy reading? There’s sure to be something similar set in the past. You may never return to the present day.
Thank you, Christine. You’ve tempted me to give history a chance!
Christine Hancock lives in Rugby, Warwickshire and is a long term family historian and leader of her local history group. Byrhtnoth, the main protagonist in Bright Sword, is based on a real warrior who died in the 991 Battle of Maldon, made famous by the Anglo-Saxon poem of that name.
Bright Sword is available in bookshops and from all the main online retailers, including Amazon.
Read Christine’s blog or follow her on Twitter.
We all have our idiosyncrasies when we sit down to write. We must have our tea in the right mug, or certain music playing or our lucky four-leaf clover hanging from the laptop screen. Many famous writers had these foibles too. Have a look at the infographic below, supplied by Donna Norton of Custom Writing, – it might make you feel less weird! My favourite is Dan Brown (scroll down to the bottom – apparently he likes hanging upside down!) Do any of you do anything stranger than what’s listed here?!
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